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Stonewood
A Love Story

It was a hot Friday morning in August of 1968 when I drove south from Midland, Michigan, into the heart of riot-torn Detroit. It was a business thing, and by noon it was wrapped up. I declined lunch at the Pontchartrain with the client, retrieved my Cougar from the parking garage, and slipped smoothly out into the traffic. I've never cared much for cities, and I recall feeling strangely claustrophobic. The day qualified as hazy and lazy. On some level the insistent voice of the open road stubbornly argued against my return to work. I relented. The decision to extend my weekend kicked in. Instead of facing the one-and-a-half-hour drive to Midland on I-75 North, I swung south on Jefferson, hung a left, and crossed the Ambassador Bridge into Canada.

I bought a toothbrush, some underwear and a few additional items needed for three days on the road. After another brief stop for lunch, I slid into the car and headed east through Windsor. From there the highway swings north to Sarnia and on to Georgian Bay. For the next three days there would be no thought of the workplace. All mention of racial unrest in Detroit would be tuned out, and thankfully, there was no interest in the Tigers' AL pennant run on Canadian radio. My attention was riveted to a concrete ribbon and the pastoral landscape that stretched out before me. I fiddled briefly with the radio's FM tuner, nestled down in the soft bucket seat and drove.

The clock devoured the miles and a glorious afternoon, and at dusk I called it a day. I found a home-style family restaurant with a dozen cars parked in the lot and pulled in beside them. Inside, surrounded by pleasantly familiar sounds of congenial diners, I enjoyed a generous supper. Set back in a grove of trees, directly across the street, and visible from my small table near the street-side window, there was a modest motel fronted by a wash-lighted vacancy sign. With a full stomach, I swung the car across to the office and checked in. Later that evening, bathed in an aura of well-being, I walked off the effects of a second slice of apple pie and turned in. As I drifted off to sleep I may have been thinking that by Monday morning I'd be back at work in Midland via Sault Saint Marie, the Straits of Mackinac, and I-75 South. Also, that I'd have covered nearly twelve hundred miles.

Morning was well advanced when I climbed out of bed. It was bright outside and cool. My car was shaded and heavy dew lay beaded on the hood. The source of last night's pie beckoned and I responded. I was seated again at the small table near the front window, where I downed a hot breakfast while the waitress filled my thermos with black coffee. Crossing again to my car I chanced to notice a nearby realty office. Photos of current listings were posted on a board in the window prompted me to change course to have a look. One of the properties displayed was a log lodge located on a wooded peninsula that jutted into Georgian Bay. It was attractive and modestly priced. I ducked inside to request directions. As I left I called a quick "thanks" over my shoulder, and within minutes I was back on the road. For many years I'd been attracted to log structures and I was eager to view this one, but something was soon to alter, in a substantial way, how I perceived them.

Shortly before noon I checked my map and turned right off the main through-fare. Now I was traveling northeast along a thin, twisting, macadam road that unsettled the stomach as it rose and fell. All traces of fog and dew had long disappeared as a white-hot sun climbed higher in a clear cerulean dome. Colors of objects in a shifting landscape appeared washed out as their shadows shortened. The afternoon would be uncomfortably hot and humid. Tantalizing glimpses of Georgian Bay's cobalt blue surface dazzled the senses as I skimmed the hills. I knew that my destination was near. Suddenly, as I crested a long rise… my foot stuttered forcefully on the brake, and I fishtailed onto the narrow shoulder. My eyes were locked to the right, and my pulse rate was climbing. "Oh, My, God," was registered audibly. Seldom in my life had I been privileged to witness such beauty. She lounged sedately in dappled shade cast by a towering elm. Her graceful form and quiet presence lent an unimaginable dignity to an otherwise pedestrian grassy slope. While I struggled to regain my composure, I stared.

Did I dare approach her? Might I intrude, unannounced, upon her solitude and be forgiven? I was in a foreign country and the protocols were unfamiliar to me. How would so blatant a breach of etiquette be received? Quietly, I gathered my courage.

