A case of cabin fever helps bolster 19th century village

CorrespondentSeptember 29, 2012 

  • Details What: Hart Square Festival Where: Hart Square, Hope Road, Vale, N.C. When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 27. Tickets: $25. On sale at 9 a.m. Oct. 1 at the Catawba County Museum of History, 30 N. College Ave., Newton, or by calling 828-465-0383. Call early. Tickets sell out quickly. Info: http://nando.com/48.

It’s 5 a.m. on the fourth Saturday in October. Donning a white linen shirt and red suspenders, Dr. Robert Hart stacks wood in the fireplace of his log cabin in preparation for his visitors – 3,000 visitors, to be exact.

It is festival day; the only day each year that his re-created 19th century village – believed to be the largest collection of log cabins in the U.S. – comes to life and is open to the public. Docents and artisans fill the village performing their pioneer trades for visitors.

“It’s what I like to call a labor of love,” he said.

Hart, 76, a semi-retired physician from Hickory, has re-created a slice of the state’s history through his personal reconstruction and preservation of these historic cabins – 75 to date – on his 200-acre plot of land in Vale.

“He lives and breathes it,” said Nathan Moehlmann, family friend and owner of Goosepen Publishing & Press, which published an award-winning 400-page coffee table book “Hart Square: One Man’s Passionate Preservation of North Carolina’s Pioneer Heritage” last year.

Hart caught the cabin fever nearly 40 years ago. A South Carolina native, he and his wife, Becky, purchased a 40-acre plot of land in the 1960s to establish a wildlife refuge.

One of his patients knew of a worn-down log cabin near Conover, and suggested it would look good alongside the lake on Hart’s property. With no experience in preservation, Hart disassembled, moved and reconstructed the 1840 log structure using his bare hands and traditional tools.

He soon came to realize he couldn’t stop at one.

“Once I found a cabin, I had to put something in it, and then you can’t have a log cabin without a barn,” he said.

And so it began.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said of the village’s beginnings.

But Hart learned from his mistakes and the guidance of various friends and experts. The village now spans 200 acres, and Hart can dismantle a cabin in two to seven days, depending on its size.

As he meanders through his masterpiece, his obsession is as infectious as his smile. His blue eyes gleam with appreciation for even the most humble structure. On any given day he can be found atop a cabin, nailing tin to the roof, dirt covering his blue jeans and scuffed up work boots.

The property features a landing strip that spans the length of one side. Hart, who completed naval aviation training before enrolling at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, has owned several single-engine airplanes.

“I’ve found a number of my cabins by flying along the treetops,” he said.

Upon spotting a cabin, he would land and go door to door in search of the cabin’s owner.

The village now includes cabins that have become replicas of a doctor’s office, school, granary, print shop, country store, jail, tavern and chapel – just to name a few.

Each is teeming with antiques and collectibles that Hart discovered by word of mouth or at flea markets.

He is a magnet for rare antiques.

One of his most impressive pieces is the 1820 Holstein Cotton Gin, which is powered by mules and still functional. Hart sent pictures of it to the Smithsonian to learn more about its history. Their response was astonishing.

“They called and informed me that there were only 11 of these antebellum gins left,” he said. All were in museums, and only one was operational.

But the cost of antiques and furnishings is steep. Hart began promising Becky 15 years ago that he wouldn’t move another log cabin. But that promise wasn’t kept for long.

“When someone offers a 150-year-old building, there is just something inside me that prevents my saying, ‘let it deteriorate,’ ” he said.

Despite his empty promises, Becky has supported her husband’s passion through compromise. Without Becky, he said, there would be no Hart Square.

“I was once told that medicine can be a jealous mistress,” he said in the preface of his book. “But I can assure you that it can’t hold a candle to Hart Square.”

For Christmas 2009, their two sons and seven grandchildren gave Hart a set of Lincoln Logs.

“It meant Becky was going to let me have one more cabin,” Hart said, his face lighting up. “I couldn’t furnish it, but I could have it.”

Hart’s granddaughter, Rebecca Hart, 22, said he has a one-track mind.

“The words ‘last cabin’ must have been repeated at least 50 times that Christmas,” she said. “The only word he heard was ‘cabin.’ ”

To Hart’s grandchildren, Hart Square has been a source of lifelong joy. They were baptized in one of the two chapels, and they take part in the festival each year. This October marks its 27th year.

Docents and artisans dressed in colonial garb will be in the cabins and demonstrate their 19th century trades, from running the cotton gin to weaving corn shuck chairs.

The legacy that Hart has created, Moehlmann said, is one that cannot be rivaled by museums or historic homes.

“Bob has the passion, the private dedication and the energy that a museum couldn’t,” he said.

From doctoring patients to doctoring cabins, Hart has led a life of service and dedication.

“By reconstructing cabins, I am able to preserve a way of life, saving a slice of history for future generations,” he said.

True to his word, Hart’s truck appears around the corner, rumbling down the dirt road loaded down with wood and additions for his latest project.

“Let’s call it upgrading,” he said with a grin.

Betsy Church, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, was a summer intern in The N&O Features Department.

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