In restoring log cabins, stonemason Denny Kellogg merges his talent for construction with his passion for history

STORY & PHOTOS BY KAY BJORK 

When Denny Kellogg discovers a treasure, the hunt is not over – it has only begun.

He collects things not simply to possess the object, but also to unearth a story. Kellogg’s collections include a wide variety of treasures – unusual and beautiful stone because he is a stonemason, utilitarian antiques such as a plow or a saw because he loves the timelessness of something useful, and pieces of art largely because of their historical significance.

There is a sense of urgency in Kellogg’s collecting, a race to discover the story before it disappears.

“I’m not materially possessive,” he said. “I acquire an object and then find out as much as I can about it. It adds meaning to the object. If the story is lost, it can lose its meaning.”

During a visit to Denny and Kitty Kellogg’s home near Swan River, you get a glimpse of local history through the nine historic buildings Kellogg has relocated on the property, including a Swan River muskrat trapper cabin, the downtown realty office of Bigfork businessman Bruce Toole and portions of the original Summer Playhouse.

Years of collecting include a wide variety of unusual objects – from a hand-carved chicken feeder, to an ornate fainting couch from a brothel, to a large ammonite fossil. Despite the volumes of items and buildings, their placements have been carefully planned and orchestrated. Like each note in a symphonic arrangement, they flow and blend to create beautiful displays and landscape on the property, which includes a pond, flower and vegetable gardens, rock seating arrangements, and several stone-themed structures built by Kellogg – his home, a root cellar and his shop.

Lean and limber, Kellogg moves quickly, gesturing with his hands, his green eyes flashing as he rattles off facts and figures regarding some of the items in his collection.

Collecting is only a small part of his pursuit. He also collects information, preserved by a photographic memory that allows him to pull up volumes of facts and figures as if they are files on a computer or books from a catalogued library shelf.

He has shared his collection and knowledge at numerous local shows curated for the Bigfork Museum of Art and History and the Hockaday Museum in Kalispell, including “The American Bison;” “Homesteading and Beyond: A Peek at Rural Montana Life from 1900-1930;” “Hallowed Waters,” images of Montana photographers; and an exhibit featuring the Kelloggs’ extensive collection of early Montana photographer Herman Schnitzmeyer.

muskrat cabin

Denny stands outside of the muskrat cabin that swept down over ten miles down Swan River and Swan Lake to rest near Kellogg’s Swan River wanterfront property where it was retrieved and reconstructed.

Kellogg’s collection continues to evolve. He grew up in Iowa, a precocious kid whose intelligence and energy could be challenging for superiors at a public school where he said he was fortunate to receive a classical education that included two years of Latin. During his first year in college he was nearly shipped out to Vietnam when he came up No. 4 in the draft, but President Nixon ended the draft before his scheduled departure. The near miss inspired an interest in government and he attended Iowa State University where he earned a degree in political science and studied economics. He became immersed in academia with a teaching assistantship at ISU until the cancellation of summer classes spurred a trip to Montana where he backpacked in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The solitary journey became a sort of mission quest and Kellogg emerged from the experience saying, “Screw the academic world.” But Kellogg’s insatiable appetite for learning continued.

A new life in Montana included finding a new profession. His experience working with a stonemason after high school led him to join a friend in a stonemason business. Eventually he started his own business and established himself as a gifted mason with creative projects like a serpentine, arched entry gate at the historic Kootenai Lodge on Swan Lake. In 1991 Kellogg says it was like someone flipped a switch and he has been busy ever since. His wife Kitty worked alongside him for more than 24 years, completing work at Kootenai Lodge, Smoking Rock Ranch, Swan Lake Estates and numerous custom homes in the Flathead.

Despite the long days, he continues to find time to pursue his interest in history and collectibles. Most recently he merged his interests in history and construction through reconstructing two historical log cabins.

Cabins he previously acquired were jacked up, skidded and trailered to their new locations, but the next cabin came to him, carried by waterpower and delivered almost to his doorstep.

In April 2012, during record stream flows, his neighbor Randy Wright summoned him to see the peculiar wood structure that had floated onto the riverbank in front of Wright’s home near the foot of Swan Lake. Kellogg immediately recognized it as the roof and gable of a muskrat trapper cabin that had been perched precariously on the river bank near the head of Swan Lake, over 10 miles away. The cabin was cousin of the Montana Muskrat Co. building Kellogg purchased for $14 from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through a sealed bid in 1978 when the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge was established and all the buildings were sold except for one small log cabin, whose location on the riverbank near wetlands made it difficult to remove. It was offered to neighbors Dick and Bev Sherman, but because of the challenge of relocation, the cabin was never moved. When Kellogg told the Shermans of its departure down the river they offered ownership to the Kelloggs.

