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Serenity Hill Homestead is a labor of love, so I decided to write an article to log progress and lessons learned along the way. It won’t always be pretty, because my goal is to share the flubs along with the triumphs. That’s a new thing for me because I’m one of those people who tends to not share my flubs if nobody noticed. No harm, no foul, you know? In the interest of providing the most benefit for those who decide to share the journey with us, I figure I should share the flubs as well. Here goes nothing!
Serenity Hill came to life in August 2017. We purchased 5.3 acres of raw land bounded by gravel road on 2 sides and wooded lots on the other 2 sides. We spent quite a few hours walking the property and deciding where we wanted to build the house. The west 1/3 of the property was the most “level” spot, having a drop of 18 inches in 30 feet. It also provided a nice view of the woods that sloped down the hill.
I call it a hill, but my phone GPS shows a drop of about 40 feet from the west border to the east border, so its more a slope than a hill. But, since it isn’t dead flat, we call it our hill. Serenity Hill, to be more precise. Once we decided where we were going to build the house, I had to plot out a driveway. Neither of us wanted a straight drive that would allow someone to look down it from the road and have an open view of the house.
The first driveway route I considered led to some old logging ruts that were pretty soft and had lots of ferns in them. Ferns are one of the most beautiful plants on earth, and there is no way I was going to ruin that area with a driveway. I ended up shifting the driveway about 75 feet to the west, but still with a curve. When you look down the drive, you see trees, not the house site. When we sit on the front porch enjoying a beverage and pleasant conversation we will have a view of the woods sloping away from us instead of the road. I’m really looking forward to that.
I put my little Poulan Pro 16″ chainsaw to work cutting down trees and dragging brush. I had cut and trimmed dead fall before, but never cut down a tree. Seen it done plenty of times on TV, but never did it myself. I managed to fell trees without bodily harm, so I’m going to claim triumph there. I purchased a blade sharpening kit along with the chainsaw, but had no inkling how quickly oak and hickory would dull a chain. After the first foray, I purchased another chain so I didn’t have to sit on a stump and sharpen my chain after a couple hours.
On a typical day, I walked 3 miles dragging brush out to the road. My job isn’t physically demanding, so I really wasn’t in shape for the work I was doing. I did start getting in better shape and lost 10 pounds the first couple months. Another triumph!
September – December 2017
More cutting and clearing. I decided my Poulan just wasn’t up to the task, especially as I had to tackle some trees that were bigger than the bar on my saw! After querying members on a homesteading forum, I decided to purchase a Stihl chainsaw. I know good tools cost good money, but I was amazed at the prices on the bigger saws. We aren’t made of money, so frugality is the rule of the build. No worries, eBay to the rescue! I ended up buying a dealer serviced trade-in Stihl MS440 saw with 24″ bar and 3 chains for $500. I like my Stihl! Worth every penny, and it starts a lot easier than the Poulan. As with most tools you depend on, don’t skimp on a chainsaw because having one that isn’t up to the task makes for a lot more work.
By the end of December I had 3 piles of brush by the road, 1 in the middle of my drive, and a couple good size stacks of logs going. Not bad for doing it all buy hand. My only power equipment is my chainsaw. It may be easier to just hire someone to come take trees out and be done with it, but then I would have a big pile of brush and logs to burn. I piled the branches and small stuff for burning. Large oak trees we cut into 10 foot logs to use for posts and beams in constructing the house. Smaller trees we bucked up to dry out for firewood. Yes, it takes longer this way, but I get to use the trees instead of burning them.
My Dad came out to see Serenity Hill in its still raw state. I’m a 60 year old man, but was still nervous about it hoping he would like our place. We made our way down what I have cleared so far on the drive, and I showed him the location for the house. He and I both enjoyed walking around the property and looking at the deer, raccoon, squirrel, and wild turkey sign. And, he agreed that we had picked a very nice location for the house.
January – February 2018
I wasn’t able to accomplish much work on Serenity Hill over the past couple months. I struggled with being sick, and I really didn’t have proper clothes for working out in the cold all day. That’s another thing to add to the checklist – good warm work gloves and good warm clothing. I need to change my luck somehow! Almost every weekend off brought rain/snow/cold, while the weekends I worked the weather was great. Just another thing to have to roll with.
