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History Finds a Home at National Wildlife Refuges

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

National wildlife refuges are considered home to more than 700 species of birds, 200 species of mammals and more than 280 species that are endangered or threatened with extinction. Yet, they also reflect America’s history, and the historic homes found on some refuges are an intriguing part of that past.

There’s an antebellum plantation house, a cabin where a former first lady basked in friendship and fresh air, a Native American plankhouse like the ones encountered by Lewis and Clark in 1806 and some remaining humble abodes of pioneering prospectors, hunters and ranchers. These are just some of the historic homes on national wildlife refuges.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Retreat

On the Salt Meadow Unit of Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge in Connecticut stands a log cabin built during the 1930s from trees downed by a hurricane. This unpretentious guest house was a getaway for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during Franklin Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House. There, she would visit her friends who owned the farm on which it stood-Elizabeth Read and Esther Lape, and write her syndicated column, “My Day.”

Today, the land is no longer a farm, but the woodlot Roosevelt may well have explored is considered one of the few remaining old-growth maritime forests on the East Coast and provides crucial habitat for migrating neotropical songbirds.

The property was acquired as a wildlife refuge in 1972. The main farmhouse, covered in stone and a decorative iron grate that once graced New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, now houses the refuge headquarters. Visitors can view all of these buildings and visit inside the farmhouse during office hours. The refuge occasionally hosts open houses so visitors can tour all of the historic buildings.

A Native American Plankhouse on the Columbia River

When explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were nearing the end of their cross-country journey, drifting down the Columbia River between what became Washington and Oregon, they saw a thriving Indian village on the river bank with 14 large houses and an estimated 900 inhabitants.

“Seven canoes of Indians came out from this large village to view and trade with us, they appeared orderly and well disposed, they accompanied us a few miles and they returned back,” Clark noted in his journal on Nov. 5, 1806.

The expedition had just encountered Cathlapotle, one of the largest villages in the western United States at that time, and part of the present day Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, near Ridgefield, Washington. Archeologists believe the Cathlapotle Village had been inhabited since the mid-1500s.

While the original cedar plankhouses are gone, a re-creation now stands near the former village site. It was built in 2005, based on archeological findings at Cathlapotle by the Chinook Tribe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Portland State University. The plankhouses ranged in size from 14 feet wide and 20 feet long to 40 feet wide and 400 feet long, according to Jon Daehnke, author of Cathlapotle: Catching Time’s Secrets. They housed multiple families, and were a gathering place during the dreary northwestern winters.

The 37-by-78-foot model plankhouse at Ridgefield Refuge contains artifacts from excavations at the site and common Chinookan household items, such as mortars and pestles, cattail mats and cedarbark buckets. More than 100 volunteers and 3,500 hours of labor went into building the plankhouse. Today volunteers welcome visitors and groups of all sizes. Programs include artists-in-residence, workshops on traditional Native American crafts, as well as programs for school children and living history actors.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge (360) 887-4106.

A Planter’s House, circa 1885, Louisiana

Visitors to Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Monroe, may come to see the 1,600-acre lake filled with cypress and tupelo trees and abounding with snowy egrets, green herons and American white pelicans. But once there, they’re treated to a collection of historic buildings and cemeteries on 900 acres once called Richland Plantation-all reminders of the era when cotton was king.

The refuge’s visitor center is housed in a restored planter’s house, circa 1885, built by Captain Lemuel Dawson McLain and his wife Ann “Mattie” Crosley McLain, who also owned a large home in Monroe. Mattie referred to their trips to the house on Richland Plantation as “going out to the country.” What started as a simple country house was “dressed up” in the early 1900s with heavy-turned balusters on the porch, cypress mantels and raised, pressed doors, and attic portholes.

The planter’s house, donated to Black Bayou Refuge, was kept as historically accurate as possible during the extensive restoration, which took three years and was started with labor and funds from the Friends of Black Bayou. Although the house had been painted white for as long as anybody in town could remember, its current green paint is probably more accurate. Some interior modifications were made to accommodate the needs of a visitor center, but many of the interior walls and ceilings, stairs and landing, and doors and facings are original. Colors throughout the house, décor in the gift shop and landscaping are all in keeping with late 19th century styles.

The plantation also had numerous tenant farmer residences, a church/school building and a nearby market when the little community was called Crosley. Descendants of the tenant farmers and others who raised cotton on the old plantation often visit and relate stories of life and work.

Black Bayou Refuge has a one-mile paved trail through a forested wetland and bald cypress brake. A 400-foot-wide wildlife pier gives visitors a chance to see wildlife up close and there is a fishing pier from which anglers can catch largemouth bass, sunfish, catfish and crappie.

Historic Alaska Cabins on Kenai Wildlife Refuge

There are more than 130 historic structures on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, dating back as early as the 1890s. Sixteen historic log cabins on the refuge have been restored, including some that are available to the public for overnight stays.

One cabin built by Alaska’s first licensed big game guide, Andrew Berg, is on display at the refuge visitor center. Berg came to Alaska from Finland in the late 1880s when he was 16 years old. In 1902, he built a cabin on Tustumena Lake, now within the refuge. The cabin is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He built his last cabin on the same lake in 1935. It was carefully documented, dismantled and moved to its new location by the visitor center in 2000.

Visitors can see Berg’s bed, a wood cook stove from that era, a table and chair and a copy of his diary. Many tools and implements Berg might have used are on display, from cookware to snowshoes and lanterns. A photo of Andrew Berg stands in the window of the cabin, enlarged to his 6-foot-2 height.

Refuge Ranger Gary Titus transcribed Andrew Berg’s journals and letters during his free time over the course of three winters, and co-authored with Catherine Cassidy the book, The Life and Journals of Andrew Berg. Titus recounts a report Berg wrote to the Governor of Alaska in 1926, during his post as game warden, in which he described how he and his sled dogs rescued a moose unable to get its footing on a slick frozen lake: “He unloaded his dog sled, and rode onto the lake, slipped the sled under the moose, then jumped on the moose and rode him to shore. When he got to shore, the moose was able to stand up and walk away.”

For information about reserving a cabin, Check online.

Ranching and Mining Cabins in Arizona

Kofa National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona is home to three rustic cabins that are remnants of the state’s pioneer heritage.

Big-Eye Cabin at sits a half-mile from the end of a 15-mile-long, four-wheel-drive road, part of the Big Eye Mine, originally held by A.K. Ketcherside of Yuma. The cabin was built sometime between 1912 and 1917.

The Wilbanks Cabin was built by Jack Wilbanks in 1934, three years after he moved to the Kofa Mountains to raise cattle and a family. The Wilbanks were one of the first pioneering families to bring cattle to western Arizona. Jack, his wife Martha and their daughters lived in the cabin until 1945.

The Hoodoo Cabin, originally a line cabin for the Crowder/Weisser Cattle Company, was built in the 1940s from a kit. In fact, in the kitchen, one can still see the numbered brass medallions that helped people assemble their homes. Staff from the Imperial and Kofa Refuges have epainted the cabin to its original colors and replaced the wood-burning stove with one donated by Kofa Refuge maintenance worker Glen Wilson.

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