History of The Naples Cabin
My wife Nancy and I met in Seattle and decided on Naples, NY to make our family. We put a big map of the region on the wall of our rented Rochester NY house and took 6 months of house hunting. In the early spring of 1999 we found an ad in the paper. “Structurally sound farmhouse on 33 acres.” We visited the property that weekend. It was muddy and cool.
The old house was empty, quiet and simply built. We were told that the elderly woman who lived there had passed away. We went up the steep stairs and watched as snowflakes from a brief flurry that came and went, blew through the rotting, rattling window sashes, landed on the old dry wood floor. “It’s perfect.” I said. Nancy shrugged.
Making a home
We spent our first night in the house a month later on a clean space we made on the kitchen floor. The house had accumulated a thick layer of dust since the previous owner passed and the linoleum in the kitchen was the easiest spot to clean. As the night fell and the lay down on us, we hear nothing but the sound of wind and the occasional cry of a fox.
We moved in. Each room had a single light bulb in the center of its ceiling. Some would unexpectedly dim then brighten. A few appliances we plugged in had a short life. I turned off the breaker, removed a receptacle, pulled out the electrical wire crumble in my hands.
Over the course of the next year I pulled out the old wiring and replacing it with modern writing, adding outlets as I went. The house was at least safe from electrical fire, but had a lot of work to go.
Ethan was born in the spring of 2000, and Kaya would join the family three years later. By that time the house had the basics. I built them their own bathroom upstairs. I painted the interior and exterior. Built a small barn, added a wood fired furnace and a propane furnace. It was still just a structurally sound farmhouse, but a more comfortable one.
With Nancy’s permission, I turned my attention to the forested hill behind the house. The steep slope faced northeast toward Canandaigua lake below. In the winter I could see bits of the lake through the trees. I figured that if I removed some trees on the slope it might have a view of Canandaigua lake. I got a Stihl Farm Boss and started cutting trees every day after work. I would hike up with my saw, helmet, sharpener and a piece of string. Because of the slope of the hill it was sometimes difficult to know which way a tree leaned. I would tie a rock to the string and held it up parallel to the tree to understand its lean.
When I cut the trees I left the trees where they fell, since there was no way to get them up off the steep slope. It was wasted wood but that would would become soil, then more trees.
A neighbor, Vern, a burly woodsman and builder, stopped by that winter and said he could haul the fallen trees up to the top of the hill using a log skidder. Vern, his son Noah and his son and fried John hauled the huge trees up the steep slope with the machine in a weekend. I cut the wood and hauled it back down to the house in my vintage Ford f250. That wood heated us for almost two winters.
I continue to invite this neighbor and his son to hunt on my land every year.
With the slope cleared, I moved on to clear the trees at the very top of the hill. There was evidence that years ago the hilltop had been farmed. There were rock piles and an old dug well. Mostly the hilltop had Ash and Quaking Aspen the thickness of my thigh, although there were about mature White Pines.
Nancy said to keep the pines. She liked their smell because they reminded her of her former home in the pacific northwest. After a winter’s work, the hilltop was bald except those white pines. It was muddy and there were roots sticking up from the trees I cut down.
A wake up call
In summer when the earth was dry, I rented a bulldozer and started to dig up and move the roots of the trees I had cut, along with the downed trees themselves. I then ran the dozer over the bare ground, smoothing it as best I could. It looked like the surface of the moon. Ugly. I created two small ponds and cut a channel so the water drained off into the woods.
As I drove the dozer I carefully worked around the large pines, although I occasional felt the treads rolling over the roots of the pine trees, sometimes causing the trees to shake and a pine cone to fall.
Weeks after the bulldozer work I noticed the pine needles turning rust colored. I had stressed the pine trees with the bulldozer tracks. In the coming weeks I would watch the pine needles for signs they were turning green again.
Before winter closed in, I bought sacks of oats from the feed store in Bath and spread the on the hilltop and the slope. Oats are annuals so they would not be permanent, however that’s all I could afford and I hoped they would hold the soil until something more substantial started to grow.
A fierce wind storm came in February. At the house the wind howled. The snow shot sideways across the windows and you could hear the cables from the lightning rods bang against the roof of the house. The next morning I hiked up through the snow to the hilltop to see what damage the wind may had done. As I feared, six pine trees where down, with their root systems now vertical in the air. Within a week there were white grub-like insects eating the pine. You could hear them eating even standing 10 feet away.
I figured my bulldozing had damaged the fragile roots of these trees, causing them to lose their grip on the disturbed soil. I had also removed their neighboring trees, which previously helped shield the wind.
In the end, the downed trees were not missed, but that event taught me a lesson. As the custodian of the property, the things that grow there and the critters that call it home would depended on my forest management practices. I bought some books on how to take better care of the habitat. Today the forest has wild turkeys, red tailed hawks, pileated woodpeckers, coyotes, foxes and the occasional herron.
It was 2003. Ethan was 3 now and Kaya was an infant. I imagined a playhouse on a grand scale. The kids would spend the weekends playing and learning about the wilderness. They would catch butterflies and catch frogs. Then later they would learn to build a fire, and learn archery. Eventually when they were teens they would have parties with their friends in a parent free zone.
I sketched out a small cabin-like structure and showed it to Nancy. Windows were set low for a child to look out. It had a second story with a ladder. To get down, you could slide down a playground slide to the first floor. The playhouse would be built using all wood from the property. I needed a sawmill to build this.
I hitched my trailer to my Subaru and drove to Hud-Son Forest Equipment in the adirondacks. There was a factory where men who worked in the woods built sawmills and other wood processing equipment. I bought the smallest sawmill they had, and a peavy. One the way home I imagined all the possibilities.
