By Kathy Johnson
It is a country mile and then some down paved and gravel roads to Charles McRaven’s home near Free Union. This was a trip to see a Renaissance man, an uncommon and near extinct type.
An unassuming, gentle man, McRaven has the appearance of someone’s kindly grandfather, or mabe a farmer or a scholar. He spoke with a slow cadence about the South that used to be. “I was born in Arkansas. My ancestors go back to Virginia, way back to the 1600s, my mother’s side. My father’s people were in North Carolina in the 1700s. They moved west into Mississippi and Arkansas and I was born in Arkansas. I went to school in Arkansas. I went to graduate school in Mississippi and Missouri in journalism, but I’ve been out of the teaching business for 35 years now.”
He taught at the University of Mississippi while in graduate school, next set up a journalism department at a community college on the gulf coast and then taught four years at a small school in Missouri called the College of the Ozarks. “I set up the department there, too.” He said it as if they were an easy things to do.
“I was working on my doctoral thesis in journalism when I got out of the teaching business,” McRaven said. “I went into the construction and restoration business about that time, the mid ’70s, and I did that until two years ago when I retired.” He’s now 74.
“Now I teach a lot of workshops, and I do a lot of consulting and I teach classes at PVCC, in construction, at night, so I guess I’m semi-retired.” It’s apparent there’s nothing retired about his activities.
“I am also a minister and I have a 20-hour-a-week job in my church, Waddell Memorial Presbyterian, in Orange County,” he laughed, “so that’s in there too.”
“I teach probably three or four workshops a year in the summer, log cabins, and stonemasonry, and blacksmithing workshops. They’re suffering this year. We’ve had a few cancellations because of the downturn in the economy.” One of his planned workshops in early spring was not held, but the stone workshop just wrapped up.
The week-long workshops are held at his home. “For the log-cabin workshop, we build a log cabin. For the stone workshops, we do work like the stonewalls. Last year we built a barbeque in the back yard. It’s a lot of hard work, but the people learn a great deal. I also teach the masonry courses out at PVCC and we get to only introduce them to masonry. When I teach an intensive weeklong workshop, we do a lot on actual hands-on work and they learn a lot more. I teach a blacksmithing workshop when there is a demand for it.
McRaven said he never got into the “assembly type” of metalworking. “We always started from scratch. Interestingly, my second daughter, who has a little carryout café down in Charlottesville, is learning blacksmithing now. It’s not limited to men at all,” he said. “It’s a universal craft.”
McRaven has five children and said he tried to spend time with all of them. “Now they are all grown.” Two live in Albemarle County and another son is in Madison.
“There were several builders in my family. My father and my grandfather were builders, several uncles were builders and from the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I was building things with them. My brothers and I worked together building all the time. I wanted to be a college professor so I went kind of out of my way to get trained in that area. In 1957 I was going to the community college in Little Rock, Arkansas and it was during the integration crisis, and I was working at night in a television station doing news. The negative impression I got from the press coverage of that event, instead of turning me off to journalism, whetted my interest in it. I’d done a lot of freelance writing for magazines and newspapers working my way through college, so it was a natural shift into journalism, but behind it all I was working summers in construction. I worked in public relations, advertising, photography and these jobs were periodic, a year or two here, three or four years there, but I would always go back to construction, because I grew up with that. So in 1975 I left teaching—I was at Southwest Missouri—and went into construction restoration work fulltime.”
McRaven has always gone for log cabins and timber frames, doing a lot of restoration work along with some new construction using historic and traditional methods. “They were not conventional. We restored a lot of log cabins, a lot of timber frame structures. We’ve restored houses with columns and cornices. We did all kinds of restoration work, but the focus was on cabins made out of logs and beams and stone and brick. If I did a house and people wanted an addition that was conventional, I’d subcontract it to somebody else. I still am a Class A Contractor, so we tackled everything. We even built the one covered bridge that’s here in central Virginia, over on Fox Mountain Road. I tended to go for more historic projects.”
