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Why We Should Save City's Oldest Building

Ed Brill abandons his usual cynicism after getting a history lesson about Stupey log cabin at the Historical Society's fundraiser kickoff.

"The last time I set foot in Highland Park's Frances Stupey log cabin was in fifth grade." 

Apparently, I wasn't the only Highland Park native to utter that sentence last Saturday, when the door of the 1847 log cabin was open for a The Highland Park Historical Society picked the perfect late-spring day to launch a fundraising effort to restore the oldest standing building in Highland Park. Hundreds of people came by for a picnic, petting zoo, and perspective, raising over $3,000 towards preservation efforts.

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The Stupey log cabin was originally located on the grounds of In 1969, it was moved next to , and for the next couple of decades, became a core part of local education. My fifth grade class participated in a pioneer reenactment there, and I can still remember baking corn bread in a cast iron skillet over an open wood fire. Unfortunately, since that time, the log cabin has simply been a visual footprint on daily life, and I hadn't thought much about it until I noticed a "Save Stupey log cabin" group spring up on Facebook a few months ago.

At last week's event, Historical Society board member Joe Peddle and I discussed the current state of the building. He showed me the significant deterioration of the building, including crumbling and rotted wood, missing timbers, and ultraviolet ray damage. However, physical damage isn't the only issue with the Stupey log cabin. More broadly, Peddle described, the log cabin has fallen off the radar of most Highland Parkers, including our schools. The restoration project envisions not just physical updates, but creating a learning environment that cements the Stupey cabin's place in Highland Park history.

Historical Society president Rob Rotering showed me other ideas that are part of the restoration group's vision. On the grounds of the log cabin, the Historical Society would also like to construct other historically-relevant components, including a garden, native American dwellings, and interestingly, a trail tree. I hadn't thought about trail trees in a long time, as none survive in Highland Park. That was exactly Rotering's point, they have been erased from memory, and a whole generation of Highland Park has learned little about how the native American population bent live trees to indicate safe passage. As part of the restoration, Rotering envisions creating a new trail tree from a sapling, and/or building a replica of the one that stood next to the Stupey cabin at Exmoor.
Inside the cabin, things are unsurprisingly similar to what I remembered. The Stupey family raised eight children in the 15-by-20 single room cabin, and some of the original vintage tools and furnishings remain on display. It is hard to envision so many people living in a single space the size of the office I sit in right at the moment, but this is precisely why such a key part of Highland Park history needs the community's commitment.

Joe Peddle and Rob Rotering threw big numbers at me, anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 to fully realize the vision the Historical Society has laid out for Stupey Log Cabin. Of course, this isn't the only part of local history that needs help. Right next door, "Miss Nitro" - that steel sculpture at the that you always notice but never think about - needs restoration, too. Apparently the original color was bronze, not black, and it's been heavily damaged over four decades. The bandstand at Laurel Park is another project on Joe Peddle's list. Highland Park will soon be 150 years old as a city, and the Historical Society recognizes how important it is to carry forward elements from that entire century and a half.

I was genuinely surprised by the turnout at the Saturday event. Elected officials, committee members, and neighbors joined together to recognize the opportunity ahead for Highland Park. I found it hard to muster any of my usual cynicism, and in turn even those that I have often challenged in this column were genuine friends for the day.

We all share a common vision for the future of Highland Park, a future that has to recognize the importance of our past. Saving Stupey Log Cabin from disintegration is the least we can do for that future.

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forest barbieri June 06, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Ed: Great that you were out to support this piece of HP history and nice to see that we can start the summer in agreement:) It was indeed a wonderful event and the broad base of support including many of our elected officials was quite apparent. My four year old loved the petting zoo and lunch in this well organized event. The Barbieri's were in for a centennial plate although we donated the plate back to the cause. We look forward to supporting the cause going forward and I think a Brill & Barbieri commemorative brick would look good next to each other:) Have a great Summer!
David Greenberg June 06, 2012 at 11:28 PM
Everything eventually needs restoration or maintenance. When it's put in, it behooves us to understand the total cost of ownership. If someone donates a statute like Nitro, that's certainly wonderful. But how much is it going to cost to maintain it, or restore it? What's it's life expectancy? Where's that money going to come from? Those are all questions that need to be asked before we say "Yep, sure, we'll accept your donation". As for the cabin - It's certainly an interesting historical item that I've looked at over the decades. If the Historical Society wants to have some private fundraising to restore it - I'm all for that. But for $30,000-$100,000 I have to wonder how much time that buys the structure, and whether it wouldn't be better off enclosing it in a structure that could better withstand the elements, AND still allow it to be utilized as a historical learning center. Again, private funding for such a structure, and perhaps charging an entrance fee for groups and individuals to visit/utilize the structure - all of which would cover the costs for maintenance/upkeep of the internal and external structure.
Rex Herrod June 07, 2012 at 04:16 AM
Great cause....Our church used a program through Big Fundraising Ideas.... I think its bigfundraisingideas.com I recommend checking it out because they have an innovative concept and it earned us much more than any fundraiser we have ever done.

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