Writer and Photographer
That Time Our Small Town Built a Poor Couple a Brand-New Home They Wouldn’t Move Into
I have lived in the same small town for almost 40 years. Our population count is 421, including cats, dogs and my chickens: Rick’s Chicks.
I began to pastor the Potwin Christian Church in 1984 and, with an aging congregation living on limited incomes, their homes were falling into disrepair. With my construction background and a fundamental desire that works gave evidence of faith, we did a lot of housing rehab such as new roofs, painting an old house, replacing hot water heaters and the like.
One of the couples in our church, Donnie and Frances Dent, lived in such a ramshackle old house that I didn’t even know where to start on fixing it up. We loved Donnie and Frances.
Well, I should say, we loved Frances; Donnie was an acquired taste. He was an extremely large man with a speech impediment and a short fuse that made conversation with him difficult at times.
His wife, Frances, was the sweetest person you would ever meet. She, too, had a speech impediment but was easier to understand. She was almost bald because of a childhood illness and usually wore a wig. Sometimes, it was on straight.
I was walking by their little house one day in 1990 when Donnie hollered at me.
“Hey Peecher! Come here!”
I made my way to his front porch as he explained that his toilet needed fixed.
He took me inside and led me to their tiny little bathroom and to a toilet that was, well, use your imagination. The floor was so rotted I could see the dirt on the ground below it.
Now, if you’ve ever worked on a toilet, you know you must hug the silly things to work on them. There is no easy way to unbolt it without getting down on your hands and knees and getting romantic with it. I went home, got my tools, a long sleeve shirt and Vick’s Vapor Rub to put in my nose to stifle the stench.
As I walked into the house with my toolbox, Donnie blurted, “You don’t love me, do you?!”
Naturally, being a pastor, I lied. I tried to reassure him that yes, I loved him because Jesus wants us to love everyone so I loved him, too. However, deep inside, I just didn’t feel particularly affectionate towards him and never had. He was hard to understand, and I confess I didn’t put the effort into learning how to communicate with him.
I fixed the toilet, replaced the flooring, went home, and took a shower and washed my clothes, and cleaned the Vapor Rub out of my nose. I mentioned to God that maybe he could see fit to give me a golden pipe wrench in my crown. I often deal with conflicting altruism.
A few weeks later I received an early morning phone call; their house was on fire. Donnie had gone to work and Frances was in the front yard having a heart attack.
They lost everything but, after a few days in the hospital for Frances, they were both okay. We found them a temporary place to live, and the community, with the Red Cross and Salvation Army’s help, took care of them with new clothes and meals.
In one of my visits to Frances in the hospital, they told me they had $12,000 in insurance for both the contents and structure, not nearly enough to find them a different home and replace their belongings. They were planning on moving into a house someone in the family owned that was in worse shape than their old one. It had a hole in the living room where you could see the dirt below.
The idea hit me that we in the community should build them a new house, kind of like those old fashion barn raising days. The stem wall foundation of the old home was still in good shape, and I figured it would take about $30,000 in material and new appliances to set them up. Now, remember this was in the days before the internet and social media.
I shared my idea with them, asked if we could use their $12,000 to help build a new house and they agreed.
I’m still not sure where I learned it, but one of the leadership principles I developed in my journey was this: Commit, then figure it out.
The money poured from places and people none of us had ever heard of. Then, one hot Saturday in June of 1990, 125 people arrived at 310 North Ellis read to work, most of them not knowing which end of the hammer to use but their hearts were in the right place.
My brothers, Mike and Kelly, from whom I learned carpentry, ran a couple of crews and, by the time the day was over, we had built Donnie and Frances a brand-spanking new, two-bedroom bungalow. The house was sided, painted, roofed, rough plumbed and wired, and sheet rocked. We went through a whole house of materials and one band-aid.
As the summer sun set over their home about 9 that evening, I stood in the middle of the street looking at a beautiful little home that, 15 hours earlier, was a pile of building materials.
Donnie joined me and we both stood there, silent, then Donnie began to sob. I put my arm around him and we both sobbed.
“You do love me, don’t you peecher?”
