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Building Heartwood

By Judy Dean

Some places have the power to change the way we look at and live in the world. This is the fifth in a series I’m calling “Places that Shaped Me.”

Sometime after midnight on July 6, 1982, my brothers and I climbed the old cherry-picker ladder and made our way onto the roof and up the slope of fresh shingles. Provisioned with nothing but a six-pack we settled in to witness a total lunar eclipse.


We sipped our beers and talked quietly as the spotlight of a moon slowly morphed into a blood-red disc framed by constellations. The night turned eerily silent and very, very dark. We could no longer see each other, or, more importantly, the edge of the roof or the ladder we needed to get down. Of course, with a bit of patience we managed to survive, but the good-natured bickering about who forgot the flashlight lived on.


That roof belonged to Heartwood, the name we gave to the log house we were building that summer. We’d been brainstorming names for weeks, then one day our contractor was describing the anatomy of a log and the word “heartwood” popped up. It’s a forestry term used to describe the inner core and strongest part of a tree. The word just clicked: for us, it captured our logs and so much more. This cabin would be the realization of my parents’ dream for a simple but comfortable “up-north” place, built from wood andin the woods.


My parents found and bought 12 acres near Interlochen in 1977, then took some time to contemplate their next step. Their enthusiasm for logs picked up after they saw a rough-cut model belonging to a pair of young brothers just starting out in the business. It was a good match: they’d found their builders and planning began in earnest. The summer of 1982 would mark the chapter when we transitioned from a big sandy hole in the ground to a rough-finished house. One year later we’d have a rustic but habitable home. 






Incredibly, three out of four kids (all in our 20s) could be in Michigan to help that summer. I say “incredibly” because we were already pretty far-flung at the time. I’d been in grad school in New York but could come home for the summer. I’d have to work around an internship but would be close enough to drive up for long weekends. My brother Matt had recently finished a stint unloading fishing boats in Alaska and was back in school in Michigan. He and my brother Dave, also a college student, found summer jobs nearby that allowed them to commit a fair amount of time to the project. My sister Marti was living in Hawaii and it would be a few more months before she and her husband Sandy could come and tackle some major indoor projects.


I’m not exactly sure what made my parents think we were house-building material. My dad was not what I’d call an especially handy kind of guy, and collectively we’d been challenged by far more modest endeavors, such as pitching tents on family camping trips. In any event, I was game, if skeptical.


Fortunately, for this we’d have plenty of help. Our contractor brought with him a small cadre of young men who were strong and (aside from the occasional hangover) industrious. We also had the expertise of several excellent tradesmen; mason, roofer, electrician, and others, to guide us.


Once launched, the process made steady progress in spite of the usual fits and starts. Project-related communication presented special challenges. There was no phone on site (and cell phones were still a decade away) so the pay phone at Karlin Grocery just down the road became a lifeline for us. The Sorna family, who owned the store, became good friends and would take calls for us, posting messages on the bulletin board inside the front door. That’s how we’d find out if a shipment of lumber was ready for pickup or if an inspection had to be rescheduled. This neighborly assistance was a huge help, but at least we were able to return the favor by purchasing large quantities of beer and ice from them that summer.


Living conditions at “base camp” were rustic, to say the least. Matt, Dave and I bunked in an old pop-up style camper with beds that folded out of a trailer base. God knows how we all squeezed into that thing. Our “dining room” was a screen tent that housed a picnic table, a couple of coolers, and a folding table that was used for staging food and everything else.


Our water supply came from a hose attached to our new well. No bathroom. That’s right: no sink, no toilet, no shower. We jumped in Green Lake when a quick dip would suffice, or drove to the state park, five miles away, for a flush toilet and proper shower. The build site was a gritty swath of sand and the work was hot, so we simply downgraded our standards for the duration.























My parents camped out in a neighbor’s small but serviceable trailer about a quarter-mile away. It was only marginally better than our base camp, but my mom produced a lot of decent grub on that little propane cooktop. It also provided a secure storehouse for our food in defense against the raccoons that scouted the area nightly. Our collie Buddy also helped out in that regard.


I realize this might not sound like a fun way to spend a summer, but it was. Maybe funisn’t quite the right word, but I do recall laughing a lot. Also, after living apart from my family for six years it was surprisingly cool to hang out with my younger brothers and work in common cause with my parents. Every Monday I’d leave for work, then return on Friday, eager to see what had transpired that week.


My brother Matt, who became an outstanding engineer, impressed the hell out of us with his ability to offload giant logs from the boom truck (a skill he’d picked up in Alaska) and gently maneuver them into place on the structure. Dave, an environmental science major, proved to be surprisingly adept when it came to plumbing and other systems. That summer definitely reshaped the way I thought about my little brothers.


My parents acted as project managers; constantly on the go, making endless runs for supplies and chipping in on many of the more repetitious tasks (stapling insulation, chinking logs, nailing shingles, and more) that moved the process along. My dad proudly donned the leather tool belt he’d been gifted at the start of the project and was especially fond of any opportunity he could find to pound nails into logs.


I gamely took on whatever grunt work was in the queue when I showed up. I specialized in assignments that someone could teach me in five minutes or less. I found even the most mundane jobs oddly relaxing and satisfying. As someone who rarely got to use my muscles to make anything, physical labor was the perfect antidote to too much thinking and not enough doing. I’m proud to have been part of something that came together so finely through shared effort. See that perfect line of chinking? I did that.

















Heartwood turned 36 this summer: older than any of my nine nieces and nephews who’ve never known life without it. I can only hope they’ll each find their own Heartwood-equivalent somewhere along the way.



My dad and our collie Buddy taking a break on Heartwood's front step. almost all cabin work requires a ladder:  this shot shows four.  The tall cherry-picker we used the night of the eclipse is lying on its side, left side of the photo.


Here I am sanding numbers off log ends and trimming the fiberglass insulation that's laid between notched grooves where the logs join.


Painting window trim with mom.  You'll see foam insulation stapled into the cracks where logs join:  all of those seams will be covered with chinking (a labor-intensive job) before we're done.

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