On their small mountain in Haywood County, Dan and Betsy Boyd put special care into every piece of wood that makes up their Boyd Mountain Cabins.
Dan and Betsy Boyd, husband and wife, collect log cabins. Dan climbs into his pickup and prowls the back roads for days. He looks for cabins in the bend of a curve, in the middle of a field, or back through the woods where nobody has lived for years. He stops by country stores in the backcountry mountains of the South: West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and western North Carolina, where he was born. In those stores, around a counter or a potbellied stove, he gets his best tips.
“You don’t just walk in and say, ‘Hey, where are some old log cabins?’” he says. “No, you have to sit around and talk about the weather and stuff and finally get around to it and ask, ‘Are there any log cabins around here?’ And you hear someone say, ‘Yeah, there is one down the road in the holler that no one has lived in [for] a long time.’ I got a couple of them that way.”
Dan and Betsy have saved at least a dozen cabins. They’ve moved the buildings to their small mountain near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On Boyd Mountain, in Haywood County, Dan and Betsy have restored these log cabins to a splendor never seen during the cabins’ previous lives, which extend back at least 150 years. Inside the two-story cabins, which the Boyds rent out to visitors, you’ll see their handiwork, such as fireplaces of stacked stone, cabinets painted green, and antique kitchen tables. There are also conveniences of a 21st-century life: Each cabin has a stove, a refrigerator, wireless Internet, a washer, a dryer, and a wide-screen TV.
And always on the first floor, in a frame, you’ll find the cabins’ history. Some contain ripped portions of newspapers, the wallpaper of the 18th and 19th centuries. But all contain stories written by Dan. Like this one from Leo Rainey, a former cabin owner: “You know, there’s been many a barefoot kid around that cabin,” he once told Dan. “Many a warm fire in that ol’ fireplace, and a lot of love in that ol’ cabin.”
“He should know,” Dan wrote. “He was born there.”
The Boyds do have a magic touch. They have made their land near Jonathan Creek as beautiful as a painting and as rooted in Americana as a two-chair barber shop along any Main Street. For four decades, they’ve worked to become a log cabin’s best friend. But really, it goes back further, to Mrs. Roten’s third-grade class at Central Elementary School in Waynesville.
On the land of Tater Dave
Mrs. Roten asked Dan what he wanted to be when he grew up. He had an idea.The son of a gas station owner, Dan grew up in a community near Lake Junaluska called Bow-Legged Valley, and he used to stand on a box to wash windshields at his dad’s Esso station near Maggie Valley on U.S. Highway 19.
But he didn’t want to do that forever.
So, in Mrs. Roten’s class, he wrote that he wanted to be a dentist, and he wanted to live in a log cabin. He’d seen his uncle Ben restore log cabins and turn them into a vacation spot called Pioneer Village in Maggie Valley.
Throughout high school and college, Dan watched his uncle Ben re-notch those cabins with such skill, and he heard about the history of these logs, of where they came from and the people they housed. So, after Mars Hill College and dental school in Virginia, Dan bought the family farm created by his paternal grandfather, known as Tater Dave, on Boyd Mountain, and he built up his business as a dentist in Waynesville.
And he found a partner. In 1967, he met Betsy Robertson, then a school librarian, on a blind date. Three years later, they were married in her parents’ home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In the early 1970s, they bought from Dan’s family 130 acres on Boyd Mountain. Betsy was pregnant with their first child when she planted azaleas along the bank of a pond. Meanwhile, her husband rebuilt a log cabin he discovered in nearby Madison County, between the communities of Luck and Trust.
Dan struck a deal with the owner. The cabin was small — 400 square feet — when they moved into it in the spring of 1974. But Dan saw it as home. Betsy’s grandfather was less certain. “You going to build a house out of those logs?” he asked Dan.
“Yes, sir,” Dan responded. “I know it’ll work.”
It did. He and Betsy raised two children, David and Mary Alice, inside their log cabin, and over the years, Dan discovered three other log cabins to create a bigger home for his family. In the process, he and Betsy resurrected the Boyd family farm.
A story in every wall
Dan cleared the property and cleaned up the ponds, filling them full of bream, bass, and bluegill. He covered the hillsides with Fraser firs, the Cadillac of Christmas trees, near the family’s vegetable garden of tomatoes and corn, peppers and squash.
And Betsy, leaning on the green-thumb lessons she learned from her mom, planted flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. She created a landscape that blossoms every spring — including those azaleas she planted right before David’s birth.
By 1988, Dan and Betsy had completed their log cabin home, creating a 4,000-square-foot showplace, full of antiques.
They can walk into any room and tell a story. Take the walls in his den. All the wood is chestnut, and it once belonged to the barn of his grandfather, the man he called Poppy and the potato farmer friends called Tater Dave. Or the nearby mantle. There’s a nick, the telltale sign of a bullet. Or the floorboards. That’s the story Dan loves to tell. When he was dismantling the log cabin, he found something underneath the floorboards he believes helped ease the nerves of a father with lots of kids — hundreds of pint-size liquor bottles and cans of Prince Albert tobacco.
