Down East 2013 ©
My husband, Tom, and I originally thought we would build on a parcel of land situated on a wild river in Ellsworth, Maine. But, as fate and a tenacious realtor named Casper would have it, we ended up with the unbelievable good fortune a year later of being able to purchase a 400-acre tract of wilderness across the road from our original piece. This land had been a cattle farm in the early 1900s, no remaining structures, but a large, still-cleared hay field, forests, streams, three (encroaching) beaver flowages/trout ponds. We named the land Bad Beaver Farm and so far we have built the most cunnin' cabin.
Tom and I made a pact that we would be mindful stewards of this land and be as respectful of our gift as consciously possible. In the summer of 2006, we put in a road to reach the field where we plan to build our permanent home. We slogged through the mud, chainsawed the trees, cut lengths for firewood, brought up Tom's huge, old Mobark chipper, chipped all the brush, reeked of gasoline, fought off black flies and mosquitoes the size of small pigeons. We slept in smelly, mildewed clothes. Even our dogs permanently stank of stagnant vernal pools. Once we got to the field, we had the road graveled with gravel from the land (there are many glacial gravel deposits scattered throughout the forests.) We seeded the banks of the drive with conservation mix (this winter the deer and moose have grazed every single clover plant to the ground.)
We brought in electricity. Yes, there was a miniscule discussion about being off the grid. I lived off the grid for several years in the late Sixties, so I really don't have a driving ambition to recreate that lifestyle, unless forced to by current political idiocy. We hired an independent hydro-electric contractor (everyone up here in DownEast Maine is named either "Bud" or "Buddy.") The poles were wired to the entrance to the field where Tom and I put the remaining electric underground. We dug a trench with an excavator, slogged through the rain and clay and breathed in toxic fumes, gluing the PVC conduit together. Tom blew the string for the lines through 350 ft. of conduit with a leaf blower!
We decided to build a cabin first (well, actually, it started out as a screen house and then morphed into a 22x24x20-foot-high structure — my fault.) Our pact with each other was that it had to be constructed with no out-of-pocket money! It had to be entirely built with all salvaged materials we had scrounged or hauled back from the dump for the last twelve years. Fortunately, Tom is a builder — and a pack rat. All the stuff he had piled in our front field at home in New Hampshire, that I had complained about for years as being white trashy, now was found gold! We decided to build our little fishing cabin hidden in a lovely copse of trees, an old oak grove/wind break, in the middle of the field.
We hauled huge beams that Tom brought home from a construction job on a borrowed flatbed trailer. We excavated 6 holes for pre-cast cement pilings. (Note: No live trees were downed in this project. The cabin is built in the midst of some magnificent oaks. One is literally rubbing on the west fascia — much to Tom's consternation.) Tom had already trucked up his old 1972 LULL to the land, so it was a cinch to lift the beams and set them in place. Tom's father, Leo, a highway engineer, helped tremendously in this phase of the project, in the placement of the foundation beams. The beams were too long, but before Tom could saw them off, I said, "Honey, this looks kinda small — couldn't we just cantilever a screen porch over the east side overlooking the pond?" Yup. Now the cabin had grown exponentially.
Because the cabin footprint had now increased by 8 feet, the gable ends also grew (funny how that happens.) Now it was 20 feet to the ridge beam — so of course this allowed for a second story sleeping loft and the new screen porch. We placed plywood on the deck and I was busy applying my mechanical drafting skills that I learned at Yestermorrow. I arranged all the window sashes that we had hauled up in the most pleasing/fabulous/light conscious design possible, painted them all deep green — and basically left it up to Tom to build the frames and make it all work.
Repurposed windows came from unlikely sources:
~ On the South facing gable is the front entrance. The front doors are vintage French double doors that Tom dragged home from the Hopkinton dump. These doors have two side-lights that I rescued from my brother, David‚s barn before he moved. This entryway gets great wintertime sun. Up in the open gable are two ganged antique diamond-paned glass windows that came from Saint John the Divine Catholic cathedral in Lowell, MA.
