Treehouse? Get Your Amish On

It takes a village, or at least seven pairs of hands, to please a child. David Mudd reports on the wonders of the buddy system.

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If you’re a flinty-eyed realist like my 9-year old daughter, you’ll look at the accompanying photo and see a platform rather than treehouse. 

A treehouse is what she said she wanted, and I set out to build one for her last fall.  This is as far as I got.  And while I admit it isn’t a house, I thought there might be just enough winning charm in the cantilevered engineering and its command of the northeast sweep of our central Kentucky farm to satisfy.

But Anna couldn’t see any charm in it, because she wanted so much to see a house on it, complete with walls, windows and a roof.  I told her it was already a damn sight more substantial than anything her two uncles and I had built for ourselves as kids, which was the only way we ever got the rickety forts and tree houses I recalled.

This rolled off her like rain from a treehouse roof.  “Finish it, Dad,” she pleaded.

I had myself up a tree at that point, with no idea how to proceed.  I could almost envision an enclosure among the four tines of the forking sugar maple, leaving the wide end of the platform as a deck, but I couldn’t even sketch that onto a napkin, much less hammer it into reality.  So I decided to let this project simmer awhile as I turned back to another one –painting the house– through the final gorgeous Indian Summer days of autumn.  I hoped a way of proceeding, something elegant, would come to me.

Something elegant did come, and I started building it.  But it wasn’t a treehouse.  It’s a movement. (I exaggerate, but maybe not so much.0

Spin back in time with me to Blacksburg, Virginia, about eight years ago, where my wife and I had moved so she could attend veterinary school.  We lived in a rented house and expected to rent throughout our time there, so household projects and property upkeep weren’t supposed to be priorities.  We had enough on our hands with her demanding coursework, a one-year old, and my fretting about how to pay tuition and other bills on this freelance writer’s income.

But that didn’t mean I wasn’t still susceptible to the pull of projects.  Working with my hands has become a part of my writer’s coping mechanism (avoidance strategy, my wife calls it–no mystery how my daughter became a flinty-eyed realist).  When the thinking gets too tough or cloudy, when I’ve just been sitting too long, it’s nice and necessary to have something else constructive to do.  All the better if it’s outdoors. 

That’s a big part of the reason I’ve been drawn to sketchy housing over the years, even when renting.  I’ve cursed negligent landlords over the years, but more often I’ve mowed their lawns, trimmed their overgrown trees, changed their nasty furnace filters, and cleared their gutters without complaint.  Because the work gave me something to do when I needed something other than writing.
 
All the while I also nursed a wish for more exacting hands-on work, like real carpentry and construction.

Curt Laub
Work Group members Trev Smith, foreground, and Mike Bowers react as a tree they’ve cut begins to fall.  The group felled a number of trees that January day in 2008, in the woods behind Smith’s house, opening a new path and providing material for his furniture and firewood business.

So imagine my reaction when I met a carpenter in Blacksburg who told me about his membership in a group that met each month to do projects.  Each of the eight members of the Boys Work Day group owned acreage outside of town there in the Blue Ridge mountains, with houses, outbuildings, gardens and land that needed tending.  The group’s existence was intriguing enough, but the thoroughly captivating thing for me was the sheer firepower many of the members brought to it. 

As noted, Trev’s a carpenter.  Another member, Mike, is a professional barn builder.  Peter is an architect.  Ed’s a construction contractor, and so’s his father-in-law Al.  When these guys got together, they could count on making some real headway.
 
And it wasn’t just because they’re capable; they also just tend to lean toward getting stuff done.  Architect Peter Ozolins, one of the founding members of the decade-old group, said that back at the beginning he was only acting on an urge to get to know a couple of his neighbors. He suggested to Ed Tuchler, down the road a few miles, that they meet in town one Saturday afternoon for a beer and a couple of games of pool, and included Mark Hileman, another founding member.  Ozolins said it was an enjoyable enough, but when he called a few weeks later to suggest another get-together, Tuchler voiced what each of them later admitted they’d been thinking: “Playing pool’s okay, but I’ve got a lot of work at my place I’d rather be doing.”  Ozolins offered to help Tuchler, Hileman did too.  Next time they got the urge, they helped a fourth neighbor, Mike Bowers, who was racing to complete a barn before winter set in.

