Ramblings of an Aging Artisan…

Over the past couple of years I’ve received e-mails and phone calls asking me questions about not only Dry Creek’s furniture, but also questions about building techniques and even just about myself.  

 As a result, I’ll be taking some time in the future to post a little of both – personal and how-to tips so we can better get to know one another. I would love to hear about any specific things you are wondering about as well, so just leave a comment and we’ll start a conversation.

 As you probably already learned from reading our “about us” section. Dry Creek was birthed out of an unexpected tragedy for our family. In May of 2005, a wildfire ripped through the forests of western Wisconsin and consumed our cottage and all of its contents. The cottage was much more than a vacation destination – it had a rich history of its own that spanned more than a hundred years before it entered our lives forty years ago.

 I wrote the following account a few weeks after that fateful day. Maybe it will give you a little insight into why this land and as a result this craft is so special to me.  May this be only the first of many stories we share together…     

  Transitions…  It was a hot and dusty summer day in the sunset of the 1800’s when they pulled up to the stream.  The horses needed to rest, and the cold water felt good as the kids soaked their feet from the shallow bank. It had been a long search to find the right place to settle down, but this place felt special somehow – familiar, safe.  It was populated with sprawling oaks and tall pines that whispered their unique and quieting song as the breeze moved through their branches.  This was the place they had been looking for, this would become home…

 1:00pm, 5/5/05 – It was another hot day summer day, and it seemed like the work would never be done.  It was a life-long dream to have a place in the woods to call their own, and now it was becoming a reality.  There were small brush piles all around the trailer as they carved out a yard amidst the timber and tall weeds.  It seemed like it had been weeks since they’d had any real rain, so the grass crunched under their feet as they raked.  There was much to do before supper; company was coming to celebrate their new found retreat.

It had taken months to build, but now the small cabin stood firmly resting on four large hardened sandstone boulders that served as its foundation.  For this first family, it was a modest home with a small living room that also served as the kitchen when it was time to eat.  Two bedrooms lay at the top of the steep and narrow stairs.  A single small woodstove was all that stood between them and surviving the cold winds of winter blowing just outside their door.  It was meager, but it was home.

 1:15pm – It had been a good morning of hard work despite the heat, there was a satisfaction that they both felt deep inside as they got up from their small mid-day meal.  The heat of the past few days was multiplied by the burning of brush piles that had been gathered like a farmer’s harvest.  The grass was long, especially in the protective cover of the fire ring; it only made sense to remove it early to avoid any danger later that night.  They had dreamed of times like this for years, sitting and laughing with friends on their land, around their campfire…  He dropped the lit wooden match to the ground…

 After a couple of years, others came to settle in the area, and the cabin was expanded with a kitchen addition, just before it was sold to the second family to call the cabin home.  The new owners didn’t have any children of their own, but still saw the need in the faces of the other children who would frequent by who needed a place to learn.  They had room, so they offered a bedroom upstairs to the town school teacher, so she didn’t have to travel the difficult sand roads each day to meet with the children. 

 1:45pm – Almost as soon as the grass inside the ring was lit, it jumped out of its intended bounds.  They tried frantically to put it out with shovels, racks and even their own clothing, but it was too late, it was growing out of control. The cell phone!  No signal! The call from the neighbors house was a rude awaking for the volunteer fire department – but they quickly responded just as they were trained to do, only to find that the small grass fire was now a blaze.  Whipped by winds gusting to 20 mph and fueled by the dry leaves, brush and trees, the fire rose up and began its hungry march northeast.

 As time marched on and became more difficult, the cabin began to show the scares of neglect by the time it was bought by the third owners – a growing family of nearly ten.  There wasn’t really enough room for all the kids, but it was all they could afford at the time, so home it became.  The ground wasn’t fertile enough to grow crops very well, so they set up a small saw mill out back were they could carve out a living off the abundant surrounding timber.  By now the old log cabin barn was beginning to lean, and the pump house had to be torn down so the kids wouldn’t get hurt as they played chasing grasshoppers through the long grass in the yard.  From time to time the kids would race out to the winding dirt road when they heard the sound of an approaching car.  Visitors were not common those days…

 2:00pm –The blaze encountered the first house – for awhile the vulnerable dwelling stood resolute, but with the swirling winds, it slowly became consumed bit by bit by the relentless flames.  The fire seemed to explode from there, spreading out to nearly a mile wide as it continued its assault on the country side.  It was now being chased by firefighters who only seemed to make it angrier as it resisted attempts to tame it.  Deputies and volunteers rushed to warn and evacuate families in its path – some willingly, but most reluctantly.  How could this be happening to us? – Why?

