Hand-hewn history: Cabin on Cygnet Lake considered for National Historic Register

Friends gather at the Stark House in 1939. The home has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. (Marie and John Stark/Montana Historical Society).

A log home built on the shores of Cygnet Lake in the Swan Valley in 1939 may make its way onto the National Register of Historic Places, preserving the structure and its family belongings in perpetuity.

The Stark House was constructed by John Stark using locally sourced Western larch, though preservation advocates say the home includes far more than that. Nomination to the historic register received the enthusiastic backing of Missoula County commissioners on Thursday.

“It’s a hand-hewn log house that was built back in the late 1930s by the Stark Family,” said Chet Crowser with the county’s Community and Planning Services. “The building itself was crafted by them as well as the cabinetry, the furniture and some hand carvings. A lot of that is still in place within the house.”

According to the nomination form provided by the Montana Historical Society, Stark built the house using locally sourced logs. An expert craftsman, he fixed the corners using saddle notching and applied concrete daubing over the chinking between the logs.

The family’s original furniture, also crafted by Stark, still fills the interior, including knobby end tables and a grandfather clock. Stark also built the cabinetry and other furnishings, including a rocking chair and reading lamps. The items remain largely unaltered.

John Stark was considered a exceptional craftsman. Using hand tools, he is credited for building the home and most of its contents, which remain intact. (Steve Lamar)

“The Stark House retains all seven aspects of integrity,” the nomination form notes. “Integrity of design, workmanship and materials continue to exemplify John Stark’s fine craftsmanship and woodworking skills. The hours devoted to the project, all completed by hand with axes, hand saws, crosscut saws, chisels, adzes and drawknives, is readily apparent.”

Logging in the Seeley-Swan Valley increased in the 1880s to support mining activity in Butte, though the first permanent Euro-American settlers didn’t arrive until the 1890s in the form of B.B. Holland and his son, Charles. The elder Holland went on to serve as the Forest Reserve Ranger for the Upper Swan District in 1899.

While settlement in the area was slow, the Northern Pacific Railroad Co. began selling off pieces of its 17 million acres – acquired through a generous federal land grant – to settlers. Some bought land to harvest the area’s timber while others saw the valley’s recreational opportunities.

The newcomers included Cap and Julia Laird, who purchased 1,000 acres in 1926 on Lindbergh Lake (named after the aviator). The following year they built a home with the help of their son-in-law, John Stark, and their daughter Marie.

As for the Starks, they selected a parcel just north of the Laird’s place. While log cabins were seen as a temporary solution to housing, the recently wed Starks would make their future cabin their permanent home. Returning the favor, Cap Laird even helped in construction.

“Poured concrete all day and evening,” Marie wrote on July 5, 1939. “Crew – Dad, Emil, John, Jack, Bill, Harold and Nat. Used 39 sacks cement.” The concrete set for three days until July 9 when the forms were removed.

While the concrete cured, John Stark received a timber permit from the U.S. Forest Service to cut larch trees for log construction. The logs were skidded to the house using horses and an old tractor. “Nat, Emil and Fred cut and peeled logs all day,” Marie noted. “Freddy” was present “but didn’t do much.”

At nearly 40 pages, the nomination form is long and detailed, noting a wide range of local history while touching on the evolution of the Forest Service and the formation of the Bob Marshal Wilderness. As to the story of the Starks, the form also includes its share of anecdotes.

As the Starks settled in to their new home on the shores of Cygnet Lake, John Stark became acquainted with a gentleman named Vern Guyer. The two met while Guyer was connecting a landline to the Stark’s new home. It was during those early days that Guyer caught the furniture-making bug from John Stark.

Marie and John Stark on their wedding day in 1925. (Montana Historical Society)

It also established a life-long friendship that would see Vern and Joanne Guyer inherit the house from John Stark in the 1980s. After Marie (Laird) Stark passed away, John decided to give his house and all the contents to the Guyers.

“You are the one person who would appreciate this place,” John Stark wrote to Vern.

In return, according to the nomination letter, the Guyers have preserved most of the contents of the house with the exception of John Stark’s wildlife carvings, which were donated to the Swan Valley Community Library.

The Guyers submitted the Stark House for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

“It does have the support of the Upper Swan Valley Historical Society,” Crowser told county commissioners on Thursday. “This is one particular property that has some significance in the local community.”

In their submission, the Guyers noted their commitment to preserving the house as John and Marie left it, including the old crank phone that Vern Guyer connected to service 70 years ago. Original photos, artwork and other memorabilia still hold their place in the home as well.

“The more I look at this place and its contents, the more impressed I am,” wrote Steve Lamar of the Upper Swan Valley Historical Society in his letter of support. “All done by hand tools.”

Crowser said nomination to the historic register could aid in future preservation.

“It does potentially open some doors for them to look for support to retain the qualities that it possesses currently and what they’re trying to preserve,” Crowser said. “Being on the national register also sets requirements for them in terms of repairs or other improvements on the property. It’s got to fit within certain characteristics as to why it’s registered.”