Dawson W. Durrett Jr. sums up his log cabin upbringing at present-day Fort Campbell in one word: Idyllic.
Durrett remembers the area before it became an Army post, having lived there between 1933 and 1941 in the oldest residence still standing on the installation today – one his father worked on personally. Now 90 years old, Durrett made what he expects to be his final visit home May 20.
“Through the years, people have been very kind to this house,” he said. “They’ve tried their best to keep the history, but of course they couldn’t and that’s the reason I came.”
Durrett has visited five times since his Family moved to help the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) learn more about the property, which has traditionally been used as a home for high-ranking officers.
The cabin also is notable for being built from chestnut logs, giving it a distinctive reddish hue.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Southern Research Station considers the American chestnut “functionally extinct” because of chestnut blight, so the home offers visitors a rare chance to see them disease-free.
Since July 2019, Brig. Gen. Clair Gill, deputy commanding general-support, 101st Abn. Div., and his Family have lived in that historic environment. His wife, Fran, had the idea to invite Durrett over, and George Knight, maintenance field supervisor for Campbell Crossing, connected them.
“We didn’t have a way to contact him, and when Fran found out they were local and he was still alive, available and interested, she reached out to him,” Gill said. “Because of COVID-19, we just didn’t want to expose him to anything, and so we were really cautious about it. We’ve been talking about this for almost a year.”
The visit doubled as a birthday gift for Gill, and Durrett had celebrated his own birthday a week prior.
“When you’ve had as many birthdays as I have, the birthday party really isn’t as exciting,” Gill said. “But doing something significant on your birthday is exciting, and this is obviously a historic day. I say all the time, if these walls could talk, I’d love to hear the story and he actually lived here.”
Life in the log cabin
Durrett spent more than an hour sharing his childhood memories of the log cabin with Gill, painting a picture of life in the area before Fort Campbell.
“It was very pastoral, at least it seemed so to me, and very agricultural,” Durrett said. “We had three dogs and one bicycle … and neighbors 1 mile away and 2 miles away ... it was that type of community.”
Durrett’s life there began just before he turned 2 years old. His father gathered materials to build the home for around three years before starting design and construction in early 1932. The elder Durrett moved in with his wife and two children March 4, 1933.
“The Great Depression, I guess it maxed out the year I was born in 1931,” Durrett said. “But even up in the late ‘30s up until Pearl Harbor things were pretty tough. I remember my dad mentioning several times in later life, he said ‘I never want to see that again.’”
Durrett and his Family were not exempt from those struggles, but they were able to use their property to keep a variety of crops and livestock.
“Labor then was hand labor, or if it wasn’t hand labor it was done with farm animals,” he said. “It was different.”
That agricultural lifestyle was a common thread between the Families in the area, and Durrett remembers using a neighboring farmer’s work bell to keep track of mealtimes.
“He’d ring it on the longest day of the year,” he said. “Just a little light in the sky, he was ringing his bell and that meant he wanted his men behind the mules in the furrow. I don’t think he literally wanted that, but it’s a story they told that he wanted them working that early.”
Durrett said the log cabin was around five times larger than it is today, but it still felt packed in when friends came to visit.
Durrett’s sister, Virginia, often invited friends over as well, so there were plenty of people around throughout the year.
“Upstairs was the sleeping porch, and it was screened in,” Durrett said. “There were six or eight beds up there, and my sister was a young teenager, she’d have friends, you know, and we’d all sleep out there because we didn’t have air conditioning.”
Despite their rural upbringing, Durrett said the people living in the area were well-informed when it came to national news and current events.
“People then weren’t quite as countryfied as we think they were,” he said. “We knew what was going on in New York. Back then you got papers, good papers. We’d never been, but we knew what was going on in San Francisco. We weren’t completely out of the game, you know.”
News always traveled quickly through the community, and so did word about the Army’s plans to build a camp. Durrett first heard rumors about the Camp Campbell project in the summer of 1941, and he said the Army reached a deal with his parents that fall to eventually purchase the 60-acre property at $13,500.
“They never were bitter about this house,” Durrett said of his parents. “They said, ‘Somebody’s got to do it, we’ve got to have a military installation and it just happened to be us.’ Whenever they referred to this house, it was always with love and never bitterness.”
Construction accelerated once Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and the U.S. formally entered World War II. Many of the Families who lived in the area were moved out over the next few months.
Durrett said his own Family moved away in February 1942, and a written account from the Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum’s archives states the federal government officially purchased their log cabin property that year.
“They bought [the land] over a period of time, but the construction was timed,” said John O’Brien, director of the Pratt Museum and the 101st Abn. Div. historian. “It was 6,000 acres that needed to have a road grid, electric grid, sewage grid and all that put in … the cantonment area, that’s the people they moved out first.”
Before leaving Camp Campbell entirely, Durrett’s Family moved into a home down the road and started renting the log cabin to Soldiers. At the time, on-post housing was nonexistent.
“When the Soldiers started coming in here, my mother rented three bedrooms to some of the nicest people I’ve ever known,” he said. “Two of them were West Pointers, and that was a big influence that changed my life a lot.”
Durrett said those Soldiers quickly became part of the Family, and one of their favorite activities was making music together.
“After supper they’d get together and sing at night,” he said, noting his mother was a pianist. “Those friendships lasted up into the last 20 years, and they finally all died off.”
Just as he maintained friendships with the Soldiers who stayed there, Durrett kept his connection to the log cabin through his visits over the years.
“I think this will be my last trip,” he said. “Every occupant that I know about has been very kind to this house, and any time we have made a request of them they’ve been more than generous with it. It seems that most people, even though I realize now it’s not a big house, they’re interested in the history.”
Durrett may know more about that history than anyone alive today, learning about the home’s construction from his father.
“He started preparing the logs and all that over a year before we ever moved into Clarksville,” he said. “I imagine the planning, the mental part, goes way back.”
According to the Pratt Museum’s records, the house was built from chestnut logs cut primarily in an area that is now part of Kentucky Lake. After that, they were peeled and laid for one year to cure before being moved to the home site.
“This is a true log house,” Durrett said. “These are true log joints – there’s not a nail in this house. The floors here are put down with wooden pegs and screws under them, double, and the best oak you could get.”
Durrett’s father subcontracted workers for the construction, but he could often be found working right alongside them as they completed the project by hand.
“He had, I want to say two or three people working all the time, but he was just a mile away,” Durrett said, noting his father was running the nearby Ringgold Mill at the time. “This was his first house he built. The one we live in now is on Peachers Mill Road, and he did all that himself.”
The build also included a divided cedar smokehouse behind the main quarters, which Durrett said included a laundry room with a fireplace and a curing room for hams and bacon.
“I’ve got to think this is super special coming back to your childhood home,” Gill said. “And the fact that this is the oldest occupied residence on Fort Campbell, and it’s such a historic fixture. Everybody who knows of Fort Campbell knows ‘the log cabin.’”
Much has changed since Durrett lived in his childhood home, but it always brings his memories flooding back no matter how different the surroundings are.
“I followed the general’s men today coming from Gate 4,” he said. “At one point I knew who owned the farms between here and Gate 4, and it’s [so different now] … the most startling example I can think of right off is comparing July 1, 1941, with July 1942. It was just a hayfield, and it happened to be that beautiful land between Clarksville and Hopkinsville.”