5: My Father’s House

14 12 2012

My father worked with trees — dead trees, that is — as a carpenter and cabinet-maker.

He located his shop in an old barn he refurbished to accommodate his business, part of an old farmstead located not far from Port Edwards, Nekoosa, and Wisconsin Rapids.  The house had suffered a fire so badly that it was all but destroyed.  As a result, the original owners decided to quit the place.  Crop fields, pastures, and woodlots they sold to neighbors, members of the family, and friends.  A farmette of ten acres remained, and that my father purchased cheap.

My father envisioned a business opportunity in a nearly ready-made place for woodworking that had plenty of room for operations and warehousing. Tools, machines, and other equipment would go into the milking bay, where the dairy cattle stanchions had been.  Lumber and finished products would go above in the hayloft — or hay mow, as my mother’s people called it.  The office would be located in the milk house.  The truck would be parked in a machine shed nearby.  Entry to and exit from everything was easy because of all the pre-existing driveways, ramps, and large doors.  The only structure missing: the house. That didn’t bother my mother much.  She liked the idea of moving back into the country.

Upon marriage, my parents-to-be agreed to locate near my mother’s folks, who lived and worked at their farm located outside Vesper.  After the war, my father resumed civilian employment at a paper mill.  He found housing in Wisconsin Rapids at an affordable price and at a reasonable commuting distance.

My father got the job because he had gained experience in the wood products industry prior to the war, even though at the time he had been just a teenager.  His father owned a small forest.  His father’s brother owned a small saw mill.  Both were located near Waupaca, my father’s home turf.  When he became old enough to do much of anything, he went to work in his Uncle Heinrich’s business.

He liked it.  He had a talent for working with wood, and that talent rather quickly developed into high skill.  Old World craftsmanship my mother called it, even though she had never been to Europe to see anything of it.  My father had never been to Europe, either, but that didn’t matter.  He was good at what he liked doing.  Friends said he could make a piece of wood sing.

My father did his job at the mill during the second shift.  He slept at night like most everyone else.  Then he work morning and early afternoon, six days a week, week after week, until he had constructed a new house on that old farmstead.

By the way, those were the days when one needn’t fear thieves and vandals raiding one’s jobsite, at least not in that part of the country. People used to leave their doors unlocked day and night. Many even left the keys in the cars, trucks, and tractors parked in their driveways. My father was allowed to leave his project every afternoon and come back every morning, finding everything unmolested … not counting the occasional bird dropping.

In building our house, my father didn’t employ the techniques of conventional construction: arranging and nailing together an assortment of what used to be called stick lumber to make a frame, and then adding a variety of boards, plywood sheets, and shingles.  He knew how to do that, of course.  He did it many times over the years in the course of his career.

American carpenters have been doing it for decades.  Indeed, this technique of construction is an American innovation.  American sawmills manufactured the lumber.  American machine shops manufactured the nails.  Mass production in America made both products relatively inexpensive.  The population in America increased from 5 million to 25 million people during the first half of the 19th century, and all those people needed housing.  Enterprising Americans figured out a way to combine mass-produced lumber and nails to erect houses quickly.  Indeed, the dwellings could be built so fast in comparison with Old World techniques that they at first were called balloon houses.  The name also suggests that old-fashioned master craftsmen thought the new houses flimsy.

My father wanted to do something old-fashioned and substantial, something in keeping with his on-going self-education program and as a test of his ability. So, for our new home, he referred to techniques used in early American housing prior to the 1830s, just to see if he could do it.  That is, the challenge was to erect the entire frame of the house without using even one handy-dandy nail.

For the walls, floors, and ceilings, he employed a variety of mortises, tenons, and flares when combining sills, corner posts, plates, and girts.  This allowed him to interlock all the wooden pieces so that the weight of the structure would hold everything together.

For the roof, he combined king posts, tie beams, and compression braces, reinforced with struts, all joined by wooden pins called trunnels.  As he explained some years later, when I had become old enough to begin learning lessons about his craft, “Trunnels don’t split the wood going in.  They don’t rust out and allow the wood to rot.  They expand and contract with the weather’s changing temperature and humidity.  They make an excellent union.”

The timbers came from Grandfather August’s forest.  So did the wood for joists, lintels, flooring, ridge plates, rafters, purlins, roof battens, and such.  Much of it was red and white oak, some was maple and hickory and ash, and some was white pine.  As a belated wedding present, it all came free of charge.  Grandfather had told my father and mother of his intentions on their wedding day.  The actual gift, of course, had to wait until they were ready, willing, and able to build their own house.

Uncle Heinrich had the timber processed into lumber at his mill. That, too, was done for free, as a wedding present.

My father used western red cedar for siding and for shakes.  Interior walls consisted of plywood made from Douglas-fir and western larch.  These products came from what was known as the inland empire of the American northwest.

“And God saw that it was good.”  That’s the refrain contained within the Genesis account of creation.  When my mother saw the end of her husband’s creative endeavor, in a similar manner she said, “It is good.”  That’s all.  Yet my father knew, knowing her and her understanding of the term, he would never get a greater affirmation from anyone until he would hear the Son of God saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

woodcraft 3




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