At that moment, standing there with my arm around this huge blubbering man and both of us sweating profusely, I realized that love is not just something you feel, it is something you do. Love is an action.
It took a few more weeks to put the final touches on so Donni and Frances could move into their brand-new home. I was so excited for them!
But I was going to miss move-in day because I was at church camp in Ponca, Arkansas, but since they had a fully equipped new home with appliances and all new clothes, there wasn’t much to move except Donnie and Frances.
I came home from camp, anxious to see them in her now home, only to be told upon my arrival back home that they refused to move in.
Someone had lied to them and told them that I had snuck into the Register of Deeds and now the deed was in my name. If you know anything about real estate law, you know that just can’t happen, but Donnie and Frances were vulnerable and believed the person who told them.
After a trip to the Register of Deeds and proving to them that, no, I had not done what someone had lied to them about, they finally moved in.
Then I went looking for the person who lied to them. That’s the next story.
A Tribute to My Dad on His 100th Birthday
My dad would have turned 100 years old today were he still on this earth, but he left us 37 years ago at the age of 63 – the same age I am as I write this. He had rheumatic fever and rickets as a child and always had health issues. Then the last 11 years of his life was lived in crippling arthritic pain after he slipped with two children in his arms, fell and broke both of his elbows. There were days that I, as a teenage boy, had to dress him, because of the crippling, excruciating disease. He never complained.
I began this momentous day listening to church hymns which my dad loved. He was a baritone that, with a bit of training, would have been operatic. Often, we would go to surrounding churches to hear a guest speaker and when the music began and dad joined in, every head turned our way, in awe of the voice that emanated from this 5’8” tall bald guy. Of course, we were mortified that everyone was looking at us, but dad sang louder and, man, he could raise the roof. He liked it and we knew it. I still hear him singing every time I hear, “How Great Thou Art.” But his favorite was, “Heaven comes down and glory filled my soul!”
He was also a whistler. If you dropped by his place in the country and couldn’t find him in the house, all you had to do was step outside and listen for his whistle. Mostly hymns, but he loved Bing Crosby’s Irish album so it might just be, “The Same Old Shillelagh,” or “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”
As I was puttering (one of his words) in the garden today, I mulled over ways I could describe my dad and here are a few.
- He had a passion to know, and love, Jesus. Dad was a minister of small, country church and his pursuit of understanding Jesus was burned deeply in him for all the 26 years I had him in my life. Dad always had his “nest,” a comfy chair surrounded by the latest books he was reading and a cassette player to listen to sermons on tape. One favorite phrase was, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” Of all the followers of Christ I have known or profess to follow him, none compares with the intensity in which my dad sought an understanding and relationship with the lover of his soul.
- He believed this life is temporary – we’re just passing through. I have never been around anyone who walked as my dad did with a constant awareness of his eternal nature. I was 12 when the arthritis ravaged his body so from there until he passed when I was 26, he lived in a constant state of pain and the only way he could find meaning in the pain was to understand that one day, he would be pain free and it would all make sense. He often quoted the verse, “Our light afflictions, which are but for a moment, work for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. For we look not at the things which are seen, but the things which are not seen, for the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” Dad taught me how to suffer with dignity, hope, and purpose.
- He devoured books like candy. Dad read the great minds of history and contemporary culture. Looking back, I realize he had a photographic memory; he absorbed everything he read. He had no formal education past high school but was the most learned man I was ever around because he read, and read, and read. I would put him up against any theologian and bet on my dad for being the smartest one in the room. He bequeathed me his library – his most valued possession. If you saw my dad, no matter where he was, he had a book near him.
- He could quote almost any chapter and verse in the bible by memory. Of all the books dad took with him, his Bible was his favorite. In my high school basketball games, dad would be perched on the top bleacher leaning against the wall with a Bible across his lap. One person snidely suggested that dad was doing it for show, but dad replied, “No, it keeps me from yelling at the refs.” We had a great swimming hole north of us a few miles and dad would take us kids up there to frolic and he would lean against an old oak tree with his Bible across his lap. When he passed, his Bible was place in his casket and opened to Isaiah 26:3: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed upon Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.” Dad liked the King James Version.
