Imagine just how tired you could get cutting down trees. That’s the pickle I was in. I cut timber for a living, making compass-straight runs from point-A to point-B for the power company. It was 1957. I’d been mustered out after the Korean War and was lucky to have any job at all. A lot of folks didn’t.
My mom and pop had died while I was overseas. A grocery delivery driver that should have known better than to go that fast on a gravel road hit their car while they were on the way to town--for groceries. The trooper that responded to the accident report smelled alcohol on the delivery man’s breath. It was strong. The trooper’s report mentioned that he recoiled from the smell. Now this being backwoods Wisconsin in 1955 in most cases the booze would have been winked at, but while killing a local farmer and his wife? Hell, no! The judge had come from a farming family and got his shorts in a knot. The delivery company got fined for eighty thousand dollars and the driver--who was uninjured--had to cough up thirty thousand. The court appointed someone to sell off the dairy herd and the chickens, then closed up the farm. By the time I heard about what happened it was all over. All that money was waiting for me when I returned though. For ‘55 those were prime dollars. A good brick two-bedroom house cost 22 thousand. The average income was 4,137.00
I didn’t have any place of my own to stay, so I lived in the farm house. The farm was about twenty miles east of Rhinelander, in northern Wisconsin. The local American Legion got all of mom’s and pop’s clothes and I sold the hay, which was still fresh enough for cattle to eat. I got a job cutting timber, bought a brand new Chevrolet 3100 3/4 ton pickup truck and a McCulloch 47A chain saw with a thirty inch bar. I must have run through a new chain a month until I developed a light touch with the sharpening file. I had my duffel bag of gear, a decent Garand M-1 that hit what I aimed at and twenty clips full of rounds. (some people are fussy about that--a bullet flies, a shell holds the bullet, a round goes in the breech. Garands use stripper clips. M-16s use magazines. Kind of like, “This is my weapon, this is my gun. One is for killing, one is for fun.”)
I wanted to build a place of my own. To do that I’d need to buy some property that hopefully would be wooded, and even better if it backed up on the Nicolet National Forest, where I’d lived close to for most of my life. I spent a lot of evenings thinking about what to build the place out of. Hell, I had timber coming out of my ears and wouldn’t have much trouble getting it to the farm. I bought a pole-hauling trailer with a long tongue that mated to the back of the truck, so I could haul twenty foot logs. It wasn’t too hard to load the logs on the trailer using a peavey, a ramp and a block & tackle. I hit on a way to weld and bolt together a home-made band saw then bolted it to a track to carve logs into dimensional eight inch by eight inch timbers.
I knew that I’d burn out a few circular saws doing it, but I managed to mount a one-inch dado blade in a circular saw, fixed a guide fence to the saw and set the kerf depth to one inch. I planned on carving out one inch wide by one inch deep dadoes in the opposite faces of each beam, top and bottom. Instead of a tongue and groove, it was a tongue and two grooves. I figured that a dimensional 1x2 kiln-dried rectangular hardwood stick hammered into all the slots should hold the walls together and make them wind-proof to boot. Though simple in concept it was devilishly hard to execute. I ended up tapering the leading edges of the 1x2s on a table saw to slip into the slots (That dry wood was too tough to use a block plane on.) then hammered them in as the proportions expanded to the centers of the 1x2s. It took a tediously long time to do but it locked the beams together quite nicely
I found a half square mile of unimproved land for sale at the south edge of Nicolet, just north of 64. The closest town was Antigo at about twenty five miles. The nearest big city was Wausau which was a bit over forty miles past Antigo. The local grocery store was an IGA that had five short rows of mostly canned goods, some vegetables and a minimal meat counter. I put down twenty percent on the land to keep down the loan and leave me some working capital.
Now that I had a place to build on I wanted to do it right. I found a timber framing school in Grand Marais, Minnesota--right on Lake Superior. The only way in or out of town was either by boat or by the coastal highway. When the storm season picked up, early fall to late spring, nobody left town!
