Butch and Judy wouldn’t let their daughter Sheila ride her pony until they got out of bed on Saturday mornings. The Barnes family had milked cows for thirty years. They sold the herd and took up over-the-road trucking. So, when they were home, they didn’t always see dawn on weekends. The little red-headed cherub would con her oldest brother Ty into helping her saddle Cheyenne. She rode through the dooryard, down the laneway to the marsh and back. She’d un-saddle, dry him off, feed him a flake of hay and a scoop of sweet feed and be back in the house before mom and dad stirred. Before he could pry his lids open, she’d beg her dad to help her saddle up the tired little pony so she could ride again.
She worked with my sister Sarah at the Jefferson Veterinary Clinic, where I’d learned to palpate cows and find the best lunch specials in Jefferson County shadowing the legendary Dr. Ed Detmers while still in vet school. Sheila has shoulder-length auburn hair and eyes that fade from blue, through green, to grey. She looks nearly as good in blue prison-issue Dickey’s coveralls as her best pair of Wranglers; but the traits that define Sheila Barnes ride her RNA. Every tail-gate conversation she was a subject of would conclude, “You know, there’s just something about Sheila.”
After fifteen years of admiration from afar, it took ten miles in the passenger seat of my Subaru to know exactly what that -just something- was all about.
I’d stopped at Tyranena for a set of neo-honky-tonk from the Dang-Its, a Rocky’s Revenge, and a pearl-of-wisdom from the flatland philosopher Charlie Roy. My final destination was The Harmony Bar in Madison, but Joel Paterson didn’t play a note before ten PM. Ned and Sarah showed up, and Sheila followed shortly. They’d been in the barn since four in the morning and were catching a train to Chicago the next morning. Tyranena was to be one, now we’re on vacation, beer. Swing dancing in Madison was their last intent but they knew Sheila wouldn’t come along without them, so they took one for their bachelor buddy, Bill. Sheila was trepid at best, content to stay home or ride with the Healys, until Ned kicked her out of their van, into my car.
I thank him daily. On the drive, she spoke of her grandma, their garden, and the farm. By the Deerfield exit, I was smitten.
In several months of neutral site not-dating her tone would settle into calm when she spoke of the farm. By the spring of 2010, I’d earned an invitation. We walked her three labs Gunner, Matrix, and Remi, a hundred yards south of the barn. Just past the grove of volunteer box elders growing on the spoil pile and up the hill from the dump was a brush pile old enough to show up on Google Earth Maps. Like a little girl at a doll house, she pointed, “That’s where I want to build my tiny house.” (with two lofts and a wrap-around porch)
Each time she passed that sacred sight, her temple went soft, and her eyes shone. She’d rather live in a tool shed on that pasture than a mansion on the lake with a staff to serve her. Seven years later, in a spitting March rain I planted a flat stone where I thought our rocking chairs would be, knelt in the mud, and asked to join her family.
Jon Bound is the Jefferson Township builder of choice. He is also Sheila’s cousin-by-marriage. A skilled and brilliant man, he took leave of his sanity long enough to agree to build our home - a lapse he’d surely regret at times. Our lot had been plotted in 1996 when Sheila’s brother built his house. Detailed as watchmakers, Ty and Tina had sat on every board in township and county government and could tell us where to dot every “i”, cross every T, and file every sheet of paper. Still, it took six months of meetings with the highway commission, town board, county board, school board, surveyors, Wisconsin Energies, and the second-past-president of the Fort Atkinson FFA to get final permission to build.
Jon referred us to The Design Alliance in Fort Atkinson. He felt Pete and Jason would be best suited to accommodate Sheila’s preferences. They were gracious enough to accommodate our work schedules; we met mornings at six-thirty. Over cups of coffee we convened in Pete’s parlor and wrestled with the position of the fireplace, height of the ceilings, placement of the dining room, and the bathroom sinks. We deemed the kitchen, dining, and living room “The Great Space,” and debated how big it needed to be.
I asked Pete about Christmas. My family was two-hundred-fifty miles south, and I could hold a reunion in a phone booth. I cherished holidays at the farm house, and when our turn came, I wanted it to be just right. He massaged his chin and twirled his draftman’s pencil on his knuckle as he surveyed the blueprint.
