How I spent my unemployment vacation
This project began last winter as we sat at our kitchen table on a Sunday morning looking out of the large window facing north and looking toward our barn and pasture. I had made the barn secure enough for the horses in 2006, and yet there remained much to do to bring the property up to speed.
The summer of 2007 had come and gone, and though I had so much to do on the property, I had almost no idea where to begin and little spare time to deal with those issues. Earlier in the year, our old friend Red had become very sick and was confined to his bed for the most part. Gale and I went to see Red in his final days. He was in good spirits and was glad to see us. The final conversation I had with Red was about the barn.
I told Red that I was going to install a water hydrant in the the barn by running an underground pipe from the house.
"What size pipe are you going to use?" he asked.
I wasn't sure of the size to use so I ventured a guess. "3 inch, I think."
"Shit," Red said, "you don't need no 3 inch water pipe. 3/4 or 1 inch will be enough." Of course we all about fell off of our chairs laughing when the old man let out that cuss word.
Red also advised me to make sure there where no joints or elbows in the line running to the hydrant. He said that I should try to run a single piece to the hydrant from inside the house. It was the last time I saw Red. I couldn't attend his funeral, but Gale did. Cecil carried his friend Red from the funeral home to the cemetery on a mule drawn wagon.
My schedule was particularly crowded in 2007. I was working full time, sometimes six days per week, and the band was very active throughout 2007. My mother’s estate needed tending so during the summer and fall of 2007 I was occupied with working and resolving the business of my mother’s estate which was mostly centered in North Dakota.
We did get a few important things done on the barn.
We were able to get a water pipe run from the house to the barn in 2007. Our neighbor Danny used the trencher implement for his Bobcat to dig a trench from the house to the barn and installed a pvc line. I related to him what Red had told me about installing the line, and we followed the old mule skinner's instructions to the letter.
We installed this hydrant in the barn which was a huge benefit for us.
Throughout the winter of 2006, we had carried water from the house in a six gallon container whenever the water hose from the house had frozen. With a 25 gallon water station for the horses inside the barn, and each horse usually consuming 10 gallons of water each day, this became a very exhausting task. After installing this hydrant in the barn, it was no longer necessary to carry water from the house except on the extremely cold mornings when we brought a single container of hot tap water to defrost the water station if it froze over.
Also in 2007, I worked on the loft of the barn reinforcing the walls, “sistering” any of the roof trusses that showed weakness, and I reinstalled a huge 2x8” oak beam that had joined the sides. When we first bought the property, the beam was dangling by a splinter of one of the roof trusses. We had removed the beam when we began to make the loft ready to house winter hay in 2006.
In the spring of 2007, after the hay was depleted, I reinstalled the beam as the main support of a shelf or mezzanine on the west end of the loft. I felt the beam was an important facet of the loft because it had spanned the entire width of the roof and had only ceased to function when the roof truss split as the barn shifted during the old shed’s collapse.
I made some brackets out of 2x12” boards and attached them to 4x4” posts that supported the walls on either side and then secured the beam to the brackets. The shelf is about 4ft high and 8ft deep. I used four 2x6” boards laid flat across the upper wall frame to support the decking because there were already two 2x4” oak boards laid flat and attached diagonally to reinforce the upper corners of the walls. I used ¾” particle board and siding for decking to add strength. When I was assured that the shelf could support my weight no matter where I stood on it, I installed a ladder in the center for access and a couple of rails along the edge to prevent me from falling off accidentally.
I had been schooled on the aspect of “memory” that wood retains over time as it sags or bows due to stress. My intent was never to straighten the barn, but to hold it right where it is. The shelf was my way of locking in the shape of the roofline at least on the west end where it had sustained the most damage during the shed’s collapse. By turning this reinforcement into a shelf, I was still able to store about 30 square bales of hay on top of it and more underneath if necessary.
Despite the work that had already been done, there was still much to do as 2008 approached.
Last winter, as I looked out of the kitchen window, I made up my mind that I was going to get at least some of the remaining work finished this year. I began to make a mental list of all the things I wanted to take care of in 2008.
