Tereasa's Modest Cottage

House Tour

Name: A Very Modest Cottage
Location: Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on the grounds of Tereasa and David's summer camp
Size: 10 x 10 square feet
Type: Half-sawn log cabin from a prohibition-era motor cabin court
Years lived in: Guest cottage on our summer camp for 3 years

Tereasa Surratt advises people to "look for the abandoned souls," and once you know the story of this cottage, you'll understand exactly what she means. She and the cottage (which was a run-down shack in a former life) have a relationship that's led them across two states, a long-term renovation project, and—eventually—to a book documenting their story of restoration and renewal.


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Tereasa and her husband, David, bought the 1920s shack for $500 in Beardstown, Illinois. It used to be a motor court (aka motel) cabin along Route 125, where Tereasa's grandmother lived. As a kid, Tereasa told her dad that she was going to "move in and make it her house," and he reassured her that nothing—not even a ramshackle wreck—was beyond fixing. She took the message to heart.

As an adult, Tereasa bought a Wisconsin campground with her husband and decided it was the perfect spot for her childhood dream home. She and David had the cabin hoisted onto a trailer and carted it for 10 hours across Illinois and Wisconsin (driving slowly to keep too many roof shingles from flying off). After setting it down in its new home at the Wandawega Lake Resort, Tereasa and David began their labor of love, repairing, restoring, scraping paint, replacing logs, and working very hard to bring the cottage back to life.

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Last year, after an article about Tereasa and her cabin appeared in Chicago Home, Country Living and Sterling Publishing approached her about documenting the cabin's story in book form.

This spring, the book came out—it's full of history, personal stories, renovation mishaps and triumphs, and detailed source lists. The title, A Very Modest Cottage, comes from a Thomas Jefferson quote: "I would rather be shut up in a very modest cottage with my books, my family, and a few old friends...than to occupy the most splendid post, which any human power can give."

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Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our style: We stayed true to the cabin's 'Bonnie & Clyde' roots with the decor. (Simple, humble, barkcloth and walnut, with a fat little potbelly stove)

Inspiration: Aesthetically, the by-gone era of the motorcabin court. Emotionally, my dad. (See intro and dedication to the book here.)

Favorite Element: The antique typewriter perched on the writer's desk that looks over the lake. And the vacancy sign on the front door. And the antique woods barkcloth we found in an attic and reincarnated into curtains. (Oh, wait—that's three favorites.)

Biggest Challenge: Managing to keep the cabin intact while strapped to the back of a trailer for nearly 300 miles across 2 states. In the rain. Under low bridges. (Picture roof shingles flying off its geriatric roof.)

What Friends Say: "Dibs on the cabin!"

Biggest Embarrassment: Too many to list, but falling off the roof was a high point. Evicting the rodent carcass from the cabin interior was also fun. Failing miserably at the fine art of drywalling (and then having to start over entirely).

Proudest DIY: Mastering the nail gun. (They possess the power of making you feel kinda like a superhero.)

Biggest Indulgence: Sourcing the replacement half-sawn logs at the local Elkhorn lumberyard. (They were a perfect match.)

Best advice: Practical advice: measure twice, cut once. (Or in my case, measure 3 times and write it down on your hand with a Sharpie.) Best advice: Look for the abandoned souls. Next time you drive by a wreck of a shed, look through the mess of the exterior to see the potential it may have.

Dream source: Thrift stores. Junk stores. Barn sales.

Reality source: Thrift stores. Junk stores. Barn sales.

Resources: Every lovely little thrift, junk, and charity store within a 100-mile radius of our summer camp.

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(Special thanks to Tereasa and Anwesha at Sterling Publishing!)

Images: Tereasa Surratt

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