 The current owners had two boys who had hunted up north for years, but it became time to find them a place of their own.  Nothing seemed to have the right combination of solitude, wildlife and affordability – until…  As they drove in the cabin’s driveway through the piles of tires and debris, they could sense a certain unmistakable stillness – a welcoming presence akin to how a sick man’s spirits are lifted when he sees his doctor in the doorway.  The years had not been kind to the old cabin – it bore the signs that many had taken from it, without thought or ability to give anything back.  Despite what it looked like on the outside, they saw what it could once again become on the inside.  A place that could be called home…

 5:00pm – Nothing seemed to detour the spread of this “wild” fire.  Its path seemed random and indiscernible being driven by wind and the thirst for more fuel.  It continued to sprawl northeast, sometimes crawling, and at other times racing as if being propelled from the nozzle of a flamethrower.  Firefighters hoped that every road would become a firebreak that would give them time to turn it back onto itself, but to no avail – By now its scorching breath had consumed over 20 homes, and had another 10 still in its sights.  There would have to be a final stand before it reached the open expanse of the marsh that lay ahead…  

 The cabin had become more than anyone dreamed, the touch of caring hands had transformed the aging homestead into a refuge where families met and grew.  It was a place where children could play without the thought of traffic or strangers.  The creek was the swimming pool, and the woods their own privet park.  Room by room memories were made, some with family, others with friends, but mostly it was the voice of God that was heard in the wind blowing through the pine trees that refreshed the most.  This was no longer a cabin in the woods, but a common connection point where visits were looked forward to like summer vacation to a child…  It seemed timeless in its presence, and its promise…

 11:00pm – The fire had now been burning for nearly nine hours.  It was within a mile of reaching the back side of the marsh, so the weary volunteers made their final plans to defeat the foe, or run the risk of it living to see another day of destruction.  They drew their lines at the back side of the cabin’s property.  Huge pieces of earth-moving equipment pushed their way through the forest floor, moving anything and everything that stood in their way. On the other side of the road, the fire roared as it ate up the last of the immature paper mill pines – with flames that licked the night sky they leapt more than sixty feet high as it rose onward.  As it reached the road in front of the cabin, it stopped briefly with an unexpected pause.  It looked for the moment like it had finally relented, having lost most of the wind that had brought it this far.  As it stood chewing the last of the pines under its feet, small embers floated from the treetops.  Most of them burned out before hitting the ground, but a few found new life in the dry grass on the other side. With a snake like crawl, the small flames moved toward the cabin.  It slowly began to surround it on all sides, testing and looking for a way in – it finally found a crack to slither through and began consuming its final dwelling.

 The fire grabbed everything it could in its path – it started with the cupboards that held the eclectic collection of dishes, pots and pans. It took the table, the wash room and grandma’s steamer trunks.  It devoured carpet and drapes, pillows and pictures.  It took grandpas gun rack, and both the wood stoves. With each room it grew in intensity until the whole cabin was engulfed in a ball of flames.  As if it new that its life would soon be over, its heat melted most everything in its grasp.  When it had satisfied its appetite, it slowly moved through the woods that brought shelter to wildlife, and solace to souls.  By 12:30am, it finally came to its end at the fire break which had become the final line drawn in the sand.  Four thousand charred acres later, it was over.  Heavy machines continued through the night making sure that the sunrise would welcome victory for those who would have lain in its path. 

No lives were lost that day – but many were changed forever.  The cabin is gone, but its spirit could not be burned or destroyed.  Its memory and heritage has given birth to new dreams to be built in its footprint.  This place is still, and always will be, special, sacred, ours…

 The Adams Co. wildfire took place on the 5th day of May, in 2005 (5/5/05)

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