Ruth Hammerman’s house sits at the end of long gravel drive, which swings around trees and climbs over hills, narrowly winding its way through rural Mantachie until finally opening on the A-frame structure she calls home.
There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the house at first glace. It’s certainly large, a two-story arrowhead stabbing at the sky. Pale vinyl siding wraps the building, its faces frequently broken by tall windows. There’s not even an entrance where the driveway ends.
Inside, however, Hammerman’s house is all personality. Her personality, to be specific. Which is fitting since she largely built the place herself. At 70, Hammerman is small in stature and soft in speech. Evidence of the many years she spent in the U.S. Army is still easy to find. She’s organized. Patient. She seems to choose her words, and there’s an underlying seriousness about her, although she frequently breaks this image with a warm, ear-to-ear grin, wry joke or burst of tomfoolery.
The house is kind of the same – understated at first glance, largely practical in design, occasionally kind of silly and brimming with individuality.
The unfinished house
“This house isn’t finished,” Hammerman said, surveying the spacious downstairs living area. Her assertion is somehow both obvious and disputable. The interior of Hammerman’s home gives off the impression of a lodge, the kind of cozy place someone might return to after a long day of hunting wolves to drink bourbon, smoke cigars and tell exaggerated stories. Angled planks of white pine line every wall. Depending on which room you’re in, you might find yourself standing atop finished flooring or plywood or wafer board. Door frames, still awaiting doors, are marked up with design notes or measurements. The entire house has the warm, woodsy scent of a hardware store, and the numerous windows are generous with natural light. It feels as if the place sprang up out of the thicket in which it was built.
“Everything is what I call ‘garage sale/antique store rejects,” she said, motioning to her furniture. The decor in Hammerman’s home is cobbled together. Nothing matches and therefore sort of does.
The living area flows directly into the dining space, which in turn seamlessly becomes the kitchen. Hammerman is currently using a picnic table as a stand-in for the kind traditionally found in a dining room. Frankly, this seems more appropriate.
The kitchen is a beast into and of itself. Installing cabinets is one of those projects Hammerman hasn’t gotten around to tackling just yet, so everything – from foodstuffs to cooking utensils to knick-knacks – are crammed onto shelves, the shelves themselves crammed from the cluttered countertops to the ceiling.
There’s a master bedroom downstairs, near the kitchen, but Hammerman’s just as likely to sleep in one of the other two bedrooms, both located after a short trip up a rough, wafer board staircase.
“I sleep in a different room every month,” she said. She does this to test how her rooms sleep, how moonlight fills the space at night, and to take in all the little details she might otherwise miss.
Upstairs, it’s basically a separate house, with a separate living space and bedrooms and a bathroom. Everything but the kitchen. There’s a small desk in the upstairs living room that faces a bay window looking out over the stretch of Hammerman’s wooded property. It’s here she studies the scripture, writes down her thoughts, or just plans.
“I love quiet time. Being alone. Brainstorming. Thinking about what I want to do next,” she said.
And there’s plenty to do next. For the past 20-odd years, Hammerman has built her house bit by bit without incurring debt. She puts off projects until she has enough money to pay for them outright and does whatever work she can herself. This includes everything from carpentry to plumbing (she’s hired contractors to do various things throughout the house … install electrical components, windows and ceilings). If she doesn’t know how to tackle a particular part of a project herself, she either learns, asks friends, or does some combination of the two.
This piecemeal approach is why portions of the house remain unfinished – walls with insulation exposed, door frames with notes scrawled on them, and a master bath that … at this point … still doesn’t actually have a bathtub in it. She’s currently using the space to store lumber.
The house was constructed using more guess work and trial and error than actual materials. Because she’s had no formal training in carpentry or engineering, and because she insists on building everything herself, the house is filled with little touches that favor function over form. There’s nothing complex about the home’s design, and there’s an elegance to that. She can easily point out faults and missteps and her methods of masking them.
“Molding hides a multitude of sins,” she said.
Home and homeowner
A native of Kansas, Hammerman joined the U.S. Army at 27. She was inspired to build a house in the woods while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. On a long walk through the woods, she found a fallen tree, laid on it and looked up at the sky.
“I laid there for hours,” she said. “I looked up and saw the trees swaying. The clouds floating over. The birds flying,” she said.
A deeply spiritual woman, Hammerman began to pray.
“I prayed He would allow me to have a little bit of that here on Earth,” she said. “Years later, here I am.”
Mississippi, she admits, was not initially what she had in mind. But she had a couple of friends, Randy and Barbara Burleson, who are native to Itawamba County. When Hammerman retired from the military in the mid-1990s, they suggested she and her husband at the time take a look at some land there
Admittedly, the property wasn’t much to look at, just a 37-acre tangle of trees and undergrowth.
“The land had not been cut in 50 years,” she said. “We were basically hacking through with machetes to walk through. The thistles would just snag at you.”
But despite, or maybe because of, its rough appearance, Hammerman loved the land. She felt at ease there. It was home.
Hammerman and her husband initially built a 900-square-foot box – basically exterior walls with a capital A roof and a few windows – to live in while a larger house was being constructed. When the couple split, Hammerman decided to make the existing structure her official home.
She lovingly calls the original structure her “cracker box.” She built her current home around it. Hammerman installed the insulation herself, then began putting up walls, building shelves, laying flooring … all the things that turn a featureless structure into someone’s home. Her home.
Twenty-odd years later, the house looks basically the same, only much bigger. Her 900-square-foot “cracker box” is now 3,700 square feet, more than enough space for someone living on her own. Which Hammerman frequently isn’t.
Sanctuary for herself and others“When you have something like this, you want to share it with everyone,” Hammerman said from the upstairs living area. She was facing the large bay window, looking over the rough country she calls home.
Although she lives by herself, Hammerman’s home is regularly filled with guests. She hosts friends from out of state – sometimes big groups of them – for weekend Bible study sessions. Her home has also provided lodging for missionaries and political speakers. She’s offered it up to the Red Cross as a temporary shelter for those displaced by fire or other disasters. She’ll break out cots, fill those extra bedrooms upstairs. The whole house will come to life.
“People come over to get away from the world,” she said. “This place is a sanctuary.”
It’s what it was always meant to be. Hammerman built her home … is still building her home … to be a place of reflection. Escape. It may not hold many aesthetic similarities to that fallen tree in the woodlands of Germany, but spiritually, it’s the same. It’s where she finds peace. She enjoys walking in her woods, doing some target shooting (she believes all women can benefit from knowing how to properly handle a gun) and just communing with the world around her.
“This little chunk of land,” she said. “I love it here.” Hammerman said.
She should, because it’s her home and, imperfect and unfinished, her home is her.