Building Two Debt-Free Abodes With One Leg

1 / 3
Priscilla Poupore, the author, and her husband, Bill, used reclaimed telephone poles as support for their straw bale home’s roof.
2 / 3
Though drought made straw scarce in Texas, the Poupores sourced enough to build their straw bale home.
3 / 3
Bill did a lot of work on the Poupores’ debt-free homes, despite a leg injury that led to a later amputation.

In the deep woods on the south side of little Olson Lake some 30 miles inland of Lake Superior (as the crow flies), Bill hammered another piece of metal roofing near the 20-foot peak of his little log cabin. The head of orthopedics at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque had called to say the X-rays showed that he had broken the titanium rod that held his left leg together. The doc had told him to be careful and take it easy. Bill agreed, shut the cell phone, stuffed it in his pocket, and went back to hammering and laying down the next ten-foot sheet of roofing metal, dangling his useless leg.

Ten years before, we had given up our dream of sailing around the world in old “Sea Yawl.” Bill wanted a cabin in the woods. It was June in the upper peninsula of Michigan — cold and buggy, and we were living in a tent in the Northwoods, borrowing electricity from our neighbor, Finlander John. Bill’s brother came up one day to help clear the giant birch and maples to make a place for a house. He took as few trees as possible and used them for construction. Bill watched as his brother pulled a log out of the woods with a chain attached to his pickup truck. Without warning, the chain that pulled the log broke under the pressure, whipped around, and hit Bill’s left leg, creating a life-changing comminuted compound tib-fib fracture. Between hospital stays and doctor visits, we acquired a pickup truck and a camper.

Bill continued to haul and peel logs for ten autumns, standing them vertically, which he could do alone with the good leg and a good amount of fortitude. Two years into the project, the township officials said he had to sink in cement pillars, so he started over. He laid logs east to west on the pillars, then laid flattened logs on both sides north to south, notching them to fit with the east-west logs below. He notched the bottom of the upright wall logs to fit on a board and then nailed them together. He built a gable roof with a 30-foot log at the peak. We hired a guy for five days to help with this and the roofing.

Financially, the Olson Lake land is not completely debt-free, but we paid for the log cabin as we went along. Construction expenses were minimal (except for the roof which cost $3,000), as he used local logs from the property, rough-cut lumber from small local sawmills, and reclaimed lumber wherever he could find it. We found a 1950s gas/woodstove for the kitchen, bought a new refrigerator, picked up a thick pine log free at the lumber mill that we used as a kitchen counter, and gathered garage sale items for the rest of the furnishings. He constructed a Rumford-style fireplace using local rocks that we hauled to the cabin. Michigan recreational land taxes are very high, so that has been a burden.

Meanwhile, back at the farm in West Texas, our camper was resting on the foundation of a cabin my grandparents built in the late 40s. We decided to build a straw bale house on the same foundation. In 2004, we mustered up $4,000 to lay a new concrete pad over the old foundation plus a bed and bath area — 1,100 square feet in all.

The farm had been used for horticulture, Herefords, Durocs, Nubian goats, truck farming, oats and various other less-than-profitable ventures. It sits on a hillside at the northernmost outbreak of the Edwards Plateau (Texas Hill Country). It doesn’t rain very often but when it does — oh boy! The water comes gushing down the hillside and right over anything in its path, including our foundation. We rented a ditch digger and jolted our teeth through the hard caliche and limestone on the west upside, and then put holey pipes down at the bottom and filled it with gravel — a French drain.

Bill did this with his one working leg. The smashed leg had now undergone ten surgeries and the lower end of the allograft would not join up with the existing bone. On our meager teacher retirement income we brought home bags of cement, hydrated lime, and sand to make plaster. We bargained for straw (very scarce during droughts) and once even drove 650 miles up to St. Joseph, Mo., for a load of straw. We built a straw retaining wall, and a false front wall that incorporated the old barbecue smoker my granddad had built and a new bread oven Bill designed.

We managed to get a free load of old telephone poles to use as support for the roof poles between the straw bales, and the house rose upward ever so slowly.

Every July, we drove back to the log cabin in Michigan. In February 2004, we adopted two burros, “Harry Ass” and “Hillary,” so we switched to a truck-bed camper and pulled a horse trailer 1,500 miles from the farm in Texas to Olson Lake in Michigan, and then returned to Texas in December.

Baby Habanero was born to Harry and Hillary, and we rescued a white mustang, Sadee, so the herd was up to four and we traded up to a four-horse trailer with 12-foot living quarters in 2006. We still live in that trailer at the Texas farm while we finish up the straw bale house.

Financially, we owe $2,000 to Lowe’s for supplies for the straw bale, but the rest we paid for as we went. Admittedly, it has been 10 years since we poured the slab and we are 72 years along in our lives.

In July 2013, we did not go up to Olson Lake because Bill’s left leg was amputated.

He put his stump on a rolling stool to work, hauled 800 more bales of straw, and finished the walls of the straw bale home. He completed work on the roof, climbing up the ladder on his knees and pulling 20-foot sheets of metal roofing after him.

The straw bale is now closed in and we found some guys to help with the cement/hydrated lime/sand mix that we’re covering the straw with. We just finished the outside with one layer of the plaster and have started on the second coat of plaster. Bill is up on a ladder running wires for lights. At the end of October 2013, he got a prosthetic leg, which periodically and unexpectedly falls off. But with one good limb he has built two abodes mortgage-free.

Read other debt-free home reports like this one by perusing Debt-Free Living in Your Dream Home or visiting our Debt-Free Home Reports collection page.