Adventures of Me & Joe: The Log Cabin|
By Bob Cram
Me and Joe were in the side yard of his cabin putting a coat of shellac on the bottom of his 20-foot Old Town Guide’s Model canoe when a Lincoln Navigator pulled into the driveway. A thin man in a light summer weight suit climbed from behind the wheel and walked toward us, a briefcase dangling from one hand.
“I’m Sherman Fraud,” he said, extending his right hand toward Joe. “I hear you’re good at building things.”
Joe looked at the outstretched hand, wiped his own on a scrap of cloth, and shook carefully. “I do some wood work; mostly axe and chainsaw stuff. Ain’t much of a finish carpenter, if that’s what yer needin’.”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Fraud said. Then he glanced over at Joe’s camp. “What I actually need is somebody to build a log cabin.”
“Well,” I said, “Joe’s built a few.” Fraud glanced my way, then dismissed me and turned back to Joe.
“I represent a wealthy gentleman in the internet commerce business. He has purchased a plot of land on Creel Pond. He would like to have a log cabin built on the property for his private use. He has authorized me to hire whomever I choose to construct the cabin, and I’ve heard that you are the best man available, locally.”
“Jest how big an’ how elaborate a cabin is this feller…what’s his name?”
“Rottweiler. Mr. Harold T. Rottweiler.”
“What kind of cabin does this Rottweiler want?”
“If I may?” Sherman Fraud lifted his briefcase to lay it on the upturned canoe. I opened my mouth to warn him but Joe raised a casual hand. Fraud opened the case and drew out a piece of paper.
“It’s very roughly drawn by Mr. Rottweiler himself, but it’s enough to give you the idea.”
I peered over Joe’s shoulder at the pencil sketch. It was a crude drawing of a small, one room log cabin with the roof extended over a porch on the front.
“I kin build somethin’ like this,” Joe said. “What about logs an’ other buildin’ materials?”
“All the material is on site. Mr. Rottweiler engaged an Amos Strong, from Machias lake, to haul all the material in by boat and he also floated the cedar logs in over a period of several days last fall.”
“Cedar logs?” Joe said with a concerned look. “Most cedar in these parts is wind-twisted an’ tapers too quick for good buildin’ logs. An’ a lot of it is rotten at the stump. You have to cut off about three feet before you get to somethin’ you can use.”
“I’m assured that these are quality white cedar logs,” Fraud said haughtily. “They came from a Mr. Cyrus Cordwood’s lot just outside Mooseleuk.”
Joe looked relieved. “Oh, that’s okay, then. Cyrus’s cedar stand is on high ground an’ well drained. Some of the finest cedar I ever seen.”
“So, when can you begin? Mr. Rottweiler would like the cabin built as soon as possible.”
“I’ll git the tools together tonight. No reason why we can’t start first thing in the morning.”
“We?” Fraud asked.
Joe nodded in my direction. “We always work together. Goes faster that way.”
Fraud nodded reluctantly. “Very well. I have to be in Presque Isle tomorrow. I’ll check back with you in a few days.”
“Kin I have that drawin’?”
“Of course. I have copies.” He handed Joe the drawing and then closed the briefcase. When he went to lift it off the canoe, a long, sticky strand of shellac came with it. Fraud eyed the stain on the briefcase with disgust. I silently handed him a rag. He took it with a scowl and headed toward the Lincoln, swiping ineffectually at the gooey substance on the smooth leather.
As the Navigator backed out of the driveway, Joe looked again at the rough drawing of the cabin. “Shouldn’t be too hard. Looks like this Rottweiler jist wants a small one-room log cabin with a porch.”
“Creel is a pretty little pond,” I said. “It’s about a three mile walk on the trail. We probably better take the canoe in from the river, since we’ve got tools and supplies to bring along.”
Sunrise the next morning found us paddling the 500 yards through the deep connecting stream between the Little Salt Pork River and Creel Pond. Emerging at the southeast corner of the pond we saw the pile of logs and other building materials lying in a clearing on the opposite shore. We pulled the canoe up on the gravel beach and began carrying axes, a chain saw, hammers, pry bars, levels and chisels to a spot near the building site.
