John Watkins loves restoring historic log homes. He would rather work on an old log house anytime than on newer ones.
There is something about bringing old logs back to life that has fascinated him ever since he was a child.
“My grandfather lived in a log home,” Watkins said. “My parents used to ask me, ‘why do you like to go and stay with your grandpa? I said, ‘oh, I just like his house.’”
His grandfather was a sharecropper and a grandson of slaves who lived in the family’s cabin, which dated back to the 1840s.
It was his grandfather who taught him the art of “chinking.”
Chinking is the mud that goes between the gaps in the wood in log cabin homes that is used to seal the structure from the elements, similar to today’s caulking used to seal joints and seams against leaking.
Watkins, owner of XTreme Chinking in Celina, Tennessee, was hired to re-chink the historic Crumpler-Ferguson log cabin, which is located on the grounds of the DeSoto County Museum on East Commerce Road in Hernando.
The 1849 dog trot style log cabin is one of the oldest original structures in DeSoto County. The cabin was built by the Crumpler family and sat along the old Hernando Plank Road, which at one time was the main road between DeSoto County and Memphis before the railroad, and later became U.S. Highway 51.
The cabin could comfortably sleep 20 people and, at one time, hid more than 70 Confederate guerillas during the Civil War in a secret compartment.
The Feguson family later married into the Crumplers, and their descendants continued to live in the cabin — with a few modifications — until 1986. The structure was moved to Eudora in 1986 and donated to the DeSoto County Museum in 2002.
This is actually the second time Waktins has restored the home. He has restored several historic properties, including the Cordell Hull birthplace.
“I did it originally about 25 years ago,” Watkins said. “I worked on two houses across the interstate and they saw me working.”
Watkins said the chinking has actually held up well from the last time he was here, except the areas under the eaves and the exposed outside walls.
“The logs where it didn’t have the soffit, the rain and the weather has rotted the old logs out,” Watkins said. “But the chinking under the porch has lasted well for 25 years. I knew it would.”
J.J. Baer, who has been chinking homes for 39 years and assisted Watkins on the project, said the process hasn’t changed much — other than what’s in the mud compound today.
They use a product called Perma-Chink, which looks like traditional mortar, but provides a flexible, impenetrable seal that adheres as the logs move and shrink. They also custom cut pieces of styrofoam board to put in between the gaps which they then cover over.
Baer said if somebody from the 1840s were standing there today watching them, they would be envious of the modern chink. The early settlers who first built this home would have used a mixture of horse hair, mud, clay, and even manure to seal the gaps, he said.
“It’s the same technology,” Baer said. “Only this stuff expands and contracts with the logs. Theirs didn’t last as long and dried out faster. This is a lot stronger.”
Museum Director Robert Lee Long said he is thrilled to see the cabin come back to life. The cabin is a big part of the county’s history and is used as a living history exhibit.
“What a wonderful opportunity to have this house restored for us,” Long said. “He is a specialist in this craft and we are thrilled to have Mr. Watkins here with us again. Time and the elements have really taken a toll. This will help preserve our unique story and tell that story to the world. We have people come out to see our museum and the cabin is the first thing they see.”
Long said the museum will use the cabin to showcase the history of the Dean family and will also host a statewide garden club meeting in May.
“We are thrilled that the cabin will be ready for them,” Long said.
Watkins said he hopes to be back in 25 years to re-chink the cabin again, only this time with his son working by his side.
“I have a son, (Jayceon), who is six years old now,” Watkins said. “We take him with us on the job now. Hopefully he will be here with me when we come back.”