I was visiting Ashley at the library last night when Dawn, a regular patron to the Smithsburg branch, called and invited us to dinner at her place. Dawn’s in her early 50s and partially deaf; she enlists Ashley’s help in tracking down interesting rare volumes, like a 150 year-old edition of a guide to home book-binding. She also sells homemade bread at Colonial Williamsburg and local renaissance fairs along with her 15 year-old daughter Fern. They’re sweet and pleasant people, so when Dawn made the invitation, we accepted.
They live at the end of a twisting gravel farm lane outside of Leitersburg. On the drive back we passed a small stucco outbuilding, and an enormous steel barn with two restored Model-A’s, a red Yugo, and a junked old pick-up with weeds growing out of the engine block parked beside it. When we arrived Dawn’s husband Kent had just gotten home from work at the gas company and was tooling around the property in another old pick-up, a little 1970’s Isuzu. He welcomed us and we talked work and cars until Dawn joined us from the barn. While he went to take care of a few things around the barn, Dawn gave us the grand tour.
The area directly surrounding the house was shaded on all sides by tall overhanging trees. She showed us a small outbuilding near the house which they originally erected as a washroom. Last year they added a front porch and gave it to their daughter for her own room. The porch roof was held up by stripped, unfinished tree trunks, between which were tied two hammocks. When I was 15 I would’ve killed for a place like that.
Their house was small – less than 600 square feet inside, they estimated – but built entirely themselves. They lived in a dilapidated camper trailer for four years while they built their tiny house bit by bit, doing whatever they could afford. When they started, they had $50 to their names. They spent $25 on digging irons and started digging out the foundation. When they hit a step they didn’t know how to do, they checked out library books, did research, and figured it out. When I say they built the house themselves, I mean exactly that – but for two futons and the appliances in the living room/kitchen, and the windows, everything in and on the house was made by Dawn and Kent with their own hands. They milled and stained the wood for the frame, walls, doors, roof, ceiling, and kitchen counter and cabinets all themselves; they mixed and pour the concrete and laid the stone for the floor all themselves; even the baby grand piano that dominates the small living space was built by Dawn herself.
Beyond the house is an octagonal building they’re still working on, to be Dawn’s workshop. The walls are stacked hay bales covered with stucco blended to look like the nearby slabs of native limestone. They built the blacksmith shop (that smaller outbuilding near the barn) the same way. In the house stacked to the ceiling, and in the barn filling a dozen massive shelves, were books. Old books, books on carpentry and metal-work, encyclopedias, classic works of literature – nearly 3,000 volumes, Dawn guessed.
For dinner Dawn made spaghetti and a spinach salad with dressing so delicious Ashley asked for the recipe. We ate outside at a picnic table, talking by candlelight about how Kent and Dawn met, about Ashley’s impending ascension as manager of the Smithsburg library, about our families. Fern came home from her friend’s house and joined us for the last few minutes. It was 10:30 when we left, and they apologized for keeping us so late. They’re some of the most interesting and charming people I’ve ever met. I expect any time they feel like having Ashley and I over for supper, we’ll make it.