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The Playhouse

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Working with Dettwiler Lumber, out on the Scenic Route

My dad and his dad, with questionable assistance from my brothers and I (ages five, four and one-and-half), 50-some years ago built a stout little building we have called ever since “The Playhouse”—not to be confused with the Clark Fork bar that burned down years ago. I know it’s stout because it’s still standing, and it’s in my possession. It has a door, three windows and hidey-hole shelves under the overhung gables accessed by small ladders worn smooth by small feet. The Playhouse is ten by six feet, counting gables and eaves.

It is of scrap lumber sawmilled by the Dettwilers, maybe. Or John Harker, Roy Justice or Cecil Groff, who all sawed lumber for their neighbors in those years. Dettwiler advertised, at one time, the world’s longest wedges. I need one now to finish the new floor. The Playhouse isn’t the squarest building on the planet.

This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve torn down or rebuilt a number of buildings put together by my dad and his dad and my mom’s dad and others who have traversed this place on the green Clark Fork. Not many were square. Stout? Some of the time. Level? Much of the time. Square? Not.

Grandpa Earl Clayton, Mom’s dad, and his son-in-law were “jackknife carpenters.” If something didn’t quite fit, they whittled on it until it did. Grandpa and Dad built during their lives in Montana many buildings: houses, barns, sheds, shops, chicken houses and outhouses, many of which were a unique combination of logs, poles, hand-split cedar shakes—Grandpa’s interior finish of choice—and Dettwiler-style lumber and finished with “store-bought” windows, doors, linoleum and wallpaper.

A few are still standing, but none were square.

One transient builder was Louie Withers, an itinerant pulp logger married to Dad’s sister Muriel. Uncle Louie was a study in the vagary of life. He worked as hard as any man I ever knew, and worked Muriel’s kids just as hard, but only had to show for it a series of one-ton trucks with hand-operated winches to load 8-foot sections of pulpwood and another series of run-down trailer houses stuck on lots that belonged to someone else.

When Louie and Muriel lived on this land that belonged to someone else, he built a storage shed against their trailer with Dettwiler-style two-by-fours for walls and rafters and aluminum roofing. The inside was lined with tar paper, cardboard, black plastic and more aluminum roofing. You might think this was for insulation, or to keep mice out, but one wall was mostly windows made of clear plastic and chicken wire and the door might hold out something as large as a small, undetermined dog.

This building, too, is in my possession, and I’m tearing it down—before it falls down. I’m somewhat amazed that it hasn’t, but it has the two requisites for building survival, a roof that sheds water and a durable foundation. The foundation is the sledge my dad put it on when he moved it years ago to be a garden and storage shed in the back yard of the house he and Mom built of logs, poles, Dettwiler-style lumber, hand-split cedar shakes and store-bought windows.

The back wall of Uncle Louie’s shed was of one-inch yellow pine planks, 12 and a quarter inches wide. Why the odd width, I will never know. They were secured to the shed with high-quality 12-penny nails, the kind you can’t buy any more. More than half pulled out straight enough to be used again. Those nails, five yellow pine planks and a long wedge cut from a sixth, will comprise a new floor for The Playhouse.

The Playhouse is being saved. It has a new foundation. The roof has another winter in it—maybe—but I’ve another for it when I get time to put it on, which shouldn’t take long—knock on Dettwiler-style wood.

In moments of frustration with an unsquare building built 50-some years ago on four bricks for a foundation, I’ve asked myself why I’m bothering—though I can’t help but know. Two generations of Comptons, cousins and friends thereof have navigated The Playhouse around the world multiple times, under sail, steam and nuclear power. It may have even been flown to Mars. The old floor, being covered with Uncle Louie’s yellow pine planks, is stained with the imaginary blood of villains and heroes alike. High tea has been served there to the Queen of Sheba and the King of Siam. Pretend husbands have come home from pretend jobs to pretend wives and pretend children myriad times.

There is another generation of Comptons, cousins and friends out there in need of places to exercise their imagination. The Playhouse is being saved for them, and Uncle Louie’s nails, Dettwiler-style lumber and jackknife carpentry are parts of the salvation.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

The Scenic Route, John Harker, Roy Justic, Cecil Groff, Earl Clayton, Louie Withers, Dettwilers Lumber

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