Ambassadors of the WoodsSep 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Linda Roller
Sometimes, it’s a small, simple thing that grows into a grand new direction—think little acorns and oak trees. For Joshua Roth, an important new exhibit and addition to the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum started from a phone call. He had just arrived as the new director in the spring of 2015 when Sam Cooke called. Sam was a forester from the Tioga District and on the board of the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, and he had an unusual request. He asked Josh about moving a cabin in the Tiadaghton State Forest from its location at the rim of the Pine Creek gorge to the Lumber Museum to be an exhibit there. He thought it would be the best place for it. Now, this wasn’t a nineteenth century cabin, or one of the first buildings in north central Pennsylvania. In fact, it was just a 14-by-20-foot-long cabin originally built in 1961, with a wing added in the 1980s. But, Sam explained, it wasn’t the cabin itself that was unique. It was the couple that had lived in that cabin for fifty-four years above Slate Run “off the grid.” For this was the home of Bob and Dotty Webber.
Bob had died just a few months before and some of his friends were looking for a way to preserve the cabin. To Josh, this did not immediately seem like a good fit for a museum devoted to the lumber industry and the forests of Pennsylvania. This was a person’s cabin, not unlike many of the seasonal camps that are found throughout and next to state forest land. Bob had been a forester, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to move the structure. The mission statement for the museum did speak of the recreational uses of the forest, but the primary thrust of the museum was the history of the lumbering era and the care of the forest.
“With anything we bring to the museum we have to give it very careful consideration before we accept it,” Josh says. “For we will then have to preserve it. After all, we’re in the forever business.” But the cabin on the rim did not go away. “A week did not go by from the day that Sam called me until the day it was dedicated that I did not get a postcard, a letter, a phone call, or a visit in person from someone asking me about the Webber’s cabin.”
At first, Josh, as museum director, needed to be convinced about the importance of the Webber cabin at the Lumber Museum. He has only been at the museum for a short time and had never met Bob or Dotty. But he was beginning to meet many of the people involved with and interested in the forests of north central Pennsylvania, as he fielded the calls and letters about the cabin. And through people like Jim Hyland, now director of Tioga State Forest District, retired forester John Eastlake, Jeff Prowant, Tiadaghton State Forest District director, and so many others, Josh was beginning to see the impact Bob and Dotty had on Pennsylvania forests. It became clear that they were people who helped connect so many others to the forest that they loved and lived in.
For Dotty, the love affair with the forest was generational. She was a Tome, one of the original families in the Pine Creek valley. She grew up in the Slate Run area. Bob’s love of the area started with his dad, who bought 500 acres—a mountain on the western rim overlooking Pine Creek. Bob was here throughout his childhood, at the cabin his dad built, close to the site he chose for his own home in 1961. It was Bob and Dotty’s brother who built the original cabin, using mostly oak logs that they could move and carry themselves to the cabin site.
By that time, Bob had been hired for maintenance in the Tiadaghton District. And since the focus of the job in the forest had been changing since the 1950s, Bob was one of the best foresters for the job. In the early part of the twentieth century, after the lumber boom and the clear cutting of the Pennsylvania forests, the state bought the land to manage the forest and support the lumber industry. But by the 1950s the forest was far more than a place to cut trees. It was an environment to be cared for, and to be available to everybody. It was becoming a recreational resource, a place for people to hike, to camp, and to enjoy and care for the woods. Bob took that mission to heart and became one of the premier trailblazers. Bob personally cut and maintained a long list of public trails during his tenure with the Bureau of Forestry, including the Golden Eagle, George B. Will, Sentiero DiShay, Francis X. Kennedy Ski, Pitch Pine Loop Ski, and his namesake trail, the Bob Webber Trail. It was Bob Webber and John Eastlake who created the Black Forest Trail, a forty-two mile loop through some of the wildest land in the area. Bob was known for his ability to design and create vista spots in trails, and his signature benches, cut from logs, grace many of those locations today.
But Bob was more than a skilled woodsman, expert trailblazer, and dedicated caretaker of the forest. Most of us think of a hermit-like existence when we think of people who live in a cabin without modern conveniences deep in the forest. Bob and Dotty were the exact opposite of that. They cared for the people they met in the same deep way that they loved and cared for the forest that they lived in, and the people who met them became lifelong friends.
Jack Duerer, one of those lifelong friends, explained how he and Bob met. “My dad was Bob’s dad’s head mechanic at his Buick/Pontiac car dealership for thirty-six years. I probably met Bob for the first time when I was about five years old.” Jack stayed at Bob’s cabin for weeks at a time, enjoying the outdoors, hiking, and hunting. “I used to go to work with him, riding on the grader as he cleared the forest roads—that wouldn’t be allowed now. Bob was a father figure, a best friend, a hunting partner. And Dotty would take care of you like you were her kid.” It was Jack who helped Bob build a wing onto the cabin—a room for Dotty’s piano, and for the couple’s large collection of books. As Jack put it, “I don’t know if I was Bob’s best friend, but he was mine.”
The warmth of Jack’s memories of Bob and Dotty are not unique. Far from it. People visited the cabin from all over, for Bob and Dotty made friends wherever they went and with whomever they met. Bob was a natural storyteller and a warm and understanding listener. Jack reminded me that we had met, through Bob. I knew Bob through the love of books, as a bookseller. He and Dotty would stop in the early evening, after doing errands in town on the way back to the cabin, and a couple of times Bob stopped into my shop with Jack.