“Let’s git the tarps strung up and the camping gear sorted, an’ then we kin git to work,” Joe said. Since the weather was mild we stretched a couple of big tarps between trees at one side of the clearing, with our sleeping bags and cooking gear spread underneath. Then we crossed to inspect the building site.
“This must be the spot he wants the cabin,” Joe said, indicating a flat, grassy stretch on a small rise, with a gentle slope down to the beach. “Well, we’d best git to work.”
We carefully measured out the dimensions of the cabin and porch on the ground, then took spades and started digging down below frost line to set the support posts. It was a long day of backbreaking labor, digging the holes, setting cement blocks and mixing mortar to hold them together. By late evening we had 12 cement piers set at regular intervals with their lower sections buried in the ground. Tomorrow we would start laying the underpinning for the floor.
“Time for supper,” Joe said. We assembled fly rods and went down to the shore.
“I’ve always loved the flavor of Creel Pond trout,” I said as I worked out line. “Something about the feed or the water or something. That pink meat is really delicious.”
“Ain’t much size to ‘um, though,” Joe replied. “ A big one is 10-inches. I guess that’s why it don’t get fished that much. Sure a lot of ‘um in here, though.”
In half an hour we’d caught a dozen trout. We kept six averaging about 8-inches long, and cooked them over an open fire in olive oil, watching them sizzle and twist in Joe’s ancient Cold Handle steel frying pan. Combined with fried potatoes with wild onion tops, and cold water from the tiny spring near the shoreline, it was a meal fit for royalty. We turned in just as the sun disappeared into the western trees.
The next morning we began laying the beams. It was heavy work and we used a chain fall hooked to a rough tripod Joe constructed out of spruce poles. I am always amazed at how skillful Joe is when using an axe. His favorite woodworking tool is a double-bit axe with a 3-pound head. With each blade sharpened to a featheredge, he can remove the largest chips or the smallest slivers with a surgeon’s touch. It is an ancient skill, mostly lost in our modern society.
Carefully he fitted the corner notches and cross notches of the floor supports. When he was satisfied, we began laying the floor stringers. It was slow work, since the logs were of different sizes and some had bends and bulges. With the axe, and using only his eye for measuring, he rolled and fitted, cut and recut, and then placed each log again. In late afternoon, when the last piece was laid, I bent to peer over the line of stringers. The surface of each looked directly in line with each of the others. I shook my head in wonder.
Joe sat near the end of the floor on a stump, sharpening his axe with a round stone. Suddenly I heard the sound of an outboard motor and an aluminum boat came through the channel and across the pond to the beach. I could see the tall figure of Sherman Fraud in one seat and a short, solid looking man at the controls. We met the boat at the shore and pulled the front up on the gravel. The two men stepped out.
“This is Gorman Builder,” Fraud said, gesturing toward the other man. Builder shook hands with each of us impatiently. “I’ve hired him to help build the camp.” He saw the look on Joe’s face and flushed. “It’s just that I’ve received word from Mr. Rottweiler and he says he intends to use the camp as soon as it’s built. I figured the sooner we could get it done, the more appreciative Mr. Rottweiler will be, if you know what I mean.” He smiled and winked.
“I run a construction company in Presque Isle,” Builder said shortly. “Got a lot of experience in putting up small structures. Let’s take a look at what you’ve got here.” He brushed past us and strode up to the building site.
“Oh no, this is all wrong!” he said walking around the structure and peering at the log underpinning. “You should be using square beams for the sills and two-by-eights for floor stringers. This will never do!”
“No square beams or two-by-eights here,” Joe said mildly, swinging the axe to sink the blade into a stump.
“I’m planning on bringing in a small portable sawmill,” Builder continued as though Joe had never spoken. “We can quickly turn some of these logs into beams and planks.”
“Be a shame, after all this work,” Joe said.
