Fallen in love with a wreck by the side of the road? Here’s what you should know. And a happy tale to prove it can be done.

Resurrection housing
Fallen in love with a wreck by the side of the road? Here’s what you should know. And a happy tale to prove it can be done.
June 14, 2010|By Barbara Mahany, Tribune Newspapers

It had been there long as most anyone could remember, the squat little cabin, the sad little cabin, the cabin with roof shingles missing, windows smashed, paint peeled and logs rotting away.

Plunked in a weed-tangled truck yard in Beardstown, Ill., along the sleepy Illinois River, the rundown cabin could barely stand anymore. Back in the 1920s it was an overnight rest stop for motoring tourists. Took turns after that as gambling den, home to the “hot pillow trade,” makeshift hunt club and, finally, critter-inhabited trucking company office.

But Tereasa Surratt, born and raised to believe that any discard deserved a second chance, saw beyond its brokenness.

Her whole life long, Surratt, now a creative director for Ogilvy, a global ad agency, had kept an eye on the falling-down cabin from across her grandma’s fence.

“I had been dreaming about the cabin ever since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” Surratt writes in the opening pages of “A Very Modest Cottage” (Hearst Books, $24.95), her resurrection story of how she up and moved the once-forsaken cabin to where it now preens along a placid Wisconsin lake.

In its latest incarnation, the one-room cottage again takes in overnight guests, this time amid a historic lakeside resort that Surratt and her husband, David Hernandez, bought a few years back and turned into a private, creativity-fueled family camp, complete with Friday night fish fry and Sunday morning bloody mary bar. The once-sagging shack has been all gussied up by the girl who saw its promise — and who made it happen in a mere three months, on a $300 budget.

Everyone — save for her papa, who counseled from his death bed — told Surratt she was crazy.

Her father, Tom, a lifelong mechanic who lived by the creed that “nothing was ever too far gone,” was dying of cancer. When Surratt spelled out her plot to rescue the old shack, Tom Surratt looked right at his girl and said, “Well, I think that sounds like a good idea.”

So began Surratt’s house-moving epic, one that in the end, she says, taught her this lasting lesson: “It’s never too late” to make a dream come true.

First order of business was to get to the bottom of “50 years of deferred maintenance and floor-to-ceiling junk,” says Surratt. Two trash bins later, Surratt & Co. unearthed the guts of the cabin. They ruled it road-worthy, but first shored it up for the trip: They took out whatever bits of glass were in the windows, braced the floor with boards and cross beams, strapped the exterior, “like wrapping a present,” she says, with plywood sheets slapped over the windows, and canvas tie-down straps on top of that.

The itty-bitty footprint — a mere 10 feet square — was what made this doable without professional house movers, say Surratt and Hernandez.

Rather than going with house movers (“that’ll cost you tens of thousands of dollars”), Surratt turned to a landscape company willing to rent a Bobcat and flatbed trailer for $75 an hour.

“It’s an unusual request,” she admits. “You just have to be resourceful. You don’t say, ‘Can you move a house?’ You break it down. ‘Do you have a Bobcat? Do you have a flatbed? Do you have tie-downs? Can we hire you by the hour? Well, then come with me.'”

Once backed into its final perch, overlooking Lake Wandawega, under two old oak trees, the cabin got a top-to-bottom, inside-out rubdown in the form of new windows, drywall, roof and electrical wires. And Surratt, who’s been known to dive in Dumpsters on her way to a wedding, decked out in Manolo Blahniks, no less, got to work furnishing the joint through trips to the Salvation Army, church charity auctions, tag sales, even “my neighbor’s 98-year-old great-aunt died and we cleared out the basement” sales.

Now, with a potbelly stove tucked into a corner, and vintage barkcloth at the windows, a $15 flea-market quilt on the wrought-iron bed, the born-again cabin, says Surratt, looks for all the world “like it’s been there forever.”

Not a bad ending for a very modest cottage, and a dreamer of a girl.