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The House that Huff Built

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The House that Huff Built

February 27, 2002

Trite it may be, and a cliché that doesn't make sense. Still, that old-time expression, "cute as a bug's ear," seems most appropriate for the house restored last year for the woman who is the Bonner County Sheriff's Office new third in command. Captain Elaine Savage's home is 12 miles northeast of Priest River. You aren't likely to find another like it in the area.

Savage was the Priest River Police Chief until then mayor Tom Hartliep and the town council disbanded the department last fall in favor of contracting out the city's law enforcement services to the BCSO. Sheriff Phil Jarvis appointed Savage to head up the county's patrol division on the basis of her extensive experience and training in law enforcement.

There's still a hint of Texas in the speech of this 47-year old who spent 17 years as a police officer in Irving, Texas, following a sting as a military police officer for the Army. Don't let the accent fool you though. Captain Savage is a Priest River girl born and bred.

She moved home in 1997 to help her father with his cattle operation on the family homestead, Meadow Brook Farm, located in the Blue Lake area. From that point, until she was hired by the City of Priest River to replace retiring long-time police chief Wally Mitchell in early 1998, Savage flew back and forth to Salt Lake City working as a ticket agent for Southwest Airlines.

Her home off Eastside Loop Road is just across the road form her parents' residence. The log structure she lives in was the original Savage family home, and the house in which Elaine grew up as the "step-granddaughter" of the man who built it. Cal "Daddy" Huff was actually her third cousin, and a master hand with a broadaxe. He was also the first district ranger on the Priest Lake Ranger District, and the man after whom Huff Lake above Norman was named. His biological grandson, Michael Black of Warden, WA, describes him as a "woodsman, trapper, carpenter, ranger, farmer and a tanner," as well as "permanent juryman" in Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene, and a "devoted family man." One of his sons grew up to become a Bonner County Commissioner.

But this story is about the house the senior Huff constructed on his homestead in the 1920's, over the course of several years. Explaining the long time frame involved, Rob France, the carpenter Savage hired to restore the house, says, "You have to remember he was running a ranch operation, too."

Huff built his house out of white pine and Ponderosa logs. "It is 24 x 38 inside, two stories high and will contain nine large rooms," the Priest River Times newspaper reported on the occasion of the housewarming in 1926, before the structure was entirely finished. "It is almost entirely the work of Mr. Huff's own hands, and when completed will be one of the nicest homes in the Blue Lake valley."

The fireplace in the living room was one of the finishing touches Huff added later. He built it the following year, in 1927. According to Savage, the chimney sweep she hired to check it out in 2001 said, "The chimney Daddy Huff built in 1927 was in better shape than most of the chimneys he sees that were built in 1977."

Added France, "The fireplace was so well built they only had to point up (re-set and re-mortar) the bricks at the top where they had weathered.

"Our whole purpose was to make the outside of the house look like it did in 1920," France said of the restoration he effected to the exterior of the residence. He and Savage ripped off the siding that had covered it for many years, exposing the logs Huff had laboriously squared with his broadaxe. They re-chinked them with a product called Perma-chink, "a flexible, latex product that seals the logs and allows them to expand and contract without breaking the seal," he said. "But he (Huff) used lime and mortar chinking."

Huff hewed his logs from virgin timber felled with a crosscut. "He split out the cants with a wedge and hewed 'em square with a broad axe," France explained. "That's typical of a southern Appalachian building style. In Missouri, where he was from, they probably used oak or poplar."

While carpenters today use a chalk line to measure a straight line, Huff used an ink line that was still visible when the ceiling beams in the living room were exposed. France said an ink line consisted of a reservoir to hold black ink, and a reel like a fishing reel. "A hook at the end of the line stuck in the log. He pulled the line through the ink and snapped it out."

By way of a fuller explanation, he added, "Somebody holds up the line in the middle when it's ready to be snapped out, and that leaves a straight ink line."