Rock Wall

Kellogg chips a rock to make it fit in a rock wall in a historic cabin.

Kellogg’s acquisition of the cabin ignited a treasure hunt. Kellogg and Wright were convinced that they could find additional pieces of the cabin and began to search the river and lake for logs and pieces that had broken away from the roof. Their efforts were rewarded when they discovered most of the cabin logs washed ashore in the Emerald Bay area, more than 2 miles upstream. Denny said the logs were resting at the base of a gigantic ponderosa pine that still bore scars where Native Americans harvested the cambium long ago. “The logs were edged up against another part of history,” Kellogg said.

Next they snorkeled the river bottom in search of the galvanized steel shakes that were missing from the roof. Speculation that they had shaken loose when they bounced around in the rocks before landing at the Wrights proved correct and they were able to retrieve many of the shingles. As fate would have it, Kellogg was able to fill in the gaps with a bundle of shingles that had been included in the other Montana Muskrat Co. building he obtained 34 years before.

The two spent much of their free time that summer reassembling and repairing the cabin on the Kelloggs’ riverfront property. The cabin provided a perfect display area for items in Kellogg’s collection, including muskrat drying boards built by his father for trapping in the 1930s and 40s. Kellogg also did some trapping in his youth, giving him a special connection to the cabin and reviving a high school memory of a speech where he skinned, stretched and fleshed a muskrat in three minutes (causing several female classmates to flee the room screaming).

Kellogg and Wright’s original plan for brats and beer to celebrate the cabin’s completion grew into a fundraiser for the Hockaday Museum where the Wrights and Kelloggs are on the board of directors. The event was slated for October and, although it was inspired by the trapper cabin, ballooned to include tipis, tents, covered wagons, the construction of log tables and seating, dinner and live music.

When it was over, Kellogg and Wright looked at each either and asked, “What now?” Within days they discovered another project that proved that the muskrat cabin was simply a warm-up.

Shortly afterwards, while searching online, Kellogg discovered an historic hand-hewn log cabin for sale in eastern Montana. He called Wright and just two days later they headed over to inspect the building near Raynesford. The Wrights bought the cabin on the spot. The cabin logs were numbered, disassembled and the cabin was delivered to the Wright property in October 2012. The following June they reconstructed the cabin and Kellogg fashioned a device to take out the twists in the logs so that the dovetails would fit precisely once again. The building was taken down while a foundation was laid and then reassembled again. Log craftsman John Pettigrew joined Kellogg and Wright as the cabin took on a new life in its new location.

While cleaning the building they discovered an inscription, “A Chambers” with a Masonic “A” carved into one of the logs, which propelled Kellogg into another search. He pulled out the hefty leather-bound 1906 volume of “Progressive Men of Montana” from his bookshelf and found that Alexander Chambers had built the cabin in 1888 at the age of 56. “Most were usually dead at that age,” Kellogg said. The search didn’t end there – he located a great-grandson in Alaska.

Cabin construction also triggered additional hunts for authentic and unique ways to finish the cabin. Posts from the Milltown Dam were acquired for the porch, with knots rising out of the wood grain after years of being washed over and eroded by the Blackfoot River. Custom cabinets were made from paneling on a wall that was removed to open up the downstairs space. Antique oil lanterns are being retrofitted as electrical fixtures and a beautiful wood and steel staircase was designed to tie into the modern element of a glass garage door.

Stonework still remains the hallmark of Kellogg’s work, but the cabin reconstructions proved to be another way to apply his talent at putting together the pieces in order to preserve a piece of history. Restoration of the buildings gave them new life – and also new stories. The Wright Cabin will be the centerpiece of their daughter Lexi’s wedding celebration in September.

Kellogg has mason projects piled up for the next couple of years that will keep him busy for as long as he wants. He doesn’t like to keep customers waiting nor the pressure of working under deadlines. Most people are willing to wait – because he is one of the best.

He is still working on the cabin and a masonry project at Saddlehorn when he gets a call. The heir of Herman Schnitzmeyer’s cameras, gear and negatives is moving into a smaller home and wants Kellogg to have the Schnitzmeyer collection. He has learned from his own research that Kellogg should be the caretaker – he is the one to put together the pieces, to keep the story whole. Kellogg hops in his truck and drives straight to California to claim this prize. Because some things just can’t wait.