“Bill, the most awesome concert you’ve ever been to, was it in a stadium, or a bar?” He knew my answer. “The best part of holidays is being piled on top of one-another around a folding table, eating ham, scalloped corn, and cheesy potatoes. Besides, the rest of the year, it’s just the two of you.”*
I smiled and we shrunk the space by several feet in both dimensions.
Finally, on December 16th, 2017, Jeff and Nick from Gallitz Grading pulled on with a Cat D6, and a track hoe. Jeff dug two holes: one out back big enough for our thirty-five year old Quarter Horse Stormy, and our old goat Percy.**
The other was the foundation for our home.
They back-filled the foundation on January 16, a date by which many builders are going to trade shows in Florida, taking indoor golf lessons, or vacationing in the Dominican. JB Construction built. Buffeted by coastal velocity winds, a month of snow, and single-digit highs, Jon, Brad, Garret, and Colton never broke stride. They had the deck on and the walls up in a week, a propane heater blowing in a press-board corner, their pickups facing south at lunch, and perpetual productivity their only sources of heat.
I had this notion of having winter ’17-‘18 free to ride my bike trainer and write my masterpiece. All we had to do was pick out the tile, wall colors, a few light fixtures, and cabinets. We could walk through on Sunday afternoon and take pictures and Jon would let us know when to move in.
Not so much.
It started with a pile of barn beams Dave Behling had sitting by Kroghville Road a decade ago:
Their intended purpose was to become a mantle at the old place, and a King-sized bed. For ten years they were benches for Storkfest one day a year, and twenty-foot stumbling blocks the other three-hundred-sixty-four. They’d been thrown on the brush pile twice. If I’d taken the Stihl to them to lighten ‘em up, I’d surely be six inches short that fateful day I finally started to create. I’ve got two prolapsed disks and a scrotal hernia owing to my indecision and ineptitude.
Sheila said, “You think we could frame the doorway to the sunroom with them?” Hewn from native oaks they were draw-knife scarred and broadaxe pegged. They’d represent a reverence for the hard-handed Europeans who had settled this state a hundred and thirty years ago. They were also eight inches wide, and thick. In order not to obscure the She-Shed, we’d have to widen the door-way, or rip the beams. My idea of fine-finished carpentry is a big hammer and a small chainsaw which would surely challenge Jon’s penchant for precision.
We needed Uncle Jerry.
Milford, Wisconsin, is a two-blink town: one on each side of the Crawfish River. What it lacks in population and incorporation, it doubles in character. The cheese factory shut down twenty-five years ago. Stand outside and you can hear an ER nurse/truck mechanic/roofer/painter from an Indian reservation in North Dakota playing Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninov. Across Highway Q is Jerry and Linda Sawyer. Linda worked reception at our clinic for a year-or-so. Into his sixties with a black beret and mock turtle neck nestled into a Victorian suede chair and a snifter, Jerry would make a convincing model to sell hundred-dollar, single malt Scotch. He is also an accomplished sculptor, painter, guitar player, singer, and songwriter. His art adorns bridges and parks all over the world; his songs, less well known. Formerly famous for their sloping-toward-the-river salad bar, Thursday-night ribs, and Jim Beam decanter collection, Vandre’s Riverside Inn has been boarded up for a decade or more. Still, the humble burb is a culinary mecca. Across the river you can get the Fish Fry voted Best in Madison 2015 or the “Trust Me” burger with peanut butter and apples.
If you approach from the Wollin side of town, you’ll pass a sign:
There wasn’t room for Jerry and Deb’s stump removal, log sawing, massive flag repairing, blood-drive volunteering, and trucking. The Milford Topels happen to be two of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet. On my way back from Griswold’s farm, I saw Jerry’s trucks out back and the garage door open.
So, I stopped by.
I described my job. Jerry’s sawmill has more horsepower than a Toyota Prius. It can render a sixteen-foot-long tree, four feet in diameter, into fencing boards in half an hour. He could hemi-section a pair of barn beams like a Skil saw through a paint stick.
Jerry drives truck for Roundy’s, four days a week. When he’s on the road he leaves by three in the morning. He was free Tuesday after work. It had rained for nearly forty days and nights, so I had the beams in the horse trailer. I checked my mirrors, swung wide, and snaked the truck and trailer six inches past their mailbox and down the drive, in one go. I was feeling a little proud when Jerry boomed, “Dang man, if this whole vet thing doesn’t work out, you’d make a pretty-decent truck driver.”
