When Bob Mattei first looked at the property on a slippery slope along Mill Creek, both his son-in-law and his real estate agent thought he was crazy for even considering buying it.

But Mattei saw past the run-down old house and deteriorated grounds where a previous owner had raised goats. What he saw was a Tom Sawyer-like dreamscape with a rushing creek pooling around an ancient concrete dam, a lazy beach and multiple places to play.

That was 15 years ago. The 74-year-old has spent his golden years creating, largely with his own hands, his own year-round camp in rural Healdsburg, complete with bocce court, outdoor oven for family cookouts, an outdoor shower and hot tub where he starts his day, and even his own treehouse.

It is all vaguely reminiscent of carefree days spent at his grandparents' Monte Rio cabin. Mattei has even posted a reproduction of Monte Rio's old smiling-moon-face sign onto the side of a tree, a perfect symbol of how this place makes him feel, each and every day when he wakes up in the morning.

"I love it here," he says, looking out over a creek cloaked in towering redwoods. "I go on fishing trips and come back and this is prettier than any place I've been."

After a lifetime in the family retail business, Mattei has earned this retreat. His grandfather Valente, along with his great-uncle, established the old Mattei Brothers department store in Petaluma back in the early 1900s. Bob began working there as a young boy, sweeping floors and assembling suit boxes. By the time he and his brother Jim closed the doors for good in 1995 when the Petaluma Outlet Mall opened, sucking shoppers away from downtown, Bob was running the store. The brothers now lease the space to Copperfield's Books.

Although he spent had spent his whole life in Petaluma, Mattei found himself drawn to the warmer climate of Healdsburg. The place along Mill Creek seemed to be the perfect spot for creating the summer playground he dreamed of.

His first project was to erect a fence along the road to hide his little wonderland from passing motorists and keep his dog safe. Then he set about carving a series of terraces along the slope leading down to the creek, a difficult project that required the placement of large, 70-pound blocks to hold back the hillside. At the bottom he dug out a 10-by-16-foot bocce court. At first, heavy rains and the weight of the court led to a collapse and he was forced to rebuild. Now the court, finely groomed with oyster shell from Petaluma, is a hobbyist's pride and joy, complete with homemade pegboard for keeping score and old-fashioned lights strung across the entire length for evening games.

"It was not an easy property to build on," said Mattei, with characteristic understatement. Everywhere he dug there were bricks. But he wound up salvaging them all and re-using them for pathways.

During his days running the store, Mattei always managed to find time for home projects. He built his own house on Sonoma Mountain in the early 1970s and devoted his one day off, Sunday, to do-it-yourself improvements.

As a retiree, he has infinite time to imagine, dream and build. He fulfilled a longtime dream of making a little peaked-roof studio shed for his wife Kay's art projects. Beside that is a pristine vegetable garden in neat raised beds surrounded by every fruit tree imaginable, from pomegranate and persimmon to figