2005 - late winter/early spring.
The chainsaws are buzzing and trees are falling. "TIMBERRRRRR"
We are clearing an acre of land for a new home, a home that we would build...with our own sweat and muscle. We would hire a sub-contractor to build the foundation, the roof, the fireplace and a couple of other details. The rest is all on us. This is our story.
In a previous post, I spoke of our daughter Ruth E. and the tragic events surrounding March 2002. After losing her, Laura and I fell into a funk of unprecedented proportions. Getting out of bed was a chore, facing the drive to work was a chore, facing people was a burden. It had indeed been a struggle to continue to exist. Our friends and co-workers were doing all they could to help revive our spirits. We were literally going through the motions. Our families were also weighing in with encouraging words and actions. They were there for the unthinkable and continued to be there to help pick up the pieces. Our co-workers continued to be supportive and understanding. Our managers cut us slack on those days when we couldn't manage the 42 mile drive into work, allowing us to use personal time, even when there was none available. Everyone who surrounded us was the rock to our jello.
At the time, Laura and I were living in the town of Prosperity, SC (formerly called 'Frog Level'). We had bought an old home, built in 1918, and were planning on remodeling and bringing the home up to date. This is the point where I learned my limitations on carpentry and the skills associated. Building something new, from scratch, was much, much easier than tearing out the old and replacing it with the new (for me, anyway).
Laura and I had looked for a plot of land a wee bit closer to Columbia and our kids and our jobs. Our whole world was based in Columbia, so why not try to get closer. We looked in Chapin, in Irmo, in Little Mountain, in Blythewood...we looked everywhere to find the perfect few acres. Nothing caught our eye...
Meanwhile, back at Molly's Rock, SC.
My mom had moved to Newberry back in the late eighties. She had located a few acres of prime land on the edge of the Sumter National Forest, right next to an old tombstone factory. She had setup a nice home there among the deer and rabbits, as well as a few neighbors. As she was not getting any younger and was aware of our search for a lot to build upon, she suggested we build next to her. While this was contrary to our plan to move closer to Columbia, we said that we'd consider it. At a party at mom's place one day, a co-worker of mine looked out from mom's deck at a wooded area behind mom's house, which overlooked the pond. "Somebody could put a nice home right there", she said. "Somebody ought to build a house there". Laura and I looked at one another and wondered how our co-worker had even known that we'd even considered it. After a couple of weeks talking about the possibility, we had a conversation with mom. She agreed to give us an acre of land and proceeded to have the paperwork drawn up.
Let's go back to the year 1979, shall we?
Laura, the kids and I are in Gatlinburg, Tennessee for a vacation. As we're driving along, Laura sees a log home dealership and they're having an open house. "Pull over", she says. We pull into the parking lot and proceed to go through the model home. "I love these log homes! One day, I want one", says Laura.
I was born and raised in the city and I was sure that I wasn't Abe Lincoln. Log homes just didn't have the same charm for me as they did for Laura. Being the good husband though, my reply to her request for the home was "sure baby...someday". That off the cuff reply would one day come back to haunt me.
Fast forward to late 2004. It's a little over two years since we lost Ruth E and, as I stated, we are downright depressed. Only the excitement of a possible new home would move our thoughts away from the awful and give us some hope for our future. Daily, on our drive into work to Columbia, we passed by a place on the interstate called Southland Log Homes. I never paid much attention to it. Laura, however, noticed it every day. One day, after making the decision to build on the lot my mom had offered, Laura pointed to the log homes as we glided past on the interstate. "Remember your promise?" she asked with the slight rise of an eyebrow. "Uhhh...promise?" I replied. "The log home you promised me...in Gatlinburg that time...in the seventies". Jesus...I don't even remember the seventies! Laura proceeded to remind me in great detail of that day back in 1979, the cabin, the promise, her dream. So after work that day, we made a stop at Southland Log Homes for a tour of their model homes. And I was impressed with how far log homes had progressed since 1979! We collected some literature on the variety of styles that were available, went home and made our plans. We would have someone build us a new log home at Molly's Rock, overlooking the pond. It would be wonderful!
Enter The Family
The breakdown of my siblings is as follows:
Linda-six years older than me;
Steve - four years older than me;
Gary - two years younger than me.
As a result of our slight difference in age, Gary and I became pretty close while growing up, although we had both married and gone our separate ways. We still kept in touch through telephone and the holiday gatherings that our family enjoyed several times a year. One day while we were heading to the beach, I told Gary about the log home idea. He suggested that we stop and look at the model home at Southland as we were passing right by the place. After touring the inside, Gary started asking the salesman more questions about log home construction than I cared to know. After a few minutes we stepped outside. While looking up at the home, Gary blurts out "we can build this thing!"