- He believed it was okay to change your mind about God because reading will do that to you. I was listening to a radio preacher once with dad and the guy remarked that he had never changed his mind about God in 40 years. Dad looked at me and said, “There’s a man who doesn’t read.” I watched dad take different positions on certain theological issues that, looking back, I realized they cost him a lot because those with whom he had shared previous views, abandoned him when he changed his.
- He had grace, especially for the outcasts, downtrodden and poor and little tolerance for haughty religious people. Because of that, Dad attracted people who were cast out of other churches and religions. He often shook his head in disbelief and said, “The Christian army is the only army that shoots it wounded.”
- Love, and stick by your family, no matter what. Mom and Dad had six kids and none of us were angels 100% of the time, but it didn’t matter what you did wrong, Dad was always there. He would disagree with your life choices and even rough you up a bit when you got in trouble for doing something stupid, but he was always there. He never once turned his back on his kids. Not once. I don’t purport to understand much about human nature, but I do know that when my dad died, our family started falling apart and Humpty Dumpty never did quite put it back together again. He was our rock.
- Commit, then figure it out. It recently dawned on me that I learned that leadership lesson from him. Shortly before I was born, he bought and old house south of Rosalia and hired a house mover – the Hobson brothers – to move the old two-story. About halfway down highway 54, they realized they couldn’t clear a bridge a couple of miles down the road. They happened to be by some land the Hobsons owned, so they pulled it in there, set it down and that’s where I grew up. Also, about the same time, dad decided he’d had it with denominational religion, so he built his own church in Prospect, Kansas. Dad worked in the oilfield at the time and continued to do so until the arthritis disabled him but had a small following who helped build the church. Dad never took one penny for his own service and made sure that after the utilities were paid, that all the money went to missionaries. All of it. He loved missionaries. And those missionaries that came through our little church (the offerings were typically much larger than what they would receive in bigger churches), were from all over the world. I was exposed to various cultures with the whirr-click, whirr-click, whirr-click, of slide projectors and mesmerizing storytellers.
- Hard work is an act of worship. Dad told me that society would forgive you for a lot of sins if you were a hard worker, but he had no respect for lazy people or people with their hands out. Even as crippled as he became, he always had a building or engine repair project going on. He was terrible at both but believed, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” so he grilled into us the value of hard work.
- He was always funnier than the punch line of the joke he was telling. He would attempt to tell a joke at a family gathering but became so tickled, that he could barely finish. He’d have the rest of us rolling on the floor laughing because of his laughing and by the time he got to the punch line – if he ever made it – the joke was never as funny as him telling it. I have, apparently, inherited this quality.
- He had doubts. Dad always seemed like the Rock of Gibraltar, a lighthouse casting direction to lost sailors in a tempestuous sea, or a north star guiding us along the way. However, one of the best gifts he ever gave me was to hear him question his faith. As they were preparing him for the heart surgery from which he would never recover, he said to me, “Well, I suppose I’ll find out whether all these things I have believed all these years or true or not.” Yet, as they wheeled him into surgery, the last words he spoke to me were, “I’ll either wake up and see the lights of the operating room or the lights of heaven.” He woke up to see the lights of heaven.
- Dad was a likeable person. He had taken Dale Carnegie’s course on, “How to win friends and influence people,” and taught me that it was easier to make friends if you spent five minutes learning about them rather than fifteen minutes talking about yourself. For as intense as he was about his faith and knowing Christ, he was not religious or a bit judgmental of people. He was kind, gracious, accepting, funny, complimentary, and generous to a fault.
My brother, Bob, also a minister, spoke at dad’s funeral and read this poem he wrote for him:
My Dad was not the glamorous type
With lots of pageantry and show
His life consisted of simple things
Along the path he chose to go.
He chose a path of utmost integrity
Of honesty and pride
He always taught a humble life
Saying it’s only eternal values that forever will abide.
Every night we would gather around him
As he read of Jesus’s love
He always said he was, “Just passing through,”
To a home waiting for him above.