Nancy and I hauled the sawmill up the hill using a sled and a block and tackle. (Thanks, Nancy.) I leveled the tracks as best I could by digging through the snow to get to ground, then laying “railroad ties” of wood under the tracks. I cut down trees and used the block and tackle to drag them to the mill. Later I bought a truck and dragged them with a chain, which increased my productivity substantially.
The trees were mostly Maple, Oak, Ash. I worked every day after work, listening to the radio and sawing wood. I must have cut about 80 trees over the course of 5 years with the saw. I stacked up all the wood in piles and covered it with a tarp.
If you have never seen a whole tree sliced up on a rainy day, it’s a beautiful thing. The wood looks like wood that is freshly sanded and varnished, with complex color and a rich smell. However this appearance disappears after a few days, when the wood begins to dry and gray. After that point it would need to be dried further and sanded to bring back the appearance.
I started to learn the qualities of the wood. Ash seemed ghostly white and hard as steel. It got even harder once it dried and often cracked down the length. Maple was beautiful. Oak was a dream and rock hard when it dried but stunk when you cut slabs.
Green lumber, especially hardwood is wet and heavy. Moving this material was nothing like the kiln dried wood at lowes. I would come home from the hill exhausted. This was a nice break from my desk job.
I had a truck now and used it to bring the concrete up the hill for the foundations. The sawmill also had a permanent concrete foundation near the building site. This made a huge difference in both productivity and the straightness of the lumber, since the tracks were no longer subject to the heaving of the earth.
I poured the pief foundation in 2004. I used sonotubes but put a facade of rock around it for a handcrafted look. Next came 6 x 6 hardwood beams, oak floor joists and a frame of 6×6 ash, oak and maple.
I sheathed the walls with 1″ thick wood, then finally a 1/2 layer of clapboard. I learned that you either need to get the wet, heavy wood onto the building right away, or dry it carefully so it does not bend. If you let it dry, nails would not go into it unless you drilled holes first.
Because the site had no electricity and the wood was green, I found I had to make some of my own tools. I cut a hole in the nose of my chainsaw bar, bolted it to a heavy beam, and maid a gas-powered chop saw to cut the ends of the beams square. I fastened a sanding disk to the end of my stihl weed wacker and made a nice gas powered sander to turn my gray beams golden. Once the interior was dry and sanded, I wiped it down with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. It took a month before the smell went away but the result was a pleasant golden brown.
By 2009 the playhouse was done. I was surprised to find that Ethan and Kaya were not that interested in visiting it. It turns out that through the eyes of a child, hiking up a steep road in woods, frequented by coyotes, to find a cabin with no TV is not an inviting proposition. Once in a while the family would go up for a picnic or an occasional overnight, but mostly the cabin was unused. It was a nice experience building but somewhat of a failure as a finished structure. Poorly researched. A big bang project that lost sight of the needs of its intended users. It stood on the hill mostly vacant.
My wife had more plans for the house. While I felt that many of her requests were unreasonable, such as at least one electrical outlet in each room, I agreed to take some time off from the hill and work on the house. While the playhouse was somewhat of a flop, improving the house was a blue chip investment.
I painted, tiled, finished the attic, put a new floor in the kitchen, added insulation, swapped out the water heater and added more and more outlets for Nancy. We got more and more comfy.
While the house was my home, the hill was my happy place. It got more sun than the house since it was at the top of a hill under which the house sat. More and more animals were seen as there was less chainsawing and the site matured. With Nancy’s permission I took a break from working on the house and started again on the hill. My idea was to change the playhouse into a cabin and rent it out. These would need to be hearty travellers seeking a wilderness retreat. No water. No electric.
“Who would want to stay up there?,” Nancy said. Hearty travellers I would say.
Given the lukewarm reception as a playhouse, I was inclined to agree that the conversion to a cabin carried some risk. Even if I added electricity and water, there was no way to actually get there without a hike through the woods or a four wheel drive vehicle.
I went to work adding a rain barrel that fed an outdoor sink. I also installed an indoor sink, an antique find from my favorite salvage yard in Ithaca.
I bought an electrical pannel that came off a boat on ebay. With a 12 volt marine battery and solar cell, we now had 12v and USB electric.
I registered the domain name “naplescabin.com” made a simple web site. A single guest found it. They had a nice stay.
Nancy said try hipcamp.com, a campsite finder. I posted the cabin there and got a few more guests. As they departed, I asked each party what I should improve. That gave me the next thing to work on. Better furniture, more lights, running water. Their reviews were generally positive.
Nancy suggested getting on airbnb. I put a listing up there and got lots of guests. Our first full season, which was last year, had 100% weeked occupancy. The Naples Cabin was a hit.
I thought we would get weekenders from Rochester. It turned out, however, that most guests came from New York City and Philadelphia. It was hard for Nancy and I to believe that they would drive all that way to stay at the cabin, but the seemed to like it.
As I made more upgrades, the reviews improved. In January 2020 Airbnb declared me a “superhost.”
The Hipcamp people with happy with the rustic nature of the cabin. They were a robust crowd that did not ask for much in the way of amenities. The airbnb crowd, however, was different. I put all sorts of warnings on my airbnb listing to set expectations. No running water. No electricity. Be warned. Do not rent this place. Airbnb even has a “dangerous animals on site” checkbox on their platform, which I eagerly checked. Anything to get their attention before they booked.
As we begin our second season with The Naples Cabin, I’m looking forward to meeting more guests and making more upgrades. I added a photography service to the web site. Guests can opt into a photo session. Sort of like wedding photography but instead its camping photography. We will see how that goes.