Last August, twin brothers John and Frank Robinson set out to build the homestead shack their grandfather never got to finish.
They finally got to try out the shack last week — during a period of bitter, record-breaking cold.
In the early 1900s, their grandfather had built a sod home near Willows, Sask., but never finished a shack — something the Robinson brothers think he would have constructed had he not died a few years after the sod home was built.
So last summer, after years of planning, they set out to finally finish that build, working on the project with a team of volunteers on land Frank owns in Alberta.
“I still have the feeling of, ‘I can’t believe we built this building,’ because we talked about it for so long,” Frank said in an interview this week with CBC Radio’s Saskatchewan Weekend.
John, who designs buildings in Regina, was determined to work within similar constraints to those his grandfather would have been under, even obtaining a wood-handled saw as part of his circa-1910 tool set.
He repurposed old wood or got locally milled wood, and used Clydesdale horses to bring the wood from the mill to the site in Lamont County, just northeast of Edmonton.
Last weekend, the brothers finally tested out the finished shack — spending three days in it during a period of extreme cold, when lows in the Edmonton area plunged below –40 C.
They had to make a few adjustments once they actually tried the shack out — for example, John said it was so airtight, they had to crack a window open so that the stove would work properly, which did make things a bit chillier.
But “it warmed up, I would say, about 10 C an hour,” said John. By the next morning, it was warm enough they could take their coats off in the shack, Frank said.
LISTEN | Two brothers spent a chilly weekend in a shack they built:
Saskatchewan Weekend13:11Why two brothers spent a weekend of extreme cold in a homestead shack
They had “very low expectations for output” during their chilly weekend in the shack, he said.
“It’s not like you’re regularly working and you’re multitasking on your laptop or you’re doing other stuff. We didn’t do anything like that. We did two jigsaw puzzles, a bunch of sudokus, and went outside and planned our next meal, and had a nap.”
But John said being in the shack was a meaningful experience.
“Just the way that the building … feels so warm, with all the wood and all the pictures of our ancestors on the walls, it just feels really like, ‘Wow, this is where I want to be,'” he said.
“And it’s not fancy — it’s very Spartan, but it just feels so relaxing being there. I just had an incredible weekend, even though it was cold.”
The brothers had some company in the form of Frank’s barn kittens, who loved snuggling up in the shack, he said.
John said he wasn’t sure how his ancestors would feel about the brothers voluntarily spending a weekend in conditions similar to what they would’ve had to endure as homesteaders.
“I kept this overall feeling in my head, thinking that they must think we’re nuts. But on the other hand, I think they would be proud of the fact that we were trying to connect with them, maybe,” he said.
Both brothers say they would do it again.
But “I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have done it on my own if John hadn’t come out,” said Frank.
“He’s a lot more of a creative, adventurous person.”
WATCH | How did the Robinson brothers build their shack?