“The first 10,000 years in heaven,” he joked
Would be spent around God’s throne
“Then I’ll go looking for your mother
And together we’ll enjoy our new, eternal home.”
I think of his love for his family
And how it soothes me day by day
And how he used that old razor strop
To teach us his authority to obey.
My dad taught me many things
And how they comfort me now
Like how to work so very hard
And yes, how to milk our darned ole’ cow.
I cherish the years I spent with him
As we went telling the gospel story
Many an hour we spent with young and old
Revealing the truth of God’s glory.
His work is done, his race is o’er
A glorious crown for him awaits
And someday soon with love’s embrace
We’ll meet inside heaven’s gate.
“Don’t weep for me,” I’ve heard him say
“And please don’t be so sad.
If you could see what I see now
You’d want to come and join your dear ole dad.”
Not long after dad passed, I sat down and penned the words to this song:
Behind My Father’s Doors
Like a prodigal son I wandered from a man who really loved me
He’d brought me into this old world, eighteen years before.
He loved me and he taught me of a Christ who died to save me
And for all of that I turned and walked, out my father’s doors.
Behind my father’s doors, was a place that I could run and hide,
A place that I called home
Behind my father’s doors, were arms outstretched to welcome me
And a love to keep me warm
Behind my father’s doors.
I wasted my life on foolish things, on things I thought would bring me gain
Instead, they brought me heartache as dreams crashed to the floor
I made my way back to him and asked him to forgive me
He threw his arms around me and opened wide his doors.
Behind my father’s doors, was a place that I could run and hide,
A place that I called home
Behind my father’s doors, were arms outstretched to welcome me
And a love to keep me warm
Behind my father’s doors.
I knew the day had finally come when the Lord was calling him
And the father and his youngest son, would visit here no more
With tears running down my face, I said goodbye to my father,
But one day I will see him there, behind his Father’s doors
Behind his Father’s doors, was a place that he could run and hide,
A place he now calls home
Behind his Father’s doors, were arms outstretched to welcome him
And a love to keep him warm
Behind his father’s doors.
And one day I will see him there
Behind our Father’s doors.
Dad bought the old family place before he passed and he and I were gazing out over the pasture and he remarked, “I can see my Grandpa driving his horse-drawn buggy up that road and parking it in that barn over there. My goodness, that was 40 years ago but it seems like it was yesterday.”
At the time, I wondered if he was exaggerating and, it turns out, he was not.
I see him standing behind the pulpit at Calvary Bible Church 38 years ago, but it seems like yesterday. Memories that are as crisp as the spring’s sunrise and as fresh as jonquils springing from the ground.
Suddenly, Heaven comes down and glory fills my soul.
Into the Unknown: The Lewis and Clark Museum in St. Charles, Missouri
If Lewis and Clark had a theme song, it would have been, “Into the Unknown,” from the movie frozen.
Or are you someone out there
Who’s a little bit like me?
Who knows deep down
I’m not where I’m meant to be?
Every day’s a little harder
As I feel my power grow
Don’t you know there’s part of me
That longs to go, into the unknown?
Into the unknown!
If you don’t know this song, I encourage you to Google it. Also, if you’re going to be a songwriter for kids, put lots of “ooohs” and “aaahs” in there because that makes them easy to sing. For example, my two- and four-year-old granddaughters belt out, at full volume, that part of the song that has lots of oohs and aahs. I sing it with them.
I recently reread, Undaunted Courage: The Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Stephen A. Ambrose. On our journey home from The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we stopped in St. Charles, Missouri, to visit the Lewis and Clark Museum at the point on the Missouri River where they began their journey into the unknown.
I love a good map. Whether it’s paper or digital, I will pour over a map to get my bearings of a new place, understand the major geography, waterways, highways, and any other landmarks. I like knowing where I’m going.
Lewis and Clark didn’t have a map. No one did.
In 1804, there was no accurate map that detailed the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. If you haven’t looked lately, there is a LOT of rugged country between point A and point B. Namely, the Rocky Mountains.