I figured that I would soon be forbidden to operate an out-house, but I built one anyway. The solitary pursuit of philosophy while voiding one’s bowels seemed to me to be a God-given mandate. If any man should command me to cease and desist of this practice I’d tie him into a sack of cats and then throw him in a river. When I spoke such to the county prosecuting attorney and then the sitting judge heard about it from said prosecuting attorney he laughed, then ruled in favor of philosophy rather than anarchy. However, to obtain my wavier I had to use a concrete lined pit and agreed to have it pumped every other year, or as needed. It made the county health department happy and that was all the judge needed. I did manage to get them to agree to a ‘dry sump’ filled with gravel for grey water from the dish sink and the bath. At the same time the tank was being poured I had a thick reinforced concrete floor laid down with twice the square footage required for my cabin. Essentially I had a foundation that continued on to make a very strong back patio that extended well below the freeze-line. The freeze line in northern Wisconsin can be as deep as sixteen inches during a bad winter but fourteen is considered to be the local standard when building to code.
I paid for electricity to be run to the cabin. I paid extra to have the line buried. I would have been perfectly happy to live without it, but I had to have some sort of power for the water well. This gave me the motivation to put in a clothes washer and dryer.
My time in Korea taught me that I could live anywhere and on anything. However, certain inventions just screamed out ‘civilization’ to me. One of those was soap and clean hot water on demand. Another was a warm, dry bed to sleep in. I supposed that freedom from drafts, biting insects and dripping water while sleeping was up there in the top three as well. I’d lived without all three of them, but I really didn’t want to do it again.
Come the winter the sap retreated and the standing wood was a bit more dense. I harvested trees and kept the ones that, at the small end, were ten inches in diameter. They were easier to skid out over the snow than they would have moved over soil. I burned through eight circular saws and nearly a case of blades while carving two dadoes in each flattened beam.
I used a star drill to pound half inch holes into the foundation every four feet and sank lead mollys into them. Then I drilled holes in the bottom beam, and using a washer with a 3/8 inch bolt in each hole which fastened the footers to the foundation. Then everything including the concrete got a heavy coat of red lead as a water barrier. A grid of 2x6 sleepers laid on edge gave me room for sub-floor insulation.
The cabin was built in two rooms, each twenty feet deep by twenty feet wide. The wall height was ten feet at the front end, fourteen feet at the rear. It was built with a shed roof which crowned at the rear wall. I used exposed beam construction. The half-ceiling was made of tongue-and-groove sugar pine and covered the bedroom. I had a team come in to finish the roof as it was not a skill that I had mastered, and I didn’t want to live with my mistakes. I also laid down a floating tongue-and-groove sugar pine floor throughout the cabin.
You might have been able to shift the walls by hitting it with a pickup truck some time during that first six months, but after the wood dried and warped a bit I was pretty sure the logs were locked together by those hardwood 1x2s to the point that the whole cabin would have moved as one piece, ignoring those bolts holding it to the foundation.
Towards the end of the project I made shutters to cover the windows and the doors. I padlocked the place closed when I wasn’t around. An open building nobody bothers, but once you seal it up and put in the windows everyone’s a nosy-parker. Go figure. A car port protected each side of the cabin, one for my pickup truck and one for my heating wood. A deep front porch was roofed over with a continuation of the rafters. It ran out until the ends were five feet from the ground. There the porch roof was supported by poles and big horizontal beams, top and bottom. I laid in a four-inch-high porch floor on long sleepers and built up a stone half-wall at the edge of the porch everywhere there wasn’t a door. Eventually I’d screen in the whole thing to keep the skeeters at bay. I hung bags of mothballs up at the inside peak of the porch to keep paper wasps and mud daubers (nasty damned hornets) from building their nests.
I advertised that I wanted to purchase a two-eye pot-bellied stove, as small railroad stations and cabooses used over the last century or so. It was early spring before I received a letter saying that an old farmer had one in his tool shed. I went out to his place to take a look at it. For something cast over sixty years before it was in pretty good shape even though it was covered in a uniform coat of rust. I paid the man a hundred and twenty for it, and he helped me get it on the back of the truck with a piece of plywood under it. We were both happy with the deal.
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