Soon enough, Ozolins and the others realized they had formed the nucleus of something interesting and useful, and the group as well as their routine took shape.  They thought about other like-minded men they knew, and invited them to join a one-Saturday-a-month work group.   Ozolins said it was a happy accident that most of the original eight live along a single road outside Blacksburg–in proximity to one another and with a raft of all the right skills.  Only Trev Smith, the carpenter, lives off Mt. Tabor Road, but he’s not far away, and his skills–as well as a bent for serious labor–argued for his inclusion.

Curt Laub
Work group members frame a deck attached to
fellow member Curt Laub’s house, October, 2005.

So the Mt. Tabor Boys Work Group was founded. Over the years they’ve strung miles of fencing, roofed houses and barns, dug trenches, painted interiors and exteriors, and repaired sagging porches, cut and split firewood, finished basements, built greenhouses, cold frames, horse barns, and a sawmill, and installed solar panels. 
   
They are a force to behold when they get together, discussing roof pitches and soil drainage, writing measurements and calculating angles on scrap pieces of wood, three of them digging holes while three more set and align posts in those holes, and two more measure and cut the beams and joists that’ll tie all those posts together into a sturdy frame.  They not only know what plumb bobs are, they use them, along with chalk lines and framing squares and levels!  And suddenly sheds appear where hours before there was only bare earth.
 
I know all this because I asked Trev if the guys would let me come around on the occasional Saturday to observe and to pitch in as much as my weak skills allowed.  They obliged, and soon enough I was so regular I became a de facto member, entirely willing to surrender the second Saturday of each month, and to bend my back to lots of tasks, without the reciprocity the others enjoyed.  They couldn’t pay me back by working on property I didn’t have, but it didn’t matter; I was picking up valuable experiences and building relationships with eight men that have proved rewarding enough.

Curt Laub
Mark Hileman,  David Mudd, Peter Ozolins, Mike Bowers, and Jeff Janosko at work on barn addition, January 1, 2005.

And besides, I did end up getting my revenge. 

About a year after picking up with the group I came across an unexpected deal on a house.  It was old, and needed lots of work.  The price was right, but at any other time I still would have felt bound to take a pass on a place in such poor condition because I was incapable of doing the work myself and couldn’t afford to pay someone else to do it.  Then it hit me. 

I called Trev and asked him to come assess the house and its acre of weedy land.  After he had seen the decrepit bathroom, the outdated kitchen, the foundation cracks caused by the rain that coursed off the gutter-less metal roof and the unlined chimney where the wood stove was vented, he shook his head, smiled, and said, “Paybacks are hell.” 

It was a line I’d hear repeated many times over next three years as the work group helped me transform that house.  The guys didn’t go to any special effort; I was simply made a regular member, Number 9 in the rotation.  But there’s something special nonetheless about that many capable bodies focusing their energies on a single troubled house for a full day, even if it only happened every nine months.  And at the end of those three years, when my wife graduated and we were ready to move away, that house fetched a lot more than we had paid for it because the boys had made it a comfortable place to live.

Curl Laub
The author, right, and fellow Blacksburg work group member Mark Hileman pause during construction of a barn addition, New Years’ Day, 2005.

I picked up some valuable skills along the way, too.  I’m a pretty good chainsaw jockey now, practiced at regular saw maintenance, and maybe a little too confident about my ability to repair them.  I can also split firewood until the cows come home, frame a conventional wall, and do some passable plumbing, drywall, and electrical work.
 