The concept of a shed to expand the barn was realized one Sunday morning in February as I drank coffee with Gale at the kitchen table and made some rough sketches of how I wanted to expand the barn.
One of the sketches looked like this:
My idea is to rebuild a shed across the back of the barn similar to the one whose crumbled remains I had to remove before I could begin the initial restoration of the barn. In addition to that, I wanted to expand the barn to the west with a “lean to” structure that would eventually house a larger tack room and a loafing shed for fitting up tack.
In early spring we made plans to put a new roof on the barn. The patch job we’d done in 2006 was torn off in a windstorm. The rest of the roofing dried and shrunk during the 5 month drought of summer and fall 2007. During the winter and spring of 2007 and 2008, huge pieces of roofing were blown down.
Our neighbor Gary installed the roof for us in April 2008.
First he installed 2x4” roof supports over the old roofing and 1x6” boards along the sides to attach the gable caps. Then he set the roofing and caps. The result looks like this from the front:
Gary expressed his concern about the shape the roofing had taken as he installed it. He explained that he could have shimmed and leveled the roof supports so the roof was square and proper, but the time taken for that kind of action would drive the cost of the project far beyond what he’d estimated.
Of course I’d spent many hours compensating for the lack of plum, level and square in that barn’s interior and exterior. There isn’t a straight line on or in that barn. It leans to the east and is swelled in the center, but it’s sound nonetheless.
I explained to Gary that the barn had character, and the roofline was an integral part of that unique quality. I assured him not to worry, that’s precisely the outcome I was expecting, and he had done a quality installation.
With the roof installed, the next project slated for the barn was to install a sliding door to replace the APA partition I’d improvised in 2006 to block that end of the barn for the winter. Soon enough I would have a lot of time for projects around the property.
I quit my job at the end of May 2008. The reason I’d quit my job was because I had been driving 45 to 50 minutes in the morning and then again in the evening to get to and from work sometimes six days per week. The price of gasoline had topped $3.00 per gallon that spring which had added another reason for me find work closer to home. I liked where I worked well enough, but the hours amounted to anywhere from 43 to 54 hours per week plus the commute each way. The job was eating up too much of my daytime hours and more of my out of pocket expense to remain there. So I gave plenty of notice and left the job at the end of May.
The weekend that I left, we had a really nice party with about 80 guests outside in our back yard.
It was a great party. The band played. Folks danced, and it went into the late hours of the evening. Some of the guests camped overnight.
After the party, my plan was to take a month off, and then look for another job closer to home, but as the summer went toward fall, the economy began a downward slide and hasn’t ceased to decline since. At age 59, my prospects for finding work became bleaker as the bottom fell out of the global financial markets. Consumers began to spend less. The government was devising bailout schemes for the various markets and manufacturers. And no one was hiring someone like me. I put in nearly one hundred applications over the next months at just about anywhere that even hinted at hiring, but I received no calls. I did get one interview late in the summer, but that didn’t result in a hire.
In the Spring, I’d purchased a used compact tractor from an old fellow who was selling his property and equipment. It is a 4wd New Holland TC33D with a front loader and a 3 point hitch which makes it perfect for the chores I have to do around my property. When I purchased the tractor, he threw in a 60” bush hog. This is my first and, most probably, my only tractor. This stout compact tractor enabled me to accomplish many of the very heavy chores that lay ahead.
So, as I explained, I spent a lot of time at home the summer and fall of 2008. Gale continued to work at her job, and I was able to get a few jobs playing with the band and using my tractor to bush hog for several clients. That money came in handy as the summer progressed. Still, I had plenty of time around the property to begin to make some much needed repairs and updates.
In June, I began to repair a stretch of fence that had been destroyed for nearly a decade when a large tree had fallen in a storm along the eastern boundary of the pasture . I cleared all of the old debris and removed the rotted trunk. Some large posts had been stacked along the fence and I removed them as well. I cut down a large wild cherry tree that was leaning over the fence line. We had strung barbed wire across the opening to contain the horses in May of 2006, but the entire area where the tree had toppled needed rebuilding. I had planned to rebuild that portion of the fence from the time I purchased the property, but lacked the time and equipment to do so before the summer of 2008.
