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    Preserving the Old Ways

    Self-taught craftsman constructs log cabins with hand tools and two mules

    By Diana West

    Photography by Beth Hall

    When Robert Runyan builds a house, barn, or other structure, his tools are simple: two mules, antique hand tools, and a passion for the old ways.

    Runyan, of Winslow, Ark., is a self-taught craftsman whose love for building log and stone structures began when he built miniature structures using Lincoln Logs as a child. He acquired skills in timber tower construction at a Boy Scout camp and as a draftsman in his father’s architectural firm.

    And though he studied pre-med in college, Runyan’s love for building outweighed a career in medicine and he began constructing log homes for others.

    One job had him moving a 2,500-square-foot, pre-1800s historical log home from Kentucky to Colorado.

    “We disassembled and salvaged material and recreated it as true to form as possible,” he says.

    At Shiloh Museum in Springdale, Ark., he worked with a crew that dismantled and reassembled an old barn and reworked other old structures. Construction was done in public view and included lectures and discussions on the restorations.

    On most projects, people entrusted him implicitly because of his knowledge.

     

    “We used our own judgment on disassembling, reassembling, and collecting artifacts,” he says.

     

    Some projects have taken up to two years to complete because of the detail involved.

     

    In each of his projects, he mentors to apprentices and workers on the traditional techniques of stone and log construction. James Millwee, of Winslow, has worked with Runyan on several projects.

     

    “I learned engineering techniques,” he says, citing the moving of large items without the use of machinery. He also learned from Runyan how to lay out round timbers, which, he says, is much different from square ones.

     The work isn’t for everyone because it’s physically demanding, requires long hours, and doesn’t happen quickly, Runyan notes.

     

    “You don’t go to the lumberyard to select the timber,” he says. “You go to the woods.”

     

    He hauls and hoist the logs, as well as native stones, using his two big Belgium-cross mules, Jenny and Jasper.

     

    “They’re my power source,” he says.

     

    He gathered timber to build the large Underwood-Lindsey Pavilion, which is considered the official gathering place at Mount Sequoyah Woods in nearby Fayetteville, Ark.

    “I got a lot of the timber from people’s property who let me go in and harvest standing dead timber.” He cuts only dead trees.

    In construction, Runyan employs techniques that were used 700-800 years ago called Scandinavian style. He prepares the logs and stones using antique tools, such as axes, draw knives, calipers, and chisels.

    “There’s a satisfaction in knowing how to use them,” he says.

    He uses traditional joinery with notching and wood pegs. A technique called coping is used where each log is painstakingly fitted exactly into the natural contours of the log below it resulting in an airtight connection without any chinking.

    Runyan’s lifestyle also reflects his work philosophy. He lives on 200 acres down a 3½-mile rugged road in a two-story log and stone home that he built himself. He has no public electricity, no television, computer, or telephone, and cooks and heats with a wood stove.

    Water comes from a gravity-flow spring. Solar panels produce electricity that run power tools, refrigerator, fan, lights, and freezer.

    “I chose this lifestyle mostly for environmental reasons,” he says. “It’s demanding, but fulfilling.”

    ‘Living Treasure’

    Robert Ginsburg, of Fayetteville, has led groups on outings to see the 1,800-square-foot log and stone getaway cabin that Runyan built for a surgeon. It’s a monument to Runyan’s craft, Ginsburg says.

    He was so impressed with Runyan’s work and lifestyle that he nominated him for an award.

    “I felt that Robert’s work was extraordinarily qualified and his particular gifts and genius certainly deserved to be recognized,” he says.

    In 2014, the Arkansas Arts Council named Runyan an “Arkansas Living Treasure” for his accomplishments in log and stone construction. The program annually selects an Arkansan who is outstanding in the creation of a traditional craft and has significantly contributed to the preservation of the art form for future generations.

    “I accepted the award on behalf of James Millwee and other log and stone craftsmen whom I have worked with,” Runyan says about being a “living treasure.”

    “Nothing makes me happier than building something and working with my hands,” Runyan says, “from the selection of timber, loading, hauling, working with stone and logs to the tools and devises I employ.”

    That, he says, is its own reward.

    “You have to have a passion for it and be somewhat of a historian and somewhat adamant about preserving history,” he says. “That’s where the reward comes from.”