~ On the West side (driveway side) are two ganged double-hung 9 over 6 windows mooched from our forester's barn, left over from when he retrofitted his house. These are next to the woodstove. In the "kitchen area" (I have this in quotations — because we don't have running water — yet). Supposedly the well is going in next week, but when I asked (yet another) Buddy-the-well-driller if he was still on schedule, he replied, "Prub-ly." Above where the kitchen sink is theoretically going to be are two ganged double hung windows from Tom's parents' barn of unknown origin.
~ On the North facing gable is a huge double casement window that Tom salvaged from a job. On one side is a smaller casement that came out of a New Hampshire neighbor's bathroom. We couldn't find a match for the other side for the longest time, until one day Tom found the perfect casement in a dumpster. Up in the sleeping loft are two double hungs, nondescript, but they provide great cross ventilation. The sleeping loft windows are in the tops of the trees.
~ On the East side (pond side) are two very large mullioned windows that I also reclaimed from my brother‚s barn. Since these are in the screen porch, Tom hinged them awning-style and they swing out and hook up via a pulley system. Also on this side are vintage double doors that open onto the screen porch. These doors have tremendous sentimental value. They came out of Tom‚s parent‚s farmhouse where the boys grew up; probably these were the original doors. The house is a classic New Englander where the front door opens directly to the stairway to the second floor. In the winter, when the four brothers were young, they would open those double doors, position themselves at the top of the stairs on their flying saucers, fly down the stairs, out the front door and across the lawn on the snow.
As I have said, I left it to Tom to figure out the framing part. He is a true genius. He framed all the walls on the deck and then raised them up with pump wall jacks. I have to admit that the 2x4s were store bought. The way I squared that is I emptied out Tom's change drawer that he had emptied his pants pockets into after work for the past twelve years. The change weighed 140 pounds. I put it in a rolling suitcase and rolled it up the handicap ramp at the bank. The bank tellers looked delirious to see me coming. Some of it I had to bring home to wash in the dishwasher because it was too disgusting with sawdust. Guess how much 140 pounds of change comes too? $1,500.00. That covered the cost of all the 2x4s and then some. (Like the cute acorn exterior light fixtures I found at Lowe's.)
Tom made fast friends with our forester, Dave Warren of Surry. Dave knows a tremendous amount about the Maine forests. He also had stacks and stacks of sawn lumber from our local woods in his back field. Tom finagled a deal with Dave to exchange the boards for our cabin in return for installing Dave and Jeannie's new kitchen and bathroom. It worked out swell. We covered the frame with Dave's funky pine boards before the walls were jacked up. Tom taught me how to use an air nail-gun. At first I had lots of "shiners," but soon I was keeping up with the best of them. To temporarily finish it off, Tom covered all the walls with a weatherproof "rain-jacket" material that really does keep the elements out, even now in the dead of winter.
I didn't care much for the pumping up of the gable ends. It made me squirrelly nervous. The whole structure wobbled ominously when it got about half way up. Tom said to keep jacking for godsake, so I just closed my eyes, took a deep breath and trusted him that the whole damn thing wasn‚t going to come crashing down and squash us like Junebugs. Once the walls were erect Tom braced them with twist-outs. When the last gable was up, Tom put a small fir at the peak for good luck.
We were only able to work on our cabin on weekends. Tom's left-hand man from his construction crew in NH, Liam "Casey" O'Brian, came up to Bad Beaver to help with the roof — thank god. I never could have done it. The ridge pole is a huge 10x16x24‚ long composite beam that had been sitting outside, marinating, in our field for a couple of years. It was swollen with moisture, so it must‚ve weighed about 1000 pounds. There is a fabulous oak tree smack in front of the cabin, directly in the way, so the LULL was of no help here.
Tom put a bowing plank across from the sleeping loft to the Catholic window and was trying to slide the ridge beam across to the notch in the gable end. I was down below taking pictures and praying. Casey was at the other gable/loft end, when the beam fell and hit Casey. Judas Priest! I had visions of Casey permanently in a wheelchair. Casey is a quick, wiry guy, an avid rock climber. Somehow he managed to twist out of the way of the crashing behemoth, the beam only just grazing his left shoulder.
