House in Markle could help unlock mysteries of long-ago forests in this area, says botanist

Markle resident Jeff Stockman (left) watches on Saturday, Jan. 21, as Darrin Rubino, a professor at Hanover College, extracts a sample of wood from a beam in a log home believed to be one of the earliest homes to be built in Markle.
Markle resident Jeff Stockman (left) watches on Saturday, Jan. 21, as Darrin Rubino, a professor at Hanover College, extracts a sample of wood from a beam in a log home believed to be one of the earliest homes to be built in Markle. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Originally published Jan. 26, 2017.

A house sitting on a corner in Markle could help unlock the mysteries of long-ago forests in this part of the state.

“You all are making a big contribution to the tree ring desert in northern Indiana,” says Darrin Rubino.

Rubino is a botany professor from Hanover College, but it was his research side that brought him to the house in Markle on Saturday, Jan. 21.

He and his colleague in research, Ball State University landscape architecture professor Christopher Baas, have been collecting information from log homes and barns in the southern part of the state, but the trip to Markle was one of their early forays into the north.

“We’re trying to build the history for up here, see how the trees grew up here,” he explained.

Rubino spent the day carefully pulling plugs of wood — about the size of an almost-used-up pencil — from the logs used to build the Markle home. He’ll take those samples back to his lab to determine the species of trees used in the construction, and the date those trees were felled.

The date is what interests Lisa Street, a member of the Markle Historical Society.

“It’s a huge piece of the puzzle for us as to when this was constructed, exactly,” Street says.

Here’s what Street and her fellow historical society members believe: The story-and-a-half log home was built in the 1830s or 1840s by Albert Draper, who came to what is now Markle from Fort Wayne when he was hired to run a grist mill for the Miamis. Draper may have been the first white settler in Rock Creek Township along the Wabash River.

The history of the house at 190 Draper St. prompted the Markle Historical Society to purchase salvage rights to the structure and begin raising funds to move it a block down the street to Mill Park, where it can be preserved.

But first, the society wants to pin down a date, and made connections with Rubino and Baas through the Indiana Landmarks preservation group.

Rubino lost no time in placing the date of the home’s construction to at least the 1860s.

“There’s several (logs) in there I’m not afraid to call 150 years old, right off the top,” Rubino said over lunch inside the Markle Town Hall on Saturday.

Construction would have taken place soon after the trees were harvested.

Some of the beams holding up the home’s second story are beech, he said, and could have been added in the 20th Century. The logs making up the walls — long concealed by siding and drywall — are white elm, Rubino said. There may also be some ash and maple, he says.

“Tulip and oak were the first choice here,” Baas says, but neither of those types of wood is in the Markle home.

Street says several saw mills were located in the area of the log home, which is believed to be in the first section of Markle to be settled. Rubino says that may be why elm was used to build the bulk of the cabin.

“You ran out of the wood you liked, you picked a new one,” he says. When the oak, poplar and ash trees had all been harvested, builders may have turned to elm. “That’s our working guess.”

Location may have played a role, too.

“That would have been prime maple, elm forest there,” Rubino says. “It was very soggy.”

Baas and Rubino have been working together for seven years, and each has his own part in unlocking the mysteries of log structures.

“This is sort of crime scene stuff,” Rubino said of his work on Saturday, noting that getting the samples represents only 15 to 20 percent of the research. “You grab your evidence and take it back to the lab.”

Dating the wood, he says, will take a minimum of a month.

Baas will carefully measure the structure and look for census data, deeds and other documents that will either confirm what is believed to be the structure’s history, or raise questions about the long-believed story.

The investigators have their own questions: Why, for instance, is the front door of the Draper Street log home off center, when the norm among southern Indiana log homes is to have the door square in the middle?

Despite the mystery of the door, they note some commonalities to other log homes: The V notches on the corners are very common to Indiana.

They’re hoping to document how and when the home was built, while also determining what trees grew in this area.

“We don’t know how the forests grew, what they were composed of,” Rubino says. “This is the only way we can recreate the past.”