Logged In: Tending South Jersey’s 377-Year-Old Cabin

Buckets of clay and plenty of TLC keep South Jersey’s Nothnagle Cabin as sound as when it was built—a mere 377 years ago.

Harry Rink maintains his 377-year-old cabin the old fashioned way.
Mudder of Invention: Harry Rink lovingly maintains his 377-year-old cabin the old fashioned way.
Photo by Jason Varney

The typical homeowner rakes leaves and washes windows. Harry and Doris Rink, owners and caretakers of the 377-year-old C.A. Nothnagle Log Cabin in Gibbstown, go well beyond that. Harry spent two months last fall rechinking the logs of the historic cabin’s exterior with clay.

When the Rinks purchased the one-room cabin and its attached house from the Nothnagle family in 1968, it was in a shambles. The Nothnagles and their ancestors, who were dairy farmers, had owned the place since 1860.

Today, Harry says, the cabin—located on a busy road on the outskirts of Gibbstown—is preserved and restored to a condition its original owners would recognize. Under the Rinks’ ownership, the property was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976—just in time for the bicentennial.
Harry, 85, and Doris, 71, live in an adjoining house that was constructed in stages beginning in the early 1700s.

The Nothnagle Cabin was built around 1638 by Finnish-Swedish settlers—creators of the first log cabins in North America. The cabin is made of square-hewn, white-oak logs. The full-dovetail ends—tapered logs that interlock with corresponding notched logs—hold the structure together. Experts from Finland, who visited the Rinks three years ago, declared it the world’s oldest full-dovetail log cabin standing in its original location.

The cabin’s roof rafters are supported by trunnel pins—wedgelike wooden dowels typical of 17th-century cabins—that are hammered between each beam. Around 1730, the cabin’s earthen floor was covered with tongue-and-groove loblolly pine.

A historic cabin owner’s work is never done. Larger projects have included removing the plaster from one interior wall so visitors can better appreciate its original appearance. To refurbish a section of the corner fireplace, which provides structural support as well as warmth, the Rinks brought in a master mason. When Harry took up the pine floor to reinforce it, he uncovered a trove of early-American items—a 240-year-old boot, toys, a fork, an iron thimble and other artifacts—that are now displayed in the cabin.

By day, natural light from two small windows is all that illuminates the interior of the 16-by-22-foot cabin. In the corner opposite the fireplace, the Rinks explain, parents and infants slept on bed rolls. Older children slept in a loft that was reached by a ladder until a staircase was built in the mid-1700s. The scant furnishings include jugs, stoneware, a worn hump-top trunk and other period pieces, many of which were found on the property.

Rechinking is time-consuming but essential to preserve the cabin and protect the interior from the elements. The cubic yard of clay—about 15,000 pounds—needed to rechink the walls came from Tidewater Farm—formerly Abbott Farm—in Salem, which is owned by George and Pamela Farrell. The clay used when the cabin was last chinked 22 years ago came from the same property, then owned by George Farrell’s father.

“When we got the clay, it was heavy and thick with sand,” says Harry. “To cure it, I made a kind of soup by dividing the clay among 15 five-gallon buckets, adding water, then chopping and stirring. As the mixture sat, the water came to the top, and the clay sat on top of the sand, which settled to the bottom. The proper consistency is key–dry and firm but still pliable.”

Harry worked slowly—one 3-foot-square section of outer wall at a time. First, he meticulously removed the old chinking, dust and particles from the logs. Then he rubbed the area with water so the new clay would adhere. He applied the first of up to three coats of clay deep between the logs, smoothing the top layer at an angle so rain will run off. Harry checked the clay for hours as it dried, smoothing cracks as they appeared.

The couple takes pride in the cabin and opens it free to visitors—some 800 to 900 annually, Doris says. These include grade-school history students, home-schooled families, Scout troops, day-care groups, senior citizens and passersby. Recently, a Pakistani doctor, who read about the cabin in a homeland newspaper, knocked on their door. In 1988, when Gloucester and Salem counties celebrated the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Swedes and Finns in America, more than 4,000 visitors passed through the doors of the cabin.

“No matter what time of day or night people come to our door, I will show them the cabin,” says Harry, a retired employee of Texaco Eagle Point Refinery. “Sometimes it takes 15 minutes; sometimes we talk for two hours.”

Harry gets untold satisfaction from the cabin and the visitors it attracts from around the world. “The fireplace is my favorite, because of its asymmetrical design, characteristic of the Finnish,” he says.

“It amazes me how this [cabin] has weathered storms over the centuries,” says Doris, a former Ohio banker, and later a contractor for the Gloucester County Arts Council and Cultural and Heritage Commission. Her favorite feature is found in the south wall, where two logs can be removed in summer, “to create a cross breeze.”

Want to arrange a visit? Contact the Rinks at 856-423-0916.

Freelance writer Susan Cousins Breen lives in Mickleton. She first came across the Nothnagle Cabin more than 20 years ago.

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