Country's oldest log cabin, in N.J., offers window into other heritages


Harry and Doris Rink open their Gibbstown, N.J., home -- which includes the oldest log cabin in North America -- to tourists any time they are home.

Once, a British woman stopped in after midnight, and she got a tour, Mr. Rink says.

Recently, the Rinks had 200 more visitors (they get 2,000 to 5,000 a year) when, in a mixing of cultures, Lithuanian-Americans held a celebration in the little cabin Finnish woodsmen built about 1640 during the Swedish settlement of New Jersey.

It was the fifth year that the Rinks, whose heritage is German, have hosted a December cultural celebration, an event sponsored by the Greenwich Township Cultural and Heritage Committee.

"So many times around the holidays, people get wrapped up in shopping" and the other commercial elements of the season, Mrs. Rink said. "People need to sit back," and the cultural celebrations are offered for that purpose, she said.

Those who visited the little 16-by-22 log cabin recently in Gloucester County were given a chance to contemplate the plight of a little nation. Lithuania, whose people in March declared their independence from the Soviet Union, has been under the Soviet heel since 1940.

"We want to get people aware that there is such a place" as Lithuania, said Loretta Stukas, 57, a retired software engineer who dressed in traditional Lithuanian costume, decorated with jewelry made of amber, a fossilized pine pitch found in the Baltic Sea.

Lithuania is north of Poland, sandwiched between the Baltic Seaand the Soviet Union.

The struggle of Lithuanians has been "pushed to the back pages by the Kuwaiti thing," said Ms. Stukas, whose parents were from Lithuania. She told recent visitors to the log cabin that it would be only a matter of time until Lithuanians gained their independence.

"They can still smell freedom," even after 50 years of occupation, she said.

Ms. Stukas and other costumed members of the American Lithuanian community, centered in northern New Jersey, decorated the cabin with traditional geometric straw ornaments, amber trinkets, wood carvings, and hand-woven and embroidered artifacts.

Behind the decorations was the little cabin, which has been in Harry Rink's family since 1791. Mr. Rink, 61, a retired civil engineer, has worked on restoring the cabin since he and his wife, 47, moved in in 1973.

"I'll never see it completed, but it gets ahold of you," he said.

Because of the cabin's antiquity, Mr. Rink said, archaeologists have been fascinated with it. When he considered pulling up the plank flooring, they encouraged him to look for relics underneath.

In an 18th-century hutch, up against one wall, are fragments of glass bottles he sifted from the soil under the floor. Displayed in a small aquarium is a boot that he discovered under the floor.

Because he knows when the floor was installed, Mr. Rink says he knows that the boot must be at least 270 years old.

To share the wealth of their little cabin, the Rinks, with grants from the county and the state, have had colorful brochures printed. The rinks have handed out about 10,000 of the 15,000 that were printed.

And they've hosted the ethnic celebrations.

The first celebration came about after the Rinks found, in the cabin attic, a trunk containing fragile Christmas ornaments from Germany and Austria. "We put up a tree" and opened the doors in 1986, Mrs. Rink said. They have also held Swedish, Finnish and Estonian celebrations.

Next year, in anticipation of the celebration in 1992 of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' visit to the New World, the Rinks plan an Italian ethnic celebration.

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