A cypress tree nearly 2 feet in diameter grew right through the middle of the single room.
"The rubber boot down there keeps the varmints out and the rubber boot up there keeps the rain from coming in," said Smithwick, a retired Windsor fire chief and caretaker for the town's treehouses. "When the wind blows, you can feel the house move."
The 16-foot square house and another like it constructed on the next tree over are the town's efforts to add a tourist attraction. For visitors who pay to stay overnight, it's like camping in the treetops.
The town of 2,500 and seat of Bertie County sits low along the Cashie River, a waterway that repeatedly swells above flood levels and flows into the downtown. Officials formed a committee with the goal of finding a positive purpose for this 55 mile-long river that begins and ends within the county.
"This river isn't bad all of the time," said Smithwick.
The hole left for the cypress tree leaves space for years of growth. The other house was built between two trees and has more interior space without a trunk coming through the floor.
The shelters blend into the trees and surrounding swamp just minutes from downtown. A 480-foot-long boardwalk runs next to a canal from a town park and boat ramp at the end of Elm Street. The boardwalk rides high above the swamp before turning left along the river to the houses.
The shelters have been booked every weekend since opening in April 2017, Smithwick said. Retired people looking for a quiet weekend, graduate students seeking primitive camping, hunters, anglers and kayakers are among the clientele coming here from 14 different states including California.
Nearly three quarters of the visitors eat downtown, according to Smithwick's survey of patrons.
"It's having an impact," said Lewis Hoggard, director of the Windsor-Bertie County Chamber of Commerce. "Three to five jobs here are like a big town getting another factory."
A night costs $60. Amenities are limited.
Low maintenance cypress siding covers the two houses designed much like the old fishing camps that were once popular along the river. Each has eight screened windows, a small front porch, a tin roof, a wood sleeping loft, a table and chairs.
The cool shade of the tree canopy provides natural air conditioning. Bathrooms and showers are in a building back at the parking lot hundreds of feet down the boardwalk.
Electric receptacles are available, a small nod to modern life.
"The whole concept was to do this as rustic as possible," Smithwick said.
The idea came from Treehouse Guys, a DIY Network television show. It was the perfect answer, Smithwick said. The town contacted the show's experts for help. The crew agreed and filmed construction with the show airing in July 2016.
The tricky part was learning how to secure the houses on trees, Smithwick said. Special nickel-coated braces secure the platform to the tree without harming it. The rest was a matter of building a small house.
The town was awarded a state grant for $170,000 to build the boardwalk and the two houses.
Smithwick and others made sure the Cashie River's floodwaters could not reach the treehouses. A faded piece of pink surveyor's ribbon marks the high water spot from Hurricane Floyd in 1999, one of the worst flooding events ever in eastern North Carolina. Builders put the platform 18 inches above Floyd's flooding.
The attraction is so successful, the town is building two more houses thanks to more grants totaling $128,000.
They call it "Treehouse Village" now, Smithwick said.
"It is quiet," he said. "Nothing but nature."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com
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