"What?" I asked. "Are you nuts?"
"Look at it! We could stack logs! It would be fun".
"But we know nothing about building anything!" I replied.
"The salesman says to follow the blueprints that are provided and almost anyone can build a log home" Gary says.
"Let me think about this"
A few days later the decision was made that yes, we could build this home. And build it we did!
Laura and I stopped by Southland Log Homes one afternoon, threw caution to the wind and ordered the 'Greenwood II', a home with a large great room, master bed and bath downstairs with walk in closet, kitchen, dining room, bathroom and laundry room, two upstairs bedrooms with a full bath and two huge walk in closets. We were given a delivery date for the end of May 2005. We started searching for a sub-contractor to build our foundation (as I had no experience with laying blocks and I wanted our foundation to be done by a professional). After finding a Mr Shealy, who came highly recommended, we then began looking for a stone mason to build the forty foot fireplace. We found a genius from Camden, SC who came very highly recommended and hired him on the spot. We had seen examples of his work and were duly impressed! Then, a contractor to dig our well and one for the septic tank. We secured the necessary building permits, installed a 'saw pole' (which is where your initial electricity comes to the property) and mounted the circuit breakers and receptacles needed to get started. Then, we grabbed the chainsaws and began cutting down forty four very large trees.
The Clearing and the Rains
While clearing the land, we received help from nephews, sister and brothers, mom and her gentleman friend, as well as other friends. That was hard work! Gary brought a log splitter and we not only cut the trees down, we also cut them into bite-sized pieces and split them for the fireplace.
After several weekends of cutting and splitting wood, it was time to hire the landscape contractor who would push over the stumps and groom the land for the foundation guy.
Side note- The well digger had completed several wells in the neighborhood and stated that they had all been striking water at about 200-250 feet. After three days of drilling, they finally struck water at 505 feet. My water is not only cold...but it's deep too! Strike one for going over budget on an item.
Just as the foundation man finished and the log delivery was just three weeks away, the rains came. And boy did it ever rain! Night and day it rained, then it poured for a week. The building site was mud, mud, mud. Trying to walk in it would get you nowhere. We thought about fashioning a type of snowshoe to make our way around the site but thought better of it. We had gravel delivered for the new driveway, which goes up a pretty steep hill, but with our log delivery just days away, we knew that the truck delivering the logs would never make it up our driveway.
When delivery day arrived, we decided to store our home (2 truckloads full) in mom's driveway. After all, she was away on vacation. We could have the materials moved after the ground had dried a bit. Mom was none too happy when she returned home from that vacation! There was a house in her driveway.
The Foundation and Start Stacking
After all the blocks were laid and the rain had ceased, we started to lay the first sill for the foundation. We spent a couple of weekends building the floor and getting it ready for the first logs to be laid. On July 4, 2005, the first log was set and off we went. Sister Linda was keeper of the blueprints and kept us informed as to what log went where. The logs were marked on each end with the length of each log - one inch equals one pound. A 225 inch log, therefore, would weigh 225 lbs. Each log would have a foam sealer strip placed in the center from end to end. After lining it up, a 9 inch screw would be driven from the top into the log underneath, requiring a screw for every 36 inches. Drilling a 9 inch screw into a log takes a heavy duty drill, so we bought a Makita 3/4 inch drill for the job. You had to be careful with that monster or it would break your wrist! We would stack logs around the perimeter up to row 17. This is where the second floor came into play.
Meanwhile, our stonemason was building the fireplace. This guy and his crew were top notch.
They built the concrete block portion of the fireplace and then went away to do another job out of town. The job they contracted involved building a long wall-hence they needed no scaffolding. The mason asked if he could just leave his scaffolding at our place until he returned. Uh...yes. I was going to have to rent, but this noble gentleman solved that problem. To this day I remember him and the beautiful work that he and his crew accomplished. (Southern Mule is the company name, located in Camden, SC). When they returned to do the stone work, I couldn't thank him enough for his gracious donation to the cause (and budget).
August 29, 2005. Hurricane Katrina hits the Louisiana coast as a category 3 storm, weakening from a category 5. The devastation it caused was tremendous, mainly because of the levee situation. I would later discover that it would also devastate my budget.
Pre-Katrina, an 8ft. 2x4 cost about $1.74. After Katrina, the price would rise to nearly $4.00 for that same 8 foot board. Drywall, which till the storm had been a little over $11 per 4x8 sheet climbed to almost $20.
Needless to say, when you budget 1000.00 for an item and you end up paying $2300.00, it shoots your budget all to hell. Some of the amenities that we had planned on adding had to take a back seat...sorry Laura, no enclosed screen porch complete with hot tub. That will have to wait. Strike 2 for going over budget...big time!
