Iowa City cabins approach restoration


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More than 180 years ago, back before the Iowa City skyline was ruled by tall city and campus buildings, the first settlers of European descent in Johnson County called log cabins home. Today, two log cabins built in the late-1880s stand as a reminder of the area’s history, but they are in need of repair.

The Upper City Park cabins are under a three-phase system for total restoration, said Marlin R. Ingalls, archaeologist and architectural historian at the Office of the State Archaeologist. The first phase will begins with the roofs, foundations, and walls, and then workers will addresse other elements, such as the cabin interiors, Ingalls said. “[The cabins] are special because they are the last visible link to the pioneers who settled Johnson County,” Ingalls said.

After the two log cabins were added to the National Register of Historic Places last year, Iowa City staff applied for a $50,000 Resource Enhancement and Protection grant to start restoration. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources will review the grant this fall, allowing the project to begin this year if approved. Originally built in 1889, with the relocation of replica log buildings to City Park in 1918, the cabins were the centerpiece for annual patriotic celebrations and summer picnics for the Old Settlers’ Association of Johnson County until its end in 1939, according to the National Park Service.

Program supervisor of the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department Joyce Carroll said the cabins are examples of commemorative efforts by the Old Settlers’ Association to celebrate and reflect on its pioneer heritage. “The citizens of Iowa City deserve to have a visible link to those who came before them and a way to connect to the community’s history,” Carroll said. “I have always felt the cabins most desirable quality is their ability to educate.”

Director of the Johnson County Historical Society Alexandra Drehman said the numbers of groups, organizations, and community numbers that would benefit from this restoration are huge. Drehman said the cabins will provide the safe, fun atmosphere they once had while showcasing how preserving and interpreting our history is an integral part of our community.

“I think it’s important for people to know where they came from and how people lived in the past,” said Ralph Christian, historian of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Christian said the buildings need “some help” to survive another century. The cabins are a reflection of maintaining local history and provide the city with various educational programs, he said.

Other than the use of cabins for the Old Settlers’ Association events and meetings, the cabins were used for a pioneer museum, class field trips, Girl Scout cookouts and overnight trips, summer history camps, and Iowa City’s first Children’s Museum. Carroll said the city Parks and Recreation Department hopes to allow public use of the cabins for educational programs, folk arts programs, natural- science programs, and the future return of summer history camps for children.

“[The restoration] is a fantastic example of the importance of local history,” Drehman said. “And saving it for our future generations to experience and enjoy.”

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