I thought at this point we would go to Plan B, but no, those two kept right at it. No stinking, 1000 -pound beam was going to outsmart them. Tom tied a rope around the beam, threw it over the gable end, and told me to go outside and hold the rope. I said if the beam fell again and I was holding this stupid measly rope, it would catapult me into the beaver pond. In retrospect, I think Tom thought all the screaming was not helpful.
Because I was outside, I never did get to see how those two managed to get the beam in place, but they did. There it sits, comfortably in its notches. I see it overhead, first thing when I open my eyes every morning. The killer beam that almost took out Casey. I have a great photo of the two of them afterward, sitting on the porch drinking a beer, looking totally exhausted.
Tom and Casey managed to get the entire roof done in one weekend. They worked like dogs. They got the roof rafters in place, then we covered those with more of Dave's funky pine boards. Casey was outside with a skillsaw, cutting the boards to length. Tom was balanced up on the roof rafters nailing the boards in place. I was running in between the two of them, from Casey cutting, up a ladder to the sleeping loft, handing the boards up to Tom on the roof, then scrambling back down the ladder again to Casey. Every damn board. By the end of the day my thighs and arm muscles were screaming/burning. I was about to complain when I looked up at Tom miserably sweating buckets in the blazing sun. I decided to keep my pain to myself.
We placed a great louvered cupola with a curved verdigris copper roof that Tom brought back from a job as a crown on the new roof. I had an old copper ram weathervane kicking around the house (I did, honest.) He, Hector the Protector, is now up there pointing out the direction of the wind with his butt. It is cunnin.
Next, Tom bought a turn-of-the-century Maine SHINGLE MILL to make our own shingles from the cedar trees on our land. The intention is to sheath all the exterior walls with homemade cedar shingles. The only problem I see with this plan is that the shingle mill itself looks like a Dickinsonian nightmare way to lose several fingers. Huge maniacally spinning blades. No guards. There was a telling sign on the mill when Tom purchased it. It says:
NO (You get the idea) AROUND IN GENERAL
Now our cabin was weather tight and we could move our focus indoors. I painted the floor a sage green from some leftover paint I had in the cellar. Tom's brother, Lee — who is an electrical engineer — spent a weekend with us wiring the cabin. They decided to use metal clad cable instead of the standard Romex. This cable gives the exposed wiring a wonderful vintage look of an old fire hazard hunting camp. As a surprise, Lee wired a great rustic wrought iron twigs and leaves chandelier over our dining space.
Tom built "cupboard stairs" up to the sleeping loft. They are just steep enough to allow our two dogs to be able to make it up to bed with us. We put a railing up in the loft that came from a deck that Tom renovated. I capped that with a fabulous antique newel post that I had liberated from a friend's barn in New Hampshire many years ago. Tom installed an old refurbished ceiling fan he had junking around in his shop. Mostly now that fan blows the heat from the woodstove down from the sleeping loft where it gets to be about 110 degrees.
All appliances and furnishings are second-hand/hand-me-downs from sympathetic relatives and friends. The best score was some ratty overstuffed furniture˜a couch and two hugely fat overstuffed chairs˜which my sister-in-law was throwing out. I re-covered them with sophisticated slipcovers and now they look impressive. My mom gave us a "cabin warming" present of a beautiful rug with fish and squirrels, acorns and pinecones. Actually, everyone got into the spirit and commitment to cheapness. Tom and I found we had to politely refuse a lot of pure junk gleaned from people's cellars and barns.
But the end result is adorable. I LOVE our little cabin! I am totally, madly in love with it. We're still uncertain about the design of the real house, but we'll spend time in the cabin to get used to the cycles of the sun for solar gain and the seasons and the weather. Tom has already cleared the space for the barn (40 x 60‚), so apparently that's next.
It is all very exciting. This spring we are putting in running water to the kitchen sink. Tom is digging a gray water system for that. And we are building the outhouse — finally! Last week Tom dragged home the most glorious, previously owned, ostentatious mahogany double-sidelight front entryway door that will be the door to our outhouse. This is sure to be the grandest crapper in all of Down East Maine.
Carol Leonard is a writer and a midwife, her husband, Tom Lajoie, is a phenomenal economy of motion builder.