Henry Steiner could've raised pigs near Oregon City, but he didn't like pigs all that much. Instead, at the turn of the 20th century, he learned how to build cabins and flood dams in the Cascade Foothills. For the rest of his life, and working entirely by hand, Steiner and his family built more than 100 log homes and buildings now recognized as architectural treasures.
Not only are the nearly century-old Steiners some of the oldest log cabins in the country still standing, they're also some of the most distinctive. Their A-frames and straight, strong timbers are set off by doorways made with snow-bent trees and rockers made of tree roots—hardscrabble artistry made of mismatched parts.
His work is as far-flung as the Oregon Writers Colony in Rockaway Beach and the massive hexagonal posts forming the spine of Timberline Lodge. Iconic examples of the National Park Service style that swept Depression-era building and rural vitalization by the Works Progress Administration throughout the early 20th century, they're also among the few true architectural treasures you can rent for the weekend: Most remain along the winding, root-gnarled roads laced out around Highway 26.
Steiner arrived at Mount Hood from an immigrant family. His parents had moved to America from Erlenbach, Germany, in 1882, when he was just 5 years old, finally settling in a little church community near Oregon City. Steiner grew up there, marrying Mollie Jaster in 1905, a month after helping construct the Forestry Building, the largest log cabin ever built, for the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland.
But in 1927, the Steiners relocated to Brightwood, the westernmost link in the chain of villages stretching from Mount Hood along what is now Highway 26. It was here Henry Steiner began his most prolific work. The Arts and Craft movement renewed interest in living off public land, and Steiner began building log cabins to accommodate tourism and vacation homes for Portlanders.
In fact, the Steiners proved prolific in more ways than one: Mollie gave birth to 13 children, and Henry consistently took advantage of the free labor. His sons cleared land, cut timber and shaved cedar shakes while Mollie and the daughters peeled the Douglas fir. The cabins were built with lumber and stones gathered on-site, and photos of original work sites resemble meadows more than forest.
The Mount Hood Cultural Center & Museum, curated by Lloyd Musser, boasts a display of Steiner's work, including sketched plans and a simple wood box of Steiner's archaic tools. Musser, one of Steiner's most vocal champions, points out a long-handled sledgehammer Henry used for driving stakes. The massive sledge might as well be Thor's mighty Mjolnir.
"That's what he swung all the way into his 70s," Musser nods admiringly. But he's even more impressed by Steiner's attention to detail. "He used smaller logs than most log-home builders. That's one of the reasons they don't collapse like a lot of log cabins. What's truly amazing is the quarter-inch-round chinking between the larger logs to seal in heat during winter. He cut them himself. It's a miracle he didn't lose a finger."
For all of Steiners' Teutonic efficiency, it's the signatures that set his work apart. Porches often feature sunbursts and split Y-boughed benches. Double Dutch doors are common, with arched windows and winding staircases culled from misshapen trunk splits. A few feature elegant branch bannisters, and most are warmed by stone fireplaces curved to conduct heat.
Most of the masonry was handled by Steiner's sons, John and Fred, the stones pulled from nearby creeks and rivers. During lunch breaks, Steiner would wander off into the woods for his most whimsical flourishes: curiously shaped limb stumps, which he mounted as doorknobs. Even with Steiner trademarks, each cabin is utterly unique, built on spec and shaped by the curvature of timber found nearby.
In April 1953, at age 71, Steiner left his home in Brightwood and took one last walk into the forest. A day later, in search of his father, Fred Steiner drowned in the Salmon River after being thrown from his raft. Henry's body was found more than a week later, seated by a stump, a little ways off from the paths he'd walked most of his life. After stints in the Marines and logging, John Steiner continued his father's legacy by repairing many of the cabins his family built until he died in 2012.
But many of the cabins remain. Musser and his fellow Steiner enthusiasts have tracked down 88 of Steiner's 100 structures. A few have burned down, as log cabins tend to do. Most are in excellent shape, though, and Steiner's growing legacy has inspired interest by younger generations.
Each year, Musser and retired Welches schoolteacher Nancy Dougherty host a tour of the Steiner cabins in April. At least two Steiner cabins, Dancing Bear just outside Rhododendron and a 1939 Brightwood dwelling called Zoe's Log Cabin, are available for weekend rentals.
But Dougherty lives in hers—a two-story, three-bedroom Steiner tucked across the highway from the Rhododendron Dairy Queen. Steiner's craftsmanship is evident in every corner. Even the dining-room table is the family's handiwork. The cabin is large, with an airy interior for so organic a structure. The torrent of the Zigzag River is a soft hush when the windows and doors are shut. The cabin faces the creek, a grand porch jutting out toward the water under a Steiner sunburst.