Finally made the turn on the driveway and started clearing the area where we are building the house. I obtained several 10 foot logs to use in the house construction and several stacks of firewood. The remainder went into burn piles. One major flub that had potential to get really ugly. A large tree fell a couple feet from where I wanted it to land and hung up on another tree. Here was this 60 foot oak at a 45 degree angle with just one branch keeping it from falling. As luck would have it, the end of the trunk was hard up against the stump.
Deb just knew that I was going to die. I thought on it for a couple days and decided on a course of action. I wedged a log under the end of the tree and cut about 4 foot off the end. During that operation, I had pressure on the tree using a come along and chain. Then I pulled it away from the stump, hoping that it might dislodge. When that didn’t work, I moved my come along to a different tree and pulled the tree away from the one it fell against. It didn’t take long before it came crashing down, and everyone was safe and sound.
We must have burned at least 10 piles of brush during the process of clearing the driveway and house site. What a difference! The trees are so thick that you can’t walk more than 20 feet without having to change direction. We were down to the point that I needed and excavator to come in with a dozer to clear stumps, grade, and level for the drive and house. At this point we still had to park on the side of the road because the soil in the ditch near our drive was too soft to drive on most of the time. It was a rainy winter and spring. I bought a garden wagon so we could load gear on it and take one trip instead of several. Every little bit helps.
More clearing, more burning. Seems to be getting monotonous. Our focus was on clearing so we could have the excavator install the culvert and drive for us. We couldn’t wait to be able to drive up onto the property instead of parking on the road. April was, of course, a rainy month and we weren’t able to have any dozer work done. This year brought a bumper crop of chiggers and ticks. We didn’t use any spray our first day out this month and must have removed over a dozen ticks from each of us when we got back home. Deb was a trooper about it. The next day, we were prepared not only with Permithrin on our boots, pant legs, and waistbands, but we made sure to spray tick repellent on as well. That evening I had no ticks and Deb found 1 on her. Much better.
Finally got the dozer out. He took out stumps, cleared organic material, and leveled the driveway. Next I had him level and smooth the house site. He also cleared out several more trees and cleared the area for the septic tank and leach field. Next we set the culvert in place and he brought in some clay/gravel fill to cover the culvert and fill in the ruts from the old logging road.
It may be a simple thing, but finally getting enough area cleared to put in a driveway and actually drive up onto Serenity Hill was exciting for both of us. It represented a lot of hard physical labor. A lot of sweat and sore muscles went into getting to this day. The most exciting part, and something that kept me motivated for the push, was being able to show Serenity Hill to family over Memorial Day weekend. Grand total for clearing, leveling, culvert, and fill was $1400. Definitely a great deal!
After driving on the drive a couple times, I had Steve (the dozer guy) bring out a load of the clay/gravel fill he used over the culvert to put on the drive. The drive hardened up nicely after a few days of sunshine and is as smooth as asphalt. The topsoil is so compressible that driving directly on it would cause a horrible mess. Clearing the house, septic, and leach field sites resulted in a pile of trees and brush about 60 feet long, 10 foot wide, and 8 foot high. Worst of all, it was right in the way of proceeding with the house foundation. It took a couple trips out, but we got it burned down to just a few stumps. I had him come back out to push that away from the house site and do a little more grading.
By this time we had gone through so many iterations of floor plans and had to decide what we were going to do. At one point we contemplated doing an octagon house, but the logistics and complexity of the foundation made us think twice. There is also a lot of empty space in an octagonal home. We are at the point where we have to decide on something so we can have excavation work done for the footing trench. We decided to go with a 32 x 40 rectangular house with a shed roof. That will be a nice look in a cordwood home, and it will be pretty straightforward to build.
We marked out the corners to get ready for the excavator’s return. Pretty nervewracking, because digging trenches commits to a house layout. Time to pull the trigger! This is a busy time of year, so it will be a couple weeks before he can come out. In the meantime, we cleared out some more undergrowth around the house site and noticed that the blackberries were ripening. We spent a very hot afternoon picking blackberries and ended up with enough to make a couple cobblers, one of which we shared with Dad and Lou after church. A nice warm cobbler made with wild blackberries, topped with vanilla bean ice cream is a wonderful treat.