“Well, you may be fine with rough work,” Builder returned, “but you need dimension lumber to make a flat floor. Can’t be done with round logs.”
I pulled a long board from the pile nearby and slid it onto the floor stringers. It lay perfectly flat across each log. “Flatter than that?” I asked frostily.
Builder stared at the board. Then he reached over to where our big level lay on a stump and sat it on the board. The bubble steadied into the exact center. Builder quickly slid the board this way and that across the stringers, but the bubble stayed centered.
“Well…” he cleared his throat. “Maybe we won’t have to tear apart everything…”
“Won’t tear apart anything,” Joe said evenly. “It’s a flat floor.”
“Well, we’ll still need the sawmill,” Builder said confidently. “How else are you going to square the logs on three sides?”
“I wasn’t plannin’ on squarin’ them at all,” Joe said. He pulled the folded drawing out of a pocket. “The drawin’ shows round logs with saddle-notch corners.”
Builder waved a hand. “That drawing’s just a rough outline. I’m sure Mr. Rottweiler will want the best, most competently built structure available for the money. Logs with flattened sides fit together smoothly and keep out drafts. And those boards? They’re okay for the first floor but I’m thinking hardwood for the second. I’ve got some nice birch that will take a good finish with a buffing machine. And as for saddle notches, well,” he smiled deprecatingly, “that might have been alright in 1770, but I’ve developed a new type of tongue and groove notching system that is far better and can be done with a machine. I’ll bring the machine along with me next time, too. Of course,” he said, frowning. “You’ve got the cabin too small.”
Joe looked back and forth between the two men. “All I got to go by is Mr. Rottweiler’s drawin’. He’s got the dimensions writ right on there…12 foot by 16 foot, with a six-foot porch. Looks to me like he wanted a small, traditional log cabin, not a modern chalet.”
“I’m afraid I have to go along with Mr. Builder,” Sherman Fraud said thoughtfully. “Although I haven’t personally met Mr. Rottweiler since he hired me by internet, I’m sure he will be more pleased with a more comfortable and tightly built structure, using modern techniques and materials.”
The two men walked down to the boat while we followed along behind. Builder reached into the bow and pulled out a wooden construction about three feet square. It was an intricate web of tongue and groove ends joining a couple of short, square logs at right angles.
“Here’s a model of my corner joints, so you can study how it will go together. We’ll be back with everything I need in a few days time.” After Fraud climbed into the boat, Builder shoved it off and leaped inside. “I’m sending along a man to help with some of the heavy lifting until I can get back. He’ll be coming by trail. He’s a little slow, but he’s able, and good at the grunt work.” The motor roared into life and the boat moved off across the pond.
We stared until the craft disappeared into the outlet stream. Then we turned silently and walked back up to the floor.
“What now?” I asked “You want to pick up our stuff and head home?”
Joe stared at the smooth logs, joined so carefully and accurately together. “Nope,” he said softly. “I agreed to build a log cabin like Rottweiler drew. We got at least two days. Let’s git to work.”
We worked until dark nailing down the first floor. After a short night of restless sleep, we started on the walls before sunrise. We had three logs up all the way around and the doorframe in place when a tall, muscular young man came out through the trees from the trail to town. He was dressed in old jeans and a tattered work shirt, with a scrap of red handkerchief tied around his head. He walked slowly up to the cabin, staring, mouth slightly agape.
“You come to help?” Joe said shortly. The young man closed his mouth.
“Yeah, I guess so. Gee, mister, this is…why it’s beautiful!” He looked closely at the saddle notches at one corner. Not even a knife blade would fit into the corner joint. He looked up. “My name’s Tom. What you want me to do?”
Tom might have seemed slow to Builder, but he caught on quickly about handling logs and moving lumber around. With his muscles and willingness to work, the building went even faster. By evening, we had the walls up nearly five feet, with the frames of all four windows in place.
A half hour before dark Joe wiped sweat off his face and looked over at Tom. “You like fried trout?”
