To Build a House

Zee and I watched the ink dry on our signatures to the deed that would complete the purchase of the Taylor Ranch. We would be the new owners of a parcel of land 8,000 acres in size that would run enough cattle to feed my family and provide for us, a place to feel the joy of building a business while raising four children. The building part has taken 60 years for our original 8,000 acres to grow to 20,000 acres. With lots of nostalgia for the past, this November hopefully all our clan of 20 will gather to celebrate 60 years of more laughter than tears and more successes than failures all which happened it seemed in the blink of an eye.

Reality is a phenomenon that makes me get out of bed in the morning and says “you can do whatever needs doing”. Reality shook me again and said “you have just bought 8,000 acres that puts Yosemite National Park in second place in terms of Drop Dead Beautiful” but you have no house to live in and a water well that produces ten gallons per hour which equals 240 gallons in 24 hours, that’s not much to drink especially when the cattle and horses have first choice. When this meager supply is divvied up it makes a hot shower out of the question but a sponge bath doable. Jack, also on your list of what you don’t have, is a set of corrals with scales to weigh your cattle so you can sell them and a loading chute to deliver them f.o.b. the buyers truck, a barn for shelter in bad weather for your horses and no place to keep your hay and grain dry.

When you bought this amazing, high quality grass ranch, that’s what you got, grass and lots of it and potential. So Jack, why don’t you make believe that you’re a pioneer and you’ve just discovered this beautiful valley and you’re the first one to settle in it. There’s no time to bemoan the fact that Mr. Taylor kept 2,800 acres that contained all the improvements to run a ranch like water, a house and a barn. What you got was possibilities, paradise, a need for patience and sprinkled here and there will be some disappointments. So get off your rear, get out of the shade and into the heat and build yourself a proper ranch.

In the spring of 1962 after almost four years of a very steep learning curve we said goodbye to our STARTER ranch that the neighbors jokingly called Pinch Gut Canyon. They said it would starve a good man to death but it did have a house, a barn and water to drink.

I’ve always believed that where there is a will, there is a way so with that rallying cry and a wife that had been raised at her parents riding stable in Culver City California where she slept in one bedroom with her three brothers and her two sisters slept in mom and dads bedroom, Zee was used to cramped quarters. That translated to mean we would build what we could afford after buying cattle to graze the ranch and a few horses to move them to different places on the ranch. Well go ahead Jack tell us what was left to build a house? How about 1,000 square feet that cost $10,000 and contained one bedroom for us and one bedroom for our two little girls but by 1963 and again in 1965 we would have to make room for their two brothers and still only one bathroom and a kitchen living room combo for our growing family. Thinking of the future we saved the best building site for our main house that turned out to be 13 years off, into the future. It was going to be sooner but reality kept getting in the way. Like first we had to have water to drink and a roof over our heads. I told Zee that we would get a well driller out from Paso Robles, to drill us a well. That sounded easy so in no time at all the well driller was busy drilling away to meet our water needs. On the second day the driller told me that he had hit water at about 50 feet and would start casing the well. He thought it would yield about 30 gallons per minute. Being a curious sort, I walked over to the drill stem as it was coming out of the hole, bringing drilling mud and debris, I touched my finger to the drill stem and put a little of the water to my tongue and much to my surprise it tasted salty. I said to the driller “this water is salty” he said “can’t be” I said “have you tasted it” he said “no, I don’t like all the mud that’s mixed in”. But he agreed to a taste test before we went any farther and with a swipe of his finger and a wrinkle of his nose he said “your right this water is salty” thus began a costly and scary search for water.

Finally after drilling eight either salty or dry holes I traded my Cessna 172 airplane to my well drilling contractor straight across. My dreams of traveling to my empire of ranches and cattle by air, now wasn’t going to happen. Looking back, losing the airplane and all the potential ranches you can see from the air, probably saved me from not getting in over my head and losing our new ranch to too much debt before we even got started.

But we still had to have more water. The solution sent me following a cattle trail for about a mile and a half from our house and a thousand feet of elevation higher. There it was a spring that produced a gallon per minute which equals 1440 gallons of water per 24/7/365 plus the 240 from the existing well, I now had 1680 gallons of water per day to water our horses, cattle and wildlife and whatever was left over for my family and I was ours to use. This could vary widely from hot summers when we barely had enough to drink, to winter time when we could all take showers. I decided that I must make one more attempt to find water as Mr. Taylor had a good well on his side of the fence. Putting aside all the different Water Gurus that some even had confidence enough to say "if I don’t find water there would be no charge for my services”. I swept them all aside and had the well driller move as close to Mr Taylor’s fence as possible and told the drilling contractor to drill where I made a small hole with my shovel. One day for the driller to set up his rig and a second day to drill. At close to quitting time the driller yelled at me to come over to the site. He said “I’ve hit water at 50 feet why don’t you take a taste". So with some trepidation I took a finger full of drilling mud and water and put it to my tongue. No salt YEA and after cleaning up the well we had thirty gallons per minute of water that had a wonderful taste to it. It was all so simple now. Why didn’t I drill in this spot to begin with? I don’t know but the best explanation came from a Geologist who studies the San Andreas Earthquake Fault he said “because of the fault you can have water in one place then move over 20 feet and you might get nothing or you might get salt water.

