3-12-16, Photo Update

Here’s a little multimedia update of few things happening around here this late winter / early spring.  Lots of custom work and sawmilling going on at HHS Co, but hopefully I’ll get the time and inclination for a more detailed blog soon.  Building a greenhouse soon!  For now, I just popped the cap on a bottle of mead I cooked up 6 years ago when I lived in Charleston, SC.  Tastes a lot better now, but unfortunately still like mead.

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Excavation, Footings, and Crossed Fingers

In my last post regarding construction, I detailed the drilling of the well that provides water to the house and gardens up here near Babb, Montana.  This evening I’ll move on to the nuts and bolts (or sand and cement, anyways) of getting started with actual construction of the building.  A structure of this size requires a very sturdy footprint to rest on, especially considering how deep the ground freezes and heaves in the winters.


First, I borrowed a backhoe from my neighbors (slash sister/brother in law) and set to knocking over a couple of scraggly aspen trees that were right where my shop was supposed to be.  I left as many as I could….but eventually most of them came down to make room for working AROUND the house.  Luckily the building was to be sited right near the crest of a small rise so clearing away the grass and topsoil while leveling the area was a pretty straightforward process.

After getting the site cleared, I set up what are known as “batter boards” just outside the four corners of the prospective building and then stretched twine between them to outline exactly where the walls would be.  By measuring the distances between corners, and more importantly the diagonals between cross corners, batter boards allow you to get the building completed “squared up” with simple string.  After a little fiddling, I had a rectangle that was exactly 28 feet wide by 52 feet long.  I spraypainted the ground through the twine to mark where to dig trenches for the foundation.

Then I climbed back into the backhoe to start digging said trenches….and paused.  Although I’d done a fair amount of remodeling, and had just finished fixing up the bunkhouse– I’d never really built anything from scratch bigger than a doghouse.  Certainly never something that I hoped would be the most wind-resistant, well-insulated, and maintenance-free building possible just shy of the 49th parallel.

Plus, I’d only been running a backhoe for a few weeks and flat-bottomed trenches are hard when you first get started!

So I called up a local guy (well, THE local guy) that has helped out with a lot of 5-ft-in-the-ground projects here at Hillhouse and he agreed to do the excavation and all the drain lines in the slab out to the septic system.  If I messed those up…well, jack-hammering up my brand new floor to get the toilet to flush didn’t sound swell so Gary and I had a deal!

I also worked a deal with one of the two local guys that does concrete.  I’ve poured some steps and short sidewalks and footings, but never anything of this magnitude with several trucks worth of mud and multiple pours.  I was confident that I could handle the actual “building” part of the building…but I wanted to be certain that I was working on solid ground, as it were.  And I really wanted my floor drains to drain.  Turns out I probably could have  done an equal or better job of that on my own with a little help from friends, but what are you gonna do.  The guy I hired was known to me to not always get the whole job all the way done…but the other guy had threatened to kill me at least twice, so I figured with proper supervision that guy #1 would work just fine.


Good evening!  1-21-2016

More details on the concrete work shortly!

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Just a walk down the lane

Claire and Curtis and I went on a little walk the other day.  It was a gorgeous bluebird afternoon, so I snapped a few photos.  Thought I’d share:


And here’s a new item heading to hillhousesawdustco.etsy.com soon!  Montana cheese trays / cuttings boards!  Made with Aspen trees sustainably harvested right here at Hillhouse and milled on my one-man sawmill.

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Neil S. Hawks, on his 31st Birthday

A big part of the whole point of this blog is basically boasting that I built my own house.


Home Sweet Home, October 2015

The bigger truth is that while I did build my own place, and I DO brag about it, in reality I had a lot of help.  A whole big bunch of assistance from friends and family.  Especially from my friend, Neil.

neil & gus.jpg

Neil and Gus….really gotta bring the necklaces back, man

Neil was my brother Howard’s best friend growing up- the two were inseparable for as far back as I can recall.  After Howard’s tragic death in 2004, Neil made every effort to make it to Montana each summer to help us celebrate my brother’s life.  During these weeklong excursions to Glacier Country, he got to know my oldest and closest “Montana Friend” and even married her this summer.  I was honored to have them ask me to officiate their wedding, but perhaps even more thrilled that they still want me to participate in every-day kind of stuff like the photo below:


A brief example of Neil’s ever-changing head and facial hair.  Also, Nat’s turtleneck.

