NORFORK -- Arkansas was still just a territory when Jacob Wolf put Cherokees to work felling yellow pine trees and erecting the house that now bears his name. It is believed to be the oldest standing log structure and the oldest public building in the Natural State.
Perched on a grassy hilltop along Arkansas 5 in Norfork, overlooking the junction of the White and North Fork rivers, Wolf House ranks as a redoubtable survivor. Believed to have been constructed in 1829, it has eluded assorted threats from fire, weather, war, demolition and other hazards for nearly two centuries.
Now in Baxter County, it was built as the first permanent courthouse for Izard County, which then encompassed much of northern Arkansas. The surrounding settlement was initially called Liberty, and Wolf used his influence as a member of the territorial legislature to establish the county seat here.
As described in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, he "built a two-story log house with a central breezeway on the first level, typically called a dogtrot, to serve as the courthouse. The large upper-level room that extends over the breezeway served as the courtroom. Judges and lawyers traveled from distant parts of the territory to appear at the regularly scheduled county and territorial court sessions."
Wolf was evidently a go-getter. Of German ancestry, he acquired a license in 1825 to operate ferries across both rivers, a lucrative concession back when most transport took place on water. The next year, he was elected to the General Assembly of Arkansas Territory, where he pushed through a bill in 1829 to make Liberty the county seat.
When sprawling Izard County was carved into a number of smaller counties in the early 1830s, Wolf managed another shrewd move. With the county seat moved elsewhere, he got legislation passed to return the house and surrounding land to his ownership.
It became the Wolf family home, occupied at various times by his three wives, 16 children and five step-children. Jacob became an early leader of Baptist churches in Arkansas until his death in 1863. Sold in 1865, the property somehow survived over the decades, as times changed and the Missouri Pacific Railroad arrived at the turn of the 20th century.
Renamed Devero and then Norfork, the town was incorporated in 1910. Several sawmills operated locally until the 1920s, and freshwater mussels were harvested from riverbeds for the button industry. A novelty in 1927 was the filming here of a movie, Souls Aflame, which used many residents as extras in the Civil War drama.
All this while, Wolf House stood, used intermittently as a residence. It came under public ownership just before World War II, as the community came to recognize its historical value. In the 1960s, the anti-Semitic evangelist Gerald L.K. Smith, creator of the monumental Christ of the Ozarks statue in Eureka Springs, paid for restoration work.
Another restoration, funded by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, returned the structure to its early appearance as a courthouse in 2002. Although its interior is closed under Baxter County ownership, the house is well worth a look from the outside, as are several other pioneer-era buildings that have been moved to the site.
Built when the White and North Fork rivers served as commercial arteries, Wolf House now is located in a popular recreational area, thanks to the renowned trout fishing. Its cultural importance was highlighted in last month's Arkansas Life magazine, where it was featured as one of the state's 13 most architecturally significant homes.
The article cited Wolf House as "one of the mid-South's finest examples of 'vernacular' architecture -- built using methods passed down through generations instead of methods learned through formal training."
For information on Wolf House and other local attractions, call Norfork City Hall, (870) 499-5225, or visit cityofnorfork.org.
Weekend on 08/21/2014
Print Headline: Norfork house stands as state’s oldest log building