Forested walls extend up both sides of the winding gravel driveway on Fred and Iva Dehn’s property west of Excelsior Springs.
A visitor may be excused for believing they have traveled back in time when they come upon a beautiful log cabin that looks as if it were completed last year, rather than 184 years ago. It has a sweeping front porch, hand-built stone chimney reaching up over its second story and a windmill out back. The cabin, originally built in 1833, pre-dates the town of Excelsior Springs by 50 years.
The battering of years certainly took a toll on the structure, threatening to erase its history all together, until the Dehns found it and made it a part of their future.
Today, the logs are straight. The staircase and stone chimney match perfectly to the marks on the walls where the original stairs and chimney stood. The spinning wheel inside is from the 1700s.
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The rifle over the fireplace came home from the Civil War. The hand-stitched quilts and the trunks they came in belonged to Iva’s grandmother. There are no signs of the dilapidated old house that the couple found 13 years ago — just as there are no signs of the poor health Fred faced then, and the diagnosis that threatened his life.
Their dream was just that back then — only a dream to re-build a piece of history. They were never certain they would really be able to pull it off, but as Fred found ways to heal his body, he and Iva took this piece of the past and brought it back to life.
Michael and Elizabeth Welton were truly Missouri pioneers. They moved their family from Virginia to Missouri in 1833, settling a piece of land that was 10 miles east and north of Liberty. At the time, the city of Excelsior Springs, which sits just one mile east of the original cabin site, was still 50 years from its founding.
Welton built his family a cabin out of the red oak trees found on their new property. The Dehns estimate the logs used in the cabin started growing when George Washington was president. Solidly built, the cabin has housed four generations of the Welton family who have farmed the nearby land. The home was extended and modified through the years.
A front “parlor” was added to make a second room on the first floor. The stone fireplace came down to make way for a wood-fired stove for heating. Siding “modernized” the house by the 1900s, and any evidence of the cabin’s former identity was covered up for decades.
Bethella Welton Pollard was the last family member to be born in the house. She was born there in 1933, when it was 100 years old. She has happy memories from growing up with her older brother in the cabin.
“We were so poor, but I didn’t know it then. When I got off the bus, the first thing I did was get peanut butter and crackers and go up in the garden and work,” Pollard said. “That’s all we did was just work, work.”
They had a double outhouse and she and her brother shared the upstairs room, which was not heated.
Pollard explains the house was in poor condition by the time she made sure her mother got a new home, built on nearby land, in 1952. They rented the house for a while but had tenants who moved out in the middle of the night and left it uninhabitable.
Fast forward more than 50 years to 2004. That is the year the Dehns entered the cabin’s story. Iva Dehn had remembered the old farmhouse, which sat visible from U.S. 69, from when she was growing up in Excelsior Springs.
“When I was growing up it was just an older house,” Iva Dehn said.
She never knew it was a cabin until the wear of time aged it enough so any passerby could see what was underneath. That’s when Fred and Iva started dreaming.
“We had originally talked about building a small cabin here, and just building it out of logs on the property, but then we saw this was a cabin. We got a closer look at it, and then it just sort of changed into, ‘Why don’t we see if we can do something with that?’” Iva Dehn said.
The couple had some experience with building. In 1981, The Kansas City Star featured them in a story about environmentally friendly building.
They constructed their solar home as a do-it-yourself project from reclaimed materials. The couple took time off work as auto body repair specialists to do the project. They lived in that home for 25 years, until two things happened.
First, Iva Dehn’s health was affected by long-term exposure to the painting fumes of auto body repair work. Second, they decided they should move closer to town, and the hospital.
The Dehns bought some land and started construction on a new home. This time, they couldn’t do it from scratch, but they were doing much of the finishing work, but didn’t let go of their dream of creating a cabin. Their business in auto body repair turned toward alignment. They started using a historic auto body alignment technique to realign cars as they were going through repairs.
They started repairing and traveling the country to teach others their techniques. The new business got Iva Dehn out of the fumes. But as she started getting better, Fred Dehn’s health started deteriorating.
In 2004, they knocked on Pollard’s door one day and asked if they could purchase the cabin and tear it down to rebuild on their own property. Pollard said yes.
“My health was really bad by then. A brother of mine really took it down because I couldn’t have lifted an 80-pound rock. But nevertheless we stored it and it was my dream to put it back up,” Fred Dehn said.
Fred Dehn started building a model of the house instead of building the real thing. He thought the 1-inch to 1-foot model made from scraps of wood left over from the deconstruction would be a close as he would ever get to his dream.
“I was in a wheelchair and I was using a walker. There was a big elevator in this new house that was up on this hill because I couldn’t climb steps,” Fred Dehn said.
They were able to lay a frost foundation for the cabin in 2007. Then the Dehns got the really bad news. August of 2008 Fred received a stage-three prostate cancer diagnosis.
While Dehn says he doesn’t claim to have the answer for everyone’s health, he says the lifestyle changes Iva and he made worked for them, including a vegan diet and filtered water.
They again saw their dream of bringing the past to life in the cabin gradually become reality.
Since Fred and Iva were both physically able to do so, they began rebuilding the cabin in earnest in 2015. They hauled 22 tons of stone and hand-laid the fireplace and chimney themselves. That work included a huge stone over the fireplace, which took them two days to place.
“It probably weighs a ton,” Fred Dehn said.
They taught themselves everything about building, creating their own techniques for re-setting the logs with haydite stone, purchased from the original plant that started producing the sustainable product in 1897. They even constructed a new outhouse for the cabin. This one has a modern accommodation — a composting toilet.
The home they live in is up the hill from their cabin. It was the house they were finishing when Fred’s health took a bad turn.
Their dreams for that home have changed, too. They had yet another load of rock dumped outside their home and plan to build on a stone exterior to their fireplace. It will be “fake” this time, but they want it to look like the original cabin.
“Since we have become experts on porches, we are now going to put a porch on our house,” Iva Dehn said.
Pollard and her husband, who still live nearby, visited the fully restored cabin for the first time in December 2016. There was only one word Pollard had for describing the feeling of being able to stand in the fully restored version of her childhood home.
“Amazing,” Pollard said. “I take notice of cabins now and I wonder why people don’t give them some tender loving care. Don’t abandon them.”
For the Dehns, the project was personal. They have decorated it with family heirlooms, most of which come out of the cabin when they are not preparing it for showing others.
The two, who have been married for almost 50 years, say they simply took their life experience and found a way to make their dream happen.
“We’ve enjoyed putting this up so much,” Fred Dehn said.
“It was just a dream,” Iva Dehn said. “That’s all it was.”
The Dehns realize others are curious about their cabin and are planning a turn-around for their drive so people who pull off the highway can get a better view.
They are also willing to show it to groups interested in history, and they do public speaking about their health and the cabin. They have offered open houses for a couple of local historical societies so far. For more information, contact the Dehns at firstname.lastname@example.org