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Man shows off cabin built by pioneering great-grandfather

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Larry Kortuem
Larry Kortuem explains the milk paint process while pointing it out on the cabin's interior walls near Madison Lake, Minn.
Darren Gibbins | AP

When Larry Kortuem gives a presentation about life in a log cabin, he can talk about the experiences of pioneers a century and a half ago.

Or he can talk about his own observations from a recent Thursday night.

"Since I've got it warmed up, I might stay tonight," said Kortuem, standing in the 148-year-old cabin built by his pioneering great-grandfather Bernard Kortuem.

He'd been stoking a fire in the large wood-burning stove in preparation for giving a reporter and photographer a tour, and the one-room cabin was comfortable despite the late January chill on the other side of the oak logs. The open loft where Kortuem would sleep, as did Bernard's 10-member family in the 1870's, was downright toasty as the stove's heat rose upward.

Kortuem's wife Trixie quickly made clear her husband would be sleeping alone.

"I'll come in the summer," she said.

Both Kortuems, though, have a clear interest in the history of their rural Madison Lake community and in the immaculately restored cabin that was the seedbed of a Kortuem clan that spread across southern Minnesota and beyond.

"All of the Kortuems in the whole U.S. come from here," Larry said of the cabin.

He wonders about how much in peril that bountiful crop of descendants might have been in the earliest days. Bernard, a German immigrant who first lived in Michigan, is believed to have arrived in rural Madison Lake in 1867, his wife Francesca, their first four children and all of their possessions in a wagon drawn by a pair of oxen.

The cabin
The cabin of Larry and Trixie Kortuem near Madison Lake, Minn., features a wood stove and several windows. The rural Madison Lake pioneer cabin, which was home to cows and pigs for much of the 20th century, has been painstakingly restored.
Darren Gibbins | AP

Larry's best guess is that they spent their first winter in a hole dug in the side of a hill with the cabin being constructed in 1868. It's a large home by pioneer standards, and it needed to be as Bernard and Francesca shared it with eight children within a few years.

While Bernard spoke only German when he arrived, he was Roman Catholic and appeared to have gotten along well with the Irish Catholics that preceded him in the Marysburg community west of Madison Lake.

"By the time he learned English, he spoke with an Irish accent," Larry told The Free Press.

The Irish immigrants were fond enough of their new German neighbor that it appears three of them helped build the cabin. The ax notches in the logs give clues to the relative strength and the dominant hands of the cabin's builders, leading Larry to believe his great-grandfather had three men working beside him.

There are no journals or letters from Bernard to provide clues to his family's experience in those early years. He was likely illiterate, not to mention overwhelmed by work, Larry said, so the only information comes from scattered government and church records and a bit of oral history passed down through the generations.

Trixie Kortuem, Larry Korteum
Trixie and Larry Kortuem stand outside their log cabin near Madison Lake, Minn. The 148-year-old cabin built by Larry Kortuem's pioneering great-grandfather.
Darren Gibbins | AP

That's part of the reason that Larry spends time in the cabin, including on nights where temperatures dropped to minus 10 or minus 20 degrees and on hot summer days. Living in the same building as did his great-grandfather, his grandfather and great aunts and uncles — even if it's just a day here or there — provides a visceral connection to history that supplements his research on pioneer life.

His conclusion?

"The practicalities of living in a log cabin is a whole lot different than the b.s. they put in the movies," he said.

He knows, for instance, that on a windy sub-zero winter night that it's almost impossible to keep the indoor temperature above 50 degrees even when feeding the stove as much wood as it can take. On typical January nights, the stove needs to be stoked every two or three hours to keep the temperature from plunging.

"You'd have to have a pile of wood about the size of this place to heat it through the winter," Larry said.

When a family Thanksgiving was held in the cabin in 2010, with six adults and eight grandkids, they learned some lessons, too, about cabin life.

"Thank God the kids were outside a lot," Trixie said. "I don't know how those people could take it."

And, during meal preparation, sending the kids up to the loft wouldn't work. Because when people are tromping around up there, a steady stream of dust settles down on the food.

Sleeping 14 in the cabin, using both the main floor and the loft, they understood better the closeness of the quarters and how tuberculosis spread from one child to the next, ultimately killing three of Bernard and Francesca's offspring.

Larry guesses the 10 Kortuems also had some guests living with them most of those 19th century winters. Farmers were so dependent on their seed supply that, fearing theft, they often kept it in the cabin over the winter, which undoubtedly attracted a variety of rodents. And the oxen would have been of such irreplaceable value that he wonders if they were invited into the cabin when wintertime temperatures got dangerously low.

The continued existence of the cabin, as a teaching tool and touchstone to the Kortuems' past, is somewhat remarkable. Bernard lived in it only until 1915, when his wife died and he moved to Madison Lake.

Rather than being torn down, the cabin became the south wing of a new barn that year, large holes sawed into the north and south walls for cow doors. But even when the barn was torn down in the 1960s, Larry's father, Francis, didn't dismantle the cabin.

"I think my dad left it just because it was Granpa's," Larry said. "And then he put a tin roof on it because he wanted to keep it."

The cabin was home for hogs until the 1980s, at which point the next generation of Kortuems adopted it. Larry's brother Frank did some of the major work first, jacking it up to make foundation repairs, restoring logs to the gaps where the cow doors had been, putting thousands of hand-cut cedar shingles on the roof.

Then Larry, just retired from his work as a certified mechanic, took on the final restoration.

"He must have worked on it two years, and I worked on it for four years," Larry said. "That was just about all I did."

The home is in extraordinary condition now, and Larry and Trixie are happy to share it with people who are interested in pioneer times. They even allow people to stay overnight — or longer. One guy, who said he always wondered what it would be like to live in a long cabin, stayed for three months.

"He moved in here in February and stayed until the end of May," Larry said. "He said the only thing he didn't like about it was there was no way to take a bath."

An AP Exchange feature by Mark Fischenich, The Free Press.