Deep in the country’s past, on what was once a quiet footpath in the mixed-woods forest just upland from the Nehaunsey brook, there was built a single hand-hewn log cabin with a single room and a single fireplace to heat it. Remarkably, the cabin, constructed circa 380 years ago, still exists, is still a home. Like every home that shelters, comforts, provides happiness and fulfillment, it is cherished and protected by its owners.
It is also now for sale at nearly $3 million.
It has been 50 years since the historic Nothnagle Log House was bought by a man who had loved it from his youth. It has been 45 years since he and his wife were married there and began a lifetime largely devoted to the care of a property that is also an irreplaceable remnant of history.
In due course, there will come an end to their time with the cabin and their self-imposed custodianship of history, and, cognizant of its needs, the couple has devised a plan they hope will secure the future of the past they have so lovingly preserved. This is their story.
When Doris Kuhlwein, now Rink, was a mere seven or eight years old, running the paths around her dad’s Columbus, Ohio area, farm, she met Olga, a friendly child of 12 who came from a very far away place. As part of a church exchange program, Doris’s family was hosting Olga, from Sweden, for the summer.
That summer some six-and-a-half decades ago may have set in motion an undercurrent that influenced Rink’s fate and, arguably, the fate of a small, but pricelessly unique, piece of the Swedesboro area history.
“I remember I’ve always been interested in Sweden from a young child,” Rink said. “It was on the Baltic Sea. It was bordered by the ocean.” It was also Olga’s home and the two girls formed a long-distance friendship for awhile that included trans-oceanic gifts. “We sent each other cookies and gifts and learned about each other’s country.”
In addition, Rink had an aunt, an Army nurse, “who sent me dolls from Sweden or Germany or other places,” Rink said. From those beginnings the youngster developed a sense of the past, such that today she remembers, “I always loved history.”
Which is lucky. While most people learn about history, read about it, visit it through museums or living-history exhibitions or re-enactments, Doris Rink and her husband, Harry Rink, are living within history. They own and live in an existing artifact of the very beginning of this country.
Their home is the Nothnagle Log House, or cabin, built around 1638-1643. It is the oldest log cabin still existing on its original plot in America and possibly in the entire northern hemisphere, according to researchers and several historical texts. The one-room cabin, in Gibbstown on the Swedesboro-Paulsboro Road, is thought to have been first owned by Antti Niilonpoika (Anthony Neilson/Nelson), and is an example of Finnish design, though some historians believe it is Swedish. At the time, Finland was a part of Sweden. The Fins and Swedes settled southern New Jersey before the English did.
Harry Rink, a Swedesboro High graduate, bought the cabin in 1968 from the estate of Charles Nothnagle, his uncle-in-law by his marriage to his first wife. As a teen, he was very close to the Nothnagle family, helping repair and maintain the log house and its adjoining additions, and enjoying free rein to wander the dairy farm the family ran.
“He loved the cabin,” Doris Rink said. “He loved the setting, the farm, the history, the memories. He knew there would be a lot of work to keep it, but he loved it. And the Nothnagle family loved him.”
Doris Kuhlwein, all grown up and a banking assistant, was in Florida on business in 1972 when she met Harry Rink, who was on a trip to Clearwater. They crossed paths in a gift shop. The young woman who loved history and whose fondest treasure was, and is, an antique hurricane lamp, a gift from a 90-something lady she used to help with cleaning and chores as a child; “She paid me a penny a minute and I learned the value of a penny, maybe one of the things I measure my life by,” met the man with a historic cabin replete with ancient knick-knacks and artifacts.
A year later, on St. Patrick’s Day, they were married at the cabin and began their life together living in one of the most historic, if lesser-known, homes in America. Doris Rink said she knew, “The minute I saw the cabin, that kids should see this. People don’t have knowledge of their own history before the Revolutionary War.
“At first, I thought the cabin was a treasure house. I would clean it and I’d find all kinds of things in cabinets or over the loft.” She has found shoes dated to the 17th century, farm implements, small furnishings, and such. The antique finds, “are in safe places, like in museums or historical societies,” Rink said. But she and her husband took care to add furnishings that fit the era of the log house, taking advantage of reproductions.
The Rinks are serious about their choice to take on a responsibility to history. They researched the styles, fittings, and furnishings the property would have had. They have not changed the cabin, with its large corner fireplace and hand-hewn beams and logs of white oak, except for repairs and maintenance needs.