But it’s the heritage of the logs that gets to Dan and Betsy every time. It’s something they can feel.
“I can sit in my den and think about the work that these guys did and the families raised here and the number of kids,” he says. “In my main cabin, there were 12 kids raised in this thing. No electricity. No running water. And an outhouse out back. They lived in a holler, and they scrubbed out a living, and you know that was the way our country was settled back there in the mountains in the high places. These people, they were tough. They were the true mountain men.”
Betsy speaks with the same reverence.
“These logs just speak,” she says. “It’s not like putting up a stick-built house. This cabin is 200 years old, and it has lasted and withstood a lot of catastrophes. It’s something so special. It’s all I’ve known.”
A collection of cabins
Pull a log cabin book from the shelves of the Boyds’ library, and you’ll meet a log cabin expert named Charles McRaven. He’s been building log cabins for a half-century, and like the Boyds, he’s enamored with structures linked to the American frontier.
It’s that whole notion of home construction brought over from Europe that became synonymous with open fireplaces, long rifles, coonskin caps, and childhood roots of at least two American presidents.
McRaven knows the history — log cabins first arose in the 17th century, built by Dutch and Swedish settlers in Philadelphia. He also sees the poetry in the raw wood.
In the book, The Classic Hewn-Log Home, McRaven writes: “Building it admits you to a rare and privileged brotherhood of craftspeople, steeped in the love of labor and very near to the living earth.” Dan Boyd is part of that brotherhood — and an example of American ingenuity, molded by the mountains where he grew up.
As a kid, Dan made money by selling candy to his classmates at his bus stop. As he grew older, he found other ways to make money. He pumped gas at his dad’s station and created businesses where he washed cars, sold ice to vacationers, and sold five acres of tomatoes that he and a college friend grew themselves.
Now, at Boyd Mountain, he sells Christmas trees and owns two car washes in Waynesville. And he hunts for log cabins every chance he gets. In his pickup truck, of course.
After he and Betsy completed their home, Dan never could shake his log cabin fever. So, in 1989, he started finding them, fixing them, and turning them into rentals for vacationers.
He bought a log cabin every two years or so. He sold at least four. But eight of those cabins became a part of his property. Right now, one cabin sits within shouting distance of the main road.
Dan numbers the logs — sometimes using the top of a canning jar lid nailed to the wood. Then he has the logs hauled back to Boyd Mountain, and he reconstructs them on his property.
The cabins’ names link to their geography: Cosby, Little Cosby, Millstone, and Meadow Fork. He sketches out what he wants on a sheet of paper — the floor layout, the design of the stairs — and he walks his land to find a place to plant a cabin.
He goes by feel. He wants it to be just right, a cabin nearly hidden by his forest of Christmas trees, feeling as perfect as some sepia-toned photo captured more than a century ago. “This land has been in my family for so long,’’ he says. “I see developers destroy the land, and I just hate it. Here, it needs to be natural. That’s the way it should be. That’s the way I am.’’
‘A got dang disease’
On a Sunday morning in the fall, Dan rumbles up Boyd Mountain in his ATV. He passes wild aster and wild apple trees bearing fruit the size of a child’s fist, and he rolls out family stories that he knows like scenes from a favorite book.
He’s been on this land since age 3, fishing, picnicking, and attending family reunions to see people like Uncle Ben and Tater Dave. Now, at 67, he knows he’ll never leave this spot. Neither will his kids. His son, David, 36, lives on the land in his own log cabin and helps run the family’s Christmas tree operation. His daughter, Mary Alice, 33, lives in Charlotte and works as a tax manager at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and she knows the trip home so well she has the exit numbers memorized.
Meanwhile, Dan continues doing what he first realized as a third grader. Sixteen years into his retirement, Dan still climbs into his pickup and drives the back roads to look for logs that speak to him. And they do — with the help of his knife. He carries it everywhere on his log cabin jaunts to poke into the wood to see if it’s “dody.” That’s “rotten and soft” in the language of log cabins. If the logs aren’t rotten, he knows he’s got some talking to do. “I don’t need another cabin,” he says, “But got dang it, it’s a disease. I hate to see them deteriorate or sold to someone else.”
Meanwhile, Betsy, 66, has her own routine. After finishing her morning coffee, she pulls out her red clippers, and with the eye of a painter, she tends to the landscape she created. “When they bury me,” Betsy says, laughing, “they’ll bury me with my red clippers.”
Get those log cabins on Boyd Mountain to “speak,” as Betsy likes to say, and you’d hear a hard history. They’d tell harrowing stories of bullets fired into their wood and funny stories of a father sliding pint-size liquor bottles through a hidden compartment in their floor. They’d talk in a language foreign to many, using words like “dovetail” and “chink,” heady construction terms to create a hardy skeleton made of yellow poplar and chestnut, oak and heart of pine. Then, they’d mention Dan and Betsy, the husband and wife. And they’d be grateful.
Boyd Mountain Cabins
445 Boyd Farm Road
Waynesville, N.C. 28785
Jeri Rowe, a Greensboro resident, is a staff columnist with the News & Record.