My mom, Bobbie Jean Swanson, is not unlike most women because she was a good mother, or a standout because she has lived in the Valley since 1945 and remains married to Dad, her high school sweetheart, after 54 years. While those who know Don Swanson might call that an incredible achievement, Mom’s noteworthy accomplishment is really having done what a lot of men only dream about or tried but failed at. For 38 years Mom has been a woman among men, surviving through good times and bad as a general contractor, building hundreds of homes throughout the Valley.
It seems somehow fitting that Mom, a future homebuilder in Spokane was actually born in the back bedroom of a small but sturdy two-room house. Her young parents lived in a humble rural Arkansas town, Wickes and soon moved to the Northwest when she was three. Her clan moved as one taking up their logging trade in the camps along the St. Joe River with the women and children living in St. Maries, Idaho. When Mom was in third grade they moved to the big city of Spokane and she went to Opportunity Grade School at Pines and Sprague.
“The school was so overcrowded that my eighth grade class had to move over to the Valley Methodist church,” she said recently, “ the next year North Pines was finished and we were the first graduating class.” The year was 1950.
From there she went to Central Valley where she became a song leader, which as the name suggests was the group who led the fans in fight songs, while the cheerleaders led them in cheers. “We had a lot of spirit back then,” she said. Mom also fell in love with Dad , a football standout , and married him the September after graduation in 1954.
For the next 18 years Mom worked part time jobs and devoted herself to raising us three kids while doing the books for Dad as he built a solid foundation business. For years Dad and his partner ,Don Barden, worked as sub-contractors putting in hundreds of basements for general contractors and do-it-your-selfers.
“It was your Dad’s idea that I should try building houses once you kids got older,” Mom said, “ he saw teachers and firemen and insurance salesmen building houses and he figured I could do it too. At first, he helped me a lot but I made it a goal to learn fast so that we would stay married.”
So in 1972, Mom built her first house and then two more that year. Soon she was building between 8 and 12 houses a year, even though parts of the home building process went against the grain of her shy personality. “ It just wasn’t natural for me,” she said, “ I always found it very difficult to call the subs up and schedule them . I still don’t like that part of it.”
“I still remember going up to the Ponderosa where Bob Henshaw was framing a house and walking from my car to him and introducing myself,” she said, “ It was hard but I just knew I could do anything I made myself do.” As it turned out, her timid approach
was unique and brought forth respect and appreciation from the men she dealt with.
“I hit it off right away with your mother,” Bob said recently, “I worked for everybody and most contractors were not personable like your mother. She was very honest, trusting and trustworthy.”
Another framer, Larry Toombs, who worked for many a homebuilder in Spokane saw the difference as well. “Bobbie had a soft approach while most builders were pushy and tried to manipulate you with the checkbook,” he said, “She was always cordial and soft spoken but she could take control if she had to. I always had the utmost respect for her.”
Norm Thomson of Specialty Insulation found her to be a reliable pleasure to work with. “She was just more organized than the other builders,” he said. “ As long as you got your work done , it always worked out. You could always just count on her.”
There were other traits about her, perhaps because of her gender, that stood out as a lady homebuilder in Spokane. “I was building with 2×6 walls and extra insulation long before it was code because I liked to be warm and I wanted my people to be warm.”
“The part about homebuilding I have always enjoyed is the design and colors,” she said.“ I always got a kick out people saying they just knew there was something different about my homes after they learned a woman built it.”
Beyond the hundreds of homes in Spokane she has built with a woman’s touch, Mom has long cared for the people who are dependent upon her business for a livelihood. She employs 5 full time employees and has that many sub-contractors who work on her homes exclusively. Several more depend heavily on her business. She once told me she didn’t know what would happen to them if she stopped building.
My father who pushed her into the trade has long since retired and wishes she would do the same. And as her son, I would kind of like to see her slow down and enjoy her golden years. But as one of her two sons that have worked with her and learned a trade and built a career as a homebuilder in Spokane with her, I am very grateful that Dad believed she could be what she made herself be, a homebuilder in Spokane who just happened to be a woman.
Sidebar : Mom Stands by Her People
One thing you can say about Mom is that she is loyal and devoted. Her 54 year marriage is but one example. Gold Seal, her one and only plumbing contractor forever ,is another. Ed Cambridge worked as a carpenter on her first houses and he still does work for her. Most of her subs have been with her for more than 10 years. But the greatest example is her friendship with Joyce Hollen.
The two met in the fall of 1949 in 9th grade at North Pines and became best friends. Joyce was a cheerleader at CV and Mom was a songleader.
Remaining best friends after graduation, Joyce married Don Barden and Mom married Don Swanson. Their husbands became partners in Custom Basements in 1962 and worked together until they seperated in the early 70’s. Joyce and Mom bowled together and remained close, each raising three kids. Though Joyce and Don divorced, my parents remained good friends to both and it wasn’t long before Dad set Joyce up with his friend Al Hollen, whom she married after a few years.
Around 1990 Joyce started working with Mom at Homestead Construction.
She still works in the office part time and goes out to every new house Homestead builds and helps Mom clean and detail.
And they enjoy each other’s company just as much now as they did in 9th grade when they first met 49 years ago.
Sidebar : Mom and the Confused Doctor
Mom was delivered into this world in a humble Arkansas 2-bedroom house by the family doctor. ” I think he must have been drunk,” she told me recently. when asked to explain she said when she went to get a copy of her birth cerificate
a few years back in Little Rock, she was shocked to find that according to this official document she was a boy.
Sidebar : Attention to Detailing
Detailing out a newly built home is a big job, and one that Homestead Construction does better than most considering the owner puts in approximately 12 hours on each one herself. For years, Mom and three other workers have shown up at the jobsite at 6 in the morning and started in on the big task of turning a worksite into a sparkling clean home ready for a new family to move in. “It is always a mess when we show up, and when we leave it looks great,” she said, adding that it is her favorite part of homebuilding. “We all enjoy each other and we have fun.”There is usually about 6 more hours after the initial day which she does herself over the next few days because she also enjoys the solitude of working alone. Considering she and her crew have been doing this together for about 15 years and something like 600 houses, they have had a lot of fun.
Epilogue: Mom Finally Retires, Semi anyway