With slow deliberation I left the car and scaled the only barrier between us. With the wire fence behind me, I approached her obliquely, thinking that any direct route might be found unseemly…irreverent. Though she voiced no objection to my advances she remained aloof. Did she not see me…or…did this unearthly ice-maiden find me so wanting that she refused to acknowledge my presence? Then she spoke.

All that had suggested a stone-cold demeanor melted in that instant. The veils were torn from my eyes. The flood-gates opened, and the secrets of her inherent warmth and aesthetic beauty flowed as a river. She spoke in languages at once foreign and familiar. She imparted to me her ancient lineage and her dreams for familial continuance. My heart swelled as I measured her with my eyes. I slumped down beside her. I touched her. I caressed her. The desire to possess came over me.

Chance-a chain of unusual events-had driven me to her. There was an unspoken bond between us. Perhaps, somehow, I was meant to stay. Could I remain here with her? Was it remotely possible that I could take her with me? God, what was I thinking? None of that even scratched the surface of reality. I couldn't stay, and there was no argument on earth that would move her. Gradually I got to my feet and faced her. I reached out and made contact for the last time. Without saying goodbye I turned and walked quickly down the sun-drenched slope to the road. A last, loving, glance was cast as I drove away. Yes! Yes! Yes! I would find a way! One day she would be mine!

*****


Twenty minutes later, I had located and offered apology to the farmer who was deed holder to the land on which I'd trespassed for the purpose of assignation. For over three hours I listened to this mild-mannered, elderly Scot farmer as he regaled me with bits of regional and local history. He spoke of the role his family had played as early occupants of the land. He'd been preceded by five generations born and raised on this farm. He told also of the only other family who had, even earlier, settled this same farmstead. It was they who had brought the lovely creature into existence… over two hundred years ago.

She-the object of my affection-was a small, white cedar, cordwood barn. Petite, more aptly describes her. Certainly she was one of the most beautifully-proportioned structures I've ever seen. She had a mature appearance, but she definitely did not look her age. Her gable ends were framed, and she supported a steeply pitched, galvanized metal roof with quite wide overhangs. Centered front and back were gabled dormers, similarly pitched. The gable-end windows all around were Gothic-arched.

Initially-and quite mistakenly-I thought her to be a stone structure. She would have been strikingly beautiful even if that had been true. When she had finally introduced herself, revealed her nature, I was awed, deeply moved, and in love. I've since discovered that such beauty is a family trait, but until then I'd never met a member of the cordwood family.

*****

The story you've just read is the true account of events that brought our Michigan home, Stonewood, into being. It was that trip and those circumstances that led to my personal discovery of cordwood as a construction material. That small structure spoke volumes!-not only of the soundness of the method, but of its antiquity, its endurance, and its success. My story isn't intended to address the "How It Is Done" of cordwood masonry. Others more apt than I have done that. But it factually deals with "Why" this traveler on life's highway was wakened to its possibilities. By the way… you may recall that I was on my way to view a log lodge on Georgian bay…I never made it.

Click on the above image for a full size view.

She was one of the "great loves" of my life, and served as the primary inspiration for Stonewood. I'll never forget her. Marlys, my wife for thirty years, remains number one. We have four adult children, Troy, Marena, Quincy, and Greyling. There are three grandchildren. All of them hold high rank on my list. Finally, there is Stonewood, our own cordwood home (built in 1989-91) where we've lived for eleven years. She is a work in progress, and perhaps it will always be so.

*****

Click on the above image for a full size view.

Our two acres are situated on an ancient, hard packed, sand beach at Lake Superior's edge. I know it sounds improbable, but we never experience frost here once the thin layer of organic matter is scraped from the surface. Though I'd originally planned a rubble-trench foundation, it wasn't necessary. I obtained our permit to build by submitting a floor plan on graph paper, a copy of Rob Roy's book and a winning smile. In the summer of 1989 I built a 1"to 1' scale model of the house that served as the blueprint.

