Bengston Cabin (Sammamish)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 9/23/2008
  • Essay 8784
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The Bengston cabin, located in Sammamish (eastern King County) on Duane Isackson's property at 3019 244th Avenue NE,  is the oldest-standing pioneer structure in Sammamish. Built in approximately 1888, the cabin served as the home of James and Johanna Bengston until Johanna passed away in 1946. Vacant since the 1950s, the little modest one-room (plus closet) log cabin is today (2008) slowly deteriorating, but still stands as mute testimony to the pioneer era on the Sammamish Plateau in the late nineteenth century. This account, written by Sammamish Heritage Society historian Phil Dougherty, reprints Dougherty's articles, "Little House on the Plateau" (Sammamish Review, July 30, 2008, p. 10) and "Pioneer Spirit Lives On in Sammamish Cabin" (Sammamish Review, August 6, 2008, pp. 12-13) and is reprinted with the kind permission of the Sammamish Heritage Society.

From Germany to New York to Samammish

The cabin gets its name from James Bengston (1845-1896) and Johanna Isackson Bengston (1852-1946), both native-born Swedes. They met and married in Denmark, then went to Germany; their great-niece and great-nephews, Lorraine Isackson Mills and Duane and Lloyd Isackson, tell us that while in Germany the Bengstons both worked for Kaiser Wilhelm I, Johanna as a chambermaid, and James as a teamster driving freight wagons for the Kaiser. The Bengstons subsequently immigrated to America. James' certificate of naturalization survives, and it shows that he became a U.S. citizen in October 1887 in Troy, New York. Sometime afterward he and Johanna packed up and headed west.

They settled on a 160-acre homestead encompassing an area roughly between today's NE 26th Street and NE 30th Place on both sides of 244th Avenue NE. James Bengston subsequently transferred 80 acres of the homestead to his brother-in-law, Charles Isackson (Johanna's younger brother), when Isackson arrived on the Sammamish Plateau in 1893. Part of the 80 acres that Bengston kept is today's Broadmoore Estates.

Building a Cabin

Soon after their arrival the Bengstons built a log cabin, which survives today as the oldest-standing pioneer structure in Sammamish. Exactly when it was built is something of a mystery, but the evidence suggests that the cabin was built in the late winter or early spring of 1888. 

The cabin, which faces east, is a rectangular building measuring approximately 15 by 21 feet on its outside (13 by 19 feet on the inside). It was built from fir trees "and maybe a hemlock or two," adds Duane Isackson. When the cabin was built, the gaps between the logs were chinked with moss. Some of this moss is still there, while in other places the gaps have been patched with concrete or old newspapers. A few gaps are now open to the elements. Many of the square nails used to build the cabin are still plainly visible in the building.

The cabin is built from hand-sawed logs ranging from six to nine inches in diameter, notched on their ends for a secure fit. Although some log cabins of the era were built with iron spikes driven through adjoining logs to provide greater structural stability, there appear to be no iron spikes holding the logs of this cabin together.

The cabin floor is a tongue-and-groove floor of 1 by 4 inch boards. The ceiling is made of four-foot long cedar boards about a half-inch thick, and these ceiling sections can be pushed aside to store goods in an attic. Today the ceiling is barely six feet above the floor, but the cabin has settled as much as eight inches since it was originally built. The bottom log that the cabin was originally built on has rotted away over time (remnants of this log can still be seen on the northwest exterior corner of the cabin), causing the cabin to settle onto what was originally the second log from the ground.

There is a small closet in the cabin on its northeastern side. The cabin has two windows in its front and one on each side, and both a front and back door. Part of a shake roof (not the original) survives on the front side of the roof, but the back part of the roof has been replaced with tin. The cabin originally had a chimney on its southwest corner, but Duane Isackson removed it some years ago as rainwater was getting into the cabin through the chimney and speeding up the cabin's gradual deterioration. The cabin has electricity, although it probably wasn't added before the 1930s, when electricity first reached this area of the plateau.

Life in the Cabin

For many decades an orchard of pear and apple trees thrived in front of the Bengston cabin (two of the pear trees still survive). And for many years, the cabin had a small, open lean-to in the back. This lean-to, part of which is clearly visible in the 1940 picture of the cabin, stretched along the entire back side of the cabin. Johanna did much of her cooking on a small cookstove in the northern end of the lean-to during the summer months, as it was much cooler than cooking in the cabin. The lean-to was separated into two parts connected by a small door; Johanna used the southern part of the lean-to as a porch.

The Bengstons got their water from a well located about 200 feet from the cabin. There was a barn and chicken house (bigger than the cabin itself) behind the cabin, and an outhouse was located roughly between these two buildings. Johanna also had a small root cellar, used for storing canned goods, dug into an earthen bank next to the well. At one time there was a small cupboard built on the outside of the northeast corner of the cabin, where Johanna stored milk. However, none of these appurtenant structures survive today.

A Tragedy

Tragedy struck not long after the Bengstons built their cabin. James was cutting a tree which fell on him and broke his back, leaving him unable to walk. But he could still use his arms, and he and Johanna managed to build a system of ropes that they attached to the cabin's interior to help him move around.

They had no children, but their relatives the Isacksons did, and the family story passed down through the years holds that James Bengston survived for seven years after he broke his back before passing away in October 1896. This would mean that he broke his back in 1889. But there are presently no known documents which conclusively establish where either Bengston was during the first half of the 1890s. They don't appear in the 1892 King County census, though that doesn't necessarily mean they weren't here then. (Unfortunately, most United States census records from the decennial 1890 census were destroyed in a fire in the early 1920s, which makes further research into this question difficult. A "J. Bengston" shown in the 1892 King County census, living in nearby Tolt, appears -- for several reasons -- to be a different Bengston than either James or Johanna).

Duane Isackson believes the Bengstons built their cabin in the late winter or early spring of 1888, as a few of the cabin's logs still have some bark on them. Bark is difficult to remove from felled trees during the winter, but these trees could have easily have been stripped had they been felled during the dryer summer months, and doing so would have made building the cabin easier.

Johanna Bengston

Johanna Bengston outlived James Bengston by half a century. She remarried briefly, but had the marriage annulled. She lived the rest of her life quietly, living off of her garden and a small dairy farm, and sold eggs to make money. In the last year or two of her life she moved in with her nephew, Henry Isackson, who had a home just down the hill (north) from her cabin. She passed away at age 94 in July 1946.

A few people lived in the cabin during the 1950s, but since that time it has sat vacant. Today the cabin is still mostly intact though slowly deteriorating. Duane Isackson does what he can to prevent this unique testament to Sammamish's early history from disappearing entirely.


Phil Dougherty interview of Lorraine Mills and Duane and Lloyd Isackson, July 16, 2008, Sammamish, Washington; Charles Isackson obituary, Sammamish Valley News, n.d. (July 1954).

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