Many admire him; few know him.
Those who do say he's a man of whims, inventions and dreams. Visionary, they call Sam Harkleroad, an artist ahead of his time--the Frank Lloyd Wright of Novato.
In his 76 years he's panned for gold, driven a truck, picked fruit, been a tree surgeon and a ship rigger.
But being a "builder of a few oddballs" is what pleases him most.
Harkleroad has designed and built more than 25 houses in Marin County over the last three decades, improvising with odds and ends like a surplus railroad depot or a flatbed truck.
He discounts acclaim and says he's just an untrained carpenter. His formal education ended in high school.
Tired of Sameness
"Art?" he says. "I just get darn tired of looking at the same old things."
The "poor man's energy wheel" is one of his better-known contraptions. It looks like an industrial merry-go-round on top of his hilltop workshop.
Fashioned from old 50-gallon drums sawed in half, the windmill's steel sails catch the breeze, and on windy days make almost enough energy to run the shop's power tools.
Harkleroad grew up in Fresno, a poor farm kid with an inquisitive mind and craftsman's hands.
"Back then, if you wanted toys, you built them. You didn't have a million dollars to spend like the kids today. Once I made a car using a block of wood, a sardine can from the dump that I nailed on top of it, and four tin can lids that I used for wheels."
Lots of Imagination
Harkleroad was short on money but long on imagination.
The exterior structure for one of his early houses was Fairfax's defunct railroad depot, bought for $5 in 1947.
The long, narrow house, 100 feet by 12 feet, is located on Cascade Drive in Fairfax. The depot's original multi-paned windows are still part of the architecture, as are decades of lovers' initials scratched into the wood frame.
He remembers fondly a few of the homes he's built, such as one he erected for $122 in the early 1940s on a flatbed truck. He moved his wife and new baby into that one.
More noted is his "round house" or "fish bowl," built in 1963 for $17,000, which rotates 320 degrees at the flip of a switch. Two motors, the kind used in a washing machine, turn the house on 24 bearings.
Street Named for Him
That house still draws the curious to Harkle Road--in the early 1950s Harkleroad got the city of Novato to name the street after him.
Some years ago, Harkleroad and Fern, his wife, got tired of living in the fish bowl and moved next door to the oddest-looking house of all. This one sports a leaf-shaped roof touching the ground at its two farthest points. Its overhang shadows the glass walls of the living room in the summer, but lets in the low-angled rays in the winter.
Another Harkleroad house on Harkle Road is built of railroad ties.
Fern never has complained about the family's living quarters.
"We're a team," Harkleroad said. "That's a woman who has been willing to put up with the grapes of wrath."
Tinkering isn't always successful or lucrative. He invented the pump toothpaste dispenser years ago, he says, but didn't have the money to launch it.
His latest idea is building houses on nuclear waste dump sites, using radioactivity to heat the homes.
"I'm not sure how it's harnessed, or how safe it would be . . . but I'm looking into it."