Late that summer we poured two concrete slabs (six and a half bag mix) and their footings (continuous). The footings are fourteen inches deep by twenty inches wide. The slab is six inches deep from the footings to the interior a distance of four feet, then tapers to four inches. The wall thickness is sixteen inches, with two inches of the footing revealed outside. The slab cured throughout a cold winter, with much of our cordwood under tarps on its surface. We've found only one hairline crack in twelve years.

The following summer my friend Wayne Remali and I built the walls to the top of the plates, in just under ninety long days. The measured diagonals of the structure didn't vary by more than three- sixteenth of an inch. The door/window frames and lintels are 5"x 7" milled white cedar doubled. Lomax corners likewise. The 2'x 12" laminated rafters are hung from 5"x 14" ridge beams atop king and queen posts to insure that the load is entirely vertical. This permitted cathedral ceilings without the necessity of interior beams to tie the walls. The roof was decked with ¾" plywood to which an 18-gauge, ribbed-steel roof was attached. The floor system is a bit complex, but results in a red oak surface 3" above the slab.

I designed and built our spiral stair. It has fully cantilevered treads that carry the load. There are many other custom details that give uniqueness to the house. Examples include an antler chandelier, hand-carved lintels over the doors, and massive posts and beams incorporated into the structure. Our floor plan (upper and lower) represents 2240 square feet. My wife and I did one hundred percent of the design work.

We had no negative experiences or setbacks during construction at Stonewood. The logs are white cedar taken from old barns that we dismantled on a nearby farm. They had been felled in 1905 but they had remained perfectly sound. Our mortar mix was the standard formula found in Richard Flatau's book: Portland, sand, sawdust, and lime. There are very few cracks and minimal shrinkage of wood or mortar. Cedar sawdust and lime make up the insulation. I've stuffed a little rolled or folded paper towel into a few checks from time to time, but we've never caulked.

*****

 

Click on the above image for a full size view.

I'd like to express my belated thanks to a few people who were instrumental in the creation and continued good health of Stonewood:

We're all aware of the total commitment a large cordwood project demands of its participants. Without my wife's commitment, particularly the financial support, it wouldn't have been possible. Thank you, Marlys!

To Jack Henstridge for his advice and great humor. He may recall the day that I phoned him and excitedly explained in some detail a new method I'd conceived for building corners. Finally he said "Yah, I know about it. We've been doing that for a while." Of course, it's called a Lomax corner. Duh! I suppose he wondered if I knew how to read! By the way Jack, I've never received my "mason's certificate thingy."

To Rob Roy for Cordwood Masonry. Thanks…we've all read it.

To my ol' friend and good neighbor, Wayne Remali…it's unlikely that I would have made it without you, eh!

To new friends Richard and Becky, for coming UP. They lent new meaning to entertaining at Stonewood as the "Cat's Meow." Sorry about that! We love you anyway.

Finally, Special Thanks to Alan Stankevitz for Daycreek. It's wonderful!

*****

I've spent my life, my day job if you will, as a designer, painter, illustrator, sculptor and carver. Reproductions of my figurines/sculpture can be found in many upscale retail stores throughout the country, although many are retired, and stocks are running low. We maintain a studio/showroom on the premises during the summer. Visitors, particularly cordwood masons and enthusiasts, are always welcome, but appointments are recommended. The coffee pot is on 24-7- 365.


We live in Michigan's UP on the beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula.
Any questions may be sent to addresses below.

Snail mail and street address:

Wayne Higgins
58091 Lakeshore Drive
Calumet, Michigan 49913

email address:
waynehiggins@triton.net

Phone: (906) 337-9921

 

The Wayne Higgins family, minus his eldest son Troy who lives in Texas. From left to right are Quincy, Marlys, Wayne, Greyling and Marena.