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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Rising from the Ashes

Around 1:20 a.m. on a chilly Saturday, Jeff Butts headed home from a late-night game of bowling. As he drove down Denzer Road, a narrow, tree-lined country road northwest of Evansville, he spotted something in the darkness: flames shooting from his neighbor Ben Lang’s log home.

Lang was sleeping, oblivious to the smoke filling the two-story house he had built by hand. Butts honked the horn and flashed his headlights to wake Lang, who hurried toward the front door. As he ran, a collection of kerosene lamps — which once lined a living room shelf — was igniting, crashing to the floor, and burning holes in the wooden planks.

Outside, Lang jumped in his truck and drove to the back of the driveway. Wrapped in a blanket, “I just sat there,” he says, “and watched it burn.” Firefighters battled the blaze for five hours. By the time daylight broke on February 24, 2006, the house was a skeleton of the 3,800-square-foot cabin that once resembled a rustic resort lodge. Five years of Lang’s own labor had been reduced to charred, black wood.

“At first,” Lang says, “I didn’t think I wanted to build it back.” But after 18 months, $1.3 million, and a little convincing from his son, the second incarnation of Lang’s dream home was complete.

Lang grew up in rural areas west of Evansville and small towns in Oregon (“that’s true God’s country,” he says), and the business owner always has favored the quiet simplicity of country living. As a teen, Lang taught himself carpentry, and he left high school before the end of his freshman year to work for a local roofing company. In 1988, he founded Lang Brothers Construction.

Around a decade later, Lang was living in a 4,600-square-foot house on the West Side, and he dreamed of downsizing and moving to a more remote area. A leisurely Sunday drive through the country led him to a 15-acre plot, passed down through a single family ever since the land was deeded from the federal government. The property on Denzer Road would become the setting for a custom log cabin designed by Bob Timberlake of Hearthstone Homes in Dandridge, Tenn. Filled with rustic touches — a dining room table Lang built from black walnut, a stuffed buffalo head over the stone fireplace, and Native American art from trips to South Dakota — the house would become the luxury log cabin Lang had dreamed of since childhood.

Over the next five years, building the home became a “weekend warrior” job, says Lang, for him and his son, John Robertson. The second time, after the fire (caused by a cracked flue liner in the chimney), the process moved faster. Lang, now semi-retired, lived in an RV on the property while he worked, and Robertson quit his construction job to work full-time on the project. Lang’s girlfriend, Judy Coomer, also contributed labor. 

Today, the cabin is home to Lang, Coomer, and Lang’s elderly father, Bennie. Nestled at the edge of a manmade lake, the retreat is their own Walden, albeit on a grander scale than writer Henry David Thoreau’s forest abode. “I’m not a city girl,” says Coomer, a former electrician and semi-retired nurse. “I don’t like the hustle and bustle. I’d just as soon stay out here.”

Their friends and family seem to share the sentiment. “You never know who’s going to walk in,” says Coomer, who moved to Evansville from Kentucky after meeting Lang online two months after the house fire. “It’s kind of an open door.” With a jaw-dropping entertainment area that opens to the lake, the lower level of the home boasts a full bar with a stove, a pool table and dartboard, and cozy conversation areas around a fireplace and flat-screen TV. Outdoors, a grill is built into the exterior of the chimney, and the lake — stocked with fish — provides summer fun for the nine grandchildren between Coomer and Lang. Above, a balcony lined with rocking chairs offers a scenic view of the property. 

Away from busy retail centers, noisy traffic, and urban neighborhoods, the couple lives in a quiet haven that almost wasn’t rebuilt after flames and smoke destroyed it five years ago. The work was daunting, but in the end, they decided the rural lifestyle they cherished was worth the labor. “I always have loved living in the country,” Coomer says. “I couldn’t sleep when I lived in town. Here, it’s peaceful and serene. You can relax.”

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