Beautiful waterfall. Niobrara State Park, Valentine, NE
It’s 2009. My youngest daughter, Jayne, has purchased a home of her own. She is very proud of herself and I am very proud of her as well. She has worked hard to achieve her goal, saved her money and overcame great odds from economic hard times. She did this by herself with no outside financial support.
The house she bought is light and airy. She wanted that in a home and looked for it. She couldn’t describe it except to say she wanted a lot of natural light. She divulged, when she had found her perfect home, that she has always loved the house she grew up in and she was looking for her new house to make her feel like she did when she was a kid.
We built the home she grew up in. I had no idea she loved it so much. I had no idea that the light airy feel we created was what she was trying to find. When we went to go see her new place, she asked me to tell her all about how we came to build the house we had built in the early 1980’s, the house she grew up in, the house she loved. This is the story, and I won’t hold back anything.
We were living in St. Paul, MN in 1979. I was driving truck for a local cartage company named LaSalle Cartage. During this time, Barb had a paper route delivering the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Maggie was six, Alyssa was three and Jayne was just two years old. We were living on Laurel Avenue in St. Paul, but looking to get out into the country and fulfill our dream of owning land and building a house, raising our kids along with a garden and generally trying to live off the land as much as possible ala the Mother Earth News influence. Mother Earth News, the magazine, was a teaching guide for people who wanted to learn about being self sufficient and more environmentally responsible.
Around March of 1980, we sold the Laurel place and bought a little under 20 acres on the Snake River near Pine City, MN. Pine City is located in East Central Minnesota. We never thought we'd ever own a piece of beautiful land on the waterfront, but we pulled it off. The place had a small older 10’ X 50’ mobile home with an addition, a small garage and a couple of small out buildings. It also had a water and septic hook up for another mobile home about 150 yards from the mobile home structure that was there when we bought it. This was where we were going to live for the rest of our lives and build an empire.
On Laurel, I bought a yellow AMC Gremlin from the cousin of a friend of mine. I also had a 1962 Rambler that I got running with Randy Benson’s help, only to have the transmission go out on its maiden voyage. It was a nice wagon and it literally floated on its unibody construction during a torrential rainstorm during a particularly heavy summer rainy season. Water a couple of feet deep at the bottom of Ramsey Hill couldn’t stop us as we glided right through it, afloat, until our tires hit pavement on the other side of the pool.
I know we also bought a brand new F-150 super cab pick-up. It was green and we got a matching topper for it right from the get go. It was a 300 CI straight six with a 5-speed overdrive tranny. I put radial tires on it and ran synthetic oil which was very high tech in those days. I was trying to squeeze as many MPG as I could back then. The price of gas was starting to climb higher and higher. I also still had a Honda 500-4 motorcycle.
Owning the home on Laurel Avenue was okay, but we had this idea, this thought, this dream in our heads.
Winter sunset on the Snake River, the view from our place
All the time we lived there, and even before, right from the first thoughts of leaving Chicago and moving North, we talked about getting a place in the country and having some animals. We wanted to grow our own food and utilize conservative methods for power and energy like solar and wind power, whatever we could afford. I had the house all torn up with a remodeling project gone awry when Barb came in one morning during her paper route crying hard. She had been accosted and although she got away from the would be attacker, it put the fear into us and I finally got going and finished the project so we could sell the house and move.
We found this 18 plus acres with 400 foot of frontage on the Snake River in Southern Pine County about 5 miles from Pine City. It was being sold on a contract for deed and I had the down payment if I sold my house in St. Paul. We sold it quickly and we bought the place. I had taken a new job with the State of Minnesota and had quit LaSalle Cartage Company. I stayed working for the State and we got away with one vehicle, the newer Ford F-150 with matching green topper, as Barb drove me to work, 60 miles one-way, on Monday, and picked me up when I came off the road on Friday.
I had a lot of experiences on the road for the State. Maybe another story book will mention some of these escapades. Right now, I’m going to continue with this chronology about how we got to Pine City and built our own home.
