River Living

A Lowndes County couple finds a slice of serenity on the Buttahatchee

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Matt Garner

In 1976, Johnny Cash had a No. 1 hit with “One Piece at a Time,” a novelty song about a man who built a Cadillac over time out of pilfered parts. Sherry and Jimmy Dolan get a kick out of bringing it up.

“We’ve done this house like Johnny Cash did that Cadillac,” laughs Jimmy.

“This house” is something of a misnomer. The Dolans’ haven hugging the Buttahatchee River started out as a one-room camp house on pilings. After purchasing it in 1997, the couple began building their dream, doing most of the work themselves to turn an occasional getaway into a year-round address. The result? The word “idyllic” comes to mind. There’s a tranquility about this secluded river community near Caledonia that seeps into the skin.

Jimmy and Sherry took the time to get it right. The foundation alone required about a year.

“There are 12-foot poles under here that go five feet into the ground, with 35 bags of concrete around each pole,” explains Jimmy, leaning back into a plump den sofa after a long day at his business, Dolan’s Garage. Sherry sits nearby with Bobby and S.J., the family’s Yorkshire and Morkie (Maltese/Yorkie) terriers. They are surrounded by wood and stone, by windows, by reminders of things they fancy, like cowboy heroes and wildlife.

Unless told, visitors won’t realize there is a pull-out bed hidden in the wall behind a decorative table, or a concealed storage section behind a wood panel. Like builders of boats, the Dolans have made clever use of unexpected spaces.

Ascending steps from the den lead to a bedroom walled in hewn cypress and cedar harvested by Jimmy and his son, Andy, after strong storms. From there, step into the “Harley room,” where tribute is paid to another of the couple’s interests and a pot belly stove stands ready to ward off any chill. On the balcony, BooKitty, one of the Dolans’ two cats, languidly stretches out in a planter, keeping an eye on his domain.

Step next into the kitchen and dining room. It was the original camp house. It’s here good company and good food come together, encompassed by views of the river. Even at the sink, Sherry can watch the change of seasons — and otters at play — through her “porthole” window.

The entire woodsy warren of rooms is everywhere accented with personal touches. But don’t look for the Dolans sitting around inside much.

A split-level deck running the length of the home overlooks the Buttahatchee. It’s a grand viewing station for watching deer graze or swim across the river, or to hallo canoeists and kayakers paddling by. A real ship’s wheel mounted on the railing and other nautical touches delight their grandchildren, especially 5-year-old twins Josh and John. The deck is their sailboat, headed to open water and daring adventures. (They’ll soon be old enough for another adventure, shimmying down Pawpaw’s emergency fire escape, a “fireman’s pole” at a corner of the house.)

At one end of the deck is a fishing pole, curiously outfitted with a plastic scoop on the end. All the better to reach nearby branches, to feed peanuts to Hopper, a tail-less squirrel.

Sherry steps down to the bank below, which is dotted with seating so guests can river-watch.

“It’s so peaceful here, and I love little sitting nooks, little cuddle-up areas I call them,” she says, strolling along the grassy verge. She stops to point out Smyrtle the Turtle on a partially submerged log. “The smaller turtles are called Smyrtle-lettes,” she grins. All this affinity for animals inspires Jimmy to compare his wife to Elly May Clampett, the critter-loving daughter from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Look who’s talking.

Too bad not everyone finds the place they are meant to be, where body and soul can be content. The Dolans have.

“Everything these days is go-go-go, gotta be here, gotta be there,” says Jimmy with a shake of the head. “But when you come through that gate and get on that dirt road to get to the house, you’ve got to slow down, physically and mentally. This is river life, where all you hear is hoot owls and fish jumpin’.”