By Mary Spicer
In 1988, a crew of volunteers headed by then-city engineer Ken Beers built the David Mead Log Cabin to help celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Meadville.
The cabin was built in Bicentennial Park, which had been donated to the city during the nation’s bicentennial celebration a dozen years earlier; the park was re-named Kenneth A. Beers Bicentennial Park and dedicated in his honor following his death in 1992.
Nestled along French Creek between the Mead Avenue Bridge and the site of the founder’s first encampment, the pre-cabin park offered only a picnic shelter and basic boat access to the creek.
The book “Meadville” by local historians Anne W. Stewart and William B. Moore notes that when the city celebrated its bicentennial from May 12 to July 4, 1988, “a lasting contribution was achieved by the recreated David Mead Log Cabin, which was created entirely by volunteers, furnished by Antique Study Club, incorporated into the elementary school curriculum and developed as a historic site and community park.”
A quarter century after its construction, “the structure has probably outlived its physical life,” Mayor Christopher Soff observed during a recent Meadville City Council discussion that began with a report indicating that keeping the deteriorating structure standing for another 7 to 10 years will require an investment of approximately $10,500. The report was presented on behalf of Rick Williams, the city’s development director, by Assistant City Manager Andy Walker.
“The cabin needs immediate repairs,” Walker said. “What is the city’s and the community’s vision?”
“Do we value the cabin and what it represents — understanding that it is a replica built to honor David Mead and lure people to the park?” Soff asked.
According to a tourism brochure from the mid-1990s, “under Beers’ leadership ... contemporary descriptions and sketches were unearthed and sources on construction methods of the post-Revolutionary frontier period were consulted.” The brochure went on to note that “for interpretation purposes, one side of the ‘dogtrot’ double cabin was designated as living quarters and one to demonstrate the earliest schoolroom.”
In a planning document focusing on the cabin presented to the city in June 2012, local architect Rob Humphries noted that it was constructed of red pine poles cut from Ellsworth Park, behind the Meadville Area Water Authority building.
“It took us a year to build it,” said Bob Stainbrook, a member of the original construction team. Stainbrook was appointed to the city’s Log Cabin Committee when it was reconstituted last spring following an extended hiatus; the reconstituted committee also includes Annette Boswell, Suzie Malone, Doris Foster and Diane Siegel, with Ina Rae Beers serving as consultant. Boswell and Foster were also present for the council discussion.
Stainbrook recalled that the original construction team didn’t realize at the time that design is important to maintenance — and that there were things they could have done to prevent much of the decay now threatening the integrity of the cabin. For example, he explained, “log ends stick beyond the drip line (from the roof) — we should have tarred them 25 years ago.” Other members of the 1988 team included Jim Hackman, Bill Peters, Dave Boyd, Joe Barclay, Albert Cronin, Charlie Anderson, Jim Duratz and Tom Beers.
Looking ahead, “It’s not worth spending $50,000, but it may be worth $10,000 to keep it going for another 10 years or so,” Stainbrook said. “We didn’t look at it as a long-term investment,” he added.
“If we tore it down and rebuilt it, we would have to comply with the modern building code,” Soff said.
City Manager Joe Chriest agreed. “If you want people to be able to go inside, you have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the building codes,” he said, noting that if visitors were able to look in from the outside but not physically enter the structure, they wouldn’t have to comply.
When Soff suggested that the city raze the cabin and put up a storyboard to tell its story, Boswell objected.
A retired teacher, Boswell recalled 16 years of annual field trips to the cabin. “It’s the best experience kids can have short of being there (during Meadville’s settlement days),” she said, noting that between 200 and 250 Crawford Central students continue to take 90-minute tours of the cabin during the month of May each year. “It’s living history,” she said.
Councilmember Nancy Mangilo-Bittner said she needs more information — including the cost of the project instead of simply an estimate — before making any decisions on the future of the cabin. “I need more facts,” she said.
“Volunteers built it,” said Councilmember LeRoy Stearns. “We should honor that. It’s the city’s responsibility — I don’t want to see it left.”
Councilmember Bob Langley stressed repeatedly that funding for the cabin should not be included in the city’s 2014 budget.
“It is ours,” Soff said.
While the city maintains the park, funding for the cabin has traditionally come from donations to the city’s Kenneth A. Beers Bicentennial Park Fund. According to the city’s annual budget reports, the fund, which has a balance of under $2,000, received its most recent contribution in 2008. City funds were recently used to pay for insect spraying at the cabin totaling approximately $3,000.
Both Foster and Soff expressed hope that the re-opening of the Mead Avenue Bridge, when it finally takes place, may re-kindle interest in the cabin.
Members of the committee agreed to report to council in the spring on the success of an effort launched as a result of the council session to raise the $10,500 necessary to temporarily stabilize the cabin.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.