CALHOUN, Ga.—Building a treehouse is like painting a canvas, Sam Edwards says.
Only instead of burnished orange and forest green paint, Edwards chose to use an airplane, a ski boat, an Army helicopter and a submarine to add color to the treehouse that has been his home for 20 years.
“I looked around one day, and it didn’t have any character,” Edwards said. “It needed some color — so I decided to add an airplane. I know that doesn’t make sense, but that was my thought process. You build and rebuild, do something and, if you don’t like it, you undo it ... This is not building; it’s rebuilding.”
The nearly 61-year-old Calhoun native — who has worked as a janitor, truck driver, actor, law student, disc jockey, cook, producer, carpenter and soldier, as well as served as an aide to President Jimmy Carter and to U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio — built his home over the last two decades using all refurbished materials.
It has been called the most well-known treehouse in the world and been featured in dozens of books, magazines and TV shows. About 150 to 200 years old, according to tree experts, the tree is little more than a stone’s throw from where Union Gen. William T. Sherman camped on his march to Atlanta.
After this weekend, Edwards can add another name to the list of shows — “MTV Cribs.” A production crew arrived Friday afternoon for pre-production interviews and plan to shoot the episode today.
“It’s about the only channel it hasn’t been on. I think I’m one of the oldest people to be on the show,” Edwards said shortly before the crew arrived, sitting in his library, which is built completely out of marijuana boxes from a drug bust in northern Calhoun County.
An MTV production crew was the furthest thing from Edwards’ mind when he returned home to Calhoun in 1991 to write a book and help a friend manage a restaurant.
Part of the deal, he told his friend, was that he provide a place to write. The friend waved his hand up behind the restaurant and told Edwards to “go up there and build you something.”
But when Edwards looked behind the restaurant — now El Rayos Authentic Mexican — he saw a 60-foot-tall spreading pin oak.
“In that instant, I was 51⁄2 years old again,” Edwards said.
Five and half years old and the only kid in Calhoun who could drive a 16-penny nail without bending it, who built dozens of treehouses scattered all over his neighborhood.
Edwards knew what he was going to do.
He started with a 12-by-16-foot platform, but it grew to 12-by-24 feet, shaped around the massive trunk and arching branches. Then one day came the airplane tail, part of a red-and-white Piper Navaho owned by a NASCAR driver and crashed on a Florida beach. It’s now a bedroom in the treehouse.
The pieces kept coming, transported by Edwards’ old blue pickup that belonged to his father.
The ski boat came from Ohio — now the master bedroom. Then came the submarine, from Atlanta and built as a prop in an Elvis movie, according to legend. It serves as a bathroom.
The Army helicopter, used in Vietnam and crashed while in use as a training helicopter for military pilots, came last and made the perfect sunroom overlooking the town.
In between his treehouse construction, Edwards works as a writer, co-owns a deli in Rome, Ga., and travels on international humanitarian missions. His memoir “From Outhouse, to Whitehouse, to Treehouse” was published in 2000.
Dressed in a red T-shirt and blue jeans, Edwards wandered from room to room on Friday, pointing out items he has salvaged over the years, including a whirlpool tub as part of his fenced-in backyard.
“The only thing I’m lacking is a rocket ship,” he said.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...