The 1970s were a time of cattle prices that were getting better and rainfall that produced good grass on the range, big hay crops in the valley and with the blessings from my accountant Zee and I decided to build our dream house on the view site we had saved. Sound out the bugle call it was time to start drawing plans, get a building permit and collect all the used materials that would be needed to build “The Dream”.

With the start of the winter of 1973 I heard about the closing and dismantling of a part of Camp Roberts, a World War Two Army base. The Army had decided that several hundred buildings of various uses from enlisted men’s barracks to large laundry facilities to several churches would be sold. It was very easy to purchase these surplus buildings. There was a member of the Army that took me on a walking tour and showed me which buildings had already been sold and which were still available. If I remember correctly the smallest buildings were called “day rooms” and each company had one. They were for visiting, reading, card playing etc. and were for sale. So for one hundred dollars I bought one. Next were the barracks which were long two story buildings that you wanted to be sure to buy an officer’s barracks because the top floor was a full eight feet high the same as the bottom floor. The enlisted man barracks measured seven feet on the top floor a way of telling regular GI Joe’s that he was a lower class grunt. Leaving who ever tore those down with a lot of short and not very usable boards. I passed on the enlisted man barracks and the officer barracks were all taken. But I did see a church that by far had the most usable lumber for $300 dollars. These two buildings would go on to produce 90% of the lumber to frame a 4300 square foot dream house. It took me and two hired men about three weeks to demolish and pull all the nails and stack this pile of boards into their various lengths and widths. The frosting on the cake would be all the accessories like solid core doors with all solid brass hinges attached from the church and a lot of redwood trim boards.

The next great find happened when I learned that the Santa Maria High School was going to be demolished because it didn’t meet new earthquake regulations and if I was interested in thousands of Spanish clay roof tiles manufactured in 1913 here was the number to call. Hello, yes I’m interested in buying part of the tile on the roof of the Santa Maria High School. How much? Ten cents a piece but you have to take them off the roof and be done by next Sunday evening because Monday was when the wrecking ball would arrive. This being a Tuesday there wasn’t much time. So I immediately drove to the high school to see if I liked my ten cent a tile purchase for only those tiles that arrived on a pallet not broken. Yes I certainly did. The next question was how will I get 22,000 roof tiles off the school and on to pallets by the following Monday then to be hauled to our ranch in Parkfield some 80 miles in distance. To the local junk yard was my next stop to look for some kind of chute that I could slide the tiles to the ground without breaking them and there it was. My chute which was a piece of sheet metal that was bent into the shape of a channel that had four inch sides and a 12 inch wide bottom that was 16 feet long laid off in a corner and was just what I needed. How much? Ten dollars? Sold I said if you will throw in an old truck tire. The owner said “gladly” Back to the school with the old truck tire and chute. By sticking the bottom end of the chute into the center hole of the tire, then stuffing some old Burlap sacks to soften the blow when the tile hit the center hole, then leaning the chute against the roof at an angle that left it standing about one foot above the roof line, I was in business. To get my 22,000 tiles I had to slide 8 tiles a minute times 12 hour days, times four days would equal about 23,000 tiles which would allow for any that might break in an earthquake in the future. My labor force would be our four children plus four more that lived on a ranch that Zee and I owned in San Luis Obispo, plus Zee and I. This work force of eight, ranged in age from 10 to 17 and were about to find out what work was all about and when finished to feel the pride and camaraderie that comes from a job well done.

June of 1975, seven o’clock. Thursday morning, school had just let out for the summer and a once in a lifetime experience was about to start. The roof that we were to work on had a fairly flat pitch to it, like three to one and the tiles that originally were fastened by a nail threw a hole in the top end of each tile had long since rusted away so gathering the tiles meant just picking them up like one might pick up a six pound rock. I was at the top of the chute sliding the tiles and checking to make sure that eight tiles a minute were being sent to Zee at the truck tire who would pull the tile out and then hand it to the next person who would stack it on a pallet. The learning curve lasted about a half hour then we were in full production mode. Friday arrived and we were right on schedule until a man arrived about 10 o’clock in the morning and wanted to know what all those kids were doing up on the roof. I said “their hauling tiles to me so that we can have our share of the roof clean by Monday morning” Half the children you see up there are mine and the other half have permission per this note signed by their father for the other half. I proceeded to explain all the advantages that you Mr. Contractor, me as a father and the children were getting and if you would just go away and come back Monday morning we’ll be done. So with a shrug of his shoulders he left and maybe 100 tiles didn’t get sent to Parkfield before we were again moving at full speed. Lunch was across the street at the local fast food hamburger joint. Where you ate as fast as you could as I only allotted 15 minutes to eat. The kids followed my cue and were eating their hamburgers as we started walking back across the street eating as we went. Saturday I handed out all new leather gloves to everybody as cloth ones only lasted a few hours because of the ruff texture of the tiles and were then in shreds. There was a competitive feeling starting to show itself as the kids were starting to ask more frequently if we were on schedule and if we were falling behind at all, the fastest would cajole the slower to “hurry up.” It’s Sunday evening now and all 22,500 plus or minus tiles are all stacked neatly on their pallets waiting to go help build a new roof to keep wind and rain from our new family dream home. Monday morning with a forklift at the ready and three 40 foot semis to be loaded, I took a moment to pay my Friday friend who allowed me to finish. He grinned as he told me that there were six other older workers that started two days before my crew and only picked half as many tiles, he added that there were quite a few rest stops, moans and grounds and little enthusiasm. The price would be $2,250 for 22,500 multicolored beautiful Spanish clay tiles and all eight of the youngsters couldn’t have been any prouder as were Zee and I.