The Hispanic Contingent
After considerable discussion, a few evenings of intelligent discourse and a few beers, it was decided that (a) we were completely unaware of the process for properly framing a roof and (b), we were absolutely not climbing way the hell up there! So time for another sub-contractor. We found a crew of gents from south of the border who were skilled in all aspects of roof framing and climbing (one was a lumberjack in a former occupation). They worked hard, showed their skills and certainly didn't mind using thousands of nails from my borrowed nail gun. And, come hell or high water, at 2PM each day they retreated to their work van for an hour and a half for siesta. Having a few days break, Gary and I sat down on lawn chairs facing the house and watched them work. Beer after beer was swilled as we watched in awe - these guys actually surfing down the rafters, only to step off at the last minute onto the log at row 17. After a few days, the roof, dormers and the porch roof was completely framed and we said goodbye to the gentlemen from Mexico. As they pulled away, Latino music blaring from the van, Gary and I looked at each other and said :back to work".
We had been blessed with relatively good weather, although it was extremely hot, since we had started building the foundation. We formulated a plan to combat the heat. My mom had a pool next door so the schedule was set as follows:
5AM Get up and have coffee;
5:30AM Start work;
8AM Call for breakfast;
8:40AM Back to work;
12:30 Back to work;
3PM Break to swim and nap (our siesta);
6PM Back to work;
9-10PM Knock off and have a beer or 12
Asleep by midnight
This schedule worked very well for us and we stuck to it religiously for the duration of the summer and early fall.
As cooler weather started creeping into South Carolina, so did the rains. At one point the rain was pouring off the steep-pitched roof so hard that it found it's way into the home, which was technically "in the dry". Gary and I put our heads together and created a troth using tarps to channel the water back outside. It looked like a waterfall which fed a stream to the outside which fed another waterfall off the foundation.
For the build, we were sleeping in an old pop-up camper that my sister had lent us. Every night, after a hard day's work, we hit the sack and went straight off into a deep sleep. At 4:30 AM on the nose, a mockingbird, perched right outside our door, would sing us awake (whether it was time to get up or not). I wanted to shoot that bird. But we'd arise, get the coffee on and prepare for another day.
Crap Runs Downhill
As we got closer to the end of our 18 month build, it came time to do the electrical work and the plumbing. The electrical part we had down. Brother Gary really knows his way around a three way switch and his genius allowed us to get through the wiring and connecting in no time. For the plumbing, we knew one thing...the chapter title. We were fortunate to have as a resource a gentleman who had retired down south and was a friend of my moms. He had been a master plumber in his home state of Indiana and proved invaluable to us. While he never physically crawled around under the house or connected one bit of pipe, his expertise gave us the courage to go for it without having to hire another sub-contractor. Roger passed away a couple of years ago...really miss that guy!
When taking on a project such as this, you take on a slew of responsibility. I felt, at times, that it was all on my back. One day I looked around and there were two beautiful girls on the scaffold, stacking logs and setting those 9 inch screws. They were co-workers of my wife and wanted some experience with construction. They had volunteered their time and energy on a very hot summer day to come and lend a hand. I realized that I was never alone in this project.
Brothers Gary and Steve, sister Linda, mom and husband Jim, son Michael, nephews Pete, Brandon, Derick and Shannon, friends like the co-author of this blog (Larry Durham), co-workers of my brother and myself (Pete and David D.), my sister's boyfriends, some people that we hardly knew - all came down to help us build our home. It was an experience that showed the love that exists on this planet. These people wanted no money for their efforts. Some got caught up in the story of the build, some just came for the experience. We worked together, ate breakfast and dinner together and would swim together during those hot summer months. We froze our asses off, then huddled up next to the fire when it got really cold. We laughed and joked and cursed and sweat and bled. We made possible, for us anyway, the impossible - we built a freaking house! I remember well, minutes after first signing the papers to buy the logs, my brother leaving me a voicemail - "Don't sign the papers! I was just kidding about building the house". Before I could determine that he was just messing with me, I expressed my concern to Laura about Gary's call. Her reply: "Don't worry. People build houses everyday...and we're people".
August 2006, We had done it! After losing about 40 pounds in sweat and 50 pounds out of my wallet, we had a home. We invited all those involved, as well as other family, friends and coworkers to see what we had accomplished. Some of the naysayers, those who openly scoffed at the very idea that we could build a home, failed to show. Their absence spoke volumes. Those who did attend loved the place. It was our home, Laura's dream home - a cabin in the forest. Fort Reid. We had done well.
We had a plaque made with an etching of our cabin along with the names of all those who helped build it. It is mounted right next to the front door. All who come to Fort Reid stop and read it. All comment on it. And they all love the place!