Log Cabins Tell South Dakota’s History

February 2021

The latest issue of South Dakota History, the quarterly journal of the South Dakota State Historical Society, features an article on one type of historic structure that appear throughout the state, log cabins. We asked Chris Nelson, State Historic Preservation Specialist, and the author of this piece, how he became interested in log cabins and what keeps him interested.

I blame Hollywood for my love of log cabins. I grew up watching the television series The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and the Western movie Jeremiah Johnson, wishing I was a frontiersman trapping beaver, shooting deer, and living snuggly in a little cabin along some mountain stream full of rainbow trout. Lincoln logs share some culpability too, as I spent hours in the late 1970s building intricate log cabins in which my Star Wars action figures battled for dominance of the galaxy, or at least my bedroom. So when it came to exploring log cabins and their history as an adult, I didn’t hesitate.

While log cabins are architecturally cool, their stories interest me the most. One that especially caught my attention is the common myth that the plate-sized metal discs found on the roofs of many Black Hills cabins are cyanide canister lids. Miners used cyanide to extract gold and silver from mine tailings, the waste materials from extraction. Charles (“Cyanide Charlie”) Merrill, who innovated the process for the Homestake Mine, brought the chemical to the Hills. It was profitable and poisonous at the same time.

Over the years I looked at a lot of cabins whose roofs were clad with these plate-size cylinders and always assumed the legend was true. Then one day, I shot off an email to David Wolff, a now-retired professor of history at Black Hills State University. I can’t recall exactly what I asked him, but I happened to send a picture of a cabin near Nemo that had its roof clad in “cyanide lids.” Wolff politely busted my bubble, pointing out that the lids were stamped “NACL,” which stands for sodium chloride. Yep, it turns out all those repurposed “cyanide lids” are actually lids to common table salt canisters.

Although disappointed, this new information got me digging. I found out that companies employed salt to chloridize silver ores around Galena in the northern Black Hills. As several cabins in the area used these repurposed lids as shingles, I dug some more and found out that an early transportation route, known as the “Salt Trail,” ran from a salt mine near Newcastle, Wyoming, to the Galena area. This route may help explain the prevalence of canister lid shingles on log cabins.

Repurposing these materials was a vernacular adaptation, meaning individuals adopted such practices to fulfill immediate needs. It demonstrates the economic isolation early Black Hills settlers faced and the necessity to make do with the limited supplies at hand. In other words, it offers a perfect example of how log cabins can tell the South Dakota story.

Chris Nelson


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To learn more about log cabins in South Dakota, as well as other important sites and structures preserved in the state, check out the latest edition of South Dakota History. The journal is a benefit of membership to the South Dakota State Historical Society and individual issues are available for order at sdhspress.com/journal.

In the image above, Bill Pearson of Deadwood and Ken Stewart, formerly of the State Archives, examine a cabin on Pearson’s property that has salt canister lids as shingles.