In 1804, the U.S. had just purchased the Louisiana Territory from France and President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know if there was a waterway that connected the vast continent from the east to the west. They had NO idea what the Rocky Mountains looked like since they highest mountains along the east coast were in the Appalachian range is 6,684 feet about sea level. The base of the Rockies begins at 6,000 feet and double in size rather abruptly.
He commissioned two good friends for a military expedition: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They, in turn found forty-three soldiers and take off from St. Charles on the Missouri River to start paddling, poling, dragging, and portaging their boats upstream, over mountains, and down waterfalls for the next two years, four months and ten days. They even must build new boats along the way. He wanted America to expand from sea to shining sea.
Until the crossed the Rockies, it was all upstream. There was no such thing as a motorized engine in those days which was good because there were no Quik Trips along the river to fill up on gas and get a hot dog and chips. The fastest a person could travel any long distance at that time was eighteen miles-per-hour on horseback.
The museum in St. Charles is the first of many museums, signposts, and historical markings along the trail that Lewis and Clark took to the west coast. Someday, I’d like to follow that route in car. I’ll probably stop and get a hot dog or two along the way.
As I’m at the museum, and having just recently finished the book, here are five things that impress me most.
- Self-reliance on providing their own food. This Corps of Discovery could not pack enough food to sustain them for the next two years, so they had to believe they could fend for themselves, in the wild, on plants and animals. At one point in the trip, they nearly starved to death.
- They made their own map. To do so required the use of various rudimentary to us, but standard to them, tools like sextants, compasses, surveyor chains, and a chronometer, all anchored by the stars in the sky and a horizon line. As we traveled to and from Tennessee on our vacation, we relied heavily on the map on our phones and a woman’s voice telling us, “In five hundred feet, turn right at exit 3B.” Shortly later she would tell me, “No, I said to exit at 3B. Now do a U-turn and go back to exit 3B. Don’t you listen?”
- Unusual leadership model. This was a military mission that required strict adherence to chains of command and there is usually one top dog. Although technically – through political machinations or political mischief – Lewis was given command as captain, but Clark was given the lower status of lieutenant. However, Lewis insisted that they would share command equally so demanded that they both be called Captains. It worked exceedingly well throughout the journey, a model almost unheard of which is a testament to trust and friendship. Oddly enough, someone in the ranks didn’t believe it was going to be military and there was already a court martial the second day of the trip. Handing out, “50 lashes, put hard on,” was a common punishment. There wasn’t much rebellion after the first few weeks.
- Their diplomacy with the Native American tribes along the way were crucial to their success both in navigating to and from, but the simple act of staying live. Lewis and Clark understood their vulnerabilities and need for cooperation from those who lived on the land.
- Without Sacagawea, the trip would have been a disaster and, most likely, they would never have made it to the coast. One of the most remarkable women in the history of humanity, she was guide, interpreter, negotiator, new mother packing an infant along the trip, and worth every honor bestowed upon her legacy. She had been captured from her tribe, the Shoshones, when she was a child and raised by the Hidatsa.
The most remarkable story inside the overall story is when the Corps had reached the headwaters of the Missouri in present-day Montana and needed to cross the Rocky Mountains in the Bitterroot area of present-day Idaho to get to the western slope to find the Colombia River. They desperately needed horses since their boats were of no use, so they negotiated with the Shoshones who weren’t a bit interested in helping them. As Sacagawea was interpreting for the Corps and speaking to Chief Cameahwait, she suddenly recognized him as her brother. She had been in captivity so long that both she, and her brother, had changed significantly that they didn’t recognize each other at first, but then she recognized his voice. Once again, she saved their skins. Her navigation skills also proved valuable as she guided them through some of the most difficult terrain in America. And I’m sure, on occasion, she had to say, “No, I said to exit at 3B. Now do a U-turn and go back to exit 3B. Don’t you listen?”
Having spent a week in The Great Smoky Mountains of both Tennessee and North Carolina seeing old log cabins hewn by hand, running my hands over old plows that broke up rocky soil, touching the cutting edges of axes and adzes used to hollow trees into canoes, then to stand on the banks of the Missouri imaging Lewis and Clark pushing out into the unknown, I have come to the conclusion I am a sissy. I’m not sure I could build a structure to live in with a hand saw and an axe. I’m not sure what I’d do if I ran out of food after a week in the mountains and had to live for the next two years, four months and ten days.