Up to this time when we decided to take a break and eat our lunch, we would sit in our folding chairs and juggle stuff on our laps. I did some research, and we picked up a picnic table kit from Menards. The picnic table kit cost $98, but by the time we bought stain and varnish we were out about $125. It gives us a place to eat our lunch a little more civilized and increases the enjoyment factor. Every little thing we do to improve the place makes it more enjoyable.
To break in the picnic table, we opted to grill up a couple ribeyes, baked sweet potato, and grilled veggies. Sure beat stopping for fast food on the way home! I know, ribeyes don’t sound like sustainable, healthy eating. In our defense, we bought them from a local meat shop. The steers are grass fed and pasture raised just a few miles up the road. The meat shop slaughters, processes, and ages them in house. They are raised humanely, and although not certified organic, they are raised organically. Interestingly, there isn’t local demand for the organic certification, so the rancher doesn’t spend the money on the certification and paperwork. There is no comparison to the industrialized beef from the big box stores!
What a busy month! We had our granddaughter Ashley, her boyfriend Kenny, and our great grandson Kaysn out for a visit. We grilled hamburgers and had a nice time. Kaysn really enjoyed being out in the woods. It did my heart good.
Bathroom breaks are no big deal for me out in the woods, but it is inconvenient to say the least for Deb with no facilities. I used one of our collapsible 5 gallon water jugs to make a hand washing station. I also surprised Deb with a camp toilet inside a shelter so she has privacy and doesn’t have to squat against a tree. Another of those little things that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it goes a long way to making the place more enjoyable.
Our 60th Birthdays came around, so we took weekend getaway to celebrate. We camped on the Current River and enjoyed a 20 mile float trip. The weekend concluded with stops at Echo Bluff State Park, Alley Mill Spring, and Big Spring. The finale was a stop at Serenity Hill before heading back home. Getting a house so we can move out permanently is our main priority, but we still need to find time to spend with each other and with family. The trip really recharged our batteries.
Steve was finally able to come out and dig the footing trench for us. Dad, Lou, her daughter Karen and her SO Bill were in the area and stopped by for a visit the day Steve was digging the trench. It was the first time Dad had seen the driveway. The last time he was out, there was a huge brush pile on the house site waiting to be burned, and still quite a few trees at the location. He found easy digging the first foot or so, but then he hit the hard clay/sand/gravel underneath and had a time digging through it. As Steve said, it is so hard it will make a good base for the foundation.
After he finished the trench, I had him pull brush and logs away from the treeline so we can safely burn them without catching the whole woods on fire. It sure made a difference in how the place looks, and now I don’t have to hear Deb comment about it every time we come to Serenity Hill. We also burned brush piles that had been on either side of the drive for almost a year.
The developer stopped by while we were burning and we had a nice chat. We had been talking about wanting to buy the 5+ acres on our North border, but hadn’t said anything to him about it. Kirk mentioned different properties that had sold and that a lady was considering the property to our North. It was the last one on the side road that hadn’t sold. We committed to buying it and set up a date to stop by the office and sign paperwork. That increases our holdings to 11.2 acres, and it provides a 450 foot buffer to the next property.
We spent some time burning the brush that was pulled out from the tree line. It sure makes a difference in how the place looks. Steve was consolidated the piles as I burned them. When it was all burned, Kirk came through one day and did a nice job smoothing it out. Again, it isn’t getting our house built, but it is making improvements in the property that we wanted made, and it increases our enjoyment. I also found out that we would have had to deal with it anyway before Ozark Border would come put in power.
With the trenches dug, it was time to put in pipe for the incoming water supply and for the line to the septic under the footing. Doing the digging about gave me heat stroke, but I got it done. I also got a delivery of 20′ rebar to put in the trench. I became evident that while our drive was sufficient for our cars, it made life difficult for a truck with a 20 foot trailer. He had a tough time getting turned around to leave. There is no way a truck could navigate the drive with 32′ and 40′ I-joists. We decided we will widen the turns. An extension to the east will provide a place to turn around with a trailer. Another lesson learned.