It took fifteen minutes to set, square, and level the beams. In his protective gear, Jerry guided the bandsaw through the beam like a gasoline-powered bread knife through a baguette. I know about nails. Mike Perry’s neighbor Tom has a saw mill. He declines to cut yard trees, pointing at the teeth, seven dollars apiece. I promised Jerry I’d look as close as I could. He thanked me, and pointed to a stack of blades, “I bought a machine, sharpen my own.”
I followed along the blade with my flashlight. Behind his safety goggles and ear muffs, Jerry watched my left hand for a big “ho”, if I saw a nail coming. We missed two, by millimeters.
I’d wrestled those sixteen-foot stumbling blocks so many times, I was actually looking forward to them weighing half as much, Jerry insisted on helping me put them back on the trailer. A trucker never turns a wheel until his load is secure, so I double-checked the latch and pinned the end gate on the trailer.
I was pretty sure I’d have better luck pulling a dozen red roses out of a bale of straw than getting Jerry to give me a price. I squared up to give the old, “Well Jerry, how much you reckon I owe ya?”
He cut me short. With his working-man forearms across his barrel chest, looking through his safety glasses, he looked to a couple rows of tarps lined up neatly under the pine trees, and rubbed his chin, “You know Bill, I think a guy brought me some black walnut once upon a time. You want to see what that looks like?”
I hadn’t seen my wife since five in the morning, and hadn’t eaten in eight hours. Sheila would understand, and I’ve developed some deposits of caloric reserve.
“What in the hell kinda question is that?” We pulled a blue tarp off to reveal a stack of slabs six feet long and four inches thick, with a live-edge. The grains ranged black, mahogany, tobacco and chocolate. In years of a drought the rings were dollar-bill thin, and thick as a crepe when rains fell amply. A nut that had fallen at the edge of a corn field near the start of World War II was now a work of art laying on a decommissioned trailer, a product of the sun, earth, and overthrow from a ground-driven manure spreader.
“So Bill, what’d you think?”
We loaded all seven pieces on the trailer. Before I could ask him the question I already knew the answer to, he retreated to the bowels of his shop. Behind a wall of 1x12 cedar he pulled out one last hunk of walnut. Six feet long, two live edges, and a knot at the end.
“This one’s kind of a mutt, you might as well throw this one on top. Maybe you’ll just chunk it up and use it for fire wood.”
Price-haggling with Jerry is the inverse of used-car shopping, “Oh Bill, why don’t you take it home to Sheila, she may not like it. See if you’re even gonna be able to use any of it. Making you and Sheila happy is the most important part.”
Builder Jon had a handful of fine cabinet makers he had worked with in the past, and there were a half-dozen “custom cabinet showrooms” lined up down the beltline in Madison. I’m confident they all do beautiful work, but I’ve ridden bikes with John Spaude for years. He’s built benches for us at the clinic that have endured the weight of humanity for fifteen years without so much as a wobble or turn of a screw.
He lives just around the bend from Tim Claas on West Road. So, one day in January after I’d treated a down cow, I stopped by.
On a Wednesday night bike ride in a peloton doing twenty-two miles an hour, John will sit on your wheel through a crossing headwind, then attack you on a hill. He will bust your head fifty meters before the parking lot in a sprint finish. He qualifies for the American Birkebeiner every year. A magician with a router, plane, and table saw, John applies less urgency to his art. Drying on racks and laying on benches were cabinet faces and drawers of three projects in various stages of completion. Jon the builder is famous for his critical path and adherence to timelines, so I asked if John the cabinetmaker thought mid-April was realistic. His trademark mustache rose, his head tilted, and shoulders shrugged, “That should be no problem.” Despite his assurance, I pushed my expectations back a month.
Thirty-five years of building kitchens for women is not lost on John Spaude. Before we could even think about oak, maple, or alder, he needed to know what time we get home from work, whether we cook from scratch, how often we go to the market, are we often in the kitchen together, and how often, and who, we were likely to entertain.
