Bonnifield cabin receives makeover
Roger Kubik is once again working on the Bonnifield Log House in Old Settlers Park to help the 175-year-old structure remain a visible link to Fairfield’s history.
This time, the Birmingham resident with a passion to restore these types of old structures, is working on the east end of the old house.
“It was in the worst shape,” he said.
Kubik explained he and Kevin Phelps are replacing a couple of the original logs up about 12 feet near the top of the wall and rechinking the spaces between the logs down the rest of the wall.
The rotted logs are being replaced with two 16.5-feet white oak logs donated by Nelson Smith, who lives near Brighton.
“When he heard what we were doing, he volunteered them because his great-great-granddaddy donated this log cabin to the city,” said Kubik.
The Bonnifield Log House, built in 1838 by the Rhodam and Nancy Bonnifield family to replace the makeshift cabin built the previous year when the family settled in what was to become Jefferson County, is known as the oldest still-standing dwelling of any white man in Iowa.
But the tiny house is probably better known as the place where Fairfield was named.
According to Fairfield history as recorded by Susan Fulton Welty in her book “A Fair Field,” in March 1839, when city commissioners were visiting the Bonnifields, they described the “pretty prairie” of the new town, and Mrs. Bonnifield suggested the name Fairfield.
Welty wrote when Winfield Fordyce bought the Bonnifield land years later, he offered the long-deserted cabin to the Old Settlers Association, and the Bonnifields’ son, West Benson Bonnifield, donated $500 to help relocate it.
Welty’s book says the association bought 10 acres of land on the north edge of Fairfield in January 1908. Seven months later, volunteers dismantled the house marking each log so it could be re-erected correctly in the new Old Settlers Park, about 8 miles from its original location.
Because the move was such an early example of preservation in Iowa, both the log house and the park were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, and throughout the years, have been the site of many events, festivals and picnics.
Saturday, the park will be the site of a Bonnifield family reunion hosted by descendants of Anzaletta Bonnifield Nicholson’s families. Anzaletta was one of Rhodam and Nancy Bonnifield’s daughters.
One of the organizers, Margaret “Jane” Arends of Prior Lake, Minn., said the family gathering will be “a very informal reunion and celebration so we all can have fun. … we’ll be sharing stories and information.”
The family reunion will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday with house tours, a stop at the Bonnifield cemetery, followed by a potluck dinner for about 50 family members at noon in Old Settlers Park.
The dinner will be followed by a public celebration of the 175th anniversary of the Bonnifield Log House from 1:30-4 p.m. Guests should bring their own chair, and the rain site will be in the Waterworks Park shelter.
The celebration will begin with the lighting of 175 candles on cupcakes, followed by a presentation of the log house’s history and an explanation of present and future preservation plans.
The program will include “Fiddlin’ Granny” Joann Ancell of Fairfield entertaining with music and quilt stories.
“Then it’ll be time for the family’s stories,” said Arends.
But the reunion and celebration also were organized to help raise additional funds for the restoration and preservation of the cabin. The family was able to raise more than $10,000 while planning the reunion.
Programs, note cards and a limited number of the late Van Buren County artist Wendell Mohr’s prints of the cabin will be sold during the celebration Saturday. Mohr’s children, Paula and Thomas, donated the prints that were originally printed for the 1976 celebration of the cabin, said Arends.
The restoration work is expensive, admitted Kubik, mostly because of the specialty materials being used. A gallon bucket of the chinking material costs hundreds of dollars.
“It’s not materials you’d usually find in a carpenter’s truck,” he said.
But, he continued, once work is completed, the house shouldn’t have to be touched for maybe as long as 100 years due to the quality and durability of those materials.
“We’re using the best method and materials for looks and longevity,” Kubik said.
When the Bonnifields built the house, they used mud to fill in the gaps between the logs, but in later years, in restoration efforts, cement was used in the chinks. Now, Kubik and Phelps are knocking out the cement and replacing it with special material that will expand and contract in the weather and help keep out moisture. Moisture in the logs causes deterioration.
The men also are using the material to hand plug holes made by insects boring into the logs, and, to help prevent that type of damage in the future, they sprayed the whole structure with a chemical to kill the insects and stop them from reproducing.
“This will make a big difference to the building,” said Kubik.
Kubik expects work on the east wall of the house to continue this week, and then he plans to work on the west wall, which, he said, also is in bad shape.
“We’re attacking the worst parts first,” he said.
In past years, Kubik has worked on the back wall and replaced two logs at the bottom. Inside, he’s replaced the floor.
The old floor was wooden planks sitting on top of logs lying on the ground. Kubik dug out the ground beneath the floor to a deeper depth, then laid concrete on a sand base.
“We used a vapor barrier so no more moisture from the ground can get into the cabin, and now it’s ventilated so air can circulate from one end to the other,” he said.
“We even slightly waved the floor,” he said with a grin, explaining the old house leans, so a straight floor wouldn’t have been the best way to go.
The house was reroofed about 12 years ago, but it needs to be done again. Kubik said squirrels, raccoons or other animals have damaged the roof, and he pointed out a metal plate covering one of the bigger damaged spots.
The Old Settlers Association held the deed for the log house until transferring it to the Jefferson County Historical Society in August 1999, and the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors officially accepted the Bonnifield Log House and Old Settlers Park in March 2000.
The Old Settlers Association thought the county would be a more viable curator, and the terms of transfer of ownership stipulated the property continue to be used as a free public park for the citizens of Jefferson County, said Mark Shafer of the Jefferson County Historical Preservation Commission. That the county accepted ownership under those terms, he added, helps ensure preservation of the cabin.
Anyone who would like to donate to the ongoing preservation effort can send checks made out to Bonnifield Cabin Preservation Fund to the Carnegie Museum Foundation, PO Box 502, Fairfield 52556. The foundation manages the tax-deductible gifts.
For additional information about Bonnifield Log House and Old Settlers Park, visit www.jefferson countytrails.org/parks/waterworks.htm or call Shafter at the Carnegie Historical Museum at 472-6343.