Billy and Paula Reeder as featured on the cover of ABOUT magazine, November 2013.. Image by Steve Newby of Steve Newby Photography.
This piece was originally published in the November 2013 issue of ABOUT the River Valley magazine. Learn more about ABOUT the River Valley magazine here.
Hand sewn from local pine and oak, Billy Reeder’s 880 square foot log cabin took four years to build. Located on the family farm in rural Perry County, the home sits atop a hill where Reeder once camped as a young boy. “I had a few rules,” Reeder explains, describing the cabin building process. “ I could only spend what I had in the bank to spend; nothing went on the credit card and nothing was financed,” he says, outlining his first rule. “Four years later I have a 800 square foot house completely paid for,” Reeder explains.
Financial guidelines weren’t the only rules setting the careful and measured pace of the building process. Outlined succinctly on Reeder’s Cabin People webpage—a frequently updated site documenting the creation of the building as both a tangible and metaphorical process — the other three rules read as follows: “Number 2: I would have no timeline to complete it so I would never be pressured to rush or buy something I couldn’t afford. 3: The cabin had to be beautiful.4: The cabin had to be built to last well beyond my lifetime.”
During the week Reeder works in the fast-paced world of Communications and Journalism. A professor at Arkansas Tech University, he teaches classes like Mass Communication, Visual Storytelling, and Video Production. Before becoming a professor he served as an information officer for the Russellville Police Department and later as Communication Director for the Methodist Church.
In recent years he’s worked in freelance, directing his own company, Soapbox Revival, which helps clients manage online content and effectively navigate the world of social media. “I’ve always been interested in communication,” says Reeder of his twenty plus years working in the field. “Just the way that people connect fascinates me,” he adds.
In early 2006 Reeder was making a good living working in freelance. He lived in Dardanelle and purchased a sawmill and a tractor to help around the family farm in Perry County. He felt prepared for the future. But by 2008 he was watching the economy take a “nosedive,” he explains, depleting his freelance communication work and forcing him to rethink his financial future. Living in a cabin, he says, “had always been on my bucket list.” But he had never considered building it himself.
“I started second guessing the logic of a thirty or 15 year mortgage,” Reeder explains. Watching so many people lose their homes and jobs, Reeder says, “I took stock in myself and in the world around me. I realized the vulnerability people have and the false sense of security. The rug gets pulled out from under us…and a lot of people in this country, in this world, don’t really have a good place to fall,” he explains.
Finding himself in what he calls a “vulnerable state,” he began to reassess his resources. “We’ve got a farm that’s paid for; it borders the national forest,” he explains. “I’d have the ability to grow my own food, there are hunting opportunities,” Reeder continued. As a child, Reeder says, he dreamed of getting as far away from the farm as possible. But as an adult with a growing respect for the land and the community, he knew life near the Ouachita National Forest would offer his family a chance to step away from the insecurities of corporate life and what he calls the “false gods of career and image.” He began to rethink his approach to life, adopting the phrase “live deliberately” as his mantra.
In many ways Reeder’s life is one of opposites, a juxtaposition between which he seems to thrive. He quotes Thoreau and loves social media; he enjoys woodworking and makes documentaries. He has a skill for finding commonalities in unexpected places. In speaking about the benefits of social media, he notes how online sites allow for regular communication with the many friends he’s met in real life who now make their homes, as he says, “on four different continents.” Social media and online communication, Reeder explains, allows us to “circumvent all the filters out there that tell us how we she feel about people who live in different places.”
At the same time, says Reeder, the non stop news and fast-paced information sharing can be isolating, encouraging a shallow discourse that puts people into boxes and promotes a polarizing view of the world. “We’re seeing that right now every time we turn on the T.V.,” he explains.
Ultimately Reeder’s approach to the rapid-fire world of mass communication is one of balance. When he first started planning to build the cabin he was hungry, he says, to step away from the non-stop wheel of information that fueled his work life. Yet the decision to start the project was about much more than just slowing down and stepping away from the world of technology. “I felt the quality of my life was far too much at the hands of other people than it was at my own,” he shares.
A few years before he made the decision to build the cabin—back in the days when there was regular work and extra money—he’d purchased a portable sawmill and tractor with frontend loader for woodworking and repairs around the farm. Making use of the equipment he had on hand, he began seeking out local sources for wood. “The tornado that hit Atkins several years back had also knocked down a bunch of trees in the national forest near Jerusalem,” he explains. “So I got a salvage permit to log them out.”
When the highway department was widening the road near his home, he talked the road crew into letting him have the Oak trees that lined the fence rows, providing oak for the trim and floor and parts of the framing. Besides a few pieces of plywood used for the decking and flooring, “every board stated with a tree,” Reeder says.
Staying true to his promise to move at a slow and deliberate pace, prioritizing the aesthetics that would create a structure of lasting beauty, Reeder learned to work with the rhythm of the natural materials, a lost art in today’s fast-paced world of construction. “I would cut lumber and have to wait three or four months before I could actually use it because it has to dry out,” Reeder explains.
Even knowing this and making the needed preparations, he still experienced unforeseen delays. What we thought was enough oak for the floor turned out to be only about half. “So I had to cut more in December, he explains, “but it was close to June or July before I could use them.” Some people, he says, had a hard time understanding why he didn’t just buy other wood and complete the process. “Once you get in a hurry you start cutting corners,” Reeder explains.
