Mystery cabin uncovered on Whidbey Island

Jun 14, 2023, 8:59 AM | Updated: 9:14 am

A homeowner on Whidbey Island set out recently to clear some derelict buildings from her family property. But, she quickly set those plans aside when a heavy equipment operator she had hired made an unexpected – and historical – discovery: a hidden log cabin.

The unusual discovery was first reported by Patricia Guthrie for the South Whidbey Record.

Volunteers from the South Whidbey Historical Society – the same group KIRO Newsradio talked to earlier this year about their acquisition of the last will and testament of island namesake Joseph Whidbey – are coordinating the research effort now underway at the cabin to understand its origins.

The historical society put KIRO Newsradio in touch with homeowner Marian Myszkowski who showed off the cabin a few days ago and told the story of how it was discovered.

“It was basically an abandoned house that was starting to fall in on itself, so I had to get it demo’ed, I just had to get rid of it,” Myszkowski explained. “And so I arranged for someone to come out and do a demolition of it. And while he was doing it, he found what he seemed to think was an old log cabin.”

And, rather than simply continue to demolish the structure, the man operating the equipment – whose name is Tony Chase – stopped what he was doing in order to alert Myszkowski.

“So he came running up to the house and said, ‘You’ve got to take a look at this. I don’t think I want to demolish this right now,’” Myszkowski said.

What was revealed on that day back in April, hiding behind the ordinary-looking clapboard siding of the old house Myszkowski had hoped to demolish, were some large and very old cedar logs, exactly like you might find as part of a very old log cabin.

Myszkowski said the equipment operator seamlessly switched from “demolition mode” to instead begin carefully removing the more modern layers of wood.

“It didn’t take him long to take the skin off, so to speak. He said he’d skin the building, and this is what he found,” Myszkowski said, pointing across her yard to where the cabin has stood, in disguise, for an unknown number of years. “And then, of course, for a while, there was just all this debris in front. And then he cleared that away … and this is what we’re left with here.”

And what Myszkowski is left with is a pretty remarkable specimen of a two-story log cabin, about 25 feet by 17 feet in diameter, made from hand-notched Western Red Cedar.

Other than the fact it lacks a roof – the most recent version of which was from some time long after the cabin was first built and which was removed by Chase – it looks like a pioneer cabin a child might draw or something made of giant Lincoln Logs. All of it had been hiding behind what was probably a 1920s or 1930s remodel.

Myskowski said her parents first moved to the property near Langley about 30 years ago and that the dilapidated house has been vacant and uninhabitable for as long as she can remember.

The demolition plans are now on hold because once it was revealed, Myszkowski knew the cabin was something worth looking into.

To get help, Myszkowski went online and connected with the South Whidbey Historical Society and with a local resident named Kyle Walker. Walker is a retired historian and cultural resources specialist who’s taken on the role of the volunteer project manager to investigate the origins of the cabin.

That means digging into various paper archives around the region, but it also means examining what Walker calls the “cultural landscape” – which means inventorying and studying all the features present at the site, including trees, water, and two smaller cabin-like structures also on the property.

Walker led KIRO Newsradio on a tour of the very solid cabin.

“We have an architectural historian assisting us who actually lives on Whidbey,” Walker said as she stood on the main floor, with sunlight streaming in through what appeared to be original openings in the structure, which once held windows and at least one door. “He’s renowned for log cabin history and restoration.”

“And he proclaimed this structure to be in excellent condition,” Walker continued, pointing to the walls of solid cedar in what might have been the original kitchen area. “Strong, very stable.”

“We purposely left this beadboard in here to protect it and this wood floor to protect it because it probably had dirt [floors originally],” Walker said, pointing first to an interior wall and then to the floor and continuing the tour of the main and likely original level of the cabin, which may have been built initially with only a single story.

“And these are false walls that were added later,” Walker said, explaining that the 1920s or 1930s remodel may have divided the main floor into separate rooms and likely included the addition of an expanded space on one side of the cabin, which served as a more modern kitchen. Narrow stairs lead to the second floor, which was also thought to have been added sometime after the original construction, and which was likely where bedrooms were located.

Walker says that the core log structure is in remarkable shape. She says they found some vintage square-headed nails in some of the second-floor construction, but the main floor walls have no nails or fasteners – the wood is simply fitted together.

Nobody knows for sure exactly how old the cabin is, but some theories date its construction as far back as the 1870s, which isn’t too long after non-Natives first began settling on what Captain George Vancouver dubbed Whidbey Island in 1792.

Walker says there are also various theories as to who might have built it.

“It could have been a logging camp, [or] a donation claim,” Walker said. “We found some maps that said Jacob Anthes, who’s the father of Langley, had land around here. And then we have someone by the name of Mason Pulver who got a donation land claim here in 1883 and had the property until 1893.”

Answers to questions about the cabin’s origins as well as its history may emerge over the next several months as Walker leads the effort to do the research and to engage skilled volunteers to assist. The timing of the discovery is great since it’s now the dry season and since the cabin currently has no roof.

Walker is working to line up various experts and is hoping to get assistance from an academic archaeology program at one of the nearby universities. One goal is to do some investigating of the soil around the cabin to perhaps locate the original outhouse – which can yield all kinds of archaeological clues.

One expert they have already gotten help from is Michael Houser, the state architectural historian who works for the Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Like pretty much everyone with any interest in local history and historic preservation, Houser was thrilled to learn about what turned up on Whidbey Island.

“It’s always exciting to discover early construction from Washington state history,” Houser told KIRO Newsradio. “It gives us an idea of how people lived and worked and what skill level they had at an early time in the development of the state. So anytime you see that, it’s a rare and special occasion.”

Houser also says log cabins as old as the Whidbey cabin might be don’t turn up very often in the Evergreen State.

“There are not too many left, it’s a rare breed,” Houser said. “As you can imagine, due to the weather that we have, there’s not too many log structures still standing, particularly on the west side of the state, west of the mountains.

“[There are] more probably found on the east side of the state,” Houser continued. “But log cabins from that period are certainly rare.”

Myszkowski is grateful for all the help from the historical society and from Walker, and it’s clear the two have a great working relationship which will likely reveal many interesting stories about the cabin and the surrounding land. For now, Myszkowski says she’s leaning toward a favorite origin story that Walker also identified: that the cabin might have been built by Indigenous people on Whidbey who ignored the unfair treaties back in the 1850s and just stayed put on their homeland.

“I vacillate between wanting it to be of real historical value [or to be home to] just someone who lived here who was working the land, and that was it,” Myszkowski said. “[But] I love the fact of the Indigenous folks who were here first, who said, ‘No, we’re staying. We’re not going to leave and go on a reservation.’

“That’s pretty much my favorite, actually,” Myszkowski said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the cabin or in serving as a volunteer for the research work ahead should contact the South Whidbey Historical Society.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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