Log Home Living  – Back to Nature

as seen in The Woman Today Magazine April 2001

Dave and Betty Mell have come home. Several years ago, the Stillwater couple, both native Duluthians, were searching for lake property. They wanted to be no more than two hours from Stillwater and close to Duluth. They wanted a big, wooded lot where they could build the dream log cabin they could use as a retreat and eventual retirement home. The search was long, futile, and disheartening. “We went on many a wild goose chase,” Betty recalls.

Meant to Be

In March 1998, Dave was perusing the newspaper and saw a small, non-descriptive ad for 80 acres of lakeshore property near Duluth. Intrigued, he called the number. As the seller, who had little familiarity with the area, was attempting to describe the location, light bulbs were flashing in Dave’s head. “Eventually, I was telling him exactly how to get to the property. My grandfather’s homestead was four miles away; my grandmother’s was only five! All my life I’ve been hunting and fishing in the area; my grandmother’s old log barn is now our hunting shack, and as a kid I’d even fished on the same lake.”

When exploring the land, they were in awe of the thickly forested, rolling landscape with lake frontage on two sides and a large pond on another. Betty remembers, “We were standing underneath some big white and red pines near the lake when a bald eagle flew over head. We knew then this is where we needed to be.”

Soon the land was theirs and they began a year of weekends full of blood, sweat, and tears preparing the land for building. Betty’s “Christmas present” from Dave that year was a John Deere tractor, which she took such a liking to that he had a hard time wresting it away from her! She has enjoyed becoming fairly proficient at scooping and hauling dirt for landscaping and removing debris with the forklift attachment!

Rooms With Views

In the meantime, they searched for the right log home plans which they eventually found through Greatwood Log Homes of Plymouth, Wisconsin. Dave and Betty, along with their three grown daughters, Amy, Jennifer, and Laura, worked with Jay Enderson of Greatwood and Moosehead Log Furniture to design and build many unique interior features such as the stair rail, mantel, bedroom furniture, tables, and benches. “We wanted the house to be rustic, casual, and full of warmth,” says Betty. “Plus every window had to offer a beautiful view!” Laura’s expertise as a chef influenced the kitchen design, and Jennifer’s horticulture background was valuable in developing the landscape design.

The two-story house features the unique Swedish Cope style of log home construction. The house is framed, insulated, and sheet rocked like any other house. Logs, sawed in half, except for the ends, are then used to side both the outside AND inside, creating not only the effect of a traditional log building but also a very tight, energy- efficient, and quiet structure. A slight, concave bevel is cut into the bottom of each log so the logs nestle on top of the other. Therefore, ice build-up is minimized, and water readily sheds off the logs, helping to extend their life.

In the Mell’s house, red cedar logs were used to cover the outside; logs of red cedar and pine were used on the inside perimeter walls; other interior walls have knotty pine paneling or sheet rock. The entire family did the prep work of sanding each log both inside and out. The inside logs and ceilings were professionally lacquer sprayed, but Dave stained and caulked (using 200 tubes of caulk) every interior and exterior log.

“Finding a contractor was a challenge,” says Dave. “Local contractors did not have experience working with this type of log construction. Our distance from Duluth was problematic, plus we were determined to preserve as many trees as possible. Moving around the building site was not going to be easy.”

They started talking to Robert Wallner, owner of RWC Inc., in the summer of 1998. Dave comments, “My family has known Bob for a long time, and his reputation is terrific. We knew the quality of his workmanship, and we were willing to wait for his availability. He indicated he could begin construction in 1999. When we saw the results of his work, we were totally pleased with the workmanship of his people and also impressed by the caliber of his crew. We became good friends.”

Wallner, a home builder for 32 years, reflects on the challenges. “Getting the logs, 60 tons of fieldstone, and equipment into the site was a difficult chore. The logs were brought in using a pick-up and a fork- lift. We used a small crane to handle the 30-foot log beams installed in the open living area. After a while you couldn’t turn big trucks around, so everyone became skilled at backing into or out of the driveway!”

Fieldstone, Knots, and Gnarls

The end result of the hard work is spectacular, both inside and out. The warmth of wood envelops visitors when they walk through the tumbled marble entryway into an open and inviting living, dining, and kitchen area with an Australian Cypress wood floor and vaulted ceiling with 30-foot log beams stretching from wall to wall. An open stairway with log railings leads upstairs to a loft, master bedroom, and bath.

Throughout the entire house, the logs, paneling, cabinets, and floors are rich with knots and gnarls that add to the rustic character of the house. “The more knots, the better,” Betty laughs. “What may have been ‘junk’ wood to someone else, became our treasure. In fact, Rob’s Cabinets had to order three shipments of hickory before it was knotty enough for our tastes. “A thick log supporting the staircase is particularly unusual— the huge gnarl protruding from it is almost big enough to hang a hat on. Betty jokes, “They couldn’t believe we really wanted to use it!”

