If I Were a Cabin… The Timbers Speak

Most of the old bridge still lay in stacks at the edge of the sandy, windblown cotton field beside Stinking Creek, a spot that had been its home for the last seven and a half years. But the runner planks, the bridge pieces with perhaps the most character and stories to tell, now sat tucked against the cedar, Blackjack, and walnut trees that line the north end of a quiet meadow, slightly uphill from a glistening, 20-acre flood-control reservoir. This was a favorite place of Hoot’s late father-in-law, Albert, and now the peaceful meadow would be the new home of the lumber from Stinking Creek bridge and, someday, the cabin we would build from it.

This photo by my wife captures the character of the "runner planks". If these planks could talk...

This photo, taken by my wife, captures the character of the “runner planks”. If these planks could just talk… I imagine the stories they could tell!

Having had the luxury of some much appreciated help from Ronnie and his tractor the day before, Hoot and I returned to the cotton field to cut the bridge beams in half – a length that would, hopefully, allow them to be loaded on the 16-foot trailer and hauled to the meadow. With the beams laid flat and about three feet apart in the sand of the field, we simply had to measure the center of each, mark a line along the edge of a framing square, dig a trench in the sand under this center line for saw clearance, and cut each beam in two with my 20-inch chainsaw. In little time at all, we were looking at 23, 20-foot beams ready to be loaded and hauled away.

The odd beam – the 23rd beam – was the center support beam which, before the flood, had been attached with huge spikes to large, wooden pylons, or piers, that were driven vertically into the creek bed. Originally, there were two other support beams – one at each end – upon which the 11, 40-foot long “stringer beams” sat, but both were torn from their piers and ripped out from underneath the bridge during its trip down the flooded creek. The stringer beams, spaced approximately two-feet on center, were toe-nailed to these support beams with large spikes, and the deck boards – the “bridge planks” – were attached cross-ways on top of the stringers. The runner planks were then nailed side by side across the bridge planks, in one row three planks wide and one row four planks wide, providing a “roadway” for the vehicle tires.

Wooden Stringer Bridge over Spring Creek, just a few miles west of where the bridge over Stinking Creek washed out.

Wooden Stringer Bridge over Spring Creek, just a few miles west of where the bridge over Stinking Creek washed out.

In Oklahoma, most “wood stringer” bridges of this style, including Stinking Creek bridge, were built in 1940 and reconstructed in the 1960’s. According to the National Bridge Inventory, Stinking Creek bridge was reconstructed in 1965, and ultimately replaced (after the flood) with a modern, concrete bridge in 2009. And now, 47 years later, the old bridge was about to undergo a major renovation – like no other of its kind. I wondered if its now scattered pieces and parts lay anxiously anticipating the transformation ahead? Did they think about what we had in store for them? Did they wonder where they were going and what they would be? If so, they were not sharing their thoughts with us, and Hoot and I were going to have to come up with the cabin’s design on our own.

The draw that always served as "Camp"

The draw that always served as “Camp”.

For the location, choosing the quiet meadow as our cabin site was a fairly easy choice. “Camp” had always been much closer to the water, tucked in a narrow, wooded draw between two north/south geographic features – a ridge on the west and a ditch on the east – but this traditional location just would not do for our cabin site. Though not a thickly wooded draw, the walnuts, oaks, and cedars (without a good deal of thinning) were too close to allow safe room for the cabin we had in mind. One good wind or ice storm, and we could be looking at major damage to the roof structure. Besides, attempting to dig foundation pier holes amongst all those tree roots would have had Hoot telling me to jump in that lake for sure! No, Albert’s meadow, with its sandy soil, good drainage, and spectacular view of the reservoir, was most definitely the spot for our cabin!

Looking towards the reservoir from Albert's meadow. This would be our view from the cabin's front porch.

Looking towards the reservoir from Albert’s meadow. This would be our view from the cabin’s front porch.

The two rows in front are the runner-planks. The other four rows are the cross-planks.

The two rows in front are the runner-planks. The other four rows are the cross-planks.

With our location set, we had, at least, a place to stack and store the planks – and eventually the beams – from Stinking Creek bridge. But, after the beams were cut in half and we discovered they were still MUCH too heavy for two old country boys to lift onto a trailer by hand, Hoot and I spent that fifth day of our adventure hauling all the cross-planks (the deck boards) to the meadow’s edge. And, as we made each trip back and forth from cotton field to meadow, we continued to discuss the cabin’s design. This was the next, and perhaps the biggest, decision we still had to make.

Keeping economy in mind, Hoot had always talked about, and envisioned, a simple “lean-to” structure for a cook/sleeping “hut”. This could be built, he mused, fairly inexpensively using a “pole barn” design with corrugated metal siding and a simple, dirt floor. Being quite an astute camper, Hoot would have been completely satisfied with such quarters, but I had much more in mind for the glorious amount and type of wood provided by Stinking Creek bridge. With this pile of lumber, I thought, we could likely frame a structure of the same dimension as the bridge – 20 feet by 40 feet or, since all good cabins should have a front porch, maybe 20 feet by 30 feet with a ten-foot, covered front porch. Hmm… This was going to require a good deal of thought.