And all that experience gave me the confidence to take on a new challenge when it was time to consider buying another place here in Kentucky.  It’s an old farmhouse with a little more than eleven acres.  The house was in better shape than the one in Blacksburg, but it’s older and larger, with all the issues that came with being older and larger.  It was drafty in the winter, the roof was iffy, and it had some sagging outbuildings full of junk left behind by generations of farm families.  And all that land!  I felt I’d annexed Texas.

It was a big step for a boy raised in the suburbs.  Maybe too big.  Pretty soon I was hit with a One-Two punch made up of buyer’s regret, which I expected (it has attended every purchase higher than $25 I’ve ever made) and loneliness, which I did not anticipate. 

I missed the guys in the group.  And it wasn’t just for what they might have been able to help me do here at the new place; it was more the camaraderie, and the friendships I’d forged.  I wasn’t just feeling alone and not quite up to the all the tasks I saw unfolding, I was also hurting for the reassuring support good friends provide, whether they can swing a hammer or not.   

Early on I eased that hurt by going back to Blacksburg frequently, to keep participating in group projects.  The first year I made the trip five times, arriving more than once just before the work started, after all-night drives through the West Virginia mountains. 
 

Curt Laub
Many hands make for quick work, but sometimes a good piece of power equipment can speed things along.  Here, work group member Mike Bowers sets a fence post he’ll hammer into place with his tractor, part of a raised-bed garden project behind Curt Laub’s house, January, 2007.

The boys were amazed and flattered, but increasingly puzzled.  Didn’t I keep telling them about how much work my Kentucky place needed?   Why then was I burning up my weekends and a lot of gas to continue helping them?

There hadn’t been any openings for a newly-minted veterinarian in a town that hosted a whole school of them, while job leads from elsewhere poured in.  Employment pulled us out away from these friends, but it wasn’t complete.  Some piece of me had sheared off, and was still in orbit around the Mt. Tabor.  

For a time, some of the guys said that they felt a growing obligation to pay me back for all my return visits, and that the group might consider taking itself on the road.  There was good-natured speculation about renting van or a school bus and the eight men camping in my back pasture for two days while we replaced the roof on the house and put new siding on the barn.  It would be a party.  I’d be back with the guys, doing what we like to do, plus I’d get to scratch a couple of imposing projects off my to-do list.

Much as I would have enjoyed it, though, I didn’t push the idea.  I sensed that not every member would be gung-ho about traveling so far just to work for two days.  I also sensed that I–with my long-distance trips back and forth–was already in violation of at least one implicit principle that made the Work Day group so special to me in the first place.  I was taking the local out of it.

So I stopped suggesting the boys take a road trip to Kentucky, and cut my trips to Blacksburg.  I still return once or twice a year, but I’ve become a visitor again, not a member.

However, I like to think I picked up a thing or two from my time with the boys; one of them is practicality.
 
I had needs, damn it.  And if membership in the Blacksburg group wasn’t going to help me address them I’d have to find, or build, something to replace it.

It still stings to recall my early attempt, only weeks after we moved to the farmhouse.  The prior owners had hired a fix-it guy to resolve some problems discovered during the inspection.  After he had spent two days mostly in the crawl space, we talked while he loaded tools into his truck.  He told me about the politics and economy of the area,  then a little about his own place across the county and the handiwork plus farming and a little real estate he’d been doing for 20 years.
 
He seemed energetic and–from the quality evident in the repairs he showed me–competent.  So I told him about the group of guys I’d been hanging with in Virginia, and wondered if he’d be interested in helping me start something up around here.  He blushed, coughed something into his fist about how that might be “interesting,” and drove away. 

Okay. Another lesson learned: there are no instant communities outside of Second Life.  I’d have to bide my time.  But biding my time became procrastination, and then outright abandonment. That mirrored my record of accomplishment on the home front, too.  I got the small stuff like mowing and gardening done, and got my firewood in each season, but big tasks languished–not only because I felt inadequate, but because facing them alone was no fun.  So I only faced them when absolutely necessary.

Then Anna got her treehouse jones. 

