In need of a little TLC

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

When one purchases a “hunting camp” or cabin intended to be the base for more general outdoor activities, one may well be acquiring a structure intended to be something quite less than a serious year-round dwelling. Any remodeling of the structure was apt to have been done by persons who may have been skilled but tended to do things their own way.

Such was the case for my wife and me. We bought our place primarily for its “location,” which is, of course, a key factor in any real estate deal.

The cabin looks a little like an Iroquois or Mohawk “longhouse” since it has two stories and brown exterior and is 15 feet wide and around 50 feet long.

The property’s site on the Allegheny River’s Althom Eddy, was a definite plus since we had found the eddy to be a good place for boating and even swimming during the more than 12 years we rented cabins and had a camper trailer at the former Cloverleaf Campgrounds located at the southern end of the eddy.

Boat launches at Buckaloons to the north and at Tidioute to the south were both just about 8 miles away, which made for longer, but not too arduous canoe or kayak trips. The Althom Road above tiny Althom was a fair place for biking, and hiking trails, such as the Tanbark Trail across the river and in the Irvine area, were close by.

Before the campground closed, we looked for places for sale in the same area and were fortunate to notice that our future second home was being offered. We had paddled by the place on river trips, and it had been conspicuous because it was being remodeled.

The owners had been adding, in two stages, a second floor to an old one-story cabin. Their renovation was not quite complete when they put their vacation home up for sale.

We learned later that the couple who owned the place had unfortunately split up, with the husband starting a new life in California.

“Well, you got the showplace,” the realtor remarked to me after our purchase had been completed.

In the kitchen, a lamp with a beautiful glass Tiffany shade hung over a massive oak table with several matching oak chairs. The furniture elsewhere in the house was satisfactory, but we added to what was already there.

High up on the walls on both sides of the kitchen were shelves holding an array of decorative antique bottles. Woven baskets decorated a wall.

The walls of the adjacent bathroom were made of slanted strips of stained wood, and the mirror was illuminated on both sides by rows of small lights.

The paneled living room off the kitchen featured a large bay window with smaller windows on either side that cranked open.

The living room was marred, however, by a rickety wooden spiral staircase which led to the rear second-floor bedroom via a large square hole cut in the ceiling.

In the rear of that bedroom, the previous remodelers had installed three beautiful picture windows which looked out onto the sloping oak forest of Game Lands 86.

But a tiny bedroom just off the living room was in a serious state of disrepair. The top of a built-in bunkbed had collapsed, mattress and all, and a plasterboard wall had caved in too.

With advice from King Building Supply of Tidioute, we were able to secure the services of a couple of retired carpenters originally from the Pittsburgh area who had homes in Deerfield just north of Tidioute.

They first finished the front upstairs bedroom overlooking the river which had been just a shell of a room. They installed a ceiling with a flush fluorescent light, covered the walls with attractive paneling, added a much-needed closet, and installed two small windows high on the northern wall.

Next, they added utility room at the rear of the cabin into which they ran a flight of stairs down from the second floor and thus creating a much needed second cabin entrance. (The only other entrance had been the kitchen’s glass door.) They got rid of that jerry-built flight of stairs which we hesitated to use. They also renovated the tiny downstairs rear bedroom.

Before the interior work was even started, I had turned my attention to the exterior.

The cabin’s cedar plank siding was so dried out that the planks sprang out wherever fastening nails were insecure, and empty knot holes in the planking even allowed noisy birds, starlings, to roost in the insulation between the outer and inner walls,

Thus, the first task after we bought the place was to give it a coat of thick stain, close the knot holes, and attempt to nail the wayward siding back into place.

“Look, a half brown house,” I recall a canoeist passing on the river remarking to a companion after I had stained just the top portion of the cabin.

I also had to remove the roof’s gutters as they didn’t drain and collected stagnant water. I got a few bucks for the aluminum at a Warren scrap yard.

We had our old camper trailer towed from Cloverleaf to the cabin, but ran into a siting problem there and sold the RV. I was sorry later that I had done that, as it would have been interesting to have had a “third home.”

Problems did remain with the cabin after the interior and exterior work was complete.

The hot water tank under a stairway to the second floor was heated by a propane gas burner which had to be relit on every visit to the cabin and seemed to pose a fire danger due to its flaring in a confined space. We replaced it with an electric water heater, which proved to be much superior.

But heating the place on cool fall or spring days (we never use the cabin in the winter) with the large Sigler oil stove in the living room was problematic, to say the least.

This was because rain from the eaves above splattered the stove’s fuel tank, creating a mist that condensed into the water when it entered the tank via a ventilation pipe.

Since water is heavier than oil, the water would settle in the bottom of the tank, and block fuel from entering the stove. The oil would either go out soon after being lit or would not feed into the firebox at all. Clearing the water from the tank was a task that required much tedious draining.

I found that erecting a small, sloped roof over the tank worked quite well. But high winds took out one roof, and ice and snow falling off the main roof above took out the other, so I abandoned that solution.

However, Tidioute Oil helped me obtain the help of Larry Brooks, a heating expert from tiny Bear Lake up near the New York State border. He was familiar with the water-in-oil problem, noting that constant mist from the river also contributed to it.

Brooks both stabilized the shaky supports for the 275-gallon oil tank and put an aluminum “tent” on top of the tank suspended from a 2×4 and held in place by a strap. So far, this contraption has worked, keeping water out of the oil.

We’ve also had to replace the cabin’s leaking shingle roof with a steel one, install a new water pump, and replace all the copper water pipes in the crawl space under the cabin with insulated pipes, as the old pipes had burst in extreme cold.

We believe that we have done all that is necessary to make a problem-prone old cabin livable and hope that those who take over the place from us might appreciate this.

But the need for updating will certainly continue.

Robert Stanger has lived seasonally for over 40 years along the Allegheny River and has the stories to tell about it.