In order to capture John’s skills as an artist, and test the suspension of his van and his wife Terri’s back, we decided on hickory. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the most famous ceiling in the world and he was not set back by seven inches of rain and ice dams flooding the Sistine Chapel. After John rebuilt the floor of his shop, mid-April became early June, but if it had taken until August, the wait would have been rewarded. The grain in the drawer faces under the liquor cabinet line up to look like an Arizona desert sunset. The row next to the stove - a Mojave sand glass art box. The face of the baking cabinet looks like a slice of a two-hundred-year old monument hickory. It’s assembled from five different pieces.
Survival is redundant. By my way of thinking, we can make it less so - if not a small-scale daily celebration - with the incorporation of a little art. I prefer not to take a single sip of Sunday coffee if not from a mug thrown from my friends Brad Wells, Mark Skudlarek, or Bruce Johnson. My “world’s best chili” is heavy on the cumin; the viscous of the smoky-red brew complements the chocolate-green glaze of a favorite bowl Mark left at our house ten years ago.
Mark had made the bathroom sinks in our old home. The realtor discouraged me from taking them when we moved. Mark built his wood-fired kiln the size of a two-car garage, and his studio – surely, he could make a farmhouse sink.
Mark lives at the end of Tranquil Lane, halfway between Cambridge and Rockdale, Wisconsin. Likely drawn by Heather’s Wednesday night gyros, early settlers once considered Rockdale as a site for the state capital.
So, I stopped by.
A slightly built man, with hands of stone, Mark brought his shoulders halfway to his ears and massaged his chin when I proposed the homemade farmhouse sink idea. “Well ya know Bill, I’m afraid a square sink would just fly off the wheel,” the crinkle in the corner of his eyes suggesting his humor was not an all-out rejection.
I asked if I were to build a box in the configuration of the sink, factoring shrinkage, if he could press clay into the walls and meld the corners. He stood straight again like he was coming up for air, “By God, we gotta give that a try.”
When he asked our preference for a glaze, I sent a picture of my chili bowl.
Google “custom farmhouse sink.” You will find white porcelain, stainless steel, and a gold one from a company called Rocky Mountain Hardware. At $19,700.00 (free shipping) it must be made from re-purposed Super Bowl rings.
Tom Schuman is a retired roofer. He loves to hunt, fish, cook, and listen to Outlaw Country music. He’ll bust in to the gym with a bowl of kale soup at six-o’clock in the morning to tell me Dick Dale is playing the High Noon Saloon next week. We think Tom may have fallen off a roof (or two) and hit his head, but he and his wife Donna have exquisite tile and brick in their new kitchen addition.
So, we stopped by.
“When it comes time to build your fireplace, you have to call Jimmy Brock the bricklayer, he’s the best.”
We met with Jimmy. We showed him our fireplace. Pretty standard. He was busy as the proverbial one-legged man, but Jon had kept him busy when times were slow, so he’d get it done. He gave us an armload of catalogs and a couple of websites. We could pick cultured natural-looking rocks of all shapes and colors, simulated field stone, or Wisconsin Weatheredge Veneer. Jimmy seemed like a can-do kinda dude, but when I told him we had a rock guy, he was very concerned.
“Well Bill, I need the rocks to have nice flat faces, and consistent thickness. If they get too heavy, they could fall off, or fall through the floor.” (Jon builds houses the way my dad built trailer hitches; I’m pretty sure the floor would hold a Cadillac Coupe de Ville.)
“Jimmy, you give me the dimensions and the day, I’ll have the trailer full of stones backed up to the front door ready to go.”
To say Mark is my rock guy would be short-sided, and possessive. He and his wife Deb and their Yorkshire Terrier Tinker work craft markets and trade shows all over the Midwest. He cuts crosses from stone, carves names and memorials, and gives three rocks away for every one he sells. Mark is the rock guy. When asked how he came to be a rock farmer, “God told me to,” he’ll answer. And how do you argue? Mark is like a strand of number 9 wire with a blacksmith’s handshake.
Sheila and I showed up Sunday morning after church. He handed us each a chisel and hammer and showed us where to strike the stone to split them in half if they were too pretty to pass up and too heavy for the fireplace. “As soon as you get a pallet full, I’ll start pressure washing.” The big Milwaukee shop radio parked in the middle of the gravel blasted the gospel between groans of the fifteen-horse pressure washer. By noon the eighteen-foot trailer was squatting on the overload springs and Mark was darting from pile to pile, throwing on a dozen more, “just one more pretty one.”