My respect for the pioneers has deepened immeasurably on this journey. We are living today with the rewards of the risks they took yesterday. They weren’t perfect, but my goodness they were tough and without them, we most likely would be divided up into numerous countries like Europe rather that one United States of America.
I love America. I’ve been to other countries around the world, and I’ll take our country over them any day of the week. In fact, when I return from a foreign country, I find the first spot of bare ground and I bow and kiss the ground.
I’m grateful for those pioneers who ventured into the unknown, for their unknown became our known and I love our country, warts, and all, from sea to shining sea.
“If I only had an hour to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 45 minutes sharpening my axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
You need your imagination to read this post!
I discovered why I like touring old buildings like the Bud Ogle’s log cabin in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the Tennessee side and the Mountain Farm Museum on the North Carolina side: everything was handmade. Back then, they had no other choice. However, today, I have a woodworking shop filled with machines that would have made their works so much easier. Yet, here I am at my age, wanting to build more things by hand rather than machines because of the enjoyment in the process.
As I stepped up the creaky stairs of the cabin, I let my imagination wander and I could hear Bud Ogle’s axe striking the wood as I ran my hand along the axe marks on the log cabin. With rhythmic movement of a 4/4 count, I could see his sinewy body swing the axe in an arc as he reached high above his head, then pulling the axe into the wood with the last movement of his legs drawing the head into the log.
Not far away, his wife was storing food in the root cellar they dug in the side of the hill where a small, fresh spring of water coursed along the bottom, keeping it cool. I could smell the smoke from the open-air brick stove heating up the sizzling bacon in the cast iron skillet.
I could see the children up in the barn, dropping feed into the hand-hewn trough made from a single log – the feed bunk for the cows they were getting ready to milk. The barn was often the first structure built because protecting their animals was a matter of life and death to people who lived in that era. The gates to the barn are handmade from wood, not from metal.
I looked on as the older boys dragged another log up from the valley to be hewn for the main cabin. They would build one cabin with a stone fireplace they built, then, five years later as the family expanded, they would build a cabin on the other side of the fireplace so the two could share one heat source. The saddlebag cabin was practical.
As the sons reached an age where they could marry, the family would build a “weaner” cabin where the newlyweds would stay until they built their own place.
The Noah “Bud” Ogle cabin was built in the late 1800’s and the logs are all hand-hewn with half-dovetail corners. While it was once a working farm, it was enveloped into the National Park when it was established in 1934 and became an historical site for tourists like me to inspect.
A few miles up the valley is another similar place, the home of the famous Walker Sisters. Their home and land, too, were folded into the National Park but they struck a deal that they could live in their home until the last one died which was 1965. For 30 years, the five sisters were a part of the tourist attraction to the National Park. I can’t imagine tourists coming by my home each day, poking around, asking questions. But the Walker Sisters figured out a way to make a living off those tourists by selling them handmade items.
Over the mountain and down on the other side into North Carolina, there is another farm you can tour along the Oconaluftee River. Like the Ogle homestead, the farmstead abounds with structures and equipment all made by hand or used to make things by hand.
As I walked around these historic structures, I conclude that I was born in the wrong century. I now have a burning desire to build a log cabin, all with lumber I have hewn by hand. I just don’t think my tennis elbow can take swinging axes and adzes that much.
There’s a surge, especially among a younger generation, of relearning the lost crafts of woodworking with hand tools rather than power equipment. Personally, I find myself drawn into these lost arts for a variety of reasons:
- It is a quiet art. No loud power tools running, just the quiet songs of hand planes shaving off one fine strip of wood at a time, the gentle thump of wooden mallet striking a chisel, the rasp of a saw cutting a board.
- It’s like choosing to hike to Pike’s Peak rather than driving a car; it’s all about the journey.
- It involves a greater skill set, one that only comes with practice.
- It is unique and can’t be mass produced.
- It is a nod to the artisans who’ve gone before me.
I still might build a log cabin with hand hewn logs. It just might take me longer and that’s okay.