They go out of their way to study its history and to show the cabin and its remaining artifacts to anyone who asks. They do not charge for this service.
One of the most extensive tasks, for Harry, is chinking the logs to keep them sealed from weather. He said it has to be done about every 20 years. The clay that cements the logs in place is difficult to come by and Harry insists it be true to the history of the site.
The last time he chinked the logs he found the clay near Salem, through the services of N.J. Secretary of Agriculture Douglas Fisher, who connected Harry with a family who had the right type of clay along a waterway on their land.
“It was a very specific type of clay he uses to keep the historic integrity of the cabin,” Fisher elaborated. “The farm he was getting it from became a preserved farm and (there was concern) that digging clay would be prohibited.
“We worked through the agriculture committee and sent a spokesperson and got the landowner’s permission,” Fisher recounted. Harry, who once, long ago, ran for a legislative seat from the Third District, still remembers the favor, still praises Fisher for helping.
And now, he still needs the right clay. It is coming time to re-chink the logs and he’s hoping, he said, someone with a property where the sandy, creek or riverside clay is found, will want to help him keep history from crumbling.
A civil engineer who attended Drexel University, Harry Rink has done most of the repairs and maintenance and upkeep of the property himself and with the help of family and friends. He has worked for Texaco and for a family business, Leibfarth Body Shop. His skills are up to the task he’s set himself.
“My husband has put his body and soul into this. He has put backbreaking work into it,” Doris said. The couple, she added, has spent out of pocket in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” But that figure would be in the “past four hundreds of thousands of dollars if we didn’t have the volunteer help we got.”
That help included a local Boy Scout who earned his Eagle Badge working on the site. “He still asks about Harry and the cabin whenever we see him,” Doris said.
The Rinks do not advertise their historic site, which includes adjoining sections built in the 1700s and late 1800s. The add-ons do not have an entrance to the cabin but is where the Rinks, and previous owners, mostly lived.
While there are amenities such as running water, septic system and heat, they do without modern conveniences like microwaves. The added sections are kept in the style proper to their history as much as is possible, Doris, who even researched wallpaper, said.
When Antti Niilonpoika lived there, the 100 plus acres surrounding the log house were woods, with occasional sunny openings. He might have seen the shores of the Nehaunsey brook from the homestead, where children fetched wooden buckets of water. Lenape Indians hunted the deer just as the colonists did.
All but an acre plus has been sold over the years, yet the property maintains its feel of deep long ago. It has been a source of pleasure, satisfaction, and happiness for the Rinks, Doris said. “We love it here. We have met kings and queens and princesses. When I was a girl, I always wanted to meet a real princess and now I’ve met two.”
They were Swedish princesses. The Rinks have met and dined with Swedish and Finnish heads of state, ambassadors and various officials from various countries who have heard of the cabin. They met the King of Sweden in 1976, when he visited the Old Swedes Church for the American Bicentennial and the 350th year of the New Sweden settlement.
That was the year the Rinks decided to protect their historic property long-term and registered it with the National Historic Site registry. They open their doors and their knowledge to anyone who stops, as long as they’re available, and, “we meet all types of people. It’s amazing,” Doris said.
They also take time to soak up the atmosphere still pervasive in the cabin and additions. “We have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, seat 25 people. A sit-down dinner,” Doris said. “We put antique ornaments and decorate in the period for Christmas. There’s a Swedish tradition to put out wheat shafts tied to a pole or a branch for the birds at Christmas. We do that.”
Or sometimes, she said, she and Harry just sit in the cabin and talk about their own past and the future of the cabin. “We talk about how it feels like a different world in here. About how we want what’s best for it; what it deserves, to be cared for and available to people to see.”
The Rinks, Harry is now 88, Doris is 74, know their time with history will come to a close. They have done the research with historians, antiquities experts, realtors specializing in historic property, and have put the cabin and additions and land for sale. The experts, Doris said, consider $8 million a reasonable price for the property.
One potential buyer wanted to commercialize the site with a tea house, but the Rinks are seeking a buyer with the means and desire to preserve and show the property, and there have been a number of queries, Doris said. “We can wait for the right person,” she added. “We do not have to sell.”
However, the Rinks want one final blessing for their cabin. After four decades of giving love, life, and protection to the cabin’s history, the Rinks will only sell to a buyer who agrees they may live there until their own personal history ends.
By Jean Redstone