Saratoga County

Bunking down in an old railroad bunkhouse

Home is affectionately called Woodchuck Manor
Paul Spencer stands on the porch of a tiny home in his backyard in Ballston Lake.
Paul Spencer stands on the porch of a tiny home in his backyard in Ballston Lake.

BALLSTON LAKE — A train whizzes by and glasses gently rattle in Steve Harris and Paul Spencer’s Ballston Lake home just 15 feet from the tracks. Plenty of pennies have been flattened on these rails by the generations of children who grew up around the tracks.

The home is located along what was once a trolley line between Schenectady and Saratoga — the main structure served as an old bunkhouse for railroad workers. Harris, a woodworker who has worked at a local lumber yard for 35 years, has since added a two story garage and woodshop where he creates beautiful wooden pens, crafts and wine bottle stoppers among countless other projects.

Harris bought the Ballston Lake property, adjacent to active railroad tracks, from his grandparents in 1985 when he was just 18. His grandfather, a carpenter, and his grandmother, had been living there since 1946.

“They were going to donate it to the fire department and burn it in a drill,” said Harris, when asked why he bought the family home at such a young age. Like his grandfather, Harris keeps chickens as well as geese. Goose eggs are apparently great for baking. Framed illustrations of colorful roosters hang on the walls of the chicken coop to encourage the hens in their egg-laying.

Since Harris bought the property, he and Spencer have transformed the home into what they call “Woodchuck Manor,” though others have likened it to a sanctuary. An attention to detail and an appreciation for the arts is evident everywhere from the outhouse to the chicken coop.

The pair keeps bees to pollinate the gardens and to produce honey as well. Two maple trees next to the house are tapped for sap.

The wraparound porch is lined with wind chimes, large and small. A side yard is filled with treasures others may have discarded as junk — chandeliers transformed into solar lights, rusted knight’s armor, statues, road signs, glass jars, paintings and bird houses. The front garden is decorated with bowling balls in all sorts of formations.

A zipline runs from high up in a tree near a small pond across the yard. An old external fuel tank found at a garage sale lays on the ground — it was once propped up as if it was a rocket that had plunged into the earth. A row of chairs of all colors line the pond, sure to be filled by family and friends in the summer.

A structure that looks like an old caboose sits in the woods just beyond the pond. Harris built the red train car style tiny home in the summer of 2004. Using salvaged materials primarily, such as recycled windows and wood from old bleachers, the total cost of the project came out to about $300 according to Harris.

Old railroad lanterns hang both inside and outside of the structure. An old fashioned stove from a friend’s yacht sits in one corner and an old ice box rests on the adjacent wall. Toy trains and other memorabilia line the walls. A ladder leads from the main room up to a sunny loft with an air mattress for guests. An outhouse stocked with lanterns and reading material sits just a few steps away from the tiny home’s entrance.

Stained glass and beautiful tulip windows, also known as piano windows, salvaged from buildings in Schenectady are sprinkled throughout the home. Original art from local painters and black and white photographs of Harris’s grandfather surrounded by chickens in the yard and of the trolley which ran from Schenectady to Saratoga give the home a distinct sense of place.

Categories: Life and Arts

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