“I love fried trout,” Tom replied enthusiastically.
“C’mon,” Joe continued. “Let’s go catch supper.”
Tom had never fished with a fly rod, but it only took a few minutes of lessons from Joe before the young man was hooked fast to a 10-inch trout. He whooped with delight as the fish bored deeply, bending the rod in a tight arc.
An hour later, full of trout and virtually exhausted, we laid around the fire under the tarps, staring at the flickering flames. Tom asked questions about the building and we told him the story about Fraud, Builder, and the change in plans they intended to impose.
“But this is a beautiful cabin,” Tom objected. “I mean, really beautiful. What’s this?” He had found the wooden model Builde left behind.
“That’s a model of the type of corner notch Builder wants to use on the cabin,” I said.
Tom examined it from all angles. “This is really weird,” he said. Then he looked across the fire at us.
“I got to hike out to town,” he said regretfully. “I didn’t bring no sleeping bag or nothing.”
“We got an extra blanket,” Joe said looking around. “It’s gonna be a warm night, an’ you kin use my jacket for a pillow.”
“Gee, thanks, Joe.”
I smiled as Tom wrapped up in the blanket and was out like a light almost immediately.
“Good kid,” I said softly.
“Yeah. Too bad he has to work for that idiot,” Joe replied
The next morning we were at it again early. By mid-afternoon we had the walls up and the gable ends completed. We had just started the process of setting the roof stringers in place when we heard the sound of motors. Two boats came across the pond. In the front one, Fraud and Builder stared at the log structure that had miraculously risen on the campsite. The larger rear boat held two men and a mass of equipment. Me and Joe walked down to the shore as the boats slid onto the gravel.
Fraud stepped out, his mouth agape. “What the heck have you done?” he croaked.
“Built a cabin, jest like we agreed,” Joe said.
“Just look at everything we have to re-do!” Builder thundered.
Fraud reached into a pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “I figured we’d have to let you go when we talked to you last time, so I figured out your time and made out a check. But I probably should subtract for the damage you’ve done. I may even…”
“Who’s that?” Builder interrupted.
I looked back and saw Tom walking from the cabin to the campfire.
“That’s yer man, Tom,” Joe said.
“That’s not my man,” Builder said. “My man couldn’t come until today. He’s there in the other boat.”
As we watched, Tom picked up Builder’s model and carefully set it in the fire.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Builder roared.
Tom didn’t answer as he walked down to the shoreline. Pulling a disposable lighter from his pocket, he touched a flame to the bottom edge of the check Fraud still held. The tall man jerked as the flame touched his fingers.
Blowing on a quickly blistering thumb, Fraud glared at Tom.
“Who do you think you are, you…”
“My name is Harold Thomas Rottwieler,” Tom said, carefully pronouncing every syllable, “and you two are fired!”
Both Fraud and Builder stared. “But…but…we…” Builder began.
Tom got right in his face. Pointing back at the cabin he said, “That’s what I wanted! That’s what I drew plans for! The kind of little cabin I fished out of with my Uncle Mose Linchpin over on the Mattawamkeak in Haynesville when I was a kid. You can’t even follow a simple drawing. If I’d left it up to you two, I’d have something that looked like it belonged in the Hamptons. Now git! And take your junk with you!”
Grumbling and complaining, the men climbed back into the boats. Motors roared, and the two craft streaked back across the pond toward the outlet.
Joe scowled. “You should of told us who you was.”
“I did. I’m Tom. I’ve always been called by my middle name.” He grinned. “I guess it’s a good thing I decided to arrive early and see how things were going.”
“Yeah,” Joe smiled slowly. “I guess it is. You don’t look much like one of them ‘dot com’ millionaires.”
Tom grinned. “Too bad, ‘cause I are one.”
Joe grinned back. “Well, you done jawin’? We got work ta do.”
We started back up toward the cabin.
“Mose Linchpin really yore uncle?” Joe said.
“He was a crotchety ol’ fart.”
“That he was,” Tom sighed. “That he was.”
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