by Cindy Thompson
When I was a kid, back in the seventies and eighties, Andrew Henry’s Meadow was one of my favorite storybooks. Doris Burn’s skillful writing and illustrations encouraged readers to explore, dream, invent and build from their imaginations. Many of you can vividly remember the exhilaration of building forts and hideouts, which is precisely why this story has been written . . . just for you!
Doris “Doe” Burn led a quiet and simple life, without the conveniences of electricity or local stores on the sparsely-populated Waldron Island in northwest Washington State. The budding illustrator and writer raised her two sons and two daughters during the mid-1900s in a quaint log cabin, where chopping wood, fetching buckets of water and reading adventurous novels by a crackling fire were all part of life’s daily routine. When the one-room community schoolhouse was not in session, Doris watched from a distance, as her children and their friends sawed and hammered from the blueprints of their imagination. She observed their strength, independence and ingenuity — planning out and recreating storybook empires and palaces on Waldron’s rocky shores.
While her children slept, in the wee hours of the night, Doris fell into rhythm with her crow quill pen and the flickering glow of a kerosene lamp. Writing and sketching night after night, she brought to life the story of a young inventor and builder named Andrew Henry Thatcher, who slowly transformed a nearby meadow into a hideaway village for his friends. Doris Burn’s beautifully illustrated storybook, Andrew Henry’s Meadow, was published in 1965 and has since won the hearts and minds of millions as it circles the globe from one generation to the next.
During a 2016 lecture, Doris Burn’s daughter Robin Skye Burn notes that Andrew Henry’s Meadow, and other books that followed, were strongly based on the resourceful outdoor skills of the children who lived on Waldron Island. “There were no hospitals on the island . . . I was handling axes and knives at a very young age. If you aren’t careful, you figure it out very quickly.” Skye remarks that the characters in Doris Burn’s books are confident in their abilities to explore, much like her upbringing. “The grown-ups, we used to call drone-ups,” she recalls with a smile.
The individually-fashioned abodes that Andrew Henry built for his friends call to inventive minds, young and old. And for some, this imaginative spirit and yearning to build never fades away.
The Boars Nest
An engineer by profession and a woodworker at heart, Michael Davis is in the zone when he is sawing and sanding in his home-based woodworking shop. “When I was growing up, I was always hammering two boards together to build something. By the time I got to high school, I really didn’t know what career to pick. I enjoyed my building construction class, and my shop teacher suggested engineering school.”
Since graduating from Clemson University and becoming a civil engineer, Michael has transformed countless visions into blueprints, and those plans into reality. On the home front, he and his wife Elizabeth have carved out their life together on rural pasturelands — complete with horses, free-range chickens and endless opportunities for their two young children to explore the outdoors. The picture-perfect red barn, leading into the horse pasture, was one of their first large-scale projects. While the barn was being built, the woodworking shop served as a hub for the construction of the stables, lofts and furnishings. The shop would soon become a worksite for a second undertaking.
Captivated by the DIY Channel’s The Treehouse Guys and Animal Planet’s Treehouse Masters, Michael could not shake his dreams of one day building the ultimate treehouse for his kids. The Davises drew inspiration from the upscale Come Sleep in The Trees treehouses in Mountain Rest, S.C. After meeting the owner, Michael’s expertise in woodworking was employed to build a kitchenette for one of their treehouses. This only amplified Michael’s interest in bringing his dream to reality.
“I reached out to world-renowned treehouse builder Michael Garnier, who reviewed my plans for constructibility and helped me determine the hardware that would be needed to implement my design,” he says.
The initial plans for a modestly-scaled treehouse seemed to escalate as Michael gathered materials and ideas from the internationally-respected treehouse engineer, while purchasing locally-sourced and milled framing materials and board and batten siding. As plans grew, so did the bulk and weight of materials. Lifting and placing walls and roofing material presented a challenge at times. But his professional know-how came in handy, and his inner child was ever present.
“This has been my most challenging and most rewarding build to date. What started as an idea has become something I dreamed of as a kid and a place where my family and l will create memories that will last a lifetime.”
Click HERE to view a video interview with Michael Davis and take a tour of his treehouse!
Come Sleep in the Trees
Michael Davis met Dee Lucas while bidding on a pair of wagon wheels, and their conversation about woodworking soon led to treehouse building.
“I met Michael a few years ago at an auction,” Dee explains. “We were both wanting to bid on a pair of old wagon wheels. After chatting with him, I discovered that we both only wanted to purchase one wagon wheel. I agreed not to bid against him, and if he won the bid, we would split the cost. He won the bid and we started talking as we worked out the payment, and I discovered that he was a woodworker and loved to create and build things.”
As time went by, Dee struck up a conversation with her father and stepmother about an idea that had been spinning in her mind: building a couple of treehouses on their family land. “The concept of the treehouses was fueled by the show Treehouse Masters that had just started airing, and I was hooked!”
Their usual morning coffee time together soon became treehouse planning sessions. “Napkin sketches turned into scaled drawings, and then structurally engineered plans and obtaining permits.”
Dee gives her father all the credit for the design and engineering of their two grand treehouses — The Stella Vista and The Bella Luna — that materialized from drawings on a napkin. And later, when it was time to begin work on the interior, she immediately thought of Michael. “I knew I really wanted to have some things custom-built for my place. We came up with a design for my kitchen-area cabinetry and then went together to hand-select the wood.
“Michael is truly gifted in woodworking. He texted me one evening and said, ‘Well, I am starting my treehouse, you have inspired me to get started.’ I was thrilled! I know that his precious children will grow up with the memories of watching the treehouse being built as well as playing in it for years to come.”
