Roots Tour 2012
Roots Tour 2012
A Pilgrimage to Historic Hay Bale and Modern Straw Bale Buildings in the Sand Hills of Nebraska
by Ian Smith
editor's note: Prior to the International Straw Builders' Conference held in Estes Park, a band of intrepid natural builders from as far away as Germany and Belgium sought to view the original straw bale structures created soon after the first baling machine was invented. They traveled to Nebraska, led by Colorado Straw Bale Association leaders Ian Smith and Karen Hada. The original 100-year-old bale they brought back and exhibited at the Conference was affectionately named Judy Baley, in memory of Judy Knox, the godmother of the modern straw bale movement, who passed away last year. This is the story of their sojourn:
The Roots Tour was a tremendous success! The six of us drove in two cars and arrived at our motel in Alliance around 3 p.m. on Friday. We got right back in the cars though to make a scheduled appointment with the Haslows at their house about 15 miles outside of town. It's a little unclear when the original house was constructed, but the Haslows believe it to be right around 100 years old. Over the years, the hay bale part of the house was added on to with a few additions, some newer coats of (cement based?) plaster, and drywall on the interior. In fact, if you didn't know why the walls were so thick, you wouldn't be able to tell it was really made out of bales!
Inside, Richard and Rhonda showed us where they had taken out part of one of the original hay bale walls about 10 years ago to make way for a bathroom renovation. We started asking some questions about the bales, what they looked like, etc., and Richard replied, "Well, do you wanna see one of them?" He took us out back and there he had two of the original bales sitting on his ATV! Wow! 100 year old bales! Amazing. The baled material was a mix of some fine grasses but also some large, strong looking reeds. We started wondering about these and Richard pointed towards the big marshy area to the west of the property where some very tall grasses were still growing naturally. Indeed, this marsh grass is most likely what the bales are made out of. The bales were tied with metal wire, with one end that looked like it was looped in a factory, and the other end tied by hand.
Richard then asked us a question that, at first, shocked us all ... he asked if we wanted to take the bales. Somehow, removing these bales from this site, where they had been born 100 years earlier and had spent their entire life (up until now) seemed wrong. But, Chris was quick to move past this ridiculousness, and was able to fit one of the bales in his car. COSBA owes him for this insight, as we are now taking care of "Old Judy Baley" as she embarks on the next stage of her life -- show business!
After returning to town, we made a quick stop at Dobby Lee's Frontier Village right before sunset. We had heard there was a replica of an historic hay bale building there and wanted to check it out. We weren't prepared for the size and complexity of the Village, and all the amazing old buildings, furniture and antiques that the owners had collected. In fact, just to be able to see everything in the daylight and to talk more with the owners, we went back in the morning. Dobby Lee, the original founder of the village, passed away a few years back, and his son Dennis is now carrying on the tradition with his wife Liz. Dobby, and the village itself, have a strong connection with the town of Alliance and the greater Sand Hills area. We're so happy that they've included a straw bale house replica on the property and hope the Village has many great years still ahead of it.
After our morning visit to Dobby Lee's, we drove through the scenic Sand Hills east and then south to Arthur, Nebraska, home of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, the Martin-Monhart house, and to our surprise, the Hawkins house. We were met at the church by the Hawkins family and another woman who had the keys to the Church and the Martin-Monhart house. The interior of the Church (not being actively used) is fantastic. You step inside and feel like you've gone back in time to the early 1900's. Everything has (seemingly) been left as is. The back rooms have been decorated with some old furniture and you really get a sense of a different time and place. One of my favorite things was that a lot of the original plaster finishes are still exposed on the interior. And, if you climb the stairs in the back room, you can poke your head in the attic space and look directly at the top of the bale walls.
The town of Arthur loves the church and seems interested in maintaining it for future generations. Oh, and I forgot to mention it's an official historic landmark (so, no, I don't think they'll be knocking it down anytime soon).
The Martin-Monhart house (now unoccupied) was also quite interesting, as it had also been decorated as the previous owners had left it, with quicky furniture and decor from decades past. Like the Haslow house though, much of the interior had been covered with drywall and wallpaper, which made it harder to get that "natural home feel" out of it.
After some lunch at the local restaurant (a new bright star on my personal "best Outback pubs" list) we headed out to the Hawkins house. Instead of us finding the Hawkins house, the Hawkins' found us! They heard about our group coming to visit and gave me a call to see if we would like to visit their new straw bale house, which they had begun constructing about 5 years ago, and is now nearing completion. The existence of new, genuine straw bale construction in western Nebraska was amazing news to all of us at COSBA, and we are so happy to now have met the Hawkins and visited their wonderful new straw bale home.
Please see the video and photos, and let us know if you have any questions or comments.
photos by Ian Smith and Karen Hada
A note from Joyce Coppinger of The Last Straw (and Nebraska):
"Since the early 1990s, thirty new straw bale houses and buildings have been constructed throughout Nebraska. I haven’t counted buildings recently but will be reviving the Straw Bale Association of Nebraska (SBAN) sometime soon – so will have an update then."