Hoot spots for Ronnie as he loads the beams on his trailer

Hoot spots for Ronnie as he loads the beams on his trailer

The next weekend, Ronnie brought his tractor, four-wheel-drive pickup, and 24-foot goose-neck trailer down to the cotton field to load and haul the heavy beams to the cabin site for us. With hay forks attached, this was a fairly easy task for old John Deere. Hoot worked as Ronnie’s spotter as each of the heavy beams (estimated at 800 pounds each) were placed on the trailer. With Hoot providing plenty of help, I took advantage of the opportunity to snap some photos of the process. I do not know why we failed to think about taking pictures as we worked those first two weekends, but finally my wife suggested I bring a camera along to start documenting our progress. After several photos and a count of 11 beams, the trailer was squatted on its suspension springs as far as we dared, and so we departed the cotton field with the first load.


Hoot goes after another short plank to fashion a ramp for rolling the beams to the ground.

Without having the luxury of Ronnie’s tractor at the cabin site, we would have to unload the beams by hand. After discussing the possibility of using my pickup and a chain to drag them off the back of Ronnie’s trailer one by one, we hit on another method – we would simply roll them off the side. Right. Sure. Maybe “simply” should not have been included in the description of this method. But I digress. So, we leaned a couple four-foot pieces of runner plank against the side of the trailer and, using the eight-foot pry bar, crow bars, and a lot of just plain country boy grit, we rolled each beam to the ground and stacked them two and three high. This was Ronnie’s turn to “bout have a goddamned heart attack”. But, he (thankfully) did not and, with one more trip, all the beams (and planks) from Stinking Creek bridge were stacked at the meadow’s edge.

Hoot and the Bad Boy Buggy prepare for gathering porch posts.

Hoot and the Bad Boy Buggy prepare for gathering porch posts.

The next day, still lacking a definite plan for the cabin structure, Hoot and I decided to take our chainsaws to the other side of the reservoir to gather cedars for our front porch posts. Whatever its design, we had decided the cabin would have a front porch and the posts would be cut from local cedar trees – this much was certain. We were aware of a spot where several appropriately sized cedars had been cut some years before and, having dried over that time, these would make perfect porch posts. All we had to do was trim them up a bit, cut them to length, and then drag them out of the woods and over a ridge with my electric, four-wheel drive Bad Boy Buggy. Once we had them on the other side of the ridge, we could load them on the 16-foot trailer and haul them with my pickup truck back across the reservoir dam to the cabin site.

This stout cedar tree was released from the bondage of this brush pile and given a new home on the front porch of our cabin

This stout cedar tree was released from the bondage of the brush pile, so it could have a new home on the front porch of our cabin.

While trimming limbs from one of the larger cedars, I began to envision what a nice corner post it was going to make for our front porch. I thought about how all the beautiful, wood posts, fashioned from cedars harvested on this land, would look quite natural and at home in the meadow on the other side of the reservoir. And, as I cut the main trunk about ten feet up from the base, and freed the tree from the tangle of the brush pile in which it had been trapped, it felt as if the cedar was somehow thankful, appreciative of the opportunity for a new life. I wondered if the massive bridge timbers felt the same about being freed from the creek bank. I thought about how we could best honor them, as we would the cedars, with a place on the cabin that would show off their natural beauty and rugged strength. And then, at that moment, it came to me. We would stack the timbers one on top of the other, log cabin style. “That’s it!”, I told Hoot, “We were going to build a log cabin!”

Our cedar porch posts sit atop the massive beams of Stinking Creek bridge

Our cedar porch posts sit atop the massive beams of Stinking Creek bridge

I had always dreamed of building a log cabin, and now, with the gift of Hurricane Erin, we had the materials to do just that. At eight inches thick and 16 inches high, the massive, rugged wood beams would make excellent “logs” for cabin walls. I did some quick calculations in my head. It would take six beams to make a wall eight feet high, and 24 beams would make four solid walls. We had only 23 beams, but the cabin would need a door and some windows to provide light and ventilation in warmer weather. What would be cut out for the door and windows would surely make up for the lack of a 24th beam. The cabin would have to be smaller than Hoot and I had first talked about, but I was sure we could make do. I was not yet certain, however, how we would manage without having the luxury of modern equipment to handle the heavy beams but, if the pioneers could do it, I knew, somehow, we could do it too. After all, we just had to do it! The timbers had finally spoken…

My wife captures the character of the beams in this photo.

This photo, taken by my wife, shows a row of stubborn ring-shanked nails that once held the cross planks in place.

© From Creek to Cabin in 287 Days