A treehouse isn’t a necessary thing, but you don’t say that to a nine-year old.  And truth be known, the job struck me as a challenge, ringing all the old wanna-be-a-carpenter bells.  Multiply that by the urge to be a hero, and you’ll understand how I came to be up in that silver maple last fall, at work on my platform to nowhere.  You’ll also understand my disappointment and desperation when she judged my efforts not good enough. 

But I saw nothing but trouble if I kept on.  I’d have no right angles, nothing square, nothing plumb.  The four trunks might serve as sturdy braces, but they interrupted the planes of any imagined walls at such cock-eyed angles I couldn’t see how to incorporate them.  And a conventional structure built in the area between them would be barely big enough to accommodate a single nine-year old.  She’d never be able to invite any friends up.

That’s when I urged her to turn around and take in the commanding view of our farm’s northeast sweep.  “You could get a lot of good thinking done up here just the way it is,” I offered.  “Plenty of fresh air…”  She answered with the flinty-eyed realist look, and I knew I had my assignment. 

I didn’t take up that next unwelcome phase of the assignment just then, instead took the ladder away from the tree and used it for the painting project.  But it was from the top of that ladder one afternoon, as I turned from my work and saw autumn sunlight gracing the boards of the spurned platform, inspiration came: 

I needed help, and suddenly I knew how I’d get it.  A new work group.  And this time I wouldn’t be propositioning strangers.

By now I’ve lived here long enough to have identified others more like me; a couple of busy fathers I’d met at Anna’s elementary school functions, a neighbor across the road who had told me about his ambitions to construct a greenhouse and a wood-fired earthen bread oven, a carpenter whose work on a new house for his family stalled when his two daughters came along, and the mother of one of Anna’s friends, running a horse farm alone since her husband died.   All of us with lots of projects, and chipping away at them whenever we had a spare hour or two, working mostly alone, and not enjoying it all that much. 

Could it be time to get our Amish on?

Recruiting wasn’t as easy as it had been for the Blacksburg group’s pioneers.  Nobody ran from me as the repairman had a few years back, but only one of those I approached accepted instantly.  He’d just bought an old house at auction, and since moving his family in  discovered lots of scary things about its plumbing and wiring.  He’s in for any kind of help he can get.

The others were a little slower to come embrace the idea of surrendering a whole Saturday each month.  My Blacksburg experience served me well on that score, though.  I became a proselytizer, preaching the benefits of communal action and hammering away at resistance with tales of room additions I had known, kitchens I had helped remodel, and gardens I had fenced.
  
I also leaned heavily on the skill that might ultimately have been the one that cinched my acceptance into the Blacksburg group: I can cook. 

A big factor in the Blacksburg Work Group routine is the lunch each Saturday’s host is expected to provide.  The guys knew I had been a professional cook.  They figured they’d at least eat well on the days they spent at my rough-edged place.  And I made sure they weren’t wrong.  To the prospective members of a new group here in Kentucky I pledged no less.

I don’t know if that was the secret, but over the fall I was able to recruit six others–even when they knew the very first thing they’d face would be my twisted treehouse project. 

We gathered for the first time at my house last December, and it pains me to report there was still little more than a platform in the tree at day’s end.  Scott, one of the two who struggled mightily throughout the day as the rest of us worked on clean-up projects, said, “All we managed to do was get more wood up there, to stabilize it.”  (This suggests the difference in priorities when adults build a treehouse). 

My nine-year-old has taken to dismissing the project as her college graduation gift.  But that doesn’t bother me.  Because this new work group is already a greater accomplishment.   It’s a triumph of organizing, planning, and execution–the very abilities I seemed to lack when it came to the treehouse.  And its legacy is likely to outlast any structure I ever do manage to get up there.

Author’s note: I’m interested in any information Yonder readers can give me about work groups similar to the two described in this article.  If you’re part of such a group, or know of one, please let me know about it. Email to —  [email protected]

 

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