When asked about his background experience with woodworking Reeder laughs and replies, “I’d never built a house, that’s for sure.” He turned to books, “but books can only go so far,” he adds. So he took time to study the few remaining cabins that were still standing in the area, and in his research he came to rethink the assumption that older building techniques always led to longer-lasting homes. “Not true,” Reeder says. “What it is is that what we see today are best examples of what they build 200 years ago. The ones that weren’t good have gone into the ground.”
Reeder’s cabin employs the half dovetail notch, a form of construction used throughout the south and in other high humidity areas. Unlike the more rounded styles you see in Colorado, he explains, these logs are carved with a more flat joint, which “causes the water to go to the outside of the joint so water can’t get in.”
In many ways the notch exemplifies Reeder’s mantra: The cabin is built for the long haul. “It takes a lot of wood,” he explains, noting the heaviness of the structure and the amount of resources it took to build such a sturdy home. In an age where houses deplete after 20 years of occupancy, this house is built to last up to two hundred years or more, a radically different way of accessing value and resource-use. “In my mind,” explains Reeder, “if it can survive that long than those resources are far better utilized.”
Documenting the process online, Reeder’s webpage is filled with practical information gleaned during the home building process. Over the years Reeder’s webpage and Facebook site has gained fans from central Arkansas to Croatia. His film “Cabin People,” a documentary-style video introducing his readers to the cabin as both place and idea, has received over 43,000 views on YouTube, and people often call him up, he says, looking for advice and information. It’ something he’s happy to provide.
“There is a very big draw toward something like this where keeping up with the Jones may not the best thing anymore,” he explains. He references the popularity of the “tiny house” movement and notes the increase in families choosing smaller houses, a life of less consumption, and time spent closer to the land. “Trees don’t care how big of a hurry we’re in, explains Reeder, explaining the cabin’s draw. “ A lot of things seem very fake,” he adds. “How do you be authentic in this age?” he muses, offering up this idea: “You start where you are. There’s genius in taking time and slowing down and looking at the world through a differed lens.”
Over the last four years he’s been able to weave his love of communication and media with his decision to seek out the deliberate, metered rhythm of cabin life, creating a balance that’s generating larger conversations about what life can be about in this modern age. “It’s not very tangible,” he says of the world of communication. “And having this other side of me, that simple life that can be very isolating as well. So it’s kind of walking this line between them—I can have a simple life, I can have very tangible things in my life. But I can also have access to things that expand my mind and help me see the world,” he explains. His early video of the cabin, for example, moves from a shot of his the backyard—the outskirts of Ouachita National Forest—to his state of the art audio studio tucked neatly into the corner. He’s found a way to merge decades into a life of purpose.
Throughout our conversation, Reeder notes that his quest for a more self-sustaining life is far from over. He has big plans to put in a garden, much like the one his grandparents once had, and he wants to hunt more and become less dependent on the grocery store, which is already quite a distance from his home. “You think there will be this complete metamorphosis and you won’t be the same thing. But I’m still pretty much the same guy I always was,” explains Reeder. What he has learned, he says, is how to walk away from the current culture that gives rise to a feeling of perpetually stretched too thin.
“You can flip that on it’s head,” he explains. Choosing not to hurry requires sacrificing many things. “But In a couple of years I wind up with something that’s really valuable,” he concludes. In his “Cabin People” video he often ruminates on how modern society designates value, exploring larger ideas of deliberate living and this illusive concept people call freedom. “Freedom,” says Reeder in the video, dressed in a pair of coveralls and working on the farm, “doesn’t come with safety straps and it sure isn’t afraid to make a fool out of you.”
Reeder is self-assured, but he’s not afraid to admit his struggles or the confusion he’s felt while seeking out a different way of being in the world. His quest to build the cabin, both in idea and in process, is therefore part of a larger, dynamic conversation he carries on with the community and himself. For years, he says, he was a regular blogger, writing almost daily about media, communication, and the quest for a simple life. But as he watched the crippling effects of the economic downturn he began to question to authenticity of his own writing. “I realized that was I was doing was talking about these things without actually doing them,” he says. “What if I took a step back and started actually living that life? Not worry so much about the writing for a while and have this life experience,” he asked himself.
Soon the cabin will a full-time time residence for Reeder and his wife. He’ll begin commuting to Russellville everyday, trading places with his wife who’s been commuting for years from Dardanelle to Perryville where she teaches school. Now the cabin is complete, Reeder plans to write more on the Cabin People site, exploring what’s he’s learned the past four years and growing the conversations with readers. These days he says he has more control over his life and has chosen to focus his attention on things that matter most. He’s broken free, at least partially, of what he calls the “corporate mindset,” and a world that doesn’t value the pace of human life. “I teach communication because I want to and do communication work on the side. When I want to go hunting that’s what I go do. I don’t let the insanity of the world around me bother me anymore,” he explains.
You can keep up with Reeder’s progress and his paths toward a deliberate life at cabinpeople.com. You can read more about his communications work, and his tips for knowing when and why to unplug, at soapboxrevival.com.
Follow Cabin People on Facebook here.
This piece was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and was written by Boiled Down Juice editor, Meredith Martin-Moats