PORCH VIEW – From their front porch, the Johnsons have a view of an island where many families spend the summer. Also in the photo above is an antique runner sled. And note the wheat sheaf that Greg and Joy – following Swedish custom – put outside in the winter for birds to feed on.
Driving along the narrow, sparsely wooded roads that lead to Maine’s coast, roadside interests include makeshift berry stands, the odd sailboat for sale, even lichen-encrusted boulders from far-off lands dropped in by glaciers. But at the end of one finger of land stands something truly unexpected: a 19th-century, handhewn-log Swedish cabin (with beginnings nowhere near its current site on the Gulf of Maine). The short answer of how it came to be there has something to do with the Homestead Act of 1862 and Maine’s early self-promotion, but the longer answer is all about family.
In the 1860s, newspapers buzzed with news of free land available to those willing to farm it. “Go West, young man” was the refrain, and people were doing just that, to the vexation of the already under-populated state of Maine.
Soon after, then-Maine-Governor Joshua Chamberlain proclaimed, “If we cannot keep our sons at home, let us bring in our cousins,” and dispatched a delegation to Sweden in search of industrious folks to farm the upper wilds of the state. Twenty-two men, 11 women and 18 children answered the call and formed “New Sweden,” a colony in Maine’s far northeast corner.
It was there in 1888 that Carl Johnson arrived from ‘the old country’ and is presumed to have built the cabin with the traditional steep roof and neatly dovetailed corners, which now overlooks Cundy’s Harbor and Dingley Island.
“Carl Johnson was my great-grandfather,” explains Greg Johnson, a trim, spectacled man in his 60s, looking relaxed in a pin-striped shirt and boat shoes on the cabin’s screened-in porch. “And my grandfather and father were born here, too. Right over there,” he says gesturing toward a log wall of what is now the living area. “That was the birthing room.”
Nearly 100 years after the cabin’s construction, it fell into disrepair from sitting vacant for decades. So it was disassembled, the logs were carefully marked and their wooden peg fasteners put in potato barrels. Then the whole thing was stored in a barn. And there it sat.
Then in 1992, Greg and his wife, Joy, returned to their home state after years of living around the world due to Greg’s service as an officer in the Navy. “By this time, my mother had moved to [nearby] Brunswick and we started visiting her. Then this saltwater farm came up on the market …”
Now, at their seaside farm, Greg and Joy keep 40 chickens. He laughingly observes that the hobby “has not been a very good business model, but it is great fun and rewarding.”
Rebuilding a Family Legacy
Ten years later, the Johnsons graded a field by the farm’s inlet near the harbor for a plot on which to reconstruct the ancestral home.
The cabin was reconstructed in two phases. First, craftsman Larry Totten tackled the initial design work, which included reconfiguring and expanding the original cabin to include a full basement, two additional bedrooms and a gourmet kitchen. And then he carefully and passionately reassembled the logs. “Without his craftsmanship and passion, we couldn’t have gotten this project going,” says Greg.
AN ADVENTURE IN SALVAGING LOGS
Totten, a Maine Guide and former engineer at the famed Bath Iron Works, took on the task of salvaging as many of the 100-year-old logs as possible from the original cabin for the Johnsons’ reconstruction project. “I only took the job because Greg said he didn’t have a timeline,” says Totten. “That, and I like a challenge.”
When guide work slowed down in January 2002, Larry loaded the 26-foot-long timbers onto a 16-foot trailer for the 300-mile trip down Interstate 95 and beyond. The winter trip proved treacherous. “I hit black ice and jack-knifed three or four times until I was off the road,” recalls Larry. Somehow, there were no flat tires and he managed to get back on the road. “With some difficulty,” he adds. The large load eventually made it down the slender roads that lead to the Atlantic.
When the cabin parts were safe in the Johnsons’ barn, Larry went about surveying the logs. The sills and other bottom logs were rotted. He hunted for the straightest trees he could find. Then, using his boatbuilding skills and antique tools, Larry hewed the felled timbers into replicas which he had to let age for three years. “You got to do that to get the right patina,” he says.
