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When you meet Ernie and Janice Kessler at their La Pine home, you can almost imagine this couple being early Oregon homesteaders.
They're independent and self-sufficient, as evidenced by their lush and thriving vegetable gardens and their clucking chickens.
Further evidence of their self-sufficiency is the fact that, if you give Ernie a plan, he can build almost anything, including a house. He was also a proficient hunter, bagging elk, deer and pronghorns.
These modern-day pioneers have worked hard to tame their eight and half acres just south of La Pine.
“When I first bought this property in 1996, it was a big brush pile with the trees so thick, you couldn't walk more than a few feet without hitting a tree,” explained Ernie, 70, who put a lot of sweat equity into his home and property. “We probably cleared 4,000 trees, but we left most of the ponderosas up.”
Leaving the tall and majestic ponderosas on the property allowed the Kesslers to plant a large front lawn with the pine trees interspersed. The green lawn wasn't solely for aesthetics; it was also to help with fire abatement, which the couple is very vigilant about, knowing how fast forest fires can spread.
It's also the reason they decided to build their country log home with a green metal fireproof roof.
Ernie Kessler, a native Oregonian, is not a stranger to hard work. While he was growing up in Pleasant Hill, his family ran the Kessler Christmas Tree farm, which his sister is still operating today off of state Highway 58.
Ask Ernie a question about timber and/or wood, and he more than likely will have the answer.
After leaving the family farm, he went to work for several wood industry companies before retiring from Weyerhaeuser as a manager.
But the word “retiring” isn't really part of Ernie's vernacular. Even before his retirement, he was commuting from his home in Eugene to work on this La Pine property, clearing the land and getting ready to build his dream home.
A couple of years after he purchased this rugged piece of land, his first wife passed away. Though distraught, Ernie managed to raise his children as a single dad, and he confesses he didn't think he'd ever remarry. But then he met Janice seven years ago, and the two hit it off. Janice got behind the dream home project in La Pine, too.
“Our friends all thought we were crazy and we'd get bored out here in La Pine, and that we'd miss Eugene. But I haven't missed Eugene one bit. I never want to leave here,” said Janice, 65, with a satisfied grin.
“Bend gets the reputation of being the great place to live, and La Pine gets the 'poor boy' reputation. While Bend is a nice town, we love being here in La Pine, where everyone is so friendly,” said Ernie.
Southern plantation with log cabin twist
Ernie says when he saw the plans for this original Southern plantation-style home, he loved the idea of having a wraparound porch. He kept that intact, but continued to tweak the plans to fit what he and Janice wanted for their home. Instead of having a separate dinning room, they decided to keep the living room, kitchen and dining room as an open plan. Now the 2,160-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath house is what this retired couple call the “perfect size” for empty nesters.
Ernie points out that the wraparound porch alone is 1,000 square feet, which gives the couple ample outdoor space to entertain friends. Though they are Oregonians through and through, they have genial Southern-hospitality manners, which their friends in La Pine enjoy.
As if thinning out the forest wasn't enough work for Ernie, he soon learned he would have to finish building the house, after his contractor departed the project.
Ernie says he was left holding the proverbial bag, or in this case, the shell of a house.
“Ernie did all the wood siding, the entire porch, floors, fireplaces in the living room and bedroom,” explained Janice. “He did the electrical, too, with the help of a friend. He went on to do all the plumbing. He built the pump house, the hot tub room, the pond with the water wheel, and he built the front gate and entrance archway, from trees we salvaged here.”
Never say retire
Every day, you can catch Ernie working on some new project. Whether it's building wood furniture, making cabinets, gardening or tinkering on his antique cars, the work is never really done for Ernie.
“I'm always thinking of the next project I can give Ernie, because he likes to keep busy,” said Janice, as she points out all the pieces of furniture he has made for their house. “He made this hallway entry piece, and this tea service cart, and this checkerboard, and those side tables, too.”
There is not a single room, where Ernie's handiwork cannot be seen. He's a master carpenter and woodworker, and his wife is clearly proud of him.
Ernie seems embarrassed by all the attention. “It's just something I love to do,” he said.
Janice says her favorite piece is the hickory kitchen island Ernie built to match the hickory floors.
“The kitchen is my favorite room in this house. I can sit here at the island and prepare dinner,” said Janice walking over to the island and picking up a wooden bowl. “Oh, and Ernie made this bowl, too.”
There aren't many types of wood Ernie would turn up his nose at. Janice takes us into their office and shows us the built-in cabinets Ernie made for this room. The cabinets and drawers are made of stunningly beautiful curly maple wood. The grain on the hand-turned wood is imbued with natural swirly grain designs.
“I just salvaged this wood from the Weyerhaeuser firewood pile a number of years ago,” explained Ernie, who made an outdoor table and chairs for their porch out of the same wood. “Nowadays, you couldn't touch this kind of wood, it's so expensive.”
Ernie's expansive knowledge of all things wood is evident when he mentions the wood he used for the side tables in the living room.
“We just had some extra wood, so the base is black walnut, the leg is yew wood, and the table top is oak,” explained Ernie.
Even the family dogs were graced with Ernie's handiwork. He made them a two-foot-high feeding trough area, with their names carved into the front.
Ernie says his favorite room in the house is the extra-large master bedroom, where the couple's love of old movies is displayed on what they call “the theater wall.” On this large wall, black-and-white photo posters of stars like John Wayne decorate the walls up to the cathedral ceilings.
At the foot of their bed is a large oak chest with brass fittings that Ernie built as a gift to Janice.
Inside the master bathroom, the couple has an extra-large double shower, tiled in marble with special showerheads.
“We were in Tahiti, and they have something called the garden shower, and it feels like rain coming down, so we wanted a really large showerhead like that here,” said Janice.
In this bathroom, Janice says, Ernie had to build the built-in oak vanity, because they wanted it to fit in triangularly in the corner. Since they couldn't find one that fit, Ernie built one from recycled oak.
Frames around photos and old maps were also made by Ernie from reclaimed barn wood. If you see something Ernie hasn't built or made, it was probably made by one of his many artistic friends. Ernie points to metal art on his walls and hand-carved wooden trout, all created by his friends.
Walking out the back door, onto the back area of the wraparound porch, we step down onto a slate tile patio and pass several of the outbuildings Ernie has built over the years, including a dedicated screened-in spa room.
Janice points out the three-story condo chicken coop Ernie built for their lucky chickens. According to Ernie, “They give us more eggs than we could possibly eat ourselves, which is why we give them away as gifts to friends.”
Beyond the chicken coop is a shooting range, for target practice. Next to this is the barn, which houses a tractor and the neatest and most pristine woodworking shop you could imagine.
Following the gravel path past several of Ernie's green houses and raised garden beds, and shining brightly in the midday sun, is Ernie's pride and joy, his mint-condition 1955 aqua Bel-Air Chevrolet. Janice has her vintage 1959 Camaro SS parked next to the Bel-Air. As officers of the High Cascade Car Club, they enjoy cruising in their classic automobiles — no covered wagons for this pioneer couple.
“After we cleared the land, people were driving onto the property thinking this was a subdivision, and some people even asked if they could camp here,” said Ernie. “That's why we built the gate up front. This is now a great place to live. Over there, past that back gate, I can walk the dogs two miles and we're at Wickiup Reservoir. No, we don't miss Eugene or the city; we have it all here.”