By Mike Moore
Via Wyoming News Exchange
DOUGLAS —He wanted a home for his family. As a young man with a wife, two children and one on the way, Chuck Bruner had some big decisions to make. He may have had little money, but he was smart and not afraid to take a chance.
Working nine-hour days six days a week back in 1948, Bruner’s mind wondered while employed at a nearby garage. He complained about not being able to afford a home, but one day in Glendo gave him a glimpse of hope.
Roy Amick enlightened Bruner of his successful venture building a grocery store out of straw bales and suggested Bruner do just that on his own plot of land.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Bruner recalled. “He asked me to come down and look at it. It was kind of crude. He hired all his help and didn’t even try to make the walls straight.”
Amick learned the technique from the western sandhills of Nebraska, giving the idea more credibility. Intrigued by the idea, Bruner immediately started thinking about who was going to bale his straw.
He found someone willing to bale the hay west of Douglas near the present-day KOA campground. Excited to get going, he started building his plans for a modest home along Jackson Street.
Not much was going on along Jackson Street at the time.
“There wasn’t anything between here and the old South Grade School,” Bruner said, looking out his living room window down Hamilton Street. “It was a two-lane road and wasn’t anything north or south, except pasture.”
His day to collect the bales that would soon form the walls of his home eventually arrived, but in the 40s, nothing came easy.
“I had to tie the bales myself,” Bruner said.
He began construction of his new straw home in April of 1949. The layout and plans for what he wanted were solidified, and he began enclosing each bale in cement one hour before work and two hours after his nine-hour shift at the garage.
As the unique home started taking shape, a handful of people around town took notice, driving by regularly to keep an eye on Bruner’s creation.
“They pretty much left me alone,” he said. “(They) thought I was goofy.”
One of those men was Mort Peters, owner of Converse Lumber.
“He’d drive by once a week, he never stopped,” Bruner recalled. “When I got ready to pour the floors, I needed a wheelbarrow. I went to Mort and he said, ‘There is no damn reason to buy a wheelbarrow, I’ll loan you one.’ I’ll never forget ol’ Mort telling me that.”
The engine running the cement mixer came from a gasoline washing machine he had bought while living outside Douglas at the family-owned Bruner Ranch.
“When I moved to town I had electricity, so I replaced the engine and used that gas engine to run the mixer,” he said.
He dug his foundation by hand and poured cement, which partially came from his own sweat by digging sand from along the North Platte River. He made daily trips in the morning and twice at night to shovel sand into his father’s Jeep.
Once the foundation was set, he moved onto the posts he needed throughout the home for support. Even the lumber came on a per-need basis.
“I made a deal to saw out lumber as I needed,” he said. “It was really a do-it-yourselfer because I didn’t have any money.”
In between the post and beam framework, Bruner placed the hay bales, eventually encasing them in cement. As the walls and wooden roof went up throughout the summer months, the time came for move-in day in September. Bruner couldn’t believe the patience his Chicago-raised wife, Mary, had during that time.
“My wife was a marvelous person to go through what I did,” he noted. “What I put her through was beyond comprehension, and she stuck with me the entire time.”
At the time, the house was one big open room with no plastered walls. The bedroom still had a dirt floor.
“We were all looking at straw bales,” he said with a chuckle.
Children James and William joined the couple in the home, and in October, son Phil joined the crew.
He kept track of every penny he put into the home’s construction. When tallying up the overall cost, it came to $2,500.
One hiccup arose when Bruner experienced what he thought were flying ants while putting up the roof, but he didn’t really think anything of it at the time.
Unfortunately, he later learned he built right on top of a termite nest.
The termites caused his window sills to deteriorate, most notably in the 60s, before he inevitably “took care” of the nest without elaborating any further. He replaced the wooden window sills with more termite-proof cement ones, he added.
Since straw contains traces of silica, it kept the termites out of the bales. It also caused him to get house insurance, as straw only smolders and won’t burn unless the flame can vertically climb the stalk.
As a mechanic who was tired of picking up cold tools off the shop floor, the man kept innovating at the property, constructing a shop with heated floors not long after.
He later added two additional bedrooms in 1952 to make room for his children. In the years following Phil’s birth, the family welcomed two more children, Marie and Tom.
Bruner’s most recent look at the condition of the straw bales came 10 years ago when he widened his front door from the original 28-inch door to one spanning three feet in width. A building inspector requested to see just how the bales were holding up, and she showed up within five minutes of Bruner cutting open the wall.
“She was flabbergasted,” he said. “The straw looked just like it did the day I put it in.”
Bruner, now 99 years old, never thought he’d still live in his straw bale home 69 years after the fact.
“Mary and I were 30 years old,” he said. “I figured if it lasted us 50 years we’d be 80 years old and we’d be on our last legs, too. I never dreamed this house would be standing here in practically 2020.”
A building permit for a homemade straw bale home would never fly these days, he surmised.
Bruner hopes the house lives to hit a 100-year milestone, which would be in 2049, but he realizes that may not happen.
“When I’m gone I’d like them to tear it down and build a nice modern house here,” he said.