Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rob Huffman was my great-uncle, my paternal grandfather’s brother. Rob and his wife, Myrtle, never had children. Myrtle was a hairdresser and ran a beauty parlor out of a shop in her house.
Rob was a crusty old dude. He was a good mechanic and could build anything he set his mind to build. He also drank a fair amount of liquor and smoked Camel cigarettes, the old-timey types without the filters.
My father used to laugh and say, “Some day, people are going to say, ‘I told you that liquor and those cigarettes were going to catch up with Rob.’”
Eventually they did, but Rob was almost 90 before he died and in good health until the very end.
I tell you this to explain the home improvement projects in which I’ve involved myself over much of the past two years. My wife, Meg, and I bought the place that Rob and Myrtle built.
It’s about three miles north of Elon, not far from my hometown, Burlington.
At one point, my father was to have inherited the property, but he died before his Aunt Myrtle. Myrtle rewrote the will after my father died, leaving it to a nephew on her side of the family.
After Myrtle died, Meg and I contacted her nephew and bought the place from him.
The property includes about four acres. It’s landlocked, meaning we don’t have road frontage. The easement to our property measures about a quarter-mile and follows an old road that led to a tobacco field. We’re down in the woods. Our neighbors include coyote, deer and wild turkeys.
Oh, and owls, lots of owls.
There are no other houses in sight.
Joseph Cataldo, my former neighbor in Spencer, looked at the place before I’d done any work. He said the cabin reminded him of a camp he attended in New England when he was a boy.
Allen Stewart, my college roommate, says the place reminds him of a Boy Scout camp. He said each time he visits, he finds himself looking around for the sign pointing to the archery range.
If you’d like to see the property, I’d love to have you. Please contact me via Facebook.
Now, about those home improvements.
The property includes a pond that Rob built. It’s just shy of 100 yards long and about 40 yards across. It’s home to lots of fish. Rob and Myrtle built a cabin alongside the pond. The 800-square-foot cabin is one bedroom and one bath. I’m not sure when water to the bathroom was connected.
For years, Rob and Myrtle used an outhouse. It remains.
The cabin is cute.
Rob and Myrtle built all this in the mid-1960s. About five years later, around 1970, they built a cinder-block house about 75 yards away. The house measures close to 2,000 square feet. Originally, it was three bedrooms and one bath. A second bath — adjacent to Myrtle’s beauty parlor — was later added.
It was all intact when we bought the place but in need of some serious updating. Everything about the exterior of the house was painted lime green. It was hideous. We repainted it a pale yellow and added blue shutters.
The change was dramatic.
The interior of the house was all paneling of 1970s-vintage. There were old air conditioning units hanging in several of the windows. There was a huge woodstove in the fireplace. Everything about the house was dark and dirty.
Again, fresh paint changed the looks dramatically. The floor was cheap linoleum, also of 1970s-vintage. I used pine lumber to cover it and coated it with three coats of polyurethane.
My middle-aged knees are no longer designed for putting down flooring, but I’m pleased with how the floors turned out. Buying unfinished lumber for flooring was as cheap a route as I’ve discovered for such a project.
So far, I’ve replaced 11 windows in the house and four in the cabin. I’ve got a few more to replace.
Removing the existing windows in the house was a chore. They were metal-framed (I’ve told several people they remind me of something sold as military surplus) with the bottom lips cemented into the cinder blocks. I learned there’s no secret to getting them out. Once I’d removed the glass panes, I’d take a hammer to beat out the frames.
I’d never before replaced windows, but I’m proud of how these turned out. I used 2-by-4’s to frame around the openings, then installed the windows, making whatever adjustments necessary to get them to fit.
They seem tight. I’ve learned that experience is a great teacher. Most of the work I’ve done didn’t come with instructions. The more you do, the better you get at it.
I gutted the oldest of the bathrooms down to the studs. I redid the walls using beadboard, then painted the finished product a funky shade of blue using a gallon of paint I found in the mis-tinted paint section at Lowe’s. Meg’s daughters tell me I hit a home run with the color selection. I can’t bring myself to tell them I used it because it was only $2 a gallon.
I’ve screened in the porches on the front of the cabin and house. I added a screened porch to the back of the house. I’ve got lots more work to do, but the place looks considerably better than when we purchased it.
Out of necessity, I’ve tried to do as much of the work as possible myself. Labor is expensive, though sometimes necessary.
I’ve paid someone to install heat pumps in both the house and cabin. The house had an old oil furnace. The cabin never had heat other than a fireplace and woodstove.
The guys who installed the heat pump in the cabin cut vents through the ceiling and ran ductwork overhead because there wasn’t enough of a crawlspace underneath in which to work. The first time they climbed out of the attic, they brought with them a pair of snake skins they found.
Like I said, we’re in the country.
I also paid for a new roof on the house and had to have an electrician out to do a little work. I’ve done most of the rest of the labor myself.
I’d like to tell you we’ve gotten rid of all the mice that came with the place, but I’d be lying.
I’ve learned to replace busted water pipes and a variety of other things I’d never before tackled. Like I said, necessity is a great teacher.
I built a pier on the pond, then a small addition to the pier. In the evenings, there ain’t no better place to sit, have a glass of wine and listen to the owls. We’ll do that when you come to visit.
There are some interesting things about the property. Included was a large workshop (it, too, was painted lime green) built primarily of the windows that came from the back shop of what’s now the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer.
Years ago, Rob told me someone asked if he wanted some of the windows from the old Spencer Shops. Rob said he didn’t answer the man, but when he returned home the next day, the windows were stacked and waiting for him. He turned them into a workshop where he stored his tools and, on occasion, painted cars.
On top of the workshop is an eagle made of copper. It has a four-foot wingspan. Rob said that from the 1890s until the 1930s, the eagle topped a weather vane on a bank in downtown Burlington.
A big wind finally blew the eagle off. Rob saved the eagle from being turned into scrap metal, refurbished it and kept it the rest of his life.
When Meg and I bought the property, all the contents of the house, cabin and workshop came with it. Some of it is neat old stuff, but most of it is junk. I’ve given up on finding a priceless family heirloom.
I’ve given much of what I thought was worth saving to Goodwill. I’ve had a few bonfires to get rid of some of the junk.
Lots of old tools were housed in the workshop. They’re unique, but I don’t think they’re worth much. I was using one of the handsaws the other day and noticed lettering scratched in the handle. I cleaned it. The letters read: “Ceas Huffman.”
I called my mother. “Who was Ceas Huffman?” I asked.
It was my great-great-uncle, the brother of my great-great-grandfather. Mother said his name was pronounced “Cease.”
It is cool, I decided, to cut a piece of wood using the same saw my great-great-uncle used.
I’ll show it to you when you come visit.
Steve Huffman is a freelance writer who lives in Elon.