First Impressions are Lasting Impressions
I have been profoundly shaped as an adult by my experiences as a child, and nowhere is this more obvious to me than the aspects of my personality and preferences that relate to the great outdoors. Because I was sent to a two-month summer camp in Ely, VT for five consecutive summers (from ages 8-12, in 1966-71), I have always loved nature, and am never happier than when camping in a tent! I love smells, sounds, and tastes of outdoor living. I love the bigness of nature. I love it that, unlike our cities and towns (which are designed by people to be people-sized and person-friendly), the great outdoors is God-sized, and reflects His character, artistry, and beauty in every part of both its detail and grandeur.
For five summers, from ages 8-12 years old, I went to sleep to the music of the cicadas while watching the light shows of the fireflies, moon, and stars. For five summers, I smelled pure air, pine needles, and tent canvas. For five summers, I reveled in early-morning lake mists, campfire-cooked meals, camp songs, and fun activities that built my skills and my abilities to relate to others who were different from me.
We lived in platform tents during those summers. They were 12’ X 14’, covered in white canvas with flaps that rolled down when it rained or blew cold air (VT in August could be chilly). To this day, one of my favorite sounds is a gentle fall of rain on leaves and bushes!
There were three campers and one counselor to each tent. We all brought our summer belongings in steamer trunks, pushed them to the middle, and these were our surfaces for playing jacks or drawing, and our chairs when visiting. Each tent had a bookshelf: there we put our toothbrushes in cups, our books and stationary, and our treasures as we collected them over the summer months.
Fast-forward forty-five years to Storybook Farm.
I have six adult children. In 2012, the two of them who are married were producing my grandchildren yearly. We figured that, eventually, we would want to have get-togethers of about 40 people several times per year. So, we needed more guest space.
As I mulled this fact, and discussed it with my son, Mike, on a Veteran’s Day getaway to the farm, it suddenly came to us… We should build tents, and I could sew them! Mike was all behind this brainstorm, and he helped me to design in detail and price out the tents. We went to the website of my childhood camp and yes, there they were, pictures of today’s girls living in those self-same tents, with those self-same iron bedsteads, canvas roofs, and tent flaps. From those pictures, Mike and I designed the Storybook Farm replicas, using Sketch Up.
Mike planned to come on Fourth of July weekend, 2012, and help us to build. Meanwhile, I went to websites that advertised pre-sewn tents, but none of them looked like my childhood tents, and they were pricey. So, I found out what weights and types of canvas to order from reading their specifications, and then went to the websites of people who make tents for re-enactments. There was a wealth of information on general tent construction techniques there.
We did not, of course, count any cost for our own labor, and we already owned all the tools we used (especially because we built them during a power outage–as you’ll read below). I ordered the lumber in sizes that were largely in pre-cut sizes (or as close as possible to them), and it arrived 10 days before Mike and his family were due to arrive. It was a good thing I was an early bird… read on to find out why!
On July 1, a huge “land hurricane” swept through the mid-west and ended up in the Atlantic. It was a major storm, knocking down trees and uprooting buildings. On the way through, it took out power for five days all up and down the Eastern Seaboard, including ours and Mike’s (2.5 hours away, in Arlington, VA). Given the scope of the storm, Mike quickly surmised that it might be days before he, his wife, and his two small children had air conditioning re-connected, and the heat was intense. So, he loaded his family up in their mini-van and headed for Storybook Farm.
We started the process by finding a good location, relative to existing buildings and barns, views, etc. The spot we chose was on a slope (very little land at Storybook Farm is not sloping). The first thing to do therefore was to sink the vertical 4″ X 4″ posts and level them vertically. We put rocks at the bottom of each pole’s hole, and then put a bag of dry cement in each one. (We had been careful to order the type of pressure treated lumber that can handle contact with cement.)
Quick Tip: Please click on all small pictures if you want to see them better. In fact, all pictures will enlarge if clicked on!
After the posts had set up sufficiently (but before the cement had hardened) we used diagonal measurements to square up the platform. We then started to frame the floor joists. This way, the poles were held in their final positions overnight, and the cement hardened that way.
Notice that the floor joists overlap: this was both for strength and also was a reason that we needed to make very few cuts when assembling this tent during a power outage!
Once the joists were in place, we screwed down the 12′ decking boards. We made a slight error in doing this, so I’ll pass along this lesson. When you buy decking boards, they are generally fresh milled, and therefore moist. As they age, they will dry out and shrink. We wanted a big of space between the boards (for the purposes of sweeping and keeping the floors clean) and so we left about a quarter inch between boards, which means that, today, there’s about a half inch between boards. This has not proved optimal, especially on chilly nights. We have compensated by putting down rugs, but if you’re trying this project yourself, screw the floor boards on snugly together, and you’ll be happier in the long run!
After we completed the floor, we had to figure out the framing for the superstructure that the tent would hang from. This was where we made the most cuts, and had the most guesswork. In the end, however, we figured out how it would go, and were pleased with the results.
Meanwhile, as the guys were building, I was sewing. I had a heavy duty quilting machine (though not industrial, as was recommended by reenactors online) and a good, stout needle. Surprisingly, you don’t want a super-heavy weight of canvas: we used 10 oz. marine quality waterproofed canvas. I made the patterns from measurements and my own knowledge of sewing. From my memories of childhood camp tents, I knew that we needed ties sewn into the seams. These are used to sling the tent from the superstructure, and also to enable the lifting and lowering of tent flaps, in accordance with weather conditions.
The following pictures show us enjoying our tents, and their views, over the years at Storybook Farm. We have used them for hospitality, for emergency flights from flea infestations, and for romance. We have stayed in them using cots and airbeds. (Cots are harder on the back, but airbeds get cold if the ambient air is chilly, so put a blanket under your sleeping bag if using them in colder conditions.) We’ve tricked them out for glamping as well, which was tons of fun, but not always practical: the wind and rain can ruin finer furniture if you leave it in the tents for the summer.
In summers, the white tent canvas adds a festive feel to our grounds. Even when the canvas isn’t slung, the tent frames have added interest and beauty to Storybook Farm.
Have you ever spent time camping, or in a platform tent? Do you have questions about how to build (or sew) one? Please feel free to comment below if so!