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Found in Delaware County: A Swedish Cabin

Pennsylvania pays tribute to the man whose name our state bears. We would not, nor could we, diminish what William Penn accomplished here in his ‘Woods’, but we should be mindful that six years before Penn was born, a handful of Scandinavian pioneers established their beach head in the Mid-Atlantic area. In 1638, led by Peter Minuit, settlers from Sweden established their first capitol in what is now Wilmington, Delaware. The settlement became known as New Sweden.

raising the swedish flag

The third governor of New Sweden, Johan Printz, arrived in 1643. He was not satisified with a capital situated a mile back from the South (Delaware) River, and he began looking for a new location. Tinicum, now Essington, grabbed his fancy. At high tide it was almost an island and easy to defend. It provided for better control of ship traffic on the River and was better situated for trade with the Minquas who came in from the West with beaver pelts, a most valuable trade commodity. It was at Tinicum that Printz built Fort New Gothenburg, the first seat of a European government in what was to become Penn’s Woods.

Just below Tinicum, the Darby Creek flowed into the South River, providing a highway into the unexplored and unsettled interior of New Sweden. Early Swedes looking for a new place to settle found their way to the little spot in the shadow of the first physical obstacle to be encountered, the Great Hill (Stor Kulle). Rapids in the Creek likely deterred further travel by canoe or dugout, so it was there that they began their building efforts. In addition to an ample supply of oak and chestnut, the area offered another advantage to would-be builders: the presence of many large, flat stones in the ground. These stones could be used to anchor the corners of a stuga or cabin.

Although there is no written record of the history of the Cabin, it is likely that this simple dwelling was quickly erected, using round logs with bark intact. Notching the logs at the ends permitted assembly without the use of nails. Inside a corner fireplace of stone was built in the Scandinavian tradition. A low-pitched roof of split logs overhead and a floor of hard packed clay underfoot made it quite habitable. The open spaces between the logs were chinked with mud and/or clay mixed with grass, straw, and animal hair. There were no windows in early cabins; sliding boards between the courses of log were used to let in light or provide visual access to the outside. Shortly after the original Cabin was built, an addition was added to the East side; in all likelihood, this was probably done to house a newly married son or daughter.

Early settler at the cabin

Log Cabin architecture was a major contribution of the Swedes. European settlers from other countries copied this style of housing and the log cabin became popular all across America. Many an aspiring presidential candidate, in later years, claimed to have been born and raised in a “humble log home”.

We have no records of the names of the original residents. As the Swedes and Finns moved further inland, the English moved in. This little Cabin was lived in almost continuously for over 300 years. Many of its early tenants were workers who toiled in the mills built along Darby Creek. During this time the Cabin was anglicized. The pitch of the roof was changed to provide more sleeping space on the second floor and a winding staircase was added for easier access. Windows were put in the gable ends to provide much needed light. Mill workers lived in this old Cabin until the early part of the twentieth century.

In 1937, a Historic American Building Survey was performed and at about that time the Cabin became the property of the township of Upper Darby. In the 1940s, the local Girl Scouts were permitted use of the Cabin and it became known as the “Girl Scout Cabin” for a while. In the 1960s, a caretaker was permitted to live there in exchange for his services and protection of the property. Unfortunately, in 1974 his health made it necessary to end the arrangement. The Upper Darby Township again assumed direct responsibility for the Cabin’s care.

The cabin, located in a secluded site, became the victim of neglect. Local citizens, however, took an interest in the cabin and wanted to see it restored. In 1976, a restoration effort was undertaken by students of Beverly Hills Junior High School. The effort at restoration failed and by 1982, the Cabin had fallen victim to increasing vandalism. For a time, it appeared that the Cabin was doomed to certain destruction.

The Cabin needed some good friends and interested local citizens came to its rescue, cleaning the cabin, replacing boards broken after vandals broke in, posting signs to inform others of the cabin’s historical significance, and, eventually, appealing to the Township and others in an effort to secure funds for the cabin’s restoration and preservation. The Darby Creek Valley Association (DVCA) also became involved, and established an Historic Sites Committee. This committee played a major role in getting township, county and state government to take action. Through the efforts of DVCA members Alice and Carl Lindborg, the Cabin was finally placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In July,1984 the Philadelphia Inquirer featured an article about the cabin, along with an editorial outlining recommendations for securing the cabin’s future and an admonition to readers to help in overcoming inaction and indifference. On May 26, 1985, the cabin was dedicated in a ceremony hosted by the DCVA. In January, 1986, The Historic Sites committee of the DCVA commented on the Rededication ceremony and, in a report to Upper Darby Township, asked permission to make repairs to the Cabin.