What Mother Earth News didn’t tell you was that while your busy making a living so you could afford your land, you had no money or time left to do all that was required to become self sufficient. Now, we had the land and all the projects swimming in our heads. The solar power project, the wind power project, the hydro ram pump water project, the garden complete with fruit trees and foods of all kinds project, the animal project, this project, that project, the other project, etc etc etc etc.
Floor joists put in place
Here we were. It took us 8 years to have what we thought we wanted. We had three wonderful beautiful daughters, a place to live on our own land on the river, our faithful dog, Sarge, and a pick-up truck. It was March of 1980 and the real adventure was just getting started.
Yours truly on the ladder, with Brother Frank helping out, working on the interior
Pine City started out as a mobile home with an addition. It had a great 55 gallon drum turned into a wood stove in the addition part and that provided much of our heat. The walls of the old mobile home were so thin that they had frost on them in the mornings. I ended up hanging thick furniture moving blankets along the walls from floor to ceiling for insulation. They would stick to the walls from the frost that formed under them on those still cold March mornings.
Keeping up with firewood was a big chore. I had to have a chain saw, an axe, a splitting maul and wedges, chain sharpening equipment and spare chains, gas and oil cans and equipment, a pick-up truck to haul it and the stamina to keep at it because in Northern Minnesota, you used it up pretty quickly. And you had to get ahead of it so the stuff you had to burn was dry. This hardly ever happened. We were always “chasing wood”, as it was called, and were heating with wet stuff that didn’t have as much heat and was hard to start.
We used wood, and cut most of it from deadfall and down logs on our own acres. The chore of cutting wood took place before, during and after the regular wage earner jobs of which we had many as we tried to make a living in a hard economic time and in an area hit hard by a slow failing economy.
The first walls going up
But we kept somewhat warm. I don’t recall remembering being really cold on a regular basis. But we knew what we wanted to accomplish. We wanted to build our own home with the things inside that we wanted. Rooms for the girls, a pantry, a sunroom, a big kitchen.
We tore down the addition to the mobile home and burned all the wood we did not salvage for later use as lumber. The old mobile was traded in on a newer mobile home with good thick insulation. My folks had bought an older mobile home and put it on a pad on the 18 acres. We lived in that while we prepared the home site for the new trailer. The County required landfill to bring up the bottom floor because we were so close to the river. Even though we knew in the future we would be building our home on this spot, we built up the site for this new mobile home and lived in my folks place while doing so.
Tiling the kitchen
We moved into the new trailer and lived there for a while. Then, we moved back into my folks trailer, 150 yards away, and sold the other mobile home. We started the foundation for our home and after 2 years of building, moved into our newly built, self-designed place.
Another view of the construction
So, here we were. We already moved from an old mobile home to a mobile home my folks had bought to use as a place to stay when they came to visit. Then we set up a newer more modern well insulated mobile home to live in on the home site we prepared. We lived in the newer home until we got our plan for a house. Then, we moved back into the mobile home my parents bought, sold ours, and started construction on the house. It was really quite simple.
We drew up plans on graph paper. Sizes of rooms, how many rooms. Features we wanted. At first, I was thinking we could add on to the newer mobile home. I had a local construction company stop by and told him my plan. He gave me a price to incorporate the mobile home into a structure, but advised against it. Basically, it would have been a two story addition to the mobile home. He suggested we start from scratch and gave us a very basic drawing of a two story structure.
The house had a vaulted ceiling and clerestory windows facing South. The back half of the house was tall enough for a second floor, the front of the house would have this vaulted ceiling. It was to be on a 24’X 32’ crawl space foundation. Room enough beneath the living space floor to access the plumbing easily, but not a basement as it would only be five courses of cement blocks. That’s 40 inches high.
When I first went to the bank, the Banker told me, "NO", He wouldn’t give me a loan. I tapped out a Visa and a Master Card to pay for a foundation, and with that semi usable blueprint from the estimate I got for the building, I went back to the bank a year later. The banker must have figured we were serious because after the foundation was in, he gave us a loan. I found a cement contractor in Rush City that came and did the work. He allowed me to help to keep costs down. If he didn’t do that, I never would have been able to afford to even get started with the foundation.
