The house that timber built

IN 1982, my brother's house caught fire. As sometimes happens in rural America, the volunteer fire company didn't get there in time, and everything was lost. Most men, once the tears had been shed, would have hired a building contractor or begun to look for another house, but not my brother. As soon as temporary quarters had been established, he walked off into his woods with ax and chain saw. ``I've always wanted to build my own house,'' he said. ``Time to get started.'' The project captured the imagination of both family and neighbors. I myself was happy for the chance to participate. The reason: The new house was to be built in the old way. We would not only cut the wood ourselves, but would build a timber-frame dwelling, using a labor-intensive technique that owed no allegiance to the nailmaking industry. The heavy-timber endoskeleton we would raise would be fastened together with pegged mortise-and-tendon joints alone.

The woods soon came alive, especially on weekends, with clank, ring, whir, grind, whinny, and shout, as men, boys, axes, saws, peaveys, horses, tractors, chains, and the occasional bulldozer entered into the process of wresting a house from the land.

The heat of July saw 15- and 18-inch red pines crashing to soft humus below. In January and February, great sprays of snow marked the arcing path of toppling white pine and hemlock. A 20-inch cherry fell the wrong way, but it fell. Beech, oak, maple - 20,000 to 25,000 board feet of whatever species grew there - came down throughout the summer and following winter.

We coped with incorrigible horses and ponies; a dozer threw a tread in heavy mud. One tree nearly did in a tractor, and another crushed a chain saw. But we managed to haul out all our timber without injury and skid load after load onto a well-worn flatbed. It was then locked down with chains, to be driven 30 miles to an Amish sawyer whose principal qualification was that he sawed straight and cheap. When Levi finished with the logs they metamorphosed into long, moist, 8-by-8, 6-by-6, and 4-by-4 beams, which were then hauled back to the building site for drying.

Now my brother and I, while hardly cabinetmakers, are no slouches as carpenters. We had already passed through purist phases in which we had eschewed all modern labor-saving tools like chain saws and power drills, reveling in doing things the hard way. We had raised log structures with ax and two-man saw alone. We had erected pole buildings with home-grown poles, felled, trimmed, debarked, and smoothed by ourselves. Timber-framing held no terrors for us, nor for any of the idealists associated with the job.

My brother read a few books on the subject, bought a protractor, an adze, a set of good chisels, and a couple of mauls. He also hired a professional carpenter to help out. The carpenter, naturally, had never timber-framed. We acquired some 19th-century technology from the Amish, like a Belgian mare and a two-handed boring gizmo. The boring gizmo was to ensure the perpendicularity of borings, which could then be enlarged into a proper mortise, or slot, by a chiseler with no other pressing engagements. The mare arrived too late to do her part.

With the aid of a 70-foot crane (a neighbor happened to have one to lend us), we had the skeleton up in six weeks. It was a 30-foot-high network of 8-by-8 posts and beams held together with ash pegs and interlocked with spliced rafters, purlins, girts, and dovetailed braces. We were proud of it, so proud that my brother decided to invite Levi up to see it.

If the ``unmotored'' Levi could run a diesel sawmill, we figured, he could surely accept a ride in a pickup. And he did. One August day a neighbor's F250 pulled up, and out stepped Levi, a man seemingly left in time's wake. He wore wire-rimmed glasses, Honest Abe whiskers, straw hat, and clothing that was vaguely different. He was sucking on a piece of timothy. We glowed in anticipation of appreciation sure to be heaped upon us by this authority in the ways of the past.

LEVI squinted into the summer sun as he surveyed our work, from fresh-hewn pine rafters to deck. The object of his inspection lay now awaiting only its space-age insulating skin, its pipes, its wires, its 3,500 square feet of flooring, and its people. Not a nail polluted the mighty structure, which only a wrecking ball could have brought down.

When Levi had seen enough he shook his head. ``You fellers is crazy,'' he said. ``No Dutchman would build like this - we give it up years ago.'' Then more to himself: ``We use nails.''

That was about all Levi had to say on the subject. When he had endured enough small talk he mumbled his goodbyes and climbed back into the pickup, in obvious signal that he wished to be driven home.

My brother's family is near to completing its fourth year in the house now. It is everything he dreamed: sturdy, cozy, personal, and a monument to the old ways. It is, moreover, the composite signature of many known hands - including the disbelieving Levi's.

On reflection, it occurs to me that Levi's reaction to the house ought not to have surprised us. The Amish, whose very life is bound up in the old ways, may in fact not notice the past, or, paradoxically, not especially value it. The modern, the present, is their source of diversion or adventure (Levi the buggy-user arriving in a pickup). But among those of us who have come to terms with modernity, some - like my brother and I - are cleareyed enough to see the past occasionally beckoning, and the lure of an excursion there becomes irresistible.

I'd love to help build another one.

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