As the economic news became worse, I began to realize that finding work would be extremely difficult for someone of my age and background. I wasn’t about to feel sorry for myself, but for every job listing where I’d apply there would be no fewer than 50 others seeking employment.
One of the tragedies of the economic collapse was a number of home foreclosures that occurred when folks began to lose their jobs and were unable to maintain payments. One such casualty was my neighbor Denny, who had been without a job for more than a year when the bank finally took action to remove him from his home. As he was taking loads of his possessions from the property, he invited me to take a look in his barn to see if I would be interested in buying any of his tools.
The first item that caught my eye was a post hole digger that could be operated from a three point hitch. It had a 9” auger and was in like new condition. He also had two 10ft. tracks for an exterior sliding door that would be suitable for my barn. He volunteered to throw in about a half a ton of raw lumber on the deal as well. Everything I bought from Denny has been put to very good use.
I used the post hole digger to rebuild the 100ft of fence that had been flattened by the fallen tree. I also used the digger to build the lean to and pasture extension later on. I hung the sliding door tracks above the opening on the east side of the barn, and I stored the lumber in the loft.
When I rebuilt the fence along the pasture I replaced the
field fence with a “non climb” equine fence that horses can’t step through
because the mesh is a tighter pattern.
I felt that using this type of fencing should cut down on the number of times Dolly can get herself trapped in the pasture fence.
Then, in early July I designed and built a 10’ sliding door for the main entrance on the east side of the barn. In late July, with help from my neighbors Gary, Dakota and J.R., we installed the sliding door into the pair of 10’ tracks I’d gotten from Denny.
The sliding door was the finishing touch from the initial barn makeover. My skills at carpentry continue to improve. This door was probably my most ambitious achievement at the time. Though the APA structure I’d improvised for the opening was done on the spur of the moment, I’d found that over the course of a year, the “accidental” design I’d come up with was very suitable for our needs. I designed the sliding door to mimic the previous design I’d improvised. I used treated plywood to panel the door along with 2x4” and 2x6” boards to build a support frame for the structure. I really like the look and finish of rough cut lumber so I used some to frame the exterior of the 4ft hinged door and opening.
Though this sliding door may seem rather unspectacular to many who view it now, I felt that my success at design and construction of this piece had demonstrated (to me, at least) that I was a serviceable carpenter. Given the confidence that this door had inspired and my experience using the post hole digger, I began to conceive my most ambitious project to date.
Soon after the sliding door was installed, and as summer came into full bloom, we took possession of two male Border Collie pups.
In our research of the breed, we had found that Border Collies were English in origin so we decided that it would be fitting to name them after prominent Englishmen. They were dubbed Mick and Keef.
There had been a 15ft by 30ft dog run enclosure installed on the property before we owned it. The dog run had remained unused for more than two years. I had removed the enclosure’s 4ft. gate and used it on Sunny’s stall in 2006. I replaced the dog run's gate with another and used a piece of equine fence to seal off the gaps in the tubing. I placed a shelf board across the bottom of the opening so the gate sealed against it.
My next project was to build a shelter for the pups. I completed the project while the pups were in the hospital for neutering. I began by using six foot 1x6” treated fence boards to build a three sided wind break that backed up to the west. I set a post inside the pen and built the third wall. Using 2x6” boards and some plywood scraps, I built a roof deck. Gary had left a few scraps of roofing from the barn project, and there was just enough to put a sound roof on the shelter. I used some of the roof cap that was left over to form a flap around the edge of the roof to push the drip line away from the interior.
The pup’s shelter was the first time I’d applied roofing to anything I’d built, and after some time to inspect my work, the roof is holding just fine. One of the tests of this roofing came in mid September when Hurricane Ike that devastated the Texas coast regenerated across the Ohio Valley and struck our area as a category 1 storm. The shelter and the barn roof held up just fine despite 80mph winds.
