When Harry and Doris Rink were married in 1973 in front of the ballast stone fireplace inside the tiny historic cabin known as the Nothnagle Log House, they also swore a lifelong dedication to preserving the now-379-year-old structure in Gibbstown, Gloucester County.
Over the years, the pair have become so much a part of the home’s history — giving impromptu tours to whoever knocks on the door or spending summers digging clay from a nearby stream to use as chinking between the ancient logs just as the cabin’s 17th-century Finnish builders had done — that it seems perfectly fitting when the Rinks say they never want to leave the place. Even though they just put the 1.3-acre property on Swedesboro Road up for sale for a whopping $2.9 million.
The cabin, built in 1638 and believed to be one of the oldest existing structures of its type in North America, if not the oldest, is attached to an 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom 1700s addition, where the Rinks actually live.
And while it may be common that when an old house is sold, its new owners may occasionally find some old dishes or a few pieces of antique furniture left behind by the previous owners, the Rinks want to leave something more unusual for the next inhabitants: the Rinks.
“We want to be able to stay here until we die … but we want to know that the next people who buy this property will preserve it and care for it the way that we have,” said Doris Rink, 74, who has become known as “Mrs. Gloucester County History” for her knowledge of the region’s storied past and her service on various historical committees over the years.
Harry Rink, 88, a retired engineer, moved into the house in 1968 after purchasing it from the estate of a deceased aunt and uncle — the Nothnagles — who had owned it since the early 1900s. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Over the years, thousands of people have toured the home — free of charge. Some make appointments, but many just show up. And the Rinks usually are happy to accommodate them with a tour and a chat about the history of the cabin. Historians say it was built by Benjamin Braman in what is now part of Greenwich Township. Not much is known about him, but at various times, the property was operated as a dairy and a butchering facility.
“We’ve just always thought it was important to keep and share the history of this cabin so that people can understand what life was like here long ago,” Harry Rink said, recalling that he and his wife have entertained a variety of visitors — archaeologists, historians, schoolchildren, even a Swedish ambassador.
Harry Rink says he has done a lot of heavy lifting over the years to prevent the home from literally turning to dust — as have other cabin structures that once dotted the landscape from the nation’s pre-Colonial era. He has often spent summers harvesting and carting buckets of clay from a tiny creek that meanders through the property, filtering it and then applying the material as a seal between the white oak logs original to the cabin.
The area was settled by Swedes and Finns in the 1600s. The structure was said to have been built by Swedes, but further examination by historians determined it was instead done in a Finnish style known as “full dove-tail” in which square-hewn logs interlock at the ends and do not require nails. The original floor of the cabin is believed to have been dirt, while the existing loblolly pine floor was added in the early 1700s. Loblolly pine, once common to the region, has been extinct here for centuries, Doris Rink said.
Inside, the cabin — one room with a tiny sleeping loft above — has been preserved in a nearly authentic state. Heating and air-conditioning were added years ago beneath the floorboards to maintain the integrity of the antiquities in the room — including a shoe that is believed to be more than 250 years old — but otherwise its primitive state has been left alone.
The Rinks say they sometimes like to leave their regular abode and go into the cabin to sit and quietly contemplate the history of the structure.
“It’s just peaceful. … You can really feel the past here,” said Doris Rink of the 16-by-22-foot structure, which hasn’t actually been inhabited since the early 1900s when the property was part of a dairy farm.
Christina Huang, a real estate agent for Weichert Realtors, who listed the property, said the home — and the contingency, which includes the Rinks living out their days there — is probably one of the more unusual she has come across.
“We can definitely say this is probably the most unique property you will ever find and we realize it’s going to take a different kind of buyer to understand the historical importance of it,” said Huang, noting there are no “comps” in an area where homes typical sell in the $100,000-to-$200,000 range.
Margaret Westfield, founder of Westfield Architects & Preservation Consultants in Haddon Heights, said the Rinks’ caveat of wanting to stay on the property is rare. Similar requirements had sometimes been part of state Green Acres acquisitions that her firm has worked on.
“I’ve never seen it done quite like this before, so it will be interesting to see what happens with this property,” Westfield said. “But the Rinks are truly treasures for their vast historical knowledge and the way they have cared for this property for so long.”
Westfield says, however, the property to her seems “priced like the historical treasure that it is.”
“It really is like fine art,” she said. “But people don’t generally value historic houses the way they do art. … They should, but they often don’t.”