As the stories of the work done by the Webbers, their role in bringing people into the forest for recreation, and their simple lifestyle in the woods were told to the new museum director, Josh was convinced of both the importance of the Webbers to the region and to Pennsylvania forests, and the need for the cabin to be at the Lumber Museum. It was right at this time that a lucky thing happened.
“I was working at my office in the museum and took a break,” Josh recalls. “I had stepped out on the balcony and was looking at the weather when Jack (Duerer) drove up the drive. That’s the first time we met, and we had a two-to-three hour conversation.”
Josh knew then that he wanted the cabin for the museum, and once he knew that he realized it was important to move quickly. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would have difficulty securing the cabin in its current location, and the elements would degrade the unoccupied building quickly. Luckily, Jack Duerer, Matt Crosbie, and other friends had already done some early work at the cabin. This was a home, filled with the things of everyday life for the Webbers. After Bob’s family chose some things, Jack bought the rest and cleaned out the cabin. Dotty had many cats at the cabin, and at first, Matt went up every day after Bob’s death to feed them. Eventually, Jim Hyland took the cats home with him.
As Josh began the campaign to convince people at the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission of the importance of supporting this project, a dedicated group of volunteer friends of Bob and Dotty’s from DCNR and the Bureau of Forestry, spearheaded by Jack Duerer, began the process of moving the cabin in July 2016. It had “wintered over,” but nature had begun taking its toll. The porcupines had already eaten the bottom one-third of the cabin’s front door. Jack began the task of coding every log so that the cabin could be reconstructed on the new site.
“I used aluminum tags on every log,” he says. Then, with the help of foresters from the Tioga and Tiadaghton districts, he began disassembling. Both the Webber family and building people from PHMC were there to help and to record the process. As part of that was assimilating the cabin into the Pennsylvania Museum collection, actual drawings were made of the building. Josh knew it was in good hands.
“Jack was the best person for the job because he was so familiar with the cabin,” Josh says. As a Christmas gift, the Webber family presented Jack with a DVD of the take-down.
The cabin logs were transported to a DCNR lean-to in Ansonia to await final approvals, planning, and the funding necessary to create the exhibit up at the Lumber Museum. The reconstruction began in 2018.
The rebuilt cabin is 65 to 75 percent original, according to both Josh and Jack. Some of the logs in the original cabin were simply too rotted to be used in the rebuild. What needed to be replaced was sourced from the area around the original site and was the type of oak that Bob had used. Josh notes that the logs used were not the larger logs that would be used by a builder with heavy equipment, for this cabin was built by axe and machete, with the logs then lifted into place. The logs were small enough for two men to lift over their heads. Some of the more used pieces of the cabin also needed to be reconstructed.
“I took the window casings and door home to be redone,” Jack recalls.
The foundation that Bob used could not be replicated at the new site. That was a concession that had to be made to help preserve the cabin for generations. Bob used stone from the area, without mortar. Now, the cabin would sit on a poured concrete foundation, built to current building codes.
“But, the codes were waived on the building itself,” Jack says. As a professional builder, he knows the codes and knew that this structure would never pass, although “it went together way better than I thought it would.” That was surprising, as Jack notes the cabin was fourteen inches out of square and it had to be built back the same way so the original logs would still fit. Jack says the chinking between the logs that was originally used was filled with small branches, and even leaves to help insulate the cabin.
“There were leaves there that were put in the original chinking fifty years ago,” he says. The chinking of the restored cabin is done much like Bob did originally, but with standardized materials to insure a solid building. Jack says that the reconstruction is far stronger than the work done in 1961 and in the 1980s.
“I’ve built 150 log homes in my career,” he notes. “This one was the most satisfying one for me.”
There are a few other concessions to the cabin at the museum. It now has electric, as the kerosene lamps that Bob and Dotty used would not be safe around visitors. And as part of the museum, it is secured in a way that they could not have imagined. The path up to the cabin, erected on a bit of a rise so that there is a small vista at the front, is graded with a couple of switchbacks, and is Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant. By summer of 2018, the cabin was complete and was dedicated in July at the 44th Bark Peeler’s Festival. Many of the people involved in the project, along with other friends of Bob and Dotty, were on hand to mark the moment and share their stories.
The Lumber Museum does not look at the cabin as a jewel to be admired, though. It’s an interactive exhibit. Jack loaned the museum many of the Webber’s possessions. It can’t be as crowded as the cabin was when the couple lived there, but there is a flavor of life lived for fifty-four years in 500 square feet. Dotty’s cookstove is there, along with a shelf that was on the wall originally, complete with some of the things that would have been on it. Her cooking cabinet is by the stove, and a small table in another corner. The message pad hangs on the front of the cabin. People who stopped by the cabin when the Webbers were not home could leave a message, and the museum now has stenographer pads of messages left by people visiting at the museum. On those pages, the stories about this life and the lives of the people who built this go on.
A documentary on Bob and Dotty’s life, Mountain Souls, was released just this year and is available at the museum. There, we can continue to see the Webbers and hear stories about their lives and the lives that they touched. The cabin now has printed information about them and asks the visitor to compare this life with the life they lead. Future plans include a video loop in the cabin to provide a more complete view of the life above Slate Run.
Jack and I talked about what Bob and Dotty would have thought about all this fuss over the cabin. We agreed that Dotty would have scolded us for all this nonsense, and Bob would have rolled his eyes. But the result, the continuing of their mission to bring people to the woods, to show them another way, a simpler way, would have pleased them. These ambassadors to the woods will touch people for generations. And that is a legacy and a gift beyond compare.