Renton’s Swiss Family Browne

Here is the Browne family of Renton, from top, sitting on the steps to their tree house: Cameron, Kenadi, Andrew, mom Stephanie, dad Curtis and Madison. - Image Credit: Carolyn Ossorio.
Here is the Browne family of Renton, from top, sitting on the steps to their tree house: Cameron, Kenadi, Andrew, mom Stephanie, dad Curtis and Madison. – Image Credit: Carolyn Ossorio.


When I was a kid, my sister and I loved making forts and designing elaborate sketches for our summer plans of living in a tree house on a wild and deserted island.

Meanwhile, our dad was busy building a real house on 10 acres of wooded property (roughly the exact size of our deserted island).

Our father loved enlisting us as unskilled construction labor . . . if he could find us.

The desire to explore the natural world is something kids are born with especially when inspired by classic adventure books and movies like “Pippi Longstocking,” “My Side of the Mountain” and “The Swiss Family Robinson” as I was.

These summers spent with my sister in the woods collecting tree sap for glue, rubbing two sticks together in an attempt to make a fire, dragging tree branches and lashing them together a roof that we eventually thatched with ferns are some of my favorite childhood memories.

So I was thrilled when I heard about a local family who had built an “epic” tree house.  A tree house unlike any tree house I had ever seen!

On a recent Sunday morning the kids and were driving through an east Renton neighborhood looking for what had been described to me as a “tree house unlike any tree house I had ever seen!”

“THERE IT IS!” Amelia pointed toward the horizon from the front seat like a pirate spying land from a crow’s nest.

Tucked away in a cluster of tall evergreens and perched 30 feet inside the grip of four magnificent Fir trees was a pirate ship complete with a pirate flag flying from the masthead.

The Browne family consists of two parents, Curtis and Stephanie, and four children, Kenadi, 13, Madison, 10, Andrew, 6, and Cameron, 11 months.

My four kids and I hopped out of the car, introduced ourselves.  But our eyes were on the prize.

The Brownes, keen to the special place they have created and its consequent effect on people of all ages, understood our need to climb into the two-story, pirate ship tree house.

There are 16 windows. Two laying hammocks and one sitting hammock. Two immovable bunks and one that folds down. The “back” tree IS the flagpole – the flag is roughly 40 feet off the ground. There is a captain’s wheel and stairway that goes from the inside to the top promenade where the pirate flag proudly flies as well as the American Flag on the 4th.  And a great slide.

“How did this all happen?”  I asked Curtis and Stephanie from high up on the second floor.

“I threw Curtis a surprise 40th birthday party at Treehouse Point in Fall City with four other couples.  We stayed in these amazing tree houses,” Stephanie said.

From that experience Curtis learned about the “Treehouse Workshop,” a joint venture with Treehouse Point that offers four-day workshops where people come from all over the world to learn how to build tree houses from world reknown, tree house builder and owner Pete Nelson.

“That was April 2010,” Curtis said. “Six months later Curtis began building their pirate ship.”

The tree house would eventually take a year and a half to finish.  And, judging by the size of the beams that held up the structure, it was hard to believe Curtis built it all by himself.

“How did you bolt those beams in to place?” I asked.

Pointing to and fro, Curtis explained how he’d done it with a system of scaffolds and pulleys like one imagines Houdini explaining to the layperson how he escaped the straight jacket while hanging upside down over a pit of fire.

“The design elements had to “fit” the trees, including location, movement, and growth over the next 100 years. It was also designed such that the platform could be reused/modified to turn into a two-story office/sleeping room as the kids outgrew the ship concept.”

Which judging by the playing going on wouldn’t be any time soon.

Ty was crawling up and down the stairs Curtis had repurposed from rough split logs that still had the bark outside.

On the top floor, 10-year-old Madison had devised a raising and lowering pulley system out of improvised rope and sand bucket and the boys were making a game of filling it with pine cones.

“Is this always how it is when you have guests over?” I asked.  Even though our kids had just met, the tree house seemed to provide the space and laid back temperament for instant fun that included everyone.

“We built the tree house as a way to teach our kids about the environment and self reliance.  Roughly 50 percent of the materials were from recycled decking, free Craigslist finds and trees taken down in our backyard. As well as a gathering place to create friendship and community.”

Building the tree house had even helped Curtis overcome his fear of heights.

“Before when I’d get on the roof I’d be afraid.  Building the tree house helped me “be” with the fear and ultimately overcome it.”

According to Pete Nelson’s website, people are building tree houses all over the country from varying sizes with plumbing and electricity.

“Nationally, people are living in tree houses as alternate housing.  It’s a nascent experience . . . back in time we were in the trees and now forward in time.  And everything I bought was off the shelf, which means no custom tools or supplies, so I could just run down to Dunn Lumber or McLendon’s,” Curtis said.

“The Swiss Family Robinson” was an adventure novel published in 1812 by Johan David Wyss about a Swiss family shipwrecked.  Apparently, Wyss wrote the book, “to teach his four sons about family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance.”

200 years have passed and it seems the Brownes are creating a similar adventure for their kids and community in the form of a backyard pirate ship tree house.

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