Madison, Ind.,'s Koontz restores
old cabins as a labor of love
He has saved more than 100 cabins
in the past 25-30 years
(April 2021) – Doug Koontz remembers his son, Mark, following him around as soon as he could walk, trying to help build something. Next, Mark tried to build things himself using leftover wood and metal scraps. Growing up, he built a doghouse, a tree house, even a two-level playhouse.
Doug also remembers coming home to see what appeared to be a fire in the playhouse. The playhouse was not actually on fire. Mark was simply trying out the fireplace he had added to the playhouse.
“It got cold,” he said, so he used leftover brick and block to build the fireplace.
Mark, 50, is still building. However, he did not follow in his father’s footsteps to build or remodel houses. Instead, it was log cabins that captured Mark’s interest.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Doug told him. “I remodeled old stuff, but Mark likes to restore and keep old stuff. I gave him a measuring tape when he was a kid. I taught him how to read it. Everything else for Mark is self-taught.”
Photo by Sharyn Whitman
Mark Koontz has a knack for restoring old cabins.
Many Madison, Ind., area residents have seen the log cabins stored on a large lot on Clifty Drive. It is the site of Groundworks Construction, Mark’s business. Not many people know why those cabins are stored there, where they came from or what happens to them when suddenly the lot is almost empty.
“I go around the countryside buying old log cabins and bring them back to Madison to repair and restore them,” Mark said. “I repair the bad logs or replace if necessary.”
He has also learned how to hand-hew logs to fit. “It’s a lot of work. It will wear you out and make you appreciate the work that went into preparing the logs to build these cabins.”
By doing this work by hand, he can make the replacement logs to fit exactly. “The longer I’m in it, the pickier I get,” he said.
After an old cabin is purchased, the logs are tagged, cataloged and dismantled for transport to the new home site, where it is reassembled. The exterior is completed with insulation and chinking. Insulation is sandwiched between two foam panels that have been cut to fit each space between the logs. Finally, a 1/4 to 3/8-inch thick layer of rubber latex chinking is applied to the foam panels. This type of chinking stays pliable and makes it well insulated.
“It’s better than rock and mud,” Mark said. “The original builders used what they had: wood, clay, dirt, charcoal left from their fires, even horsehair to create a form of plaster to fill in the spaces.” Some people buy more than one cabin and piece them together to form a larger home. Other people just buy a small cabin for a weekend get-a-way.
Photoby Sharyn Whitman
Mark Koontz's cabins are stored at his Groundworks Construction site on Clifty Drive in Madison, Ind.
Mark’s first cabin was part of a farm located on the highest ridge in Jefferson County, Ind. He purchased the property by trading his 1985 Camaro IROC Z28 plus some cash for the property. Only two stone walls of the cabin remained because the old logs on the other sides had fallen into the foundation. “I built it back. It was a log-love job,” he said. He has been in love with log cabins ever since. He and his wife, Angela, have lived there for more than 30 years.
Today, his property has become a small compound of log buildings, including the original cold cellar. Each one of those buildings has been carefully restored. As their children were growing up, he turned his focus to construction and heavy equipment rather than the constant travel of cabin renovation and installation.
Over time, he purchased bull dozers, back hoes and other equipment to clear land. He also can dig trenches to install sewer and electrical lines. This work takes him in many directions. Some projects have resulted in new cabin purchases or new repair jobs.
A few years ago, as a result of the installation of a log cabin at a distillery in Kentucky, Mark met Ben Hassett, a millwright who was renovating a Danish windmill in Elk Horn, Iowa. The windmill is a museum of Danish customs, Scandinavian traditions and windmills. Hassett recruited Mark and his team to help with the project, which required the removal of the cap of the 85-foot-tall windmill. There are no plans for a unique project as complex as this one. Together, they mapped out a work plan, day by day. A crane was used to pick up the cap and set it onto a semi-trailer.
“Mark is an interesting and very talented guy,” Hassett said. “We worked from dawn to dark every day. It was a good project to work on together. He is really a very hard worker.”
Mark is currently helping build a house for his daughter, Kara, and her husband, Wes, and their twins. Her new home is located not far from her family home on the ridge. The house is an old-farmhouse style, but it is completely new construction. On the other hand, his son, Jaydon, has already selected one of the cabins in the current inventory on Clifty Drive to be his new home. That log cabin will be relocated and rebuilt on a lot across the road from his parents. Jaydon said he enjoys working with his dad. Like his dad, he appreciates the unique antique log home features.
“I love the wood. It has150 to 200 years of old age on it,” Mark said. “It is all handmade. It’s got to be saved, but not too many people want to do the work.”
He salvages as many old items as possible that are in or near a cabin. He also saves old barns. Some people just see the old barns as firewood. He salvages every piece of wood. Those aged pieces of lumber can also be used to repair the log cabins.
“I just want to save them. I’ve saved over 100 cabins in the last 25-30 years,” he said.
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