By Scott Maruna
It can be argued that there is, within us all, an inherent fascination with the unpretentious, owner-built dwellings designed from nature to protect against nature.
Whether this be igloo, teepee or American frontier’s log cabin, it seems that many of us – sitting in our 2000+ square foot homes, pondering all we have crammed into closets, our garage and perhaps even that storage facility across town – become fascinated by a home-lifestyle that in an age of modern catchphrases might be labeled as “ultra-minimalism.” At the time, of course, it was simply labeled survival … making do … getting by.
Perhaps no one ever bottled this allure more effectively than Laura Ingalls Wilder in her “Little House” series of memoir novels. For a whole generation, the long-running television program loosely based on these books magnified this primal attraction into a tourism boon for any town in which Ingalls Wilder lived.
Unfortunately, for the many Jacksonville-area Little House enthusiasts, none of these locales are to be found nearby. However, for those fans wishing to touch a “Little House” experience or for anyone who yearns to recollect a simpler time in our collective and not-so-distant past, Jacksonville does have an easily accessible escape.
While for many the Prairieland Heritage Museum has become synonymous with steam-driven engines, the museum has, with little fanfare, steadily amassed an impressive collection of authentic, local, historic buildings that have been relocated to their grounds: The old Yatesville one-room schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, the Liberty Church, a sawmill, a historic bandstand from Jacksonville’s Community Park … and its newest addition, the Haskell log cabin.
It was in 1826 that 28-year-old Benjamin Haskell – originally of Maine and then Ohio – traveled west and purchased 80 acres in Morgan County for $100. It was here, in 1827, that he began building his “little house on the prairie” during the summers, all while maintaining his home in Ohio throughout the rest of the year.
About a decade later, now fully moved to Illinois and with log home completed – at approximately the same time that Morgan county was split and Haskell’s land now found itself in the newly created Scott County – Ben Haskell married Sarah Coonrod. Together – until his death in 1852 – they raised four children in the humble cabin.
The meager 19 by 23 foot cabin, situated just over a mile south of Exeter, Illinois, stayed in the Haskell family for the next two generations. The Haskell family farm, and the still maintained cabin, were by purchased by Tom and June Brackett in the 1960s. On Tom Bracket’s passing in 2013, his family offered to donate the historic cabin to the Prairieland Heritage Museum in August of 2015.
“They say that Ben Haskell built the place by himself and I have no doubt in my mind that he did,” noted Jacksonville resident Dale Lair. “But it is really hard to imagine. We had a whole team of workers and hydraulics putting it up and such and it was still really tough!”
Though recognized as the spearheading volunteer leader in the acquisition, Lair is quick to emphasize that teams of individuals were responsible for the successful transplantation of the aged Scott County cabin into the educational heart of Morgan County. The relocation began earlier this year and will – according to Lair – be fully finished in time for this weekend’s Fall Festival & Steam Show Days.
It was decided to recreate the cabin to reflect its original, early 19th century structure and design. The house was augmented with a kitchen in the 1860s and, much later, a second floor loft was added; neither were included in the reconstruction.
The walls – eight substantial oak logs high, the floorboards and the rafters are largely original. The beautifully reconstructed chimney was methodically and expertly recreated from over forty thousand pounds of Mauvaisterre Creek limestone that comprised the cabin’s original massive chimney.
While currently empty, the museum has plans to eventually furnish the house with authentic and recreated period furniture and – as with all their other educationally period edifices – hopes the little house becomes a popular destination during their annual Fall Festival & Steam Show Days and throughout the year with fieldtrips and tours offered by appointment.
The big question: Is Haskell cabin possibly the oldest standing structure in Morgan County?
“I’m not saying it is,” Lair noted after careful consideration. “But off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything older.”