A grant from the State of Pennsylvania was received and study was undertaken to determine how the cabin should be restored. It was determined that an interested group was needed to oversee the restoration and to subsequently look after the Cabin; thus was born The Friends of the Swedish Cabin (FSC). The FSC was incorporated August 13, 1986. In April 1987, an architect was chosen for the restoration and the contract for the work was awarded. In April 1988, the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Swedes in America, a restored Cabin was rededicated and open to the public at last! Since that day, much has been done and much continues to be done to maintain, interpret, and promote this simple log structure, one of the very few that remains and is believed to be from an early Swedish colony that predates Billy Penn.

The Enduring Log Cabin

“Early American Life”, April 2001 pages 32-35, published an article with photos describing the construction of the log cabin and in particular the Swedish Cabin. Excerpts of this article follow:

…”One surviving log cabin from that early settlement is now on the National Register and can be seen and studied on its original site in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania. The one-and-a-half story Swedish cabin, a single-pen or one-room dwelling, was added on to, modernized and lived in over the years. In the past two decades it’s been the subject of extensive restoration, with careful stabilization of early elements and reproduction of others. It’s been the subject of extensive research and archaeology as well.

…The log cabin may be basic, but it’s not as simple as it appears. There’s more to it than meets the eye, although perhaps its most significant feature (and, to many people, its most appealing) is the straight-forward what-you-see-is what-you-get presentation of its structural elements. …”

The Dig

Along the Darby Creek are two log cabin sites: the Upper Log Cabin and the Lower Log Cabin known as the Swedish Cabin. The Upper Log Cabin site is located high on a hill above the creek and the Lower Cabin is situated a half a mile away along the creek. Within the last decade, several digs have taken place to learn more about the historical context of these structures.

Lower Log (Swedish) Cabin Dig

An archeological dig was conducted at the Swedish Cabin in November 1987 and January 1988. A large flat rock was unearthed 20 inches below its present location at the first mounting step into the cabin. Unearthed beneath the rock was a wrought iron door handle, which according to the best interpretation, was the likely door handle used by the first occupants. Often artifacts are clumped heaviest outside a window. The youngest member of the team, a boy of 11 years of age, searched the location below the northeast window and found a great quantity of ceramic artifacts and a 12 inch grinding stone. A small section of the cabin’s floorboards was also removed and an old broken ax head was found atop the ground.

Upper Log Cabin Dig

In 2001, the Upper Darby Historical Society received a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to conduct an archaeological dig at the site of the Upper Swedish Cabin. In contrast to the nearby existing lower Swedish Cabin now preserved by the Friends of the Swedish Cabin, the Upper Cabin was burned by vandals in 1979 and all that remains is the stone foundation. Volunteers from the Upper Darby Historical Society and the Friends of the Swedish Cabin participated in the archeological dig with the guidance of the Mid-Atlantic Archaeological Research Associates. The purpose of the dig was to determine the age of the cabin through artifacts or other objects.

The results of the archaeological investigation were reported by Ellen Cronin, Director of the Upper Log House Project in September 2002. “The excavations resulted in the identification of three major strata evidencing site activities during three major periods of occupation of the site area:

  Stratum 1. 1850 to twentieth century
  Stratum 2. 1750 to 1850
  Stratum 3. pre 1750

…Was the site settled by Swedes in the 17th century? To date, the data do not support, nor do they refute, the possibility of a 17th century occupation. Questions pertaining to nationality, ethnicity and socio-economic status of the cabin’s builders and occupants cannot be determined by the archaeological data or the ‘historic documentation of the site. That the cabin that once stood on this site was built in the ‘Swedish tradition,’ is very likely. The question of whether or not the cabin was built by and/or occupied by a Swede is more problematical.…

 

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