Backwoods Home Magazine

Dorothy Ainsworth update: Out of the ashes

Dorothy Ainsworth update:
Out of the ashes

By Dorothy Ainsworth

Issue #38 • March/April, 1996

I got the dreadful call from my son Eric at 2 p.m. on June 29th, 1995, an hour after I’d gone to work at the restaurant. “Your house is on fire, Mom! I’m afraid it’s a goner. I was in the piano studio. It happened so fast, all I could do was call the fire department.” His voice broke….

June 29, 1995

Rear view of the house before the fire

Interior, before the fire

Clean-up day: burning large pieces of debris

I ran out of the cafe, sped three miles home in my old pickup, and rounded the bend just in time to witness the most horribly spectacular sight of my life. The entire black skeleton of timbers and logs, engulfed by fluorescent flames, stood out in bold relief against a backdrop of bright blue sky. The metal roof panels were rising and falling as if waving goodbye. It seared into my brain like a branding iron.

As I stood there in disbelief, watching my “castle” burn to the ground— the log home I had painstakingly handcrafted for six years—it never entered my mind that anything good could possibly come out of this tragedy. “Nature is a hanging judge,” I thought to myself. One strike and you’re out!” A tiny linseed oil rag had transformed 8000 hours of hard labor into a huge pile of charcoal briquets, in just one hour.

Although I was surrounded by firefighters and news reporters, I felt all alone in my loss and grief. Memories harkened back to the financial insecurity and heavy responsibility I experienced years ago when I was virtually abandoned with two young children to raise. I had learned to trust no one but myself.

I sighed in silent resignation to the facts of reality and wondered if I would be able to muster up the enthusiasm and money to start over. (My insurance was nominal.)

Feeling like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, I sat down to contemplate the ruins of “Tara” and pet the dogs. “I must rebuild, yes, I will rebuild….But I’ll think about it tomorrow,” I whispered to Gypsy, Dottie and Joe. They wagged their tails in unison.

That was to be my darkest hour. Unbeknownst to me, the dawn would come soon and bring sunny surprises. I had a lot to learn about the benevolent nature of my fellowman and the art of accepting help.

First thing, Kirt (my devoted boyfriend) was sincerely there for me. He came home from work to the shock of no house on the hill, and was devastated. He shed real tears, and we comforted each other. Even though the house had been my own coveted project, together we had carried each of those 300 logs out of the forest six years ago. A man light on words and heavy on action, he promised to help me make it happen again, and I believed him.

Then, before the coals had even cooled, Dave Duffy sent Lance Bisaccia from Backwoods Home Magazine, to check on my welfare, and ask permission to tell BHM readers of my fate. He hoped the notice would generate positive responses and help from all over the U.S. And it did!

Dorothy is pleased with another load of logs

Next, my employer at the cafe where I work as a waitress, called to tell me he had opened a donation account for me at Western Bank. The Daily Tidings and Sneak Preview of Ashland and the Medford Mail Tribune all printed sympathetic stories about the disaster and mentioned my donation fund. Each local T.V. station interviewed me and told people who to contact if they wanted to help. The District 5 Fire Department said they’d help clean up the mess and offered skilled labor in rebuilding. Copeland Lumber and Ashland Hardware volunteered special discounts on all rebuilding materials.

Out of the blue, I got a call from the nicest “stranger” I’ve ever met, Christina Johnson, a young woman from Medford who said she and her husband Cary wanted to help by organizing a cleanup crew and staging a music benefit on my behalf. She said the Lutheran Brotherhood Church pledged to contribute double whatever money was raised by the benefit concert.

Kirt carries a 500-lb. log to the truck

Cleanup day was a huge success. Everyone showed up nice and clean, and left hours later, dirty and nice. Ashland Sanitary donated a huge dumpster for the “party” and hauled away my whole “house” in one fell swoop. Businesses around town sent food.

The “Out of the Ashes” music benefit was a magical evening filled with the spirit of love and empathy. Local musicians played and sang their hearts out. My son Eric wound up the program with some impromptu humor followed by a magnificent classical performance on the piano. My daughter Cynthia flew up from L.A. to hold my hand and wipe my tears.

The new foundation is a grid of 10×10 timbers resting on 14″ sonotubes with underground footings. Shown here, a half-lap joint is ready to receive its mate

The spirit of helping one’s fellowman is alive and well, here and everywhere. Offers of help and gifts flooded in. Donations added up. Letters filled with encouragement and contributions arrived daily for three months. Several prison inmates responded, egging me on to rebuild so that they could keep their own hopes up for a new start. Even people at poverty level put $5 in an envelope and humbly apologized that it couldn’t be more. My heart was touched forever by the kindness and generosity that is out there.

Ashland should be called “the little town that could . . . and did!” Locals donated about $6,000 to my rebuilding fund. BHM readers generously contributed over $3,000 to the cause. I’ve joyfully written at least 200 thank you notes and now correspond with several pen pals.

With donations alone, I was able to put in a new concrete foundation, build the floor, buy the supporting timbers I need, and secure all the logs.

The owner of Grizzly Bear Log Homes of Jacksonville, Oregon, pledged to sell me all the logs for the house at his cost and deliver them to my site. Kirt and I jumped for joy and danced a little jig at the prospect of being able to build the identical house without the gut-busting labor of carrying logs out of the forest again. We enjoyed 4 months of ignorant bliss. Late in September, the man informed us that for reasons beyond his control, he would be unable to keep his promise. We groaned when we had to eat our words of “Never again!” about logging the hard way.

No-squeak I-beam floor joists.
Everything is plumb, level and square.

Desperate to duplicate the original house or have to get a new permit, I was highly motivated to find a nearby source for lodgepole pine. (The forest service has closed most of the “public” cutting areas.) After a zealous search, I found a man who owned timberland 25 miles away, and told him my story. He kindly agreed to let us take all the logs for the house off his land, provided we burn the slash piles and thin trees along an irrigation canal. Once again we jumped for joy and danced a little jig—in spite of ourselves!

Kirt “Bunyan” Meyer singlehandedly felled the trees and carried the huge and heavy logs to the truck, on his not-genetically-average shoulders. This time around, the logs were green and three times the weight of dry (300-500 lbs.).

The nearby piano studio (also built by Dorothy) was saved. The story of its construction was featured in BHM May/June 1994.

Although I’m an industrial-strength woman, I was unable to lift my end of a single decent-sized log, so I happily demoted myself to truck driver. I stood by, taking photos and worrying aloud about his lower back and adjacent giblets.

Without a scratch or bruise, Kirt managed to stockpile my 300 logs in just three weeks, finishing the job minutes before the first snowfall of the season. What a guy! I feel like the luckiest unlucky woman in the world.

Learn more about Dorothy and/or contact her at her website