I put rebar in the south and west side of the trench and double checked the corners on the north and east sides. That is when I discovered that either I marked wrong or the excavator dug crooked. To my horror, I discovered that the trench is not rectangular, it is a trapezoid. The south trench is 33′, which works out fine, but the north trench is over 38′ long! I felt sick to my stomach over it, and quite discouraged. It was going to be weeks before I could get the excavator out.
In the meantime, it rained and made a muddy mess of the trench. Between rain, needing to have the trench re-worked, and my work schedule, I just don’t see how I’m going to be able to put rebar in the trench and do a one piece pour. My original thinking was to dig a series of holes and put in 24″ x 24″ x 18″ thick footings, then build concrete block piers on top of them. I let myself get talked into a trench for a continuous footing. It sounded like a good idea, but the practically of doing it myself with my work schedule just isn’t working out.
Things pretty much came to a stand still on the foundation. I had to regroup and rethink what to do. It just makes more sense with my schedule and our finances to go back to the original plan for 24x24x18 footings space every 8′. Measuring and squaring by myself is a chore. It went so much easier when Deb helped me. Some things are just easier with 2 people.
I managed to get forms for the corner footings built and put roughly in place. Then came rain, rain, and more rain. I bailed and bailed to empty the trench. A couple days later it was dry enough to work. Finally the opportunity presented itself to pour the first footing! The footings contain 2 layers of 1/2″ rebar and have 4 pieces of rebar sticking out the top to go through the concrete block piers. Once the piers are in place, I’ll pour concrete inside the blocks to tie everything together all the way to the ground.
Due to rainy weather, I didn’t make a trip out my next weekend off. The disappointment and frustration with weather issues is a real challenge. I really need to get a lot more time out on Serenity Hill if we are ever going to get our house built. I’m having to learn to relax about it and not get upset about the weather. Not by choice, I’m learning the lesson that I can only do what I can, when I can.
Ozark Border finally came in and installed the underground electrical cables and their junction boxes. They made a mess of the drive and the road. So much for the engineer telling a neighbor we wouldn’t be able to tell they had been there. Evidently he forgot to explain that to the contractor who installed the cable.
Another rainy month, not much getting done after the first footing other than putting in the other corner forms and making sure they were square. The big thing was buying a 10 x 17 foot tarp type garage from Harbor Freight. Deb was very skeptical of how I was going to fit such a large box in our car. I took all the components out of the box and loaded them strategically in the car, then collapsed and folded the box to throw on our burn pile. Problem solved!
The instructions call for 3 people, but we managed to put it together with just the 2 of us. We really needed a place to keep things dry and organized. I may end up getting another one specifically for storing wood. Or, I may bite the bullet and just build a wood shed. Either way, I’ve got to have a way to protect logs and firewood from the elements.
It was a very busy and stressful month on the home front. At one point we had family in 3 different hospitals in 3 different states, a couple of them in very dire condition. Fortunately, all pulled through, although 2 of them have a long road of recovery ahead of them. The highlight of the month had to be the arrival of Karter, our second great grandson.
More rain, and footing trench overflowing again. I told Deb that I was going to spend more money at Harbor Freight buying a pump. Bailing 144 feet of trench with a 5 gallon bucket is a huge chore. She agreed that it was a wise purchase, so we bought a pump on our way home. Had the trench drained in no time at all. The next day I was able to get the SE corner footing poured. Two down, 18 more to go!
We also measured and squared for the new layout of 32 x 44 instead of the 32 x 40 we were originally planning. Adding that 4 feet lets us put in a second bathroom and a larger closet in our bedroom. We will also gain other storage space and a roomier living room. I’ve been wanting to put a rocket mass heater/lounger on the north wall of the living room as supplemental heat for our radiant floor heating. It was going to be really tight with our original design, but the addition 4 feet will make it very workable.
I also managed to surprise Deb with an early Christmas present. She has been wanting a fire pit for years. Now that we have our own place, it is finally time. I purchased the steel ring and the concrete blocks from Menards. If you go to their website and search Fire Pit Kits, you will find several different designs. There is a pdf document with each that has a material list as well as assembly instructions. Just make sure that you give the SKU for the kit to the cashier or they will ring up each item separately and it will cost more! Building a fire pit doesn’t get us closer to having the house built, but it does enhance our enjoyment of Serenity Hill. It was nice to end a long day by the fire.