Making a 'Practice' of Building Beautiful Cabins
Retired Carthage physician Dr. Keith Keeling says he has had a lifelong fascination with wood, carpentry, and “building things.” He adds, “I remember going to the Soape Woodmill and Cabinet Shop from the time I was a very young child, spending most of my spare time watching carpenters and woodworkers. Jody and Grace Soape were like grandparents to me, and I spent a lot of time there learning and practicing how to construct things from wood. It just never got old!” (The Soapes also happen to be the grandparents of Keith's wife, Lynda Soape Keeling.)
He adds, “It was natural, after all those experiences, for me to go into George Smith's wood shop class in high school. He was a wonderful instructor, and I learned a LOT from him.” However, Keith did not go into carpentry or woodworking as a career; he went to medical school and into the practice of family medicine in Carthage for 33 years, retiring in 2014. His passion for woodworking never subsided, though. He built all the cabinets and much of the molding and trim in the historic mid-1920s home he and Lynda purchased in 1980, working on the home for about a year before they moved in. (He claims that he’s been working on it ever since, too!) Then in 1987, he decided he wanted to build a log cabin. His family had owned a beautiful piece of property in the Long Branch area since the 1920s, and as he and Lynda walked the property, they found what they considered the perfect site to build their cabin, on a hill with a good view of the bottom land.
Because he was in full-time medical practice and also doing most of the work by himself, it took him about three years to build the cabin. He says, “My father-in-law and I still had the sawmill at the time, so we were able to saw and mill a lot of the wood. And several of the guys who worked at the mill during the week wanted work on the weekends as well, so I got some help from them.”
The logs for the structure are cypress, the ceilings are aspen, and the floors are white oak. All are exquisitely finished, as are the wooden hinges, door and cabinet latches, and all the other wood in the house. The logs are sealed together by a process called “chinking.” The chinking acts like mortar, but the material used is called Perma-Chink, and it expands and contracts with the wood, as mortar does not. The cabin is built on a pier and beam foundation and has a brick skirt all around it and wooden porches on three sides. It also features a brick fireplace with a very tall chimney in the family room and a stone patio area overlooking the bottomland with a large stone fire pit and outdoor seating and dining furniture. Downstairs is the family room and kitchen, a bedroom, a bunkroom, and a bathroom. Upstairs is a loft-style bedroom/sitting room that has a rustic wooden bed also made by Keith. He also constructed a wooden storage shed near the cabin.
“I absolutely love it out here,” Keith says with a grin. “I could stay all the time. I love to just sit on the porch and drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the peace and quiet.” He adds, “It was also great for our family when the kids were growing up. We would come out all the time. They would bring their friends out and ride on four-wheelers and play in the creek and on the rope swing, and we didn't ever have to worry about them.”
A little decorative sign in the cabin echoes those sentiments: “If you’re lucky enough to be at the cabin, you’re lucky enough.” Lynda adds, “I really don’t believe in luck and wish the sign said ‘blessed’ instead of ‘lucky,’ because all of us believe we are incredibly blessed to have it!”
Keith doesn't have too much time to sit and drink coffee at the cabin these days because he has another big project right there on the property. About a year ago, he and Lynda discovered and purchased a log cabin that had been in her family since pre-Civil War days, and Keith completely dismantled it and moved it to a site right next to the cabin he had built in Long Branch. He took it apart log by log and board by board, numbered each one so that he could reconstruct it exactly, and cleaned, patched, and plugged as necessary. He also made new matching logs for the ones that could not be repaired.
The cabin was on the Ross family property where Elvin and Frances Ross lived. Keith and Lynda believe, after research in county and family historical documents, that it was built by Edward Ross in 1857 when he brought his family from Alabama to settle here. Edward had a son, Edward Frederick (“Ned”), who was Elvin's grandfather, and he also built a cabin on the property later that very likely sat where the Ross home was and may have actually been incorporated into the home. Original cabin builder Edward Ross was Lynda Keeling's great great great grandfather. His son Edward Frederick, her great great grandfather, had a daughter named Mary Elizabeth (Betty), who married Schuyler Soape. They were parents to Lynda's grandfather Jody Soape, and grandparents to her father, Joe Lynn Soape.
The cabin was originally a two-pen “dog trot” home; Keith could tell that one side of the dog trot had been taken down, the breezeway had been enclosed, and a kitchen had been added on one side. Some of the logs from the side that had been removed had been used as floor joists for the added-on kitchen. The cabin had had a fireplace and tall chimney, but there were only a few bricks left from them. Fortunately, he found matching bricks in another cabin that had been constructed in the early 1900s just up the road on the Ross property and was able to use them to build the fireplace. He notes that local brick mason Curt Crawford built the fireplace for him, just as Curt and his father Rafael had done all the brickwork and fireplace in the 1990 cabin.
The structure has an 18 by 18-foot open room that comprised the original cabin and will serve as a bedroom and sitting room. In the area where the kitchen had been added, Keith is adding a bathroom, utility closet, and coffee nook. The main room features a tall vaulted ceiling. The floor is tongue and groove pine. He remilled the wood, planing and putting new tongue and groove, and was pleased that he was able to salvage almost enough to cover the whole main room. He is only having to use reclaimed wood from other sources for the bathroom addition. He was able to salvage one exterior door, which he will use for the bathroom door. The new exterior doors will be similar looking but thicker than the original ones.
Keith is very excited about discovering this incredible family heirloom and eager to finish the reconstruction. Panola Crossroads promises to feature the finished project in the magazine when completed. Keith obviously enjoys the work enormously and is delighted to be able to create another very special cabin to the family property. “I have grown up loving this place,” he says. “I remember how much I enjoyed camping out with friends and family, driving a Jeep through the woods, and just being out in the beauty of nature. I also have a lot of people in my family who love it, too. And I appreciate it more and more the older I get. I want to be a good steward of it. It is all a gift from God, and my desire is to take care of it and pass it on, to enjoy it completely and let other people enjoy it, too.”