Just before Ike hit our area, I’d begun the project that would include the lean to. My plan was to build a winter pasture for the horses. The main pasture is eaten down to roots by the time fall arrives. Sometime just before or just after Thanksgiving, I take my horses off pasture and keep them in a ¼ acre pen behind the barn and give them access to the stables as well. During the time the horses are off pasture, I feed them a hay staple to supplant their grass diet. The pen behind the barn gets eaten and stomped down to dirt or mud after just a couple of weeks of confinement. The horses really miss eating grass and challenge the boundaries of the winter pen constantly to try to access some grass. That's when Dolly most often gets hung up in fencing.
Over the past two years, I’ve used corral panels to build small enclosures for the horses in grassy areas of my lawn so they can eat some grass during the winter months. It’s always been a treat for them to get a few mouthfuls of green fescue after months of dry hay. So I cut in about 1/8 acre of lawn along with about ¼ acre of pasture to form a winter turnout pasture adjacent to the barn and winter pen.
The first thing I did was demolish the rickety old 15ft by 10ft shed that was just west of the barn. Once that was accomplished, I laid out plans to expand the pasture and build a lean to. I set out stakes and stretched twine between them to mark the boundaries. Then I sprayed the ground with florescent paint to designate the posts to be one rod apart along the fence.
The eastern border of the pen would have a 12ft gate and the west wall of the new shed as part of the enclosure.
That’s when I began to push the envelope as a carpenter.
I’ve never built anything from the ground up. I know nothing of engineering. I know nothing of construction. I took the time to look at some other similar structures, made some calls and got a lot of advice, but I have no experience doing anything like building a structure of any kind. Despite that fact, I pressed on and began to realize my vision and design for this project.
I had calculated that the weight and dimension of the structure would require that I use 6x6” posts. I had read that a 17 degree pitch is ideal for a roofline in this region so that it would require the least amount of surface to efficiently shed a snow load. At that point I acquired three 12ft and three 16ft 6x6” posts to begin construction of the shed.
First, I set fence posts along the perimeter of the pen.
Then I set the posts for the shed after adding 2x8” roof trusses and 2x6” lateral supports to form the structure. A scaffolding would have been a better way to build this roof, but since ladders where what I had, that’s what I used.
Next I used 2x4” boards laid flat for roof supports. When my neighbor Gary came over one day, he suggested that I set two more trusses centered between the existing trusses to reduce the sag of the roof supports. He also suggested that I place additional 2x6” lateral supports on the opposite side of the posts under the trusses.
After I added the trusses and lateral supports, the shed was ready for roofing. I ordered the same roofing that Gary had used on the barn. One of Gary’s employees, Mark, helped me to set the roofing. When we had roofed all but the last 3 ft row we stopped for the day. I wanted to be sure that the final pieces wouldn’t have to be cut so when we got to the place where the last pieces were all that needed to be added we stopped so I could build on to the roof to accommodate the last sections.
A real carpenter would have measured all of that out beforehand, but I’m nowhere near that competent.
So I built an extension to the roof frame.
While I waited for Mark to have an opportunity to return to finish the roofing, I built the sides of the shed and stretched the fencing.
By the time Mark returned and helped finish the roof, I had hung the gate and removed the former fence I was replacing with the new fence line.
The shed will be crowded with lawn furniture, ladders and equipment that we want to shelter during the winter months.
Here is the finished product along with the reason I'm doing all of this.
I'm keenly aware that all of this work I've done on my property seems like nothing special to most folks. Restoring, building, repairing and updating are mundane tasks that bring little satisfaction to any who aren't directly benefitting from the improvements. I'm rather used to that now in my life. However, I do feel a supreme satisfaction when I look upon these structures and enclosures I'm creating.
To me, all of these events are extremely special. Not just the aspect of improving my particular corner of existence, but how everything seems to fall into place in my greatest times of need. I know a lot has to do with my drive and desire to accomplish these tasks, but the timing and precision of all that goes into getting these jobs completed cannot be coincidental. As I look at my work, I understand that there's nothing truly notable in what I've done to just about everyone but me. These tasks are something that I've never attempted before, and that's what makes me feel that I'm not alone in this endeavor.
My mother used to sing a hymn: For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
How do I know this to be true? The fact that I'm able to turn my visions into reality is proof enough for a simple mind like mine.