While the longest logs used in building the house are 42 feet long, France said, "Most are shorter because he spliced where he had to put in doors and windows." Each log is two feet high and six inches thick.

On the inside, the log walls were also exposed in the living room. They had been covered with "Celotex, wallpaper, and old PR Times from the 1920's," France said.

Perhaps the interior's most fetching feature, and the one Savage says is her favorite, is the large bay window in the living room. France describes it as "more of a room addition than it is a window." The nook formed by the bay is walled by windows and is large enough to contain plant stands and an easy chair. Savage says it's where she likes to retire to sip her first cup of coffee of the day while perusing the morning newspaper. The ceiling of the nook is a narrow shiplap which has also been covered up by Celotex. France refinished it to a dark, walnut color. "I was really pleased when I saw the wood," Savage said.

France also exposed the original pine floors in the living room, hand-sanding and varnishing them. The remaining floors downstairs, except for the bathroom, were tiled with a handsome, red and tan Mediterranean-style 12-inch tile, which carries out the red in the kitchen trim. France says replicating the original wood trim used in the house was easy. The carpenter Huff hired to construct the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms also built the stairways in two other early Priest River homes that are still standing. One is the late Hallie Griswold's home, now owned by France's wife, Griswold's great-niece. One room of that house still retains its original trim, and France copied it for Savage.

The upstairs of Huff's house was once four bedrooms. France remodeled one into a bathroom, which he says is "really the only contemporary room in the house." The bathroom downstairs and a small foyer with a closet were created long ago out of Daddy Huff's bedroom, but were remodeled by France. He installed a clawfoot bathtub for Savage and set a round sink into the top of an old dresser that she says has been in the house "forever," and which she refinished. The décor of the room is otherwise strictly modern, featuring a black-and-white Dallas Cowboys theme. Underneath the old wallpaper, Savage found where Daddy Huff had started to carve his name into the logs, never finishing the last two letters of "Huff."

Another original feature of the interior which adds much to the charm of the house is the built-in buffet which separates the dining room from the pantry off the kitchen. The buffet's been painted white for years, but Savage plans to refinish it back to its original walnut stain and varnish. She also wants to replace the hinged doors in the pantry that allowed the piece to be accessed from both rooms. The pantry had been converted into a breakfast nook in one of those long-ago remodeling jobs.

Savage's small, narrow kitchen looks pretty much the same as it always did except for new appliances, including a propane range, and the red tile on the floor. The end across from the pantry is also furnished with a wood cook stove. Savage says she wants to replace it with the original wood range that served Mama Huff, believing all of the pieces for it are scattered in various buildings on the ranch.

Many of the furnishings in the house are original: round, oak dining room table; phonograph; rocker; mounted deer head over the fireplace; pictures, etc. Savage says she's still finding nice pieces in odd places; for example, the wineglass and liqueur glass she dug up last summer from out in the yard. The glasses were among the household items buried on the homestead as the great forest fire of 1931 swept across the mountains from Freeman Lake to scorch the Peninsula- Blue Lake area. By some miracle, the Huff house was spared, though one corner was burning when neighbors Susie and George Fleshman reached it and Susie extinguished the flames. The barn burned, however, with a team and a saddle horse that panicked and ran inside as the conflagration advanced.

Savage next wants to turn her attention to restoring the big barn that replaced the one the fire destroyed in 1931. First, though, she's not quite finished with the house. Originally, there was an archway between the living room and dining room with a three-foot-high "shelf" divider extending out on each side at the floor. Sandpoint's Mary Ellen Black, who grew up in the house as the youngest of the Huff children, has promised to try to "draw out a picture of how the arch looked" for Elaine. "I've been very lucky to have Mary Ellen to help me," she said.

France said he spent five months doing what's been done on the house so far, at a cost of somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 - still cheaper than the price of a new house with none of the character and history behind it, he pointed out. "Now she's good for another 100 years," he said.

Marylyn Cork is a retired writer who spends her retirement… writing.


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Marylyn Cork

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