So not to belabor the point, but I love Neil and feel very fortunate to be a part of his life and I am VERY lucky that he so enjoys helping his friends build crazy complicated buildings in the middle of nowhere.  I’m very proud of him, his new business, and his unfalteringingly steady outlook on life.  Cheers, Neil!  Maybe you’ll even see this now that you’ve finally upgraded from that flip-phone!  Also, sorry for putting you on the internet.


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New Years Eve, New Years

Over the past several holiday seasons my closest group of friends and family (although the line between the two is difficult to discern after 10-15 years of being together) has made it a point to try to plan a winter excursion.  This year we traveled from Minneapolis, Atlanta, and four different fairly-far-flung sections of Montana to gather in the middle of the Rocky Mountain Front, near Choteau, MT for New Years Eve.

There is a “mom and pop” ski hill just west of town known professionally as the Teton Pass Ski Resort.  We had a fantastic experience and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for beautiful views, fast snow, and NO crowds.  Everyone working at the hill seems to pull double-duty somehow, and the atmosphere is remarkably relaxed, congenial, and family friendly.  Worth the drive….and the drive itself is pretty amazing!

We adjourned to Hillhouse after the New Years Celebration for a brief respite from the traffic of Choteau…jokes.  The gang took a two-hour jaunt up the Sun Road toward Rising Sun pretty much just to enjoy the weather and snap a few photos.  So, enjoy the photos.  And- Happy New Year!



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First things first, or, On Water

Water is a precious resource anywhere, and we are acutely aware of that fact here in NW Montana, especially on the reservation.  The entire state is currently in the midst of determining just how water rights have worked, do work, and will work for the future through the Water Rights Court.  I don’t know how all that will end up, but I’m glad the state is being proactive in figuring the whole deal out so we don’t end up in absolute-crisis-mode like some of our neighbors to the west and south

As I began the process of finding  a site on which to build here at Hillhouse, access to water was absolutely a priority.  Hillhouse and the Cabin (and the tack barn, seasonally) are fed by a pretty amazing hand-dug well that dates to the 20s-40s.  It is about 35-40 feet deep (can you imagine digging that!?!?) and was originally lined with a redwood casing.  Previous owners of the spread took a look in the late 80s-early 90s and determined that the casing was rotting away so they replaced it with  a 3ft wide culvert and then concreted the whole thing in place and installed a sanitary cap 6 feet below the (now also concreted) floor of the “pump house.”  It is a bit of a marvel, considering the 5ft frost depths and the hundreds-of-yards-long water lines here that we have water at all!  Some of the lines are original galvanized steel….and are doing great, thanks for asking.

We’ve had…issues…in the past with the water system, although I can’t really assign any fault to the original design.  Several frost-free faucets, buried 5 feet in the ground, failed when the ground heaved and cheap plastic fittings snapped.  It took a lot of work just to find the leaks, and a backhoe and somehow chilly man-hours to get everything working again.  But that may be a story for another day.  Suffice to say, we spent a few Christmases patching pipe.


So for a lot of reasons- practical, legal, financial, and otherwise-  I wanted to have a new well for my new place, totally separate from the family system.  The very first thing I did to get construction started on my new place was to get a well drilled right before Christmas way back in 2012.


I called in a driller and he showed up in this six wheel drive mechanical monster.  I didn’t have the new road in yet, but it had no problems with the ice and snow.  At the time, I thought I was putting the casing way out of the way and sort of back in the trees.  Unfortunately a lot of the trees came down as the building process went on…but they’re aspen…they’ll grow back.


It was a wonderful sensation when the first bit of water, powered by compressed air, starting spewing out of the rig.  Like most of the drilled wells around here, we struck the aquifer around 80 feet down.


