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New log cabin gives kids glimpse into life in past


The traditional week that Harford County fifth-graders spend at Harford Glen without computers, television sets and video games is becoming more rustic with the addition of a log cabin.

Harford Glen is an outdoor education center in Bel Air. Part of Harford County public schools, Harford Glen provides the opportunity for fifth-graders to spend up to a week with their class, learning about ecology and the environment. The camp's staff of teachers and student counselors supervise the pupils.

Team-building activities and structures such as a student-size beaver lodge supplement the trip.

The log cabin is a "super addition" to the landscape of the camp, said Mark Herzog, assistant supervisor of science for Harford County public schools.

In spring 2000, the construction of the log cabin began; the dedication ceremony took place last April.

The Harford Glen experience is dominated by science-based curriculum, but educators at the Glen are trying to expand its scope.

"We've been in contact with the social studies department," said Eric Cromwell, a teacher at Harford Glen. "We're hoping to integrate them further with the program; the cabin is a natural catalyst for that."

The one-room cabin, equipped with a fireplace, is used as an extra classroom.

"It is a starting point for our hike to the dam," Cromwell said. "Our whole point to the hike is looking at [environmental] impact. The cabin is a reference point." Students are asked to compare the ecological effect of a modern lifestyle to that of a pioneer who might have called the log cabin home.

"There's a much stronger connection now to our social studies curriculum," Herzog said. Educators at Harford Glen emphasize environmental stewardship.

"We use the log cabin as a focal point for that discussion," Herzog said. The campers are encouraged to look at the impact the cabin has on the environment compared with many cabins and today's homes.

Jack Shagena, a retired engineer who led the construction project, and the Harford Glen staff have plans to add another structure that will further illuminate the pioneers' lifestyles.

"In another year or so, I'll get the crew back up here," Shagena said. About 12 people were involved in the construction, typically working in groups of three or four. The volunteers who built the cabin tried to limit use of modern conveniences.

Working unplugged

"It was a lesson to all of us," said Bill Sisson, a retired electrical draftsman. "We used mostly manual tools. It made us appreciate what it was like to live back then."

The first step in building the cabin was to find out how it was done hundreds of years ago. "We actually started out that we were going to use primitive tools," Shagena said, "but it was physically too much work."

"At the rate we were going, it would have taken forever," said Ralph Monaco, another crew member.

The log cabin has a few differences that expose its 21st-century birthday.

"There's a hidden light" in the cabin, said Shagena.

Log cabins don't have much light because they don't have many windows, he said. To preserve the feel of authenticity, the overhead light is hidden in the woodwork of the cabin's ceiling.

Rocks around the foundation disguise the fact that the cabin is built on several concrete piers to keep the wood from rotting. The construction crew set out to split their own cedar shingles for the roof, but abandoned the effort in favor of ordering commercial sawed western cedar shingles.

The Mill, a sawmill on Rekord Road, donated the oak wood for the cabin floor and the decking for the poplar porch. The rest of the cabin was constructed using about 50 logs cut from white pine trees that had to be removed when Harford Glen built new dorms for campers.

Shagena had no trouble recruiting other retirees to help him with the labor.

He relied on word of mouth to find willing participants. "It was surprising how many retired individuals were interested," he said. "It was just the idea of building a log cabin, something your great-great-grandparents may have done, that got them excited."

"I always wanted to build a cabin," Monaco said. "It was fun, but we're not spring chickens."

The log cabin is 12 feet by 20 feet, with a 6-foot-by-12-foot porch, two doors and three windows. Each opening was sawed out after the box frame was built.

A sash was added to the three windows and glass was then glazed into place. Since labor was free and many of the materials were donated, the project cost less than $5,000.

The Harford Glen foundation financed the effort. "A log cabin fits right in the scheme of things [at Harford Glen]," Monaco said, "It shows the kids how people have to rely on ingenuity to survive."

Learning from the past

Shagena's interest in early American history can be traced to childhood trips to Colonial Williamsburg, Va.

"I kind of like the slogan that Colonial Williamsburg has: 'The future may learn from the past,'" Shagena said. "I really believe that if you don't know where you've been, you can't really figure out where you want to go."

Shagena hopes that projects like the log cabin will instill an interest in history and a desire to create in today's youth.

"That's where the wealth of a country comes from, creating new products," Shagena said. "America has a very pioneering spirit that still exists, in part because we were a pioneering country."

Shagena is writing a pamphlet called Jerusalem: a Preserved Mill Village about the mill near Little Gunpowder Falls. "In this case, a village grew up around a mill," Shagena said. "I'm writing about that from a historical standpoint."

Shagena has participated in several other projects at Harford Glen. He designed and helped build Peninsula Bridge over Winters Run and Plumtree Run, and he helped repair an old bridge at the northern edge of the property over Winters Run.

"I had been volunteering at Harford Glen to do projects for 15 years," Shagena said.

"He and I have been active with Harford Glen," said Monaco, a retired insurance and financial services broker. "Jack is very knowledgeable in the construction area."

"I would very much like to do more," Sisson said. "A lot of us have a lot to offer. ... You might get aches and pains and splinters, but you never get bored."

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