We moved in on August 15th. In my youth and ignorance I’d once wondered out loud, “What’s the fun in building a new house? There’s nothing to do once you move in.”
I was looking forward to sitting on the porch with a beer, watching the sunset. So far we’ve installed hangers and shelves in the closet, sewed three acres of grass, built two retaining walls, a chain-link and tarp redneck cat shelter, and hung pictures.
Next spring we’ll have fences to mend, wildflowers to plant, and gardens to build.
Nearly eighty years old, Sheila’s parents are still trucking. They haul everything from bread to Budweiser, from Wisconsin to Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas. Except when they’d rather be camping or four-wheeling Up-North, and when the snow flies. After eighty Wisconsin winters, they’ve taken a fancy to the pool deck behind their timeshare condo in Florida. Each winter their departure gets earlier and the return gets delayed. This year they planned to leave the day after Christmas.
“Would you and Bill mind hosting Christmas this year? We’re leaving for Florida on the 29th.” I smiled as Sheila read me the text request, “Why in the hell you think we built this joint?”
We debated the menu. We’d all had enough turkey and ham to sprout feathers and oink, and the Liquor Locker where we’d always sourced the prime rib had closed down, so 2018 was declared a Cowboy Christmas. We decided to eat at 1:00 PM, knowing fully that time is arbitrary with the Barnes family. I had a mountain microwave laden with ribs, and another with cornbread, stoked on the Weber when folks started to cycle through at 10:30. Given the longest commute was just over the hill, Tracy and Deb and Sheila’s folks brought the food first, then went back home to clean up.
By noon Token had retreated to the dog bed in the garage.
Little Cooper got a new toy truck from Santa that had brushes on it to pick up dog treats and stuffing off the floor. Kinley got a sparkly new dress and ran around casting spells with her wand. Tracy is interviewing for a new job working maintenance at a factory in Whitewater. It’s third shift, but he no longer has to travel. Junior finally figured out what caused the abcesses on Ollie and Paws. Uncle Bill and I hunkered in the corner and swapped Willie Nelson lyrics. Ty and I debated whether to have Bryce weld the bracket on the snowplow or take it to Steve’s for an inspection and overhaul. Dahlin committed to UW Eau Claire after graduation, never letting go of his girlfriend’s right hand. Micaela works hospitality at Camp Randall stadium. According to her Fitbit, she walked over fourteen miles on parent’s weekend. Butch bitched about Aaron Rodgers lack of fire on the sideline.
Paige bought Sheila a Bathroom Guest Book. Visitors can blog and log their experiences including time spent looking in mirror, overall cleanliness, activity, and ambiance, and select the song that best describes bathroom visit:
-“More than a Feeling”
-“The Sound of Silence”
-“Hurts so Good”
-“Blowin’ in the Wind”
-“Ring of Fire”
As if this family needed prompting, that led to stories about cousin Chris crapping in the hood of his hunting coat, Uncle Jim picking a rotten log to hang his hinder off, and the Great Alaskan coffee heist.
As for the muttly piece of walnut uncle Jerry had thrown in with the mantle pieces, I hauled it out of the attic while Sheila was in New York on business, intent on making a couch table. I cut it down, sanded it, and rigged four pieces of ¾ inch rebar for legs. Sheila’s parents had seen the lights on in the garage and couldn’t fend off their curiosity. They’d seen it in the rougher stages. I brought it out of the basement for a reveal and family inspection.
We were proud to tell Sheila’s cousins about the scrap-wood sourcing of our mantle, fireplace and porch, and handmade sinks. The countertops, cabinets and colors were nice, and the thirty-some dimmers made for ambience. Yet, we could have been in a Tiny House or a double-wide; what made Christmas 2018 the best ever was seeing our brother Glenn talking seventies muscle cars with my father-in-law, and having our home filled with folks who helped us move without asking, routinely give without taking, and love without judging.
* Pete was spot-on about being in close quarters at the holidays, but there was one factor I withheld from the meeting for the sake of decorum. The only thing stronger than loyalty and lack-of-judgement in my adopted family is their constitution. When the jalapeno poppers and sweet potatoes make the transverse colon, a back-deck and attached garage would be popular destinations.
** I’ve long said, “If my wife takes half-as-good a care of me as her least-favorite horse, I’m a kept man.” At this writing, the grave dug for Stormy and Percy is still empty.