Ozark craftsman Robert Runyan, 65, who builds log cabins with antique hand tools and the help of three mules to do the hauling, has been named the 2014 Arkansas Living Treasure by the Arkansas Arts Council. He’ll be honored at a reception from 6-8 p.m. May 15 at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale.
The Arts Council says Runyan got interested in log cabin construction at Boy Scout camp and quotes him as saying, “I can remember, as a kid, building miniature structures from Lincoln Logs and stones just to entertain myself.” Among Runyan’s projects are Bottle Rocket Gallery in Fayetteville; the reconstruction of the Yellow Rock Overlook at Devil’s Den Park in Winslow, where Runyan makes his home; the Underwood-Lindsey Pavilion at Mount Sequoyah Woods in Fayetteville, and the restoration of the log granary at the Rice-Upshaw House in Dalton (Randolph County).
From the Arts Council’s press release:
His passion continued to grow as he received hands-on experience working as a draftsman for his father’s architectural design business. But he almost chose a different path. Runyan was a pre-med student at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. “By the time I got through with school, I was so burned out, I ran off to live in the woods. My goal was to be a doctor, but that’s not where my heart was. My heart was with Mother Nature,” he said.
After college, Runyan moved to Winslow and built his first log structure in 1972. His “off the grid” lifestyle reflects his work philosophy. He lives in a remote corner in Washington County surrounded by woods in a two-story, stone and log cabin he built using materials he gathered from his surroundings.
He has no running water, no publicly-supplied electricity, no computer, no television and no telephone. He heats his house and cooks his food using wood stoves and generates electricity through solar panels. “I chose this lifestyle mostly for environmental reasons. I’m just a nature boy at heart,” he explained. “This lifestyle is demanding, but fulfilling. It’s like a job.”
In his construction, Runyan employs techniques that were used 700-800 years ago. He begins by hand selecting and cutting standing dead oak timbers indigenous to the Ozarks. He doesn’t cut down living trees. He hauls and hoists the logs, as well as native stones, using his team of mules, Jasper, Jenny and Junebug.
He processes the logs and stone with hand tools (axes, draw knives, calipers, chisels, etc.) and uses traditional joinery with notching and wood pegs. Typically, he puts a structure together first off-site and then disassembles it, numbers the parts and reassembles the entire building at its final destination.
“Nothing makes me happier than building something and working with my hands,” he said. “From the selection of timber, loading, hauling, working the stone and logs to the tools and devices I employ, I have attempted in every instance to maintain the traditions of my craft, minimizing the use of heavy equipment and gas or electric powered implements.”
The award, first made in 2002, recognizes an outstanding craftsperson who has been contributed to the preservation of a traditional art form.