Crew returns a decade later to restore historic farmhouse damaged by flood
A decade ago, it took John McArthur and his crew of craftsmen about a year and a half to completely restore the century-old family home of Colorado Agriculture Hall of Famer Chuck Sylvester.
It took September flood waters just minutes to undo their work on the Weld County, Colo, farmhouse, smashing a window to flood the basement and filling the ground floor with six inches of mud and 17 inches of water.
“(McArthur) did a total restoration to keep the integrity of this 100-year-old girl,” Sylvester’s wife, Roni, said. “Now she’s 110 and he’s back again. He’s mad as hell.”
McArthur and the original crew — many of whom were born in the same year — crack jokes as they work to restore the 110-year-old, two-story house.
“We aren’t doing this again,” McArthur said with a chuckle.
McArthur and Chuck Sylvester said they take great pride in their backgrounds as they come together in this old house, and in the future they hope the home will represent the history of both agriculture and fine carpentry, both of which, they say, are fast-fading trades.
“I can’t find anybody who wants to work,” McArthur said. “When we were young, people would fight for the construction jobs.”
Sylvester’s family homesteaded the land just north of LaSalle 145 years ago. His grandfather built the white farm house, settled next to a big, red barn.
Roni Sylvester said her husband’s hope in restoring the home is not to pass it on to family but to pass along the history of his ancestors who settled there and worked the farm.
“He wants to really preserve the integrity of this home so that maybe there will be an opportunity to help our upcoming generation have authentic history they can look at,” she said.
Chuck Sylvester, retired general manager of the world-renowned National Western Stock Show, Colorado 4-H Hall of Fame inductee and former candidate for governor, said as he ran up stairs to escape flood waters that filled the basement in just 15 seconds, he didn’t have much time to think of what the water was doing to his beloved home.
Looking back, he said there’s nothing to do but move forward.
“There are many things destroyed, but such is life,” he said. “You’ve just gotta move on. You can’t be a quitter.”
Sylvester says he thinks of his ancestors looking down as he cares for the land they left him. He said his mother was a strong woman who never gave up, and he faces adversity like September’s floods with her strength in mind.
“I know it’s her genes that keep me going, and I can’t let her down,” he said.
Roni Sylvester said before she and her husband had even called McArthur about fixing up the flood-ravaged home, he had already ordered the necessary equipment. He knew what needed to be done.
“We call this ‘the house that John built’ because he has tremendous pride in this home,” she said.
Taking a break from construction at a LaSalle restaurant on Thursday, McArthur talked about his crew of six who worked on the house originally and returned to work this fall.
McArthur is 64, like three other workers: Dave Adolph, who handles plumbing; Phil Adamson, who does dry wall, and Bob Janata, who does painting and general carpentry work.
The youngsters of the group are Jack Newton, 61, who does sheet metal work, Ron Heimbuck, 58, who does finished carpentry, and Davey Williamson, 50, who does drywall and plaster.
“These guys can make anything,” McArthur said. “They build it if they need it.”
Walking through the house on Thursday, McArthur pointed out the craftsmanship of his crew. They had finished tearing out and replacing two feet at the bottom of the wall, but there was no sign the wall had been damaged. Heimbuck — who’s self-made, wooden toolboxes look like nice enough to be furniture — was preparing to replace the flooring, having already replaced some custom wood doors and frames.
When McArthur asked Heimbuck why he got into construction in the first place, he said with a laugh, “I didn’t know better 40 years ago.”
Downstairs, McArthur pointed out Newton’s hand-made duct work, custom built to reduce the cracking and popping that comes with heating and cooling. McArthur said he and his crew don’t build homes because they have to; they do it because they want to, and that shows through in their work.
“We have fun,” McArthur said.
McArthur and Sylvester both lamented the gradual disappearance of their trades.
Sylvester, the fourth generation to live on the farm, said he’ll likely be the last.
“The way agriculture is going, you can’t make a living on it,” he said. “I’m not alone. There are many people up and down the river who are facing the same thing I am.”
McArthur said gone are the days when workers could do multiple tasks and contractors knew how to do everything to make a home come together. He said high school shop classes are vanishing, and construction programs like the one at Aims Community College from which Heimbuck was the first to graduate just don’t exist anymore.
“What I don’t understand is who they’re going to get to do all this,” he said. ❖