WORTHINGTON — Ed Zylstra wanted to build a playhouse for his granddaughter, and hasn’t let being blind stand in his way.
Zylstra, who lives along Worthington’s 11th Avenue, has been engaged in the project for roughly four months now. He’s getting considerable assistance from Gary Brandt, another Worthington resident who has been impressed with Zylstra’s abilities to overcome his disadvantages.
This month marks the fourth birthday of Zylsta’s granddaughter, Hannah, one of two children of a daughter who lives in Baltic, South Dakota. After learning that Hannah wanted a playhouse of her own, Zylstra resolved to make it happen.
One of the first things he did was get Brandt, who he knew through his cousin and Brandt’s work at Pioneer VIllage, on board.
“The conversation initially was him saying, ‘I hear that you do garden tilling,’” Brandt remembered last week. “Well, I’ve done it for a friend. Then that led to, ‘Well, would you like to sharecrop in my garden?’ Then he said, “I’ve got a shelf that I’m working on, but I can’t get it square.’ Then he concluded the conversation by saying, ‘By the way, I’m blind.’
“The shelf did need some squaring up,” Brandt added with a smile. “I will say that he does more seed in a row than most people do. His row ends up curving a little bit, so by the time he gets to the end there’s a lot there.”
“That’s called contouring,” Zylstra interrupted, laughing. “The only thing was, it wasn’t on a hill.”
Zylstra attended college in Marshall and had difficulty finding jobs after his schooling. Eventually, he took a position as a darkroom technician at the University of Minnesota.
“I could see some mobility-wise back then, so I thought ‘this is kind of crazy, sitting in a darkroom,” Zylstra recalled. “So my dad said, ‘Why don’t you come back to Worthington?”
That return brought Zylstra into the realm of pig farming, in which he worked from 1980 to about 1997.
“I called myself a swine nutritionist,” Zylstra said with a chuckle. “That’s what I told the Extension — because I fed pigs.”
With his father getting older and the price of pigs proving much less conducive to making a living, Zylstra left farming. After living on an acreage a mile and a half from his father’s place, he and his wife, Shirley, moved into town in 2001. By then, his vision was hindering him more than it did in his younger days.
“It’s a progressive blindness,” Zylstra said. “I had pretty good mobility as I grew up into an adult. It was probably in ’92 that I went to cane travel. … Now, a lot is knowing my surroundings.”
A special build
Zylstra remembers doing some “rough construction” while working with his dad on the farm, but he said he believes in not rushing a job.
”My saying to Dad was, ‘If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, that means you don't have time to do it right the second time,” he said.
Upon starting the playhouse project, Brandt mentioned that an acquaintance had a sawmill as well as the kind of interstate high voltage poles seen throughout the county.
“They were cedar and pine … and that’s when it became the playhouse and this brainstorm,” Zylstra said.
The slabs were taken off the cedar poles, Zylstra said, and a cedar plank fashioned out of the rest. That formed the basis for the playhouse’s construction, which began in June.
“Gary went up north to his son’s cabin, so we took some time out,” Zylstra clarified. “We all have a life.”
One time-consuming element of the work was running the cedar planks through a planer, which made them considerably smoother. Another important consideration for the duo was utilizing as many previously used materials as possible.
“Gary and I both believe in repurposing stuff rather than it going to a landfill,” Zylstra explained. “Some … is from Highland Manufacturing, and some 2-by-3s that we made into studs would have gone to the landfill otherwise.
“We're into this repurposing, and let me say this: Three hundred Americans can handle global warming more than one government. if everybody does their part — recycle, repurpose, don't run your car half hour before you go. …”
As far as what the playhouse has become, Zylstra admits that he and Brandt have wound up going “overboard” and that it could ultimately have multiple uses.
“It’s 8 x 10 feet … and I figure that when it’s done as a playhouse, it can turn into just an ordinary shed,” Zylsyta said. “But we’re really doing it up. … The windows were Gary’s idea — they slide open — and he built the door there out of cedar. Then, he’s hinting that Hannah should have a mail slot.”
“One thing I think I have left is I need to find or make secret hiding places so that Hannah has a way of putting a message to her mom or dad or Nolan (brother), and then notifying them that they can get the message out of their secret place,” Brandt added. “The secret place would be different for each member of her family.”
“There are some knot holes here and there that you could stuff a note into,” Zylstra suggested.
Seeing their way through
Brandt was the principal at Central Elementary in Worthington, and retired upon the opening of the new Prairie Elementary in 2001. Zylstra credited him with having multiple handyman-type abilities.
“If he doesn’t know how to do it he’ll find out how, that's for sure,” Zylstra said.
“it's been a good experience for me,” Brandt said of the playground project. “Ed, he’s intelligent, and we enjoy good conversations and humor. He's also active in this, and he doesn't wait for me to do something. …. On one of the last things we were doing, I was inside and Ed was outside cutting pieces on the miter saw.”
So how does a blind man manage that?
“This is where you literally use your head,” he elaborated. “I hold the miter saw down with my head and then feel the end of the board I’m going to cut. Then, then I push it up to the blade so I get the same length of board I wish to have.”
“When he’ll measure something, he’s got the folding tape and he’s got two fingers … so sometimes he’ll say ‘it’s three folds and two fingers.’ Sometimes, it’s a fingernail. He’s usually within half an inch.”
“Gary likes to get to within a 64th of an inch, and I'll say, ‘I don’t think so,’” Zylstra said, smiling.
Brandt related that Zylstra wanted to hatch some chicks this spring, but had difficulty with the candling process that shows how the eggs are developing, So, Brandt decided to assist with that effort.
Zylstra has even found ways to clear snow despite his lack of vision.
“With my footwork … I can feel where I’ve been and not been,” he said. “I also put out a radio — if I get messed up, at least I can find my way back to the radio. I’ve got myself lost a couple of times pretty good, but I have Siri now and if I get really messed up I can call my daughters and they can track me.”
What’s in store?
The project has been a good way to pass time for Zylstra, whose wife died in February. Gary, meanwhile, lives with his wife of 53 years, Mary, near Chautauqua Park.
As of last week, the construction duo was hoping to have the playhouse wrapped up in a week and a half’s time.
“We’re adding electric to it now … and we’re insulating it and putting in a double wall for safety,” Zylstra said. “I have a solar lamp that’s going in, too.
"We’re going to save the planet."
Zylstra said a friend, Randy Lubben, will assist in getting the playhouse to Hannah, who remains unaware of the upcoming gift.
“I used up Gary's summer pretty good,” Zylstra said “it was a bigger task than I probably had in my mind in a way, but it's turning out just really nice. If anybody’s proud, we are.”
WIth four months of work nearly done, is Zylstra already considering a next project for which he can enlist Brandt’s help?
“I probably am, but I'm not going to say,” he said. “I’m going to hold that back."