Swiss Family Robinson meets The Giving Tree

Geneseo engineer puts his kids’ treehouse dreams at the top of his list
Photos by David Ditzel
Joe Ferrero, an engineer and dad, recently purchased a treehouse complex in Henrietta and added it to his own complex on Lakeville-Groveland Road in Geneseo.

Few lights burn along the hills west of Conesus Lake. A living room TV flickers here, raccoon eyes glow there—and then, a pair of headlights, suspended eight feet in the air, beam through the darkness, broken only by leaves stirring in the breeze. The lights belong to the only 1946 Triumph in the United States, and it’s mounted to four telephone poles beneath the canopy of a walnut grove. People stop their cars. They wonder.

Joe Ferrero is building a treehouse complex starting out with nine individual structures. There’s a castle, a wizard’s den, a church, a music room, a tea room, rope bridges, an elevator, and a retractable staircase. Soon, there will be zip lines, a working pipe organ, and whatever else strikes the fancy of this thirty-nine-year-old father of two. All are suspended between eight and twenty feet above the ground. The catalyst for this burst of treehouse creation wasn’t childlike whimsy but rather a slug of dried paint the size and hardness of a golf pencil that was blasted into Ferrero’s left eye by an air compressor, leaving him bleeding and half blind.

“It sounded like a gunshot,” he says.

At the time, he was talking on the phone with his mother. He needed to pick up a new hose for the paint sprayer, which he carefully disconnected. Residual pressure, however, released with a bang, firing the slug into Ferrero’s face. If it hadn’t hit his nose first, it would have passed through his eye into his brain, killing him.

“I was about a half-inch from not being here,” he says. “That’s where you look at life a little differently.”

Years earlier, Ferrero had attended the Rochester Institute of Technology for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. That’s when he met Maurice Barkley, of Henrietta, who built eight treehouses connected by rope bridges for his grandchildren. “I thought, ‘You know, this would be a really cool thing to have as a grandfather one day,’” Ferrero says, “but after the accident, grandfather projects became father projects.”

Reconstructive surgery put Ferrero’s eye back together, but with an irreparably damaged optic nerve, it’s a constant reminder of his own mortality. He wrote his will, chose a cemetery plot, and when his daughter Anna Rose, now six, asked for a treehouse, he cleared space in his garage and started building.

A 120-square-foot castle started taking shape in January, 2012. Today, it has electricity, a shingled roof, a velvet throne, a round table, written chivalric code, and spired towers made of fiberglass-wrapped wood to withstand the elements. After walking the meandering yellow brick road to the walnut grove, it’s clear the word treehouse doesn’t really do the place justice. It’s more like Swiss Family Robinson meets The Giving Tree.

Over twelve years, Ferrero earned six degrees in engineering and education, giving him extensive building expertise with a heart for kids. One student teaching assignment in Geneseo was to follow the bus to see where his kids came from. “One of my former students actually lived in an abandoned school bus,” he says.

Moments like these prompted Ferrero to make his tree village free and open to whomever asks for a closer look. This way, adults and kids from all financial backgrounds can have a treehouse. There’s also an elevator for kids with disabilities who might never otherwise be able to know what it’s like to play in the trees.

Ferrero says when he’s out there, he enjoys the tranquility and the cool canopy breezes—but his mind is always working, breaking down the hundreds of little interlaced challenges that weave this dream world.

“I’m looking at it from an engineering aspect and a parent’s safety aspect,” he says.

Standing on the deck of the church, twenty feet in the air, the entire structure sways with the tree. Branches grow through holes cut in the floor, forming a pocket of varying shades of green as sunlight plays off leaves. It becomes oddly clear that they are moving independent of the deck because not a single nail nor bolt fixes the scores of boards to the tree.

To allow natural growth, Ferrero rigged a series of adjustable cables that leverage the strength of the tree to keep over 36,000 pounds of wood, rope, metal, and kids suspended indefinitely. When he’s not around, he secures the whole complex by hoisting up both the elevator and hinged staircase, then cutting the power.

After the castle took shape, the Ferrero family visited a children’s museum on vacation. Watching their daughters play with car parts, it occurred to Joe and his wife, Heather, to put the 1946 Triumph in the trees as well because the car could never be completely restored. “Instead of scrapping it, well, why not breathe new life and resurrect it?” Ferrero asks, adding that it’s getting more publicity as a treehouse than it ever did on the ground.

As Ferrero’s treehouse project began, the career of Maurice Barkley, the Henrietta builder, diminished. Having reached an age where he couldn’t keep up with the necessary maintenance, his masterpieces fell into disrepair. When Joe and Heather invited him to see their structures, he offered to donate his treehouses to the burgeoning collection.

Ferrero’s reconstruction of Barkley’s work combines respect for the creator with intricate creativity. A small, rust-orange set of fire bellows will turn into a working pipe organ with tuneable train whistles for the music room. A rolltop desk, cuckoo clock, and spell book will find a home in the wizard’s den. A china tea set will complete the tea room. A dumbwaiter will deliver lunch to families as they play.

In the future, Ferrero wants to install a Galilean-style observatory. He already has the telescope and an ongoing contest for the design. He also has plans for a train depot, a World War I–style biplane, and refurbising a 1957 Thompson speedboat into a pirate ship complete with zip line shooting off the plank to a lighthouse in the yard.

Visualizing this wonderland prompts the question: why?

A near death experience can inspire a treehouse, even a grand castle treehouse with a velvet throne. But Ferrero’s treehouse empire goes way beyond this. Without meeting him, one could even wonder if this guy is out for opulence, attention, a lost childhood—who knows?

But then, you pull in the driveway because the headlights caught your eye. You see this regular guy in a navy blue t-shirt and baseball cap with a meek smile and soft voice walking out of the grove. He shakes your hand. Sitting with a can of root beer, he talks about cars, his two kids, how his wife is his best friend, and the respect he has for his mentor, Barkley.

Then, his voice catching in his throat, he says something else.

“There was an old saying I heard: ‘We’re on this earth but once—so, any joy I can bring or any happiness I can give, let me do it now without haste, for I shall not pass this way again.’”

Pete Wayner is a freelance multimedia journalist in Rochester.
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