Well-known not only for his fine craftsmanship but for his more scholarly works, McRaven has written articles for Fine Homebuilding and Country Journal Magazine. “It started out I knew the editors (in the early 80’s) and I did some articles for them. I never did a column. He has written five books including: The Classic Hewn-Log House, published in 2005; Building & Restoring the Hewn Log House, (1994, out of print); Stonework; Building with Stone; The Blacksmith’s Craft (2005); and Country Blacksmithing (1982, out of print).
“What happens at the workshops is that people have a desire to learn how to do these things themselves and there is no better way than actually building something,” McRaven said. “They stay for a week. I limit workshops to about a dozen people because that’s about how many I can work with one on one. The minimum is six. That’s because there is a lot of teamwork and cooperation involved and also because of the expense in buying the timber and setting it up. That’s the break-even point. The exception to that is blacksmithing because blacksmithing is very low overhead. I can buy a hundred pound sack of coal for $10 and I have enough scrap iron to teach a workshop. If somebody wants to specialize in knife-making or ornamental iron, I have the materials very cheaply.”
There is a cabin where those who participate in the workshops can stay. Some participants have even brought motor homes to the site. “There is a lot of camaraderie in these workshops. They stay in touch with each other and I stay in touch with them. They’ll call me five years later and tell me what they’ve been up to.”
Men, women, young and old participate. Many come with specific goals or tasks they want to learn and McRaven tries to make sure that they achieve their goal. With the blacksmithing, “at the end of a week an industrious person can go home with enough stuff that if he sold it he could pay for the course. Occasionally a knife collector will come and have me make a rare knife for him. Some of the knives are collector items and sell for $1,500 or $2,000. And some of them don’t sell for ten.”
“I love history. I love history—Linda [his wife] refers to me as an active historian. I’m constantly hired to do evaluations of old buildings, and consultations on old buildings, bridges, any structure. There were more log cabins built in this country than anything else up until about 1900, and so I specialized in old style log cabins, but there was a great deal of stone building, particularly in the east, not a whole lot in the west, they didn’t want to take the time for that. But timber frame and log building are historical and that aspect of it appealed to me. I recycle a lot of material—in fact (he looked around him) everything in this house is recycled. We actually made these windows in the shop out of heart pine and the doors are handmade.
“A lot of these timbers are out of 200-, 250-year old buildings. So the history is what got me into this more than anything else, and,” he quickly added, “the steadiness of the building. These floors are three inches thick and the ceiling is three inches thick, out of an old cotton mill down in Lynchburg. And the sturdiness is one aspect and the historical is the next. Today’s buildings are awfully flammable and they’re good for one generation.”
McRaven has saved chimneys and buildings that were deemed unstable or planned for removal. His long-time work to reuse, recycle and restore brings him full circle to the newer “green” planning now championed by many. “There was a stone house built in the 1730s that was beginning to settle and crack and we were able to stabilize it and work a footing under it by degrees and that was something they had never been able to find anybody to do. The house was very, very historic and it stabilized it and it wasn’t very expensive. It was just something we knew how to do.”
A young 74, some of McRaven’s youthful attitude, outlook and physical ability may come from having waited to start his family when he was in his 40’s. His last son was born when McRaven was 50. Maybe his young adult children, now only in their 20s and 30s, have helped him stay young. “We purposefully chose this area because we liked the schools, we liked the university, we liked the atmosphere. We actually ended up starting our own school. The Free Union School was Linda and my project. We started that in 1984. All our children went to school there. The first two sections were log cabins. I built the first two sections and the third section and another contractor parent built the forth section and now their having a commercial contractor do another addition. It was very successful. We started with 32 students and I don’t know how many they have now. They do a very good job.” McRaven spoke with obvious pride at their venture, which has benefited many students in the Free Union area.