MORRIS — A few years ago, local woodworker Todd Daggett was displaying his talents at Prairie Day at Goose Lake Natural Area. During his demonstration, he was asked if he could look at the historic Cragg Cabin on the property and see if he could repair it.
The cabin was in such disrepair, Daggett said, that it would be easier to just rebuild it.
So, that’s what he has been doing, since 2018. Daggett has used the measurements of the original cabin and built the walls on his own property and will transport them to the cabin site after the current cabin is torn down. He will finish the roof on when the walls are up on the site.
The rebuild is nearly complete, and Daggett and the Goose Lake Prairie Partners hope to have the rebuilt cabin on the Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area property by Dec. 1.
The idea was born in 2018 that the Prairie Partners attempt a rebuild of the cabin. Logs were rotting to the point that some were hollow enough to insert a forearm, and walls were buckling and pulling away from the chimney. Daggett signed a contract on Aug. 19, 2018, and the first logs were delivered to his home in Sept., 2018. The current cost estimate of $60,000.
Due to COVID, weather, and other jobs, little was done in the logs in 2020. The work is done mostly by hand - chipping, scraping and sanding the logs.
“I do use a chain saw to start the notches at the ends of the logs,” Daggett said. “Then, I use a slick [a large chisel], which belonged to my great-grandfather, to chip out the remaining wood to make the notches fit.”
Once the walls are up at the cabin site, Daggett will fill the gaps in the spaces between the logs with specially designed foam slabs, then cover them with latex filler, called chinking, to prevent the elements from reaching the interior of the cabin. At the site, he will also cut the holes for the doors and windows as well as install the roof rafters and shingles as well as the floor joists and flooring for the first and second floor of the building.
Daggett said he has been woodworking since he graduated from Morris Community High School in 1988. He is a self-employed contractor. He said that the cabin is a side job and that, when he was living in southern Illinois before returning to the Morris area, he had torn down and rebuilt four log cabins, so he was familiar with the work involved.
Not only is the cabin being built by hand, but some of the tools were as well.
“I bought some axes to help chip the wood, but I didn’t like how they cut,” Daggett said. “So, I have a forge out here and I made my own.
“It has been a little more work than I expected, and the weather has played a big part. When we got a lot of rain, the logs just sat in my field because I couldn’t get the skid loader to them. The skid loader and mud don’t get along very well.
“The biggest part was getting the logs prepped. I was sent bigger logs than I ordered, so that took more time to get rid of the sapwood, which is the bark and the soft wood around the outside. Now that they are down to the heartwood, they will outlive any of us.”
Cragg Cabin History
The cabin is representative of the John Cragg Cabin built in Braceville Township in 1834-35 near the Mazon River about 10 miles south of Morris. The cabin was moved to Mazon in 1934 and used as an antique shop and then to the Mazon High School in 1967 as a history lesson. It was dismantled and moved to the Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area in 1975, but was not in condition to be reconstructed.
The first rendition of the cabin was built by a Youth Conservation Corp. group under the direction of Vince Mathews, Prairie Interpretor of Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area at the time. After many years of prairie weather, it succumbed to the elements.
The Goose Lake Prairie Partners group accepted the challenge of fundraising to replace the cabin with the rendition on site today. The physical connection of the building to the original site is the red oak trees used for the flooring were growing near the original Cragg homestead before the original cabin was moved.
John and Agnes Cragg moved from New Jersey to the area via St. Louis and Ottawa by stagecoach. In 1834, John Cragg bought 325 acres of land at auction in Chicago for $1.25 an acre, and raised cows, horses and chickens and grew grain for use and for sale. The cabin served as the county’s first tavern. The cabin was located on the Stage Coach Road and the Overland Trail, so they supplemented their income by providing food and a bed for travelers. The second story was originally added for all the children, but was later used for guests. It became known as “The Palace” because of the second floor, a rarity in those days.
The Craggs had six children (five boys and a girl), of which three survived to adulthood. The Mazon River was used for drinking and washing. The laundry was done on a flat stone in the river. Runaway slaves were fed and hid in the caves dug in the banks of the Mazon River. The Cragg children played with other settlers’ children, as well as Chief Shabbona’s children across the Mazon River.
John Cragg died in 1852 at the age of 50, and Agnes Cragg dies in 1895 at the age of 82. Their decendants have contributed to the history of the cabin and family. The Goose Lake Prairie Partners use the cabin to tell the history of cabin living as well as describing how the prairie area of Illinois was settled.
Videos on building the cabin, life on the prairie, the Cragg family and other topics can be found on the Prairie Partner website, gooselakeprairie.org, and its links.