What do cameras, scented sticks, and Japanese timber framing have in common? Mr. Greg Hennes. We visited this exemplary man of adventure at the site of his newest project in Joseph, Oregon to discuss his path, passion, and plan for the road ahead.
Like many adventurers before him, Greg Hennes owes a bit of credit to Henry David Thoreau.
“I went on a sailing trip in 2004. But the only thing I wanted was to not be on the water, so I was dreaming the whole time of escaping to land,” says Hennes with a laugh. He smiles widely as he recalls this longing for land. “Of course, I was reading Thoreau’s Walden at the time. I really started imagining myself building a cabin in the woods. When I got back, I started drawing up the idea.”
While it may have been his most ambitious at the time, this wouldn’t be Hennes’ first construction project. Long before this encounter with the transcendentalist author, Hennes had done major renovations on his first home and, before that, a good number of woodworking projects as a kid growing up in Minnesota (mostly of the BMX-ramp and treehouse variety).
So after taking a class on timber frame construction from a folk school in northern Minnesota, Greg and his father proceeded to build the cabin on family property over the course of six months. When talking with Hennes, it feels like finishing his cabin was a sort of turning point. While always an adventurous soul, Hennes was now free to dream (and quite literally live) out in the wild, and he retreats there whenever he can. Though with several businesses under his operation, from camera rental company Clutch Camera to the ironic and amusing Campfire Cologne, Hennes doesn’t get out to Minnesota as much as he’d like — especially with the time it’s taking to build his very own hotel.
“It’s been a dream of mine to live in the mountains since I was 14 or 15,” says Hennes. “Ever since I started snowboarding, I kind of always knew that’s where I would end up. I just didn’t know where exactly, so when I was looking for mountain property to build a second cabin, it was everywhere out west: Idaho, Washington, Montana, Oregon, a little bit of Utah.”
When reviewing listings for property, an old hotel in Joseph, Oregon popped up, so Greg decided on a whim to take a look. “The first time I viewed the hotel was fourth of July, 2010. I was really just looking for property somewhere in the Mountain West to put a cabin. But I just kept coming back to it. I came and viewed the hotel six or seven times over four years. And then I bought it.”
Along the small but main street of Joseph, Oregon — like an alleyway pointing to the mountains — sits Greg Hennes’ $355,000 purchase: the Jennings Hotel. While not the cabin he was looking for, it’s a fitting acquisition for Hennes’ adventurous soul. The historical and stoic brick building feels like a set piece from a Wes Anderson film. The main floor of the building is home to a chocolatier and cafe (think truffles and Stumptown coffee), as well as a small Mexican restaurant. The upper floor is the hotel portion of the building, the future home of artists in residency and Airbnb tenants alike.
And there really should be a worthy place to stay here. Two miles to the south of Joseph is Wallowa Lake. To the northeast is the Zumwalt Prairie, the largest intact bunchgrass prairie in the United States. 30 miles east is Hell’s Canyon, the deepest river gorge in North America. And in the middle of it all is Joseph, a beautiful and altogether unique mountain town with a population of just over 7,000. Rather than rely on skiing (which tends to dominate the economy of such towns), Joseph has sustained itself with a diversity of industry, from agriculture and ranching to local trades and tourism. Fishtrap (a 30-year writers’ residency), as well as the Wallowa Valley Music Alliance and a number of local artisans (be they painters or bronze workers) make for a number of unique communities all focused on creating beautiful art.
Which is one of the reasons that Greg is drawn to Joseph. Aside from the mountains fulfilling his childhood dream — not to mention the stunning views of the Wallowas — Greg is driven in a way that requires him to contribute to the lasting culture of wherever he calls home. In this case, it’s Joseph. “I want to do something that adds to this place and makes it better, not something that exploits and takes advantage of it,” says Hennes. “Joseph is already really amazing, and the people who’ve been here and who are here are really incredible folks. I’m not so smart as to come in and think that I can make it so much cooler by contributing my ideas. It’s about working with what’s already here and trying to enhance it.”
What was already here in Joseph was the rundown hotel that Hennes purchased. Originally built by Edith Hall Jennings (in memory of her husband), the hotel had deteriorated over years into disrepair. And though it hasn’t carried its original name of Hotel Jennings for over 60 years, Greg thought it was fitting. “Jennings is written in tile mosaic at the bottom of the stairs,” says Hennes. “It felt like the perfect name to return to.”
Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign (raising over $100,000) and a fair share of elbow grease from Hennes and friends, the upper floor of the Jennings is evolving into the ten room hotel that Greg envisioned. One room is already available for rent via Airbnb, and the second is in the final stage of completion (Greg’s work-stained Carhartts are a testament to this). The rest of the rooms are slated for completion by the summer of 2017.
But Greg’s plans don’t end with the hotel. Eventually, he foresees creating a folk school in Joseph, a school dedicated to teaching traditional crafts from basket weaving to Japanese timber framing to hatchet forging. “The folk school in Minnesota where I learned to frame my cabin was a really vibrant and important part of that community, and I feel something like that would do really well here, too. I’ve been laying the groundwork for that and talking to the city council, so that’s something that I’m really excited about.”
If there’s a recurring theme for Greg, that might be it: a deep and persistent pursuit of those things he’s excited about. “In each of these things, the common thread is, I think, my interest in the outdoors and the natural world,” says Hennes. “That and the ability to not have to answer to someone else.”
Thoreau would be proud.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden