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Lots of hands help fulfill a lifetime dream

Derek Kennedy poses with his wife, Heather, and daughter Ada Jane on the front porch of their Downsville home. (Photo by Jeff Zeringue)

Some people put forth challenges to stretch themselves and their abilities as far as they think they can ... and then push harder.

Derek Kennedy is an insurance agent from Monroe who keeps fit — he is a former triathlete — and displays similar energy when talking about an achievement few people get the opportunity to do. What’s the challenge he took on?

Kennedy used trees from his own forestland to build a house.

Not so much impressed?

Did I mention he and his son Derek C. Kennedy spent the weekends over a two-year period cutting down the trees with chainsaws?

Yes, that’s quite a feat.

The idea struck him about 11 years ago. Several old cypress that grew along bottom land had tops that pierced the forest’s canopy, making them subject to lightning strikes that would destroy the majestic trees.

“They were, in essence, lightning rods,” Kennedy said.

That started him thinking about how he could best use the trees before the weather took them out. His solution was to harvest the trees, have them milled, then dried, then have much of it cut into tongue-and-groove planks that would be used for floors, walls, ceilings and any other areas that such planks could be used. Large beams also were cut for supports for both floors of the two-story wooden home that sits on family land in Downsville.

Mike Howard, then owner of Mike’s Sawmill in Downsville, is a friend and client of Kennedy, took on the task of milling the wood. Howard’s portable saw mill was taken to the site on two occasions. The first in the summer.

“I remember it was so hot, we couldn’t do anything after 1 o’clock,” Howard said.

That stint took about three weeks, he said. The second time he went to the site it was springtime. That time was a lot better weather-wise, he said, and spent four weeks at the site.

“I was just glad to do it,” Howard said. “It’s a really good feeling when you can see the finished product.”

Building a house on longtime family land was an awesome thing for Kennedy, he said. It was something his father had wanted to do.

“I thought it was great,” Kennedy’s wife, Heather, echoed about building their home in the hills of North Louisiana nestled in forests almost equidistant from Monroe and Ruston. “I loved being out here. I liked the idea of being out here with the family. I grew up in the country (near Benton), so I loved the idea.

It wasn’t all cypress. Many old, tight-ringed pine trees were cut the same way, by chainsaw, and used in the crafting of the structure, all beautifully put together by hands of several folks.

Not Going it Alone

Kennedy will quickly say this was not an accomplishment of a single person. Although it was he and his son who cut down every tree, a friend, Curt Dean, dragged every tree to a loading site, where Howard milled them into 16-foot planks of varying thickness according to specifications.

In addition to dragging logs to the loading site with his bulldozer, Dean also moved and shaped the landscape from foundation to the surrounding areas where water easily drained away from the home.

Once milled, the lumber was loaded up on flatbed trailers and taken to Olla where they were kiln-dried. When it was time for construction, Phil Lunsford led the crew to build the house and Gordy Adkins, another craftsman, built cabinets and tables and everything else.

Despite all the outside help, Kennedy also lent a hand in nailing wood planks into place. In all, some 35,000 board feet of wood harvested from the Kennedys forest was used.

Rough Start

Once the wood was ready for construction, Kennedy said he learned a lesson about wood dimensions.

“I had it cut like I thought it should be,” Kennedy said. “I thought 2-by-4s were actually 2 (inches) by 4 (inches).”

The house plans, however, were designed with the standard “2-by-4” measurements: 3.5 inches by 1.5 inches. So modifications were made and the plan continued forward.

“You have to realize that each board with tongue-in-groove was placed and nailed,” Kennedy said. “Each and every board.”

With roof and walls erected, some of the wood was taken inside the house to be kept out of the weather.

“We had to load 16-foot boards through this window (a side window that opened into the dining and kitchen area),” he said.

Work for the Kennedys didn’t stop after all the boards were nailed in place. When it came to staining, Heather and Derek took mops and got to swabbing the floorboards.

Adkins completed the cabinets, some made out of cypress; some made from pine. He also had enough cypress to build a dining room table that seats eight.

With the house finished, it was time to build the pool house. A simple, spacious out-building that gave the family an area to relax or hold large gatherings.

Included in the fixtures was a shortened beam of cypress that Heather Kennedy had made into a light fixture. Flat metal straps were bent to the wood and chains attached to suspend the fixture from the ceiling. Holes were drilled through the beam through which wires were strung to hold the eight antique bulbs. It is Heather’s design that was made by Dean.

Family History

The property is special to the Kennedys for more than the great endeavor of harvesting from one’s family forest to build the place they will live out their days. Kennedy said his grandmother once lived on the land. A country woman whose quiet nature might have been misleading to some.

“Grandma Ada taught me to hunt, fish, skin a squirrel and cook,” Kennedy said.

His grandmother has since passed on, but Kennedy keeps her 22-calibre rifle handy and still uses her old cast iron cookware.

The impression his grandmother left on him also is the reason Kennedy wants to make the property more like the way things were when the elderly caretaker lived there. Kennedy plans to add pears and figs and other fruit-bearing trees.

More on Family

All of the Kennedys enjoy spending time at their home in the forest. Kennedy has three children, Leslie is the oldest, who works in Monroe; Derek C., is a mechanical engineer in Dallas; Mary Helen, is an engineering student at LSU. He and Heather have a daughter together Ada Jane, named after the elder Kennedy’s beloved grandmother.

All will come to visit at the Downsville home for special occasions or just to hang out. Ada, the caboose of the Kennedy family whose efforts in dance are just some of the fun she has as a pre-teen. As his grandmother and father taught him, Kennedy has taught Ada to hunt and fish, passing down the qualities of conservation and sustainability.

And then there is something the youngest Kennedy has learned on her own. At the Louisiana Watermelon Festival in Farmerville, Ada competed in the watermelon seed-spitting contest and finished as runner-up. Her competitive spirit got her fired up enough to practice for the next year’s festival, when she took home top honors at the tender age of 6.

It has been seven years since the Kennedys’ home was completed, although it remains an alternate to their home in Monroe where Ada, now 12, goes to school and Heather (actually Dr. Heather Kennedy) is an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Once Ada Jane completes high school, the Downsville home will be their full-time residence.

Thanksgiving was the first holiday spent out at the new house and, as was custom, the holiday was spent in the Kennedy’s new home, including Kennedy’s, Katie Kennedy, who at 81 is the family’s resident flower and landscape expert, and father, Robert “Bob” Kennedy, who has passed.

“His dream his entire life was to build a house up here,” Kennedy said.

As a boy, Kennedy spent weekends with his father on the property, which at the time was a working cattle farm. Now, a house had been built and the elder Kennedy could enjoy a lifetime hope.

“He said he was living his dream through me,” Kennedy said.

His father, a World War II veteran, has since passed. The emotion that wells up as Kennedy talks about his father is plainly evident, though controlled. The man who gave him his first chainsaw when he was 10 and taught him the values of hard work, was able to see what his progeny could accomplish.

“I’m just so happy he lived to see it,” Kennedy said.


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