Real People. Stihl People.

Rural Missouri Magazine
Crusin' for Cabins
John Ming searches the countryside
for cabins to save

by Jeff Joiner

There’s nothing delicate about tearing down a building and often the best tool for the job is a sledge hammer. John Ming knocks out stone filling spaces between timbers.

For more than 150 years massive hand-hewed logs, some more than 28 feet long, remained hidden behind plaster and clapboard siding until John Ming came along. Using crowbars and sledge hammers, Ming knocked away the gift wrapping revealing the present beneath — the frontier craftsmanship of a German farmer who built a stately log and timber-frame house on his land in Franklin County perhaps a decade before the Civil War.

“This was a show place,” says Ming, surveying his house. Large for a log home of its time, the house was built to impress, he says. But the man with salt-and-pepper ponytail and beard is not finished.

Just revealing the hand-hewed logs is not enough. Now he’ll disassemble the log structure and haul it away. The log house will be rebuilt on a farm near Steelville by a man who bought it from Ming.

Ming has tapped into a lucrative market for historic log structures. He buys the buildings from landowners who no longer want them and disassembles them, selling the logs, windows, doors and any other desirable wood trim to people wanting a genuine log or timber frame cabin, house or barn.

Ming says he is working to preserve history in Missouri by saving log structures that are doomed to rot or be bulldozed by owners needing the land for something other than a collapsing eyesore. Already, Ming says, time has claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of old log buildings.

“This is a business to me, but the love for the history of the cabins is really important,” says Ming, who lives in Washington. “I don’t do this for the money. I do this for the fun of it and saving the history. This is hard, dirty work, but there isn’t a day that I don’t come out here and enjoy it.”

John Ming (on ladder) of Washington, Mo., prepares to remove the roof of a historic log home he came across on a farm near Stony Hill in Franklin County. The landowner had no plans to save the structure which Ming bought, dismantled and sold to a man to be rebuilt as a weekend home. The structure, and an adjoining smoke house, were in good condition.

Ming, who’s worked for builders and owned a fitness center, learned to appreciate timber-frame structures while rebuilding several historic buildings on the grounds of Shaw Nature Preserve southeast of St. Louis near Gray Summit.

Ming says he’s also motivated by his friend and silent partner, Ted Munneke, a retired school teacher with a passion for Missouri history.

“Ted is on a crusade to save these cabins. There are companies from New England and Texas that are taking these homes and moving them into those areas. This is our history, not theirs,” says Ming. “We have a vested interest in finding homes for as many of these cabins as we can.”

The two friends run ads in Missouri newspapers asking for information about log cabins. Then they visit people who respond and look at their log structures, a process Ming calls “cabin cruising.” Often the two look at a dozen or more buildings in a day’s time and perhaps offer to buy one or two. “Not many are worth saving,” he says. They match up potential buyers with available cabins. Ming says he has a long list of people waiting to buy log structures from him.

Ming and Don Franssen, brother of the cabin’s buyer, remove the tin roof. Ming, who often works alone, says the jobs are sometimes dangerous and always dirty, but he also says he loves working with old log and timber-frame structures. And with a long list of people waiting to buy cabins from him, he has no shortage of work.

While Ming documents, disassembles and moves cabins for customers, he does not rebuild them. He refers customers to a number of Missouri builders experienced at working with log homes. Ming says he has enough work just finding and tearing down cabins. He doesn’t have time to do anything else.

While visiting the Franklin County farm near Stony Hill, Ming found two log structures in good condition and bought both from landowner Steve Strubberg.

“I had never done anything with them myself and I hated to watch them deteriorate when I knew somebody would like to have them,” says Strubberg, who says he knew the cabins were old, but didn’t realize how old they were. “The area around them was pretty junked up and now I’ll get the place cleaned up without having to destroy them.”

Ming sold the large log and timber-frame house to a man and his wife from Columbia who plan to rebuild it on their property near Steelville. He sold an adjacent smaller log cabin, which Ming believes was the farm smokehouse, to a businessman from Union who also plans to use it as a weekend getaway.

“I can look at one of these old log cabins and your imagination runs wild,” Ming says. “You can start painting a picture for people and they start imagining it on their place and start seeing it as theirs.”
The large house was especially popular with potential buyers because of its size and good condition. Ultimately the Columbia couple won out.

Jacob Franssen of Columbia works to remove a window frame from the log home he bought from Ming. Franssen spent a day working with Ming preparing the structure to be dismantled. It will be hauled to Franssen’s farm near Steelville and rebuilt.

“My wife and I really enjoy the cabin look — the hewn logs and the chinking. We wanted something authentic and this is authentic,” says Jacob Franssen, who bought the house and who, along with his brother, Don, spent a day helping Ming remove doors and windows and tear off the roof. “People worked hard to make these logs and build this cabin. You can really sense that when you stand here and look at this house.”

Franssen is now a student of log cabin construction. “It fascinates me what people struggled through 100 or 150 years ago, the effort it took to build this. I like Missouri history. I like where we’re from.”

Ming’s love for the old log structures is obvious as he points out the many interesting details of the timber-frame house.

“Look at this,” he says pointing at the Roman numeral III cut into the end of a squared log and the same number cut into a second log where the two are joined by a notched joint and held together with wood pegs. “That’s how he matched up the logs after felling the trees. They knew where each log was going in the house before they began putting it together.”

Ming believes the house was built between 1840 and 1860. The Fleer family, which built the house, occupied it continuously until the 1960s. The house was never equipped with plumbing and only one room was wired and only for a single light bulb. The last member of the family to live in the house died a bachelor and left it to nieces and nephews who later sold it and the farm.

John Ming painstakingly documents the location of each log in a cabin so it can be rebuilt.

As part of the dismantling process, Ming documents the appearance and layout of the structure with photographs and drawings. Once the building is in pieces on the ground, you’ve got to have an idea how to put it back together, says Ming.

“If you were to tear one of these down and not document it, all you’ve got is a nice pile of well-seasoned firewood,” he says.

Although Ming doesn’t rebuild cabins for his customers, he offers plenty of advice on how and where to site a structure and how to repair and modify a log home for modern amenities, if any are planned. Franssen says he and his wife will have electricity, but plan to heat and cook with a wood stove.

Ming considers himself lucky to stumble onto something that allows him to make a living doing what he loves. And at the same time his love of Missouri history is also his livelihood.

“That’s the foundation of what I do,” he says. “I’m helping save history by helping people realize their dream of owning an actual historic log cabin.”

For information about Ming’s business call (636) 239-9929 or write: Log Cabin Specialist, John Ming, 309 Burnside St., Washington, MO 63090.

Rural Missouri December 2014
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