Architectural historian Gregg Olson says when he first got a glimpse of this simple wood structure now known as the “Molalla log house” in 2008, he knew it had a significant history. At the time, Clackamas County planner Pam Hayden had asked him to look at the building, since she’d just put it on a county list of 350 historically significant structures.
“I looked at it and thought, this is really unusual craftsmanship, and we ought to save it,” Olson says. “It was in a state of collapse and it was starting to rain. It was the winter, it was clear that it wasn’t going to get through the winter. So, we decided to disassemble it, store it, and then study it.”
One of the unusual features of the building is that the logs touch each other.
“The American examples that I’ve worked on and seen here in Oregon, the logs are gapped,” Olson explains. “They sit on the corners and then people stuff miscellaneous wood in between and do daubing. This building doesn’t have any of that. The logs meet each other.”
In the years since, Hayden retired from the county and she and Olson have been working as a team to restore the building and understand its place in history. So far, they haven’t been able to prove anything definitively, but they have a working theory that Russians who were sent by Catherine the Great commissioned the structure in the late 1790s as part of a greater colonization effort, predating the 1804 Lewis & Clark expedition.
“Catherine the Great, in the late 1790s, had a goal of working with the Russian fur company to colonize down the coast of Alaska and the northwest coast of America,” Hayden says.
“They were very secretive about their desire to colonize and settle, and it was obviously a very far outpost for them. It was, from St. Petersburg, from where she was, it was 7,000 miles across Siberia, and then across the Pacific ocean,” she says.
Hayden says they’re hoping to secure more funding to continue to investigate, restore, and display it. Ultimately, she says the public should be able to access what could prove to be the earliest historical non-native structure in Oregon.