BUILDING THE A-FRAME:
MEMORIES FROM 1962
Sometime around 1960 or 1961, my parents decided to buy a piece of land in Colorado and build an A-frame cabin on it.
They set their sights on the area around Leadville -- "Fourteener country". The idea was that the cabin would be a base for our summer vacations in the West, which centered on hiking and mountain climbing.
Somehow, my Dad became aware of "K & G Associates" -- a fellow named Mac Donald Knight, and his partner, whose last name was Gauthier -- who were selling pieces of land just north of Tennessee Pass.
Knight and Gauthier had bought up a bunch of old mining claims from Eagle County for back taxes, and they were hawking the place as "El Capitan Estates" (taking the name from a well-known mine on the hillside).
I guess we must have first gone out there to look at the place in 1961. I don't remember much about that trip, but my sister reminded me that when we first went to look at it, the road that went in later had not been cut yet. Mac Donald Knight piled us in the back of his old jeep, and we went pretty much straight up the hillside, on an old logging trail that was rougher than anything I had ever been on in my life to that point.
My folks ended up buying a 5-acre claim called "Ohio Boy". They picked out a spot that was relatively level (the claim ran up the gradient of the hill, and there wasn't much level space to be found), and that was only about 500 feet down the hill from the small spring near the eastern end of the property from which we planned to draw our drinking water. That was to be the site of our A-frame.
In the summer of 1962, we went out there and built it. Some old notes of my Dad's that I found show expenses for lumber of $302. I think he got a couple of local guys to come up and help him down the 20 or so lodgepole pines that we needed for the frame and to do a little odd carpentry; his notes show expenses of $65 for "Beck" and "carpenter". We also had help from John Magnason, who lived on Highway 24 at the bottom of the hill (more stories there -- left untold for now). Mostly, though, he built it himself -- with such help as the rest of us could provide. That consisted of my Mom, my older brother and sister, my younger sister, and me. I was a couple months shy of 11 at the time.
We were little, but we worked. Boy, did we work. One of the jobs I recall most vividly, was peeling the bark off of the trees that had been cut for the frame. I can still remember that old chisel my Dad gave me to work with -- can almost feel it in my hands. The trees did not yield up their bark easily. It was the middle of summer, and it was hot, sweaty work.
We also helped haul the logs back in from the woods where they had been cut. The logs were green, having just been cut, and they were too heavy to carry. My Mom's photos show at least two diferent methods for handling them -- a kind of travois arrangement, with the log spiked to a crosspiece that two people would then hold onto while they dragged it, and a somewhat less sophisticated method: dragging the thing on the end of a rope.
We lived "on site" during construction. My parents and sisters had the old army surplus tent that had always accompanied our family on our summer camping vacations; my brother and I slept in the back of the family station wagon.
Our only other living space was a shelter made by suspending plastic sheeting around and over a space defined by 4 pines, next to the cabin site. We had a table and a few makeshift shelves there, with the coleman stove and the cooking supplies, and that is where we cooked and ate.
The lumber that was to be used as the sheathing on the side of the cabin was piled next to the building site, and it served as a playground of sorts, or sometimes just as a place to sit and read.
I still remember the shot shown here, with us kids (and my Dad in front) pulling up one of the A-frames. I remember it because I was sick as a dog that day, with some kind of flu or something.
I had been sacked out in my bed in the back of the old station wagon. My Mom got me out, though, to come and pose for this shot. Everyone else looked like they were working hard to pull up the frame; I was just working at staying upright. Once the photo was taken, I went right back to bed.
Except for the chain saw used to cut down the trees for the framing timbers, the place was, of course, built entirely with hand tools - every nail driven by hand, every board cut made with an old hand saw. I spent a lot of my time playing off in the woods, away from the cabin, and the sounds of that hammering and sawing echoed in the background all the time.
It was the only human sound to be heard anywhere on the hillside, because we were the only people there. Our nearest neighbor was John, down on the highway.
During the building process, I don't remember doing much more than a little "play" carpentry. I do remember, though, running around the site and (probably) getting in the way. I had a few mishaps, of course. Before the floor was put down, I was walking along one of the joists, using it for a balance beam. My balance wasn't good enough, and I slipped, and fell - and in the worst way: astraddle the joist, one leg on either side. Luckily, the insides of my thighs took the force of the fall (and incurred the damage), and the bits farther up survived.
The A-frame cabin served as our summer vacation home through the 1960's and into the 1970's. Even after I went off to college, and stopped being involved in what I saw as "childish" things like vacations with the family, my parents kept going up there. My last visit -- of the "old era" -- was in 1971. I didn't get back there, until 1995.
In 1971, nine years after we built the A-frame, there was an addition to our little compound -- my folks put up the small cabin across the road from the A-frame. While my folks later sold the A-frame, they hung onto the little "shack".
In this photo, John Magnason (left) and my Dad (right) are finishing up the framing of the roof. The A-frame can be seen in the background.
It was initially put up to serve as a cooking cabin, since cooking with the wood stove tended to heat up the A-frame pretty well and on warm summer days it could get uncomfortably stuffy in there. My folks located a beautiful old enameled wood cook stove, with 4 burners and oven, and put it in the cabin.
During the long hiatus when no one visited, the place sustained some serious wear. The support poles that my folks had left wedged up against the rafters had been taken down and not replaced by a cousin who visited the place sometime in the '80s. The weight of the winter's snows bore down on the roof, eventually damaging the roofing and the structure itself, and water leaked in (destroying the stove). The roof was close to collapse when I came out in 1995 and fixed it.
[More stories about Colorado: Working Cattle at Rancho Escondido | Climbing Mt. Elbert ]