While the bottom logs aged, Larry assembled the rest of the cabin upside down. Lastly, he moved everything less than a quarter mile down the hill to the waterfront, one log at a time.
Greg adds, “The only things that went missing during that whole time were the potato barrels with the wooden pegs. We had to use 18-inch lag bolts instead.”
Once stacked back together, the old handhewn logs were made weathertight from hours of caulking. “Here we get driving northeast horizontal rains off the ocean,” explains Greg. “Being watertight is important.”
THE FINISHING WORK
Once the cabin was framed up and assembled, it was time for the second phase of construction. In came builder Robert Moulton, of Bath, Maine, and his crew to do the finishing work.
“Both builders [Moulton and Totten] were creative and a pleasure to work with,” recalls Greg. “It was really an awful lot of ad-hoc design as we moved along. Joy was the creative spirit who made the construction project into a wonderfully warm home.”
The reassembled and updated cabin included the modern luxury of indoor plumbing and new flooring. “We wanted the floors to be pine, like the original, but Maine white pine is a soft wood,” explains Greg. “When I was an aviator in Jacksonville, Fla., we had heart-of-pine flooring. We decided that was more practical.” This hard, durable and all-reclaimed flooring has become a lasting contribution from the fourth generation of Johnsons to be in this cabin.
Life in Style
The treasured cabin, now named “Farfar Stuga,” which translates from Swedish as Grandfather’s Cottage (or literally, Father’s-Father’s Cottage), is by no means a museum. Greg and Joy lived in the cabin for an entire year while their farmhouse was remodeled. “We were quite comfortable,” he says. Unlike their ancestors, the couple enjoyed modern conveniences like in-floor radiant heat and a wood-burning Scan stove from Denmark.
The cottage’s primary function, however, is to house overnight visitors. “It’s a guesthouse and also a place to entertain,” says Greg. Part of the experience is the cabin’s history. “Over the past six years, it seems that all of the guests we have entertained always want a ‘tour’ of the cabin and a summary of its history.”
And the extended family also recently held Greg’s mother’s birthday at the cabin, a celebration that gathered many around favorite foods, including traditional rye bread made from his mother’s recipe. “It makes great toast,” confesses Greg.
But the prime use of Farfar Stuga seems to be the couple’s enjoyment of their adult children and grandchildren, whose names are stenciled high along the living room’s walls between ceiling beams.
The young, blond boys enjoy gathering eggs from the farm chickens and, in the summer, pulling in the family’s lobster traps from the bay with their grandfather. The Johnsons have a recreational license for lobstering. And how about the end result, come dinner time? Greg, true to his Maine roots, proudly reports: “We have preparing them for the table down to a science.”
Swedish Décor & Style
Although the cabin has grown, one original aspect that remains honored is the detailed Swedish styling. “Much of it is based on the style of Swedish artist Carl Larsson,” says Greg, who credits Joy for the cabin’s authentic décor.
This includes the interior’s simple whitewash over the ceilings and exposed beams that brings lightness to the space. Another nod to old-time Swedish architecture was building charming bed cubbies into walls and even adding traditional secret compartment built-ins to the cabin. “These details aren’t just authentic, they’re fun, too,” smiles Greg as he pulls a perfectly obscured pine box from within the stairwell.
Also adding to the cabin’s genuine feel are the Scandinavian antiques and reproductions that make up the décor. As an example, Greg indicates the old light fixture featuring four folk dancers each holding a candle. “We found that on a trip to Sweden. It’s an antique made for holding candles, but we had it electrified so the dancers now each hold a light.” And the family’s TV is concealed in a 19th-century-vintage hand-painted Swedish cupboard.
The simplicity of traditional Nordic décor, with its clean lines, also gives the cabin a modern flair. Joy has cleverly married seemingly opposing details of plain sticks inserted into slots on the heavy beams as holders for sleek, metal lights above the living room. This marrying of old with new relaxes the space, making it easy to enjoy – which the Johnsons clearly do.
• Farfar Stuga is approximately 19x26 feet.
• Of the cabin's 1,800 square feet, 750 is the original homestead cabin and 1,050 encompass the additional bed and bathrooms.
• New screened-in front porch is 8x26 feet.