Our home in Pine City, MN
We built the house by hiring a contractor/carpenter friend for $1000.00 worth of expertise and the use of his pneumatic nail guns. All the other labor was pizza labor. Friends came and worked, we fed them pizza. We moved into the house in 1984, four years from the time we bought the land and four mobile home moves later.
The house was passive solar that worked pretty good considering it was designed by non-engineering types like Barb and myself. We just built in stuff we had seen in magazines and bought the best wood heater we could afford. We heated with wood for 5 years. Only what turned out to be the last Winter we spent there had supplemental electric off-peak heat. Barb kept those fires going all night long as the rest of us slept, or feigned sleep so we didn’t have to get up and stoke the stove.
Now, ten years after leaving Chicago to go “Up North” and build our own home and live off the land, we were doing it. We achieved a goal without setting a goal. No time frame, just living it as we did it. Hard times, easy times, feast or famine, hot and cold, we were “Them That’s Doin’’ as they said in Mother Earth News.
The house design itself was pretty much taken from a magazine and lofted up to sizes and specifications for what we wanted. We just didn’t have the expertise to make blueprints. I showed a picture of a house to one local contractor. He drew up a real simple plan that showed wall heights, roof angles and structural beams. He recommended the size timbers we should use for lintels, rafters and joists. That was it.
The whole thing revolved around six four foot by eight foot insulated glass window panels I had came across at an auction. This was to be the focal point, a South facing sun all season sunroom. We insulated the floor and all four walls of the 9” cement slab the sun room was built on. Then covered the floor with a dark blue indigo ceramic tile. This absorbed the heat from old Mr. Sol and stored it in its mass, then released the heat when the sun went down. Ceiling fans circulated the air and we used a convective loop instead of a ventilation system. Thick walls and ceilings filled with high quality insulation made this a passive solar house. The convective loop was a simple louvered vent that ran the length of the house on both sides against the outer walls. The warm air would rise and be pushed by more warm are to these louvers. The air would pass through the vents into the rooms below, all the while being pushed by the rising warm air created by either the sun room or the wood stove. Fans circulated the air by drawing it up towards the ceiling.
We used seven different kinds of wood. Pine for the framing, cedar for eaves and facia, straight kerf sawn white pine for siding, old recycled fir from a one room school house for the living room floor, oak flooring in other rooms, birch cabinets and our own table sawn popple, (Poplar), for much of the trim.
When we moved there, Maggie was seven, Alyssa was four and Jayne was three. Mrs. Spadoman was 27 and I was thirty one years old. We are proud that we did this. I am proud that my daughter remembers where she grew up and that we provided all our children with love and good memories. She says she remembers the house, but I think she remembers the home.
Playing in the leaves at the waterfront
We never did get every nail driven or every screw tightened. Other plans were in the making for us and we left Pine City and our empire in 1989. But before we left Pine City, we lived in this home. I remember having many a meal and shared our home with many people over the years we were there.
In 1983, my Father passed away. My Mother, not having a plan in the event he died, was visiting our new construction and asked, “Where’s my room?” I guess she figured that since dad was gone and I had little kids that needed care while Barb and I worked two jobs each to afford the house payments, she’d move in with us. I took the original plans and added a 16’ X 20’ room on the East side of the house. Mom payed for the added expense of materials. Our new house had a remodeled addition immediately. Mom lived with us for a while, then moved into a mobile home across the lot on the aforementioned mobile home pad.
I had some heart problems that started in 1985, and by 1989, we were forced into bankruptcy. I could have stayed in the house, but a variety of factors made me decide to let the house go to the local bank, who happened to be the mortgage holder, and move back to St. Paul.
Pine County, MN , and Pine City in general, were pretty economically dead in the 1980’s. This was before Native American casino gambling came to the area. The building of the casino and subsequent prosperity it brought, along with the economic upturn that took place in the 90’s, made making a living easier. But when we lived there, we scrambled for jobs. We kept working and, in fact, were quite creative. We made enough to pay the bills until I went without income for almost a whole year because of the heart surgery.
We left our home in Pine City in March of 1989 and never looked back.
Peace to all