Backyard flights of fancy: Hobbits, dragons, pirates, oh my!
"We didn't set out to be a Hobbit hole company," Melissa Pillsbury says of the J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired playhouses that she and her husband, Rocy, sell under the company name Wooden-Wonders. "He had all sorts of designs. But the response to the Hobbit holes told us we had something unique and special."
The Maine-based home business got the trademark to the Hobbit name and sells around 100 Hobbit holes per year. The company ships or delivers the flat-packed kits around the country. In addition to kid-size playhouses starting at $1,695, Wooden-Wonders offers a larger, grown-up version called the Faehaven for just under $4,000, as well as the $7,995 Bag End, a full-size model made to be built into a hillside.
The company also does custom Hobbit holes, which have been used for everything from a maple syrup sugar house to a moss-covered musician's studio. One client ordered three for a farm. The most memorable project, Pillsbury says, was with the Make-a-Wish foundation, which connected them with a boy dying of cancer whose greatest wish was to have a Hobbit hole of his own. With the help of volunteers, Wooden-Wonders installed a landscaped creation in his suburban backyard.
While many customers are fans of "The Lord of the Rings," Pillsbury says others simply like the Hobbit holes' half-moon design. Some have even asked what a Hobbit is.
"People naturally gravitate to things that are round and cave-like," Pillsbury says.
Chris Axling, owner of Magical Playhouses in Port Townsend, Washington, agrees, saying curves are the secret to any magical design. His custom creations have wavy rooflines and rounded windows for a look straight out of a storybook.
Axling, who once worked with treehouse guru Pete Nelson of the Animal Planet TV show "Treehouse Masters," is known for his dragon playhouse, a 12-foot wonder with stained glass windows, custom cabinetry and a 4 -foot-tall dragon head erupting from the roof. Starting with a chainsaw, Axling carved the 60-pound dragon out of two huge chunks of cedar, and added steer horns from a taxidermy shop in Texas.
While fantasy drives the bulk of his business, Axling's work was born from not-so-charming beginnings; he lost his job in high-end residential construction. Taking on the role of stay-at-home parent, he devised a carpenter-dad way of entertaining his 2-year-old: He built her a schoolhouse. Since then, he's been making whimsical backyard structures alongside both of his two young children.
"My daughter is out there with me pounding nails," Axling says. "She wants to be a carpenter when she grows up."
Spending time with kids was exactly what sent San Diego grandfather Brian Caster on the hunt for a treehouse. He grew up with the playhouse bug, having "more fun than should be allowed" in his own childhood tree fort, and reading stories like "The Jungle Book."
"I thought, someday I'm going to build my own 'Swiss Family Robinson' tree fort," Caster says.
It only took his first grandchild to convince him that day had come. Unable to build the tree fort himself, he found Daniels Wood Land, a California-based builder of treehouses that come with their own recycled tree. Perched atop massive, 200-year-old stumps, their playhouses push the outer limits of the word "house," and can run up to $30,000.
Caster liked their pirate ship treehouse, and worked with Daniels Wood Land to customize it.
"It was great seeing what they came up with," he says. "My only limitations were how much I wanted to spend."
His 27-foot "Deluxe Scallywag Sloop" playhouse arrived on a semi-truck. It features an entrance through the tree, and has a back deck and a twisty slide. But the magic lies in the details, from the skeleton figurehead and nesting seagulls to the cannon and pirate flag.
"It was way beyond my expectations," says Caster.
A few years and five grandchildren later, Caster realized something was missing. He ordered a second, custom treehouse from Daniels Wood Land — the "Swiss Family Robinson" house he'd always wanted. Now the two treehouses sit side-by-side, connected by a rope bridge.
"It brings back so many childhood memories for me," Caster says. "That's what this is all about — making kids feel welcome and creating memories."
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