In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fort Collins citizens watched their history go up in smoke. Arsonists were picking off vacant historic log cabins one by one, dimming what poet Thomas Moore called “the light of other days.” The Strauss Cabin, built in 1864 and once used as a supply depot for stage coaches, burned down on May 5, 1999. A year later, a rash of suspicious fires claimed eight other vacant structures. On the night of February 16, 2002, the Poudre Fire Authority responded to a fire at the 1880s Strang Cabin. Local historians despaired, citing the lack of extant buildings representing the region’s early settlement and agricultural heritage. Preserving the few significant buildings that remained became a community priority.
The Franz-Smith Cabin, almost forgotten until 2000, benefited from that concern. Built around 1882 by German immigrants Henry and Caroline Franz, this one-and-a-half-story log home was occupied by the Smith family from 1936 to 1948. The Smiths sold their property to a developer years later, stipulating that the cabin be saved. The Larimer County Historic Alliance assumed stewardship and moved it to a rural site north of town in 1988. The Fort Collins Museum acquired the vacant cabin six years ago and moved it to a fenced courtyard adjacent to its own facility in 2000. The city’s preservationists usually refrain from separating structures from their original historical context, but the building had already been moved once before. More importantly, they couldn’t risk the potential loss of another symbol of the city’s early past.
The cabin’s relocation marked the first phase of a project meant to incorporate the cabin into the museum’s overall interpretive program. Other buildings in the museum’s courtyard—a trapper’s cabin, a schoolhouse, and a home that served as an officer’s mess for Camp Collins—were all restored to their original condition. But educators took a different tack with the Franz-Smith Cabin, deciding instead to return it to its 1920s and 1930s appearance in order to tell the story of Depression-era farming and how farmers remodeled older structures in the era of rural electrification.
Supported by an $82,907 State Historical Fund grant, the museum replaced the cabin’s missing roof, restored the exterior walls, repaired windows and doors, and installed period light fixtures. Secure behind an attractive iron fence, the building now complements the museum’s redesigned courtyard. And the only fires visitors see are the ones lit in the minds of young visitors as they imagine the light of other days.