In 1983, Harry Hopkins decided that he wanted to build himself a house. He approached his wife, Karen, the next year, proposing they build a cabin on the plot next to their house on Mace Road in Camino, acquired nearly a decade before. By 1993, using almost entirely wood from his own land, he had a new home next door to where they had raised their children.
Just a year before his retirement in 1984, Harry asked Karen if she wanted to live in a log cabin. “‘No way,’ I said. All I could imagine was a dirt floor,” she said. But Harry was determined. First, he built a miniature 3D model of his proposed home, and then employed an artist to draw a concept of the house. There was no dirt floor. Karen agreed to the house.
In the 1950s, the dentist who lived next door dug out and cemented a very large pool, 85 feet by 45 feet. Harry, an avid swimmer, envied it. When the dentist died, his wife sold off the property. Harry bought it from that man in 1974. Now all he needed was wood to build his cabin.
Now the owner of four acres, mostly forest, Hopkins was in the ideal position to build his own cabin. A retired forester with the U.S. Forest Service, he surveyed the trees on the four acres of land in 1977. The 100-year-old trees measured out to 49,000 board feet. It was perfect for building a log cabin.
Hopkins bought a portable Wood Mizer LT30 horizontal bandsaw and set to work cutting down trees and making boards with his son, Harry Jr. A year or two later, he bought a tractor to help haul the lumber. With the help of his son-in-law, Lance Swift, plans for the house were drawn up. All that was left was to build the house.
The basement was first. A slab foundation was poured with the help of Tim Donahue. The walls were made of a treated wood created by the Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wis. The 2-by-8 plywood boards were treated with several arsenic compounds and tested in the field, he said. “Works for me.” The basement holds a workshop and extra room where another tenant, who helps around the house, stays in, Hopkins said.
Walking around the house, mostly completed in 1993, Hopkins has an amazing memory for which piece of wood came from which tree — Douglas fir, cedar, ponderosa, maple, yew — in all, 12 species. Plus one species, he said, that doesn’t count. “It’s Monterey Pine,” he said with a pause, “from New Zealand.” But given that it only makes up about 2 or 3 feet of wood in the house, he doesn’t count it.
Outside, corners were made into “full dovetail corners,” he said, something that is not usually found on log cabins. It took “a lot of time” to figure out how to get the corners to have the end of the boards sticking out, but in the end, with the help of some trigonometry and a jig, he stacked and cut the ends to fit in a way reminiscent of Lincoln Logs with a slightly different end — slanted two ways.
The front deck, which leads up to the now nearly-empty pool — health issues meant that Hopkins doesn’t swim much anymore, leading the pool to only collect rainwater — is also atypical. Instead of parallel beams, the 2-by-8s for a herringbone pattern. Anderson bay windows, ponderosa clad in vinyl — jut out from the front of the house.
Inside, the floor is made up of California black oak, with walnut wood plugs covering the 500 screws. The boards are straight on three sides — inside, the walls are all flush; outside, they are rounded. Karen decorated the inside of the house, weaving her own baskets and mirror frames — she sells her wares at local craft fairs — and chose the wallpaper where the wood is not shown.
Stairs, built by Bruce Harkey — who also helped in placing logs and did the log framing for the first floor — lead up in a “Y” to two bedrooms. In the winter, a limestone fireplace/furnace that dominates the living room — with medals from senior swimming competitions hanging from the mantle — hooked up to a duct system and a propane furnace, heats the house evenly. In the summer, Harry and Karen sleep on a balcony in a queen-size bed. “The trees are silhouetted against the moon. We’re out in the fresh air. It’s lovely,” Karen said. Even better, Harry added, is that there is only the occasional mosquito, but otherwise no bugs.
The roof flairs out from the sides of the house, supported by beams beyond the main walls, giving a high ceiling to the upstairs. The angle of the ceiling, however, means that part of the square-footage isn’t counted by the assessor. Any part where the roof is less than 7 feet from the ground, Harry said, is not counted. “But I count it,” he said, saying the house is about 2,000 square feet.
The vast majority of the wood used came from the four acres, Harry said. Walking around a one-acre part of the forest, he pointed out the various species. The trees, he said, are about 137 years old. Looking at a Douglas fir, he finds a small metal tag attached to it and pulls out a small orange book. In 1977, tree No. 10 was 36 inches in diameter and 2,000 board feet. Now, it is 44 inches and 3,000 board feet. Tree No. 38 was 30 inches and 1600 board feet, and is now 38 inches and 3,010 board feet. Hopkins said he used tables to figure out how many board feet each tree was based on diameter and height.
Before he began cutting trees, that last major clearing of trees was in 1875, leaving some trees that were not ready to be cut down. In 1977, his property had 49,000 board feet of trees. In the 36 years it took to create the house, about 20,000 was used. The same area now has 59,000 board feet, meaning it grew in faster than he could use it, a total of about 834 board feet growing in each year, he said. The land was used by Pam Cook of Folsom Lake Community College to teach students about forestry, he noted.
And he isn’t done building yet. A recently completed fence in the front of the property was made from wood attached to a concrete foundation. A pool house, just across from the garage, is still under construction, with one of Harry’s sons still putting in siding.
Hopkins said he felt a divine backing to his large project, enabling him to get lucky in having enough wood and friends and family — his other son, Ernie, did the wiring for the house and his son-in-law, Robert Warren, did carpentry, among many other friends helping out. “I felt like I had a purpose, that Heaven was behind me. So many wonderful things, people,” he said, went in to building the house.
Hopkins has slowed down in building, having suffered from strokes and crystals in his knee causing it to sometimes be painful to walk. But for having never designed a house or built anything but a shed and doghouse, Hopkins can now live in the cabin of his dreams, built from his own wood and by his own hand.
Contact Cole Mayer at 530-344-5068 or [email protected] Follow @CMayerMtDemo.