This sixty-five-year-old self-described “hillbilly” is many things: he’s a husband, a father, the recipient of two PhDs and a medical degree, an opera singer, and an author of The New Ancestral Diet. He’s also, a pretty great contractor and builder. He’s Richard Aiken.
Aiken, who says he had wanted to live in the woods for a long time, always thought it would be a bit expensive because wooded land takes a lot of time and money to work on. But when he got his opportunity to wander into the woods and make a new home for himself out there, he couldn’t pass up this labor of love.
How It All Started
Richard discovered that a man in Missouri owned an old cabin that had fallen into disrepair. Richard immediately saw an opportunity to bring this broken down cabin back to life. All it would take is some hard work and determination and then he would have the getaway location he had always dreamed of.
The man from Missouri showed Richard Aiken his abandoned cabin and he knew he had to have it. Most people who saw this place in shambles would turn around and run for the hills just thinking about all of the work that would be required—most of the wood from the cabin was rotten. At the point it was in when Richard saw it, there was no way it was a sound enough structure to live in or even to just stand in.
But all of that didn’t matter. Richard Aiken is a man of many accomplishments and he could see the potential in this cabin. Richard Aiken is a husband and father of two sons and a daughter, but he has also obtained two PhDs (chemical engineering and mathematics), has earned a medical degree, sings opera, and authored a book on nutrition.
He also has a personal interest in competitive sports and at the age of 65 years old, has shown interest in multi-sport including triathlons. What a busy guy! But this busy guy knows a good thing when he sees it and he couldn’t let go of this cabin.
Aiken is a true Renaissance man, who is also a self-proclaimed “hillbilly.” He always had a modest dream, which was to own a quiet cabin in the woods. Through his search and research, he sought out various log cabins for sale, but found that most of them that he came across were being offered at exorbitant prices.
Then, he was contacted in response to an ad he posted—and the man offered him an old log cabin for free. Yep, this is the Missouri man. His name is Billy Howell and he and his wife had lived in it during the 1950s and into the ’90s.
What You See Is What You Get
But unfortunately, the cabin had fallen into disrepair since they moved out and there was no way this elderly couple was in any condition to renovate; so there it sat. Aiken took it upon himself to do some digging into its history and found the following: “Research in the Hartville County courthouse (Wright county) revealed the land was originally given to a Mr. Hudson in 1833 as a land grant. We speculate that the cabin was built soon thereafter, although there is no written record.”
This is the cabin as Aiken found it— it was hard to see what was salvageable under the rubble of the collapsed roof and most of the visible wood was rotting. But Aiken would see its potential.
The Cabin Was Originally Free
Howell offered the cabin for free, but Aiken paid him $100. Underneath the siding was indeed an antique log cabin and he got to work sorting the trash from the treasure. Aiken said, “This cabin was a real find. It was two stories, with a very large ‘pen’ of about 21-22 feet square. The material was massive white oak beams, hand hewn and squared with half dovetail notches. Most logs were in excellent condition.”
With the debris removed, the wood was carefully cataloged and labeled for transport to the cabin’s new home. This is a man who sees possibilities where others see obstacles.
Condition of the Site
The site contained, “rolling green hills and ‘hollers’ in the Ozarks.” It was its own found treasure. Aiken described how he and his wife explored the property and how it brought up personal experiences and feelings, making it even more of a personal treasure.
“My wife Mary and I had been exploring the land with a real estate agent when she began to cry out of joy for the beauty of the location (reminded her of her farm growing up in North Dakota). That spot was very close to the eventual cabin location; we later dug a lake there and named it Lake of Joyful Tears.”
The site they relocated to held so much natural beauty that when Aiken discovered a natural spring, all the pieces seem to fall together. The spring was dug up by hand to the bedrock, and bulldozers were brought in to dig out the lake itself.
A dock was built soon after and the couple had their very own lake on their land. Aiken explained that they are still in the process of lining the spring edges with stone — as well as constructing stone steps around the property but it is all coming together to create their oasis in the woods.
Process of Rebuilding
After the site was selected, the long process of rebuilding began. The couple wanted a basement for food and wine storage so digging was necessary. About six feet down, they hit bedrock. The cabin, therefore, needed to be built a few feet above the ground. Though Aiken’s goal was to build his log cabin “true to the spirit of the original construction,” the basement floor was poured with concrete.
All other material is “hand-hewn and natural materials” and all of the new wood used for the log home restoration was taken from the property. Even as Aiken mourned the thought of cutting down living trees for the log cabin materials, he knew it would be worthwhile in the end. The cabin is nestled within 100 acres of forest so there was material to spare.
The new floor joists were made of white oak, while the roof and porch purlins were made from hickory and ash found on the property. These were considered to be more unfortunate (but necessary) sacrifices. The ridgepole is white oak — a critical and challenging installation, while the shingles are split cedar shakes.
The front porch was designed and built for the log cabin and they intended to use the front porch as a stage for musical performances. Aiken said, “Maybe next Spring the steps will be complete and the party begin!” In the meantime, he notes, “There are large bullfrogs, crickets, and songbirds to listen to and watch from the front porch.”
The New Log Cabin
Of course, no log cabin is complete without a hearth. But not just any hearth would do. They were deliberate in selecting a Rumford fireplace. The one they chose is a brilliant design widely adopted to optimize heat transfer within a room.
The design is tall and shallow with angled sides to radiate better into the room. Aiken explained, “Also the throat is narrow and streamlined so as to quickly remove smoke but not hot air. The hearth is even with the flooring so that moving a chair or stool close to the fire is facilitated. The hearth is wide and deep for cooking.”