Carolina Heritage Outfitters
In 2019, Chris Burbulak pursued the opportunity of a lifetime. He became the owner of a treehouse island and paddling business. “Scott Kennedy came to me just in general conversation about wanting to retire from Carolina Heritage Outfitters. I felt this was a great investment in my life. In January, we took over the treehouses and canoes. It’s been a great journey.”
The long-running treehouse and paddling business in Canadys is a very natural fit in Chris’ life. “I’m a big outdoors-guy, and I definitely want my kids to follow in my footsteps. I’ve been duck hunting since I was eight or nine years old. And I love it! I like seeing the ducks and seeing the dogs work. Being on the river is a plus for that.”
Chris explained that there are three treehouses on the island. The small treehouse sleeps two, the medium sleeps three to six, and the large sleeps five to eight. There are also two types of canoe trips offered. Their most popular canoe rental is a ten-mile day trip. Paddlers meet at the Highway 15 outpost and are shuttled upriver ten miles. There is a multi-day option that can include paddling and primitive camping as an option, or visitors can try out one of the treehouses.
The amenities are sparse on the island; however, this is what visitors are seeking when they are paddling the Edisto river. “There is no electricity and running water on the island,” he says. “We offer propane gas stoves and grills, tiki torches, hammocks and fire pits. There are a lot of accommodations inside the treehouses. We have cooking accommodations. Pots and pans, futons and a loft for sleeping. We also offer primitive camping on the island so that people can backpack in with their tents. We have spots for campers or Boy Scouts so they can work on their badge needs or whatever qualifications they need to move forward in the scouting world.
“We are an hour from Charleston. Beaufort is only an hour and fifteen minutes away. We get a lot of day trippers from those communities. But then we also have guests from Alaska and Europe who come here. If I was to sum this whole journey up, it would be an escape from the day-to-day grind of traffic and the workplace. An escape to recharge the batteries. And what better place to do that than in a treehouse?”
Bolt Farm Treehouse
Sitting side by side on the porch of the South Carolina treehouse that they built together, Seth and Tori Bolt reflect on a series of life events that brought them to this very spot. Raised on opposite coastlines, the world-famous NEEDTOBREATHE band member and California broadcast journalist “met in the middle,” in Houston, Texas — a new chapter was soon to unfold.
“I was born and raised in Walhalla,” Seth says. “My dad and I built the first treehouse together, for Tori and me, for our honeymoon. That was an awesome experience I’ll cherish forever — to swing a hammer with my dad on Father’s Day, to create something special with him. He is a skilled builder. I grew up around it,” he says, circling back to his younger years working with his dad in construction. “That was my first job. And I spent a lot of time outdoors. We were maybe the last generation that got that proper childhood where we ran around the woods barefoot building forts and didn’t have any sort of technology to distract us from doing that.”
It was during his senior year of high school that Seth would take his first leap of faith, leaving behind the quiet town of Walhalla for a life on the road with the soulful rock band, NEEDTOBREATHE. “I joined my band, Needtobreathe, my last weeks of high school, and I’ve been in cities most of my adult life, traveling around the country and around the world playing music.”
Fans of NEEDTOBREATHE know that many of their song lyrics are strongly connected to their home state of South Carolina. “We definitely have a lot of songs about water,” Seth chuckled. “Those nature references are there because that is how we all grew up. Even the brothers in the band, Bear and Bo [Rinehart], grew up on a church retreat center in Possum Kingdom, South Carolina, where we all went to summer camp together. That was the name of the little town.”
Seth’s public life with the band is perhaps what fans are most familiar with — award-winning songs on the radio and in movies and television shows year after year. But his personal life is tangibly visible in the treehouses that he has built, the first in Walhalla alongside his father, and four more that he built with Tori on Wadmalaw Island.
“Seth and I created [the treehouses] together from the ground up during our second year of marriage,” says Tori. “We poured our hearts and souls into this place, and these are memories I’ll treasure forever.”
When asked about the steps entailed in treehouse building, she explains, “Building close to the trees, it did take a lot of care and wise decision-making. Nature is the star of the show here, and we want to coexist with it in a responsible and respectful way. This guy,” she nudges Seth, “talked me into spending the summer of 2017 hand-clearing the sites. We didn’t want to bring in heavy machinery. So, it was me and Seth — with a chainsaw and a weed-whacker. We were very careful, making as small a footprint as possible. We worked closely with an ecologist who grew up here on Wadmalaw island.
“We also used Diamond Piers, which are small concrete heads, with its own root system, that mimics a tree strength. It dodges the root system, so we don’t have to cut into the tree’s roots.”
Seth says that the treehouses that they have built are designed for rest, to reconnect and find restoration. “Having a quiet place without all the noise is one of the most beautiful things. This is a really busy culture that we have arrived at — where now you can work from anywhere using a phone. And now people do work from everywhere. You’re always on call. Internally, you’ve got that sense that I’m not doing enough. I’m obligated to always zero out my inbox and get back to everyone who messaged me. There is so much demand on our minds that we are not able to be mindful.”
An outdoor pizza oven, French press, vintage record player, board games and spectacular views are part of the slow-living treehouse lifestyle that they have adopted — and this is the culmination of years of planning. While traveling with NEEDTOBREATHE, the band members have experienced all types of accommodations. Seth has taken notes along the way. He says that he has been most inspired by the environments where people went out of their way to show some creativity and make the band feel at home.
“We see deer, wild turkeys, egrets, herons and occasionally bald eagles on our property,” Tori says.
Seth nods and adds, “When you look back at literature across time, nature has been the backdrop all along.”
Editor’s Note: Inspired to build a treehouse on your land? There are many building plans and supplies available online that will help minimize the impact on trees and the environment. Before you get started, be sure to check local building permit requirements and zoning restrictions in your area.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.