I marveled at the beautiful blues, greens, and reds of the sedimentary rock that came spewing up from the depths of the earth.  Duck Lake is a “glacial pothole” and our elevation here is about on par with Many Glacier Hotel, so the rocks just 80 feet down look quite familiar!


We finally ended up with this: an ugly six inch steel pipe sticking out of the ground, but its appearance belied its importance to my future!  It was hard going to get ‘er all done as the temperatures were WAY below freezing and parts of the drilling rig itself kept freezing up as the night crept on.  It got pretty dark, which made welding each casing to the next a bit of a chore as well!  Glad that wasn’t my job.  I mostly just kept a supply of hot coffee on hand and watched the water spewing out of the back of the truck freeze quickly on contact with the 10 degree gound.


I didn’t get started building for quite a while after putting in the well, but I ended plenty of walks around Hillhouse here at the casing, trying to envision that building that would soon sprout up near it.  Eventually I’d dig down below the frost level to six feet or so to install the pitless adapter and piping, as well as the pump itself and all the wiring…but not in December!  The water system isn’t perfect- still working on the perfect solution to mitigating the heavy iron and manganese content in the aquifer- but we’ve got all the water we need…and nothing has frozen or broken….yet!

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Ivey Courtney Stone, and the meaning of “a couple”

Ivey Wave

One of the first lessons that I can recall learning in the course of instruction came as  a result of being quite young, rather poor with math, and pretty greedy as far as all things peppermint were concerned.  That combination had previously led to plenty of self-discovery, but this particular incident has stuck in my mind through a couple of decades as perhaps the first example of my Grandma Ivey’s strident belief in, and encouragement of, the furtherance of my education.

Grandma was taking care of me and my siblings while my parents were off on a trip.  I remember the feeling of the cool tile of her bathroom on my feet as Courtney, Howard, and I tiptoed our way to the nice warm bathtub.  I remember that Grandma made hot chocolate the “old-fashioned way” with warm milk on the stove…not out of a little packet and a cup in the microwave.  And I remember that if we were very, very, very good then we would get a peppermint treat from time to time.

I don’t know what I did to deserve a treat on that particular day- looking back I suspect that it wasn’t much.  Grandma just knew how much I loved peppermints.  Whatever the reason, she said that I could reach in her big glass jar of treats and a grab “a couple” of peppermint candies after dinner.  Being really quite young, I don’t think I knew the meaning of a couple.  Also, I believe I mentioned previously that I was a rather greedy child in terms of peppermints, as well pretzels, mashed pears, and white bread.

So I reached in there and grabbed a big ole (well, for my tiny hands anyways) pile of peppermints and starting crunching away.  Grandma Ivey came back in the room and was slightly aghast- or at least surprised.  Grandma’s self-assuredness  probably didn’t extend to being aghast, but in any case she wasn’t pleased.  She sat me down and  proceeded to explain very carefully, quietly, and yet in a tone that surely intimated that no rebuttal was necessary- that “a couple” meant “TWO” and that what I grabbed for was at least “a few.”  I had no idea that a couple was so finite and it had a very large impression on me- I certainly never made THAT mistake again!

Silly story aside, that was the beginning- at least in my memory- of my Grandmother’s incredible educational encouragement.  She double majored in Math and English at Duke University at a time when that was an exceedingly uncommon course for a woman to take.  She encouraged me in every way that she could to take my undergraduate studies seriously.  I finally DID get my act together in law school- and I was extremely proud to tell her about my academic achievements down in Charleston.  I don’t think that chapter of my life could have been so happy and successful without her support.

Ivey Courtney Stone died earlier this week at the age of 96.  She was a remarkable woman, and the most incredible example of class, grit, grace, and intelligence that I can imagine.  As she got older and was less physically capable of doing many of the things that she enjoyed, she would often remark that “Getting old isn’t for sissies.”  Neither is grieving.


Ivey Stone, Remembered

A toast to Ivey, a beautiful tribute from my sister reflecting particularly on Grandma’s time as an officer in the Navy WAVES


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