Like everything else in the cabin, Aiken wanted to restore a traditional fireplace at the heart of his new home. According to the Buckley Rumford Co., Rumford fireplaces were common from 1796 to 1850 and there has been a resurgence in the popularity of restorations. You may recognize the look here as something you may see on your favorite HGTV show.
Early American architecture combined with the efficiency of the design has resulted in a “comeback” for the historic fireplace. Most people really enjoy the new look of rustic, traditional and yet functional appliances in the home, so the Rumford Fireplace was a no-brainer for Aiken in his restored cabin.
A Fallen Oak Tree = Stairs
Many people wouldn’t think to use a fallen oak tree as material but Aiken decided it found new life as part of the stairs to the loft space. Aiken said, “The doors and windows were made by a carpenter some distance away; we brought the materials and design. Hardware is all hand-wrought iron.”
Chicken wire was used to fill in breaches in the log cabin. Aiken remarks on his decision and cunning contractor techniques by saying, “This was particularly nice because it could conform to the space and left an air gap for insulation. Daubing was performed with an old recipe: one quarter cement, one part lime, and four parts sand (the original calls for hog bristles as a binder).”
Completed in 2013, Ten Years Later
So if you were to take on a project like Richard Aiken did, how long would you think it would take to complete? It took a decade after the restoration began for Aiken’s new log cabin retreat was completed. In 2013, they were finally finished (for the most part) and the project really was a family affair.
It involved the entire family, some professional help, and some assistance from a neighboring Amish family. But the secluded log home was well worth the time, effort and TLC it received. We aren’t sure if you would say it took “blood, sweat, and tears” but that is something Aiken has yet to share.
This panoramic view shows off the cabin’s interior but we are pretty sure this shot doesn’t do it justice—it is most definitely something worth seeing in person. The cabin appears spacious but cozy and is a perfect spot for family gatherings. Howell, the original owner, is happy to see it restored even better from its former glory and that it has a new, loving family to create their own memories with it.
The Amish family offered a very unique touch to the property by offering a constructed harvest table that was from native white oak and a fallen walnut tree. The narrow design allows the table to be brought close to the fire for warmth, while the family sits opposite.
Peace and Tranquility
This cabin is so beautiful and has a ton of natural light—the windows under the peaked roof allow natural light to enter, and a candle chandelier offers an alternative to electricity when more illumination is needed. A candle chandelier is definitely reminiscent of the times this cabin has seen and what it represents.
While the log home isn’t some giant mansion, it has some comfortable and cozy spaces that everyone can appreciate and enjoy. Who wouldn’t want to sit at the fireplace, or hang out on that gorgeous porch, or sleep in the lovely loft with a large comfortable bed? Seriously, we would love to go stay there!
Stew and Cocoa
The finished hearth can be used to make to make a variety of treats, but Aiken shares that it usually makes their favorite stew, or it can help to keep your cup of cocoa warm. This is the new benchmark for the term “rustic charm.”
In a time when everything is about “bigger being better” or the more you have means you are worth more, it is nice to see this family take a step back and appreciate the little things (like stew and cocoa). The fire gets so warm, vegetables can be roasted by simply placing them along the hearth, Aiken said.
Exterior Is Still a Work in Progress
Though this cabin is considered finished because it is habitable, has the essentials they need, and has received some interior finishing touches, Aiken is still working on some exterior finishings. But since completion, the small log cabin home has gotten a lot of use.
Whether they are cozying up by the fire or sitting on the front porch listening to the bullfrogs and watching deer drink from the lake, Aiken’s log cabin retreat is proving to be a rustic dream come true for him and his entire family. No buyer’s remorse here! It is the best $100 he has ever spent.
Aiken shared that one favorite use of the cabin was a family Thanksgiving, which included elements of the Sacred Four-Directions Harvest Table of Native American culture. After identifying the four cardinal directions, objects of representational significance are placed at the table to both honor and reflect the importance of the sun, nature, the moon, and the sky— Aiken and his family gathered to celebrate and give thanks.
Aiken noted that, “Most importantly, these objects, mostly edible and if so consumed during the feast, are basic to the earth and no creature was disturbed because of these Thanksgivings — a whole food plant-based ‘vegan’ Thanksgiving.”
One of Aiken’s sons was so proud of his father’s log cabin restoration, he shared the images on Reddit, which is how this whole venture went viral. We can’t blame him for sharing, though—this is a brag-worthy labor-of-love that needed to be seen and appreciated. Comments were overwhelmingly positive and people have been thoroughly impressed with the outcome.
If you check out the images side by side of the before and after, this whole project is nothing short of amazing. It looks like Aiken can add something else to his list of accomplishments—he is now a viral sensation who has inspired people to look beyond destruction and see potential in everything that can be rebuilt.
Aiken cannot remember exactly when it was that working on the restoration was transformed from “modest misery to mystical.” It was certainly not in the beginning. He shared, “when I was removing trash from the interior of the structure, practically indistinguishable from the trash itself. Nor was this transformation present during its relocation as we dug the basement in the rocky Missouri soil, seemingly either powder dry or muddy at any given time, and then hitting bedrock at six feet deep—But it did happen that the restoration process became a kind of meditation. This cabin of the past would meet a new future through each moment I was fully present with it.”
Aiken realized that simple tasks became noble with rhythm to it. “The wood in the logs came to life with my heartbeat, sweat, speaking truths in the silence. I hope I shall never finish working with this log cabin; never stop the silence.”