The centerpiece of the great room is the spectacular fieldstone chimney with a virgin cedar log mantel, a tumbled marble hearth, and a Rumford fireplace, a fireplace design from the 1800s that radiates plenty of heat. Standing 40 feet tall on the outside of the house, the 4 x 8 foot chimney was painstakingly constructed by AR Masonry four feet at a time over the course of four months. The lower level and its retaining walls are also fieldstone. Dave comments, “It was fun to watch the masons pick and choose the right rocks to go in exactly the right places—like a jigsaw puzzle. The quality of the mason work is incredible.”

Let There be Light

Light streams in the large windows and French doors (leading to the deck) of the great room which are all fitted with snap-in wood frames that create the illusion of window panes— great to look at and easy to clean! With the exception of the bedroom in the walk-out basement, Betty chose not to use window treatments anywhere in the house. “I didn’t want to detract from the logs by installing curtain rods and draperies.”

Because it is conducive to casual entertainment, Betty loves her L-shaped kitchen with its picturesque outside view.  A granite countertop island, with seating for five, creates a compact, functional triangular working area. Betty is most pleased with the commercial gas range which features both convection and conventional ovens, plus a grill and griddle. Rob’s Custom Cabinetry in Superior not only faced the appliances with hickory, but they also built the hickory cabinets in the kitchen and bathrooms, including the ample “pantry” of several closets with pullout shelves lining the hallway leading off the kitchen.


The main floor is finished with a “Grandma’s” guest bedroom, bathroom, and a nice-sized laundry room featuring a window looking into a three-season porch. An unexpected bonus to the location of the porch is summer sunrises and sunsets. “What a fun discovery. We can enjoy breakfast watching the sunrise and watch it set as we eat our dinner,” says Dave.

Up the open staircase is the loft, now used as a sitting room. Eventually it will be Dave’s office, where the former 3M vice president,  who now does management consulting for business start-ups, hopes to someday spend many of his working hours. He could, however, work from any room in the house. D.A.D.S. Electronics of Duluth designed and installed 8000 feet of wire to create a communication system that permits computer, satellite, and phone installation in every room; the entire house, porch, patio, and front yard are wired with a sound system operated through an Onkoyo Control Center.

The loft opens into the spacious, carpeted master bedroom and bathroom suite. It features a log-beamed ceiling, queen-sized log bed, dresser drawers built into the eaves, an Arts and Crafts armoire, and a small balcony accessed through French doors. The master bath has a large shower, a dual-sink vanity, and “warm” tiles which both Dave and Betty are grateful for on cold winter mornings.

The walkout basement has radiant floor heating and includes a full bathroom with an attached cedar sauna, a guest bedroom with two queen log beds, a large work-room (known as “Dave’s room”), and a comfortable game room with patio doors that open up to the outside. In front of the game room’s chimney is a Norwegian “Jotul” wood stove that sits on a raised fieldstone hearth. A fan can be used to circulate the heat from the stove to other rooms in the home.

Tying it Together

Betty used her years of work in art galleries and her eclectic tastes to skillfully (and economically) furnish and decorate the house. Her desire to create a warm, rustic, and casual atmosphere drove every decision as she poured over catalogs and browsed through stores in Duluth, the Twin Cities, and places in between.

A creative mixture of leather and the hand-made log furniture, along with Mission style and Mexican pine (new wood, old look) accent pieces, create a simple, yet comfortable atmosphere. Mission style mica chandeliers and several stained glass accent lamps complement the look. Moose and pine trees provide a theme as Betty brings the Northwoods inside, from the entryway handcrafted steel chandelier with a rust patina, to the wrought iron bathroom towel racks, to cut-outs in the dining table chair backs. Single tiles decorated with Northland animals are whimsically placed in the areas with tiled floors.

What makes this retreat in the woods feel like a home? Moving Dave’s collection of wildlife art prints (which he framed himself with weathered barn wood) from their home in Stillwater to the log walls of the new house has made an impact in both places. “Parts of our home in Stillwater don’t even feel like home anymore,” says Betty. But for both Betty and Dave, the natural setting of this new house nestled into the stately trees surrounding it is the main attraction— living amongst the pine, birch, maple, balsam, and spruce feels like home to them.

And they want to keep it that way. They have chosen to work with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fisheries and forestry divisions to develop stewardship plans for the pond and forest. What yard there is around the house and garage has no grass; it is all planted with perennials, bushes, wildflowers, and other ground cover. The driveway is lined with “luscious” clover, providing food for the deer and grouse. “When we turn down our wooded lane, we enter into another world,” says Dave. “Knowing that these old pine trees can grow even older, that the pond and wetlands will continue to thrive, makes this place a treasure for our entire family to enjoy for many years to come.”