You can’t have indoor plumbing without valves and faucets so hearing that part of Camp San Luis Obispo another World War Two Army camp was being torn down to make way for a new prison and one of the buildings being demolished was a laundry that used a prodigious number of valves and fittings to wash an Army’s dirty clothes. This time my crew was very very different from family and friends as I was supplied with three to four prisoners each day that had “good behavior status” to help me take apart all the many fittings and valves and load them in my truck. My experience working with a group of men that had stepped on the law too hard were a jovial lot to work with and made my time gathering my plumbing needs a fun time. Some 25 years later I decided to build a fountain in downtown Parkfield where all the weird and wonderful valves that had found no use in our house or at the ranch found their calling as decorations on a water fountain I built in Downtown Parkfield. I was getting close to having all the ingredients necessary to build a house which meant a trip to Mexico City to buy some furniture and light fixtures and much to my chagrin there was nothing that said “there it is” so I said to Zee why don’t we stop in Tijuana on our way home. This time all the items we were looking for were all there to be had on Revolution Blvd.

I hope the satisfaction I was feeling as a “hunter, gatherer” was similar to the feeling the Yocut Indians, that lived in this Cholame Valley before we white folks arrived, as they sat down to enjoy a meal from their work as “hunters and gatherers”. I’m almost done but I still need to find some 8 by 8 Douglas Fir posts to support porches that surround the house on two sides plus a carport. Wouldn’t you know it I heard that on Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo, the old tank farm that received crude oil from the west side of Kern County was then pumped on to Port San Luis near the town of Avila Beach, then be loaded on to oil tankers and sent on to Los Angeles to be refined into gasoline. The tank farm was a series of round roof structures covering all this crud that was stored in dirt ponds that had over the years become an environmental problem and had to be dismantled and the site cleaned up. Luck was with me as all the roof supports were Douglas Fir 8x8 of varying lengths just right for my porches. One problem was that they for many years had been submerged in Kern crude oil. It was to my good fortune that a fellow had just arrived with a planner for hire that would remove all the oil leaving only some staining that added to the beauty of the wood.

I think the last thing that I gathered was another rewarding accident when I was looking at the remains of an old house in the center of downtown Parkfield. I had recently bought this property thinking that I would someday like to restore Parkfield to its past grandeur. The house was squashed under a giant old oak tree that had been standing dead for several years and in a winter rain storm had blown over obliterating the last reminders of a once thriving town. Parkfield in its zenith year of 1899 was when 900 people lived here but all the industries that were going to make Parkfield the shining star of southern Monterey County each arrived with it’s own promise of a pot of gold but each had a terminal flaw. The coal mines flaw was water that couldn’t be pumped out fast enough to extract the coal, the Mercury mine whose rich vein of ore just ran out of gas. The oil wells that egged a Wildcatter until he went broke never materialized and finally the Homesteaders who couldn’t make a living on 160 acres sold his handful of cows turned his hogs loose had chicken for dinner and quit. Leaving a rock solid population today of 18.

So with my hammer and pocket knife I climbed over the giant oak and peeled back almost 100 years of newspaper then muslin cloth then wallpaper as a way of covering the walls to keep the heat in and the cold out with little money spent. With my pocket knife what I exposed were boards made from virgin old growth Redwood that had no knots and a beautiful red color. Well these boards will be recycled onto the walls of one of the rooms in my yet to be built house. So with tractor and chain saw we removed the old oak that made firewood and salvaged almost all the Redwood boards.

I’ve been on this treasure hunt for almost two years now and just one more thing I promise then no more and that was to gather enough creek run rocks to build the two fireplaces that would warm our house, that’s it, it’s time to build a house.

I’ve decided that a hands on contractor who would pound nails, read plans, saw boards with a helper and me and my hired man who could help when there wasn’t ranch work to do would be the crew. This effort and spending twice what I had planned on spending $100,000 would become $200,000 to build our house and almost two years of sporadic time.

See Ya in Part Two


To be continued...

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