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The Ukrainian Log Home

Ukrainian home near Vegreville, Alberta, 1906. According to the Woodsworth survey, 10 per cent of 937 Ukrainian families lived in one room and 56 per cent lived in two room clay-plastered log houses with a thatched or shingled roof in 1917. In the Mundare, Chipman and Lamont districts which were included in the survey, about 80 per cent of the homes fell into this category although some may have been more spacious. Throughout this period and during the 1920s, the clay-plastered log house was the prevailing type of housing in Ukrainian settlements all across western Canada.

Although some settlers replaced their temporary dug-out dwelling with a one room and hallway log house before constructing a rectangular, single storey, two room and central hallway, clay-plaster log house, most seem to have made the transition directly. The construction of this type of dwelling, one of the most desirable forms of Ukrainian peasant housing in Galicia and Bukovyna at the turn of the century, would have been evidence of prosperity in the Old Country and marked the realization of a long cherished dream.

Broad Axe – The large cutting edge on a broad axe was well suited for hewing logs.  This axe is in the Alberta Community Development Historic Sites artifact collection. All the materials required to construct this type of dwelling were available to the settler in east central Alberta: longs, clay, straw, and lime. Pine or spruce logs were preferred but poplar was commonly utilized in their absence despite its inferior quality. An axe, saw and auger were the only essential tools. Nails were not essential but they were used if available.

Cross Cut Saw – This cross cut saw, purchased after 1903, was used to cut firewood and for land clearing. It is now part of the Alberta Community Development Historic Sites artifact collection. The walls of the dwelling were built of logs lad horizontally and joined at the corners by saddle notching or dovetailing. To add rigidity to the walls holes were augered through every two or three logs as they were added, and they were pinned together with wooden pegs. The walls, especially the corners of the house, rested upon a rock foundation which slowed the deterioration of the bottom layer of logs. Doors, interior and exterior, were about three feet by six feet. The outer door usually faced south and led into a hallway or into a kitchen-living room. There were usually three windows along the front façade - two to the east of the door, one to the west - and one might be located in the western part of the north wall to allow those in the kitchen-living room to see the farmyard.

Most of the houses had dirt floors at first. When they had been packed down and smoothed over with clay the floors became glossy. This condition was maintained by waxing the floors with a solution of cow-dung and water (himniak). Within a few years wooden floors were installed in most homes, especially in the room reserved for special occasions.

Ukrainian thatched houses north of Vegreville, Alberta. The walls of the house were coated inside and out with a layer of clay-plaster. The plaster was made of clay and water, mixed into a pit, and tramped with the feet or by leading horses or oxen through it. Chopped straw was later mixed in. The walls were coated with this mixture and smoothed over. A second coast of sand and clay was then applied. When they had dried, the walls were coated with a solution of lime and water which protected the plaster from the erosive effects of rain, kept out crawling insects and improved the insulation. Bilash has observed that occasionally new materials were used to construct the dwelling. Since the clay plaster finish required a great deal of maintenance, "siding and finishing boards were often added to the exterior and interior walls" or shingles were used on the exterior walls.

A unique feature of the Ukrainian house was the addition of a clay embankment (pryzba) at the vase of the exterior walls. Clay "was piled against the side of the house and packed solidly to a height of approximately six inches . . . The pryzba slanted downwards away from the house to a distance of approximately two feet." The pryzba shed rainwater away from the house thereby preventing the log walls from rotting. It also served as insulation.

Cook Stove – This stove is located in the kitchen of the Hawreliak House at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. A McClary stove similar to this was purchased when the Hawreliak House was built in 1919. Roof styles varied widely. Both gable and hipped gable roofs were common. The Bukovynian house frequently had a four sided (hipped gable) roof with wide overlapping eaves that were especially pronounced along the southern façade and extended over the pryzba to provide shade. Sod roofing might be used as a temporary measure but thatch was preferred. When rye straw, traditionally used in thatching, was unavailable slough grass was used. Thatched roofs were high pitched in order to shed water rapidly. Since wood was readily available in east central Alberta, wood shingles, which did not require much maintenance after installation, were popular from the outset. Bilash has pointed out that the adoption of shingles was accelerated by several successive dry summers at the end of WWI. Since animal feed became scarce, "many thatched roofs were dismantled and recycled as feed. An immediate solution to re-roofing these homes was found in shingles."

Lehr has suggested that the typical house was about 26 by 12 to 30 by 17 feet in size. He also suggests that the Bukovynian house was larger and more flamboyant than the sober utilitarian homes of the Galicians although there seems to be disagreement on this point.

The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village is a living history site, so visitors can see what life was like in east-central Alberta prior to 1930. Here a costumed guide is baking bread in a distinctive outdoor clay baking oven called a pitch. Box Stove – This heater is displayed at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. It represents the type of stove used to heat various buildings interpreted at this site. The house was usually subdivided into two rooms and a hallway although some Galicians houses simply consisted of two rooms. The western section of the dwelling consisted of a kitchen-living room (mala khata). The eastern section consisted of a room reserved for special occasions (velyka khata). A narrow entrance hall (siny, khoromy) separated the two rooms from one another. The mala khata "was a place for living, cooking, washing, eating and sleeping." During the early years this room was dominated by a large clay stove (pich) which was used for heating and cooking. Because it took up a great deal of space it was often replaced by a store-bought iron stove within a few years. Whether an iron stove was brought in to heat the home or not, another pich was constructed outside in the yard or a small summer house was built to accommodate the pich. It was common for an outdoor pich to be used in conjunction with an indoor pich which was usually used for baking bread. At first smoke was discharged above the ceiling though vents or by a short pipe and allowed to filter out through the thatched roof. Sometimes smoke was simply allowed to drift into the ceilingless hallway whence it escaped through the thatched roof or vents. After a few years metal stove-pipe chimneys appeared.

Bed – This bedstead, made from brown enamel finished tubing, represents a common style used in the early 1900s. This bed is located in Grekul House at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Trunk – Purchased around 1904, this trunk was used to store clothing and linens in the Hawreliak family home in East Central Alberta. It is now in the artifact collection at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. The mala khata was furnished with a large bed, a table, chairs and/or benches, shelves and a trunk. The siny served as a vestibule and storage space. When storage space became available in newly constructed outbuildings, the siny lost their traditional function. Sometimes they were eliminated altogether and the mala khata expanded by knocking down the partitioning wall. The velyka khatawas reserved for formal occasions and the accommodation of guests. Large families may have used it as a bedroom and it also served as a bedroom for married children show lived with their parents. Icons, religious calendars and family photos were hung on the eastern wall. The velyka khata was usually furnished with a bed, table, benches, trunk, heater and closet. A number of Ukrainian post masters used their velyka khata as a post office.

Excerpted from Orest T. Martynowych The Ukrainian Bloc Settlement in East Central Alberta, 1890-1930: A History. Alberta Culture & Multiculturalism Occasional Paper No. 10, March 1985, (1990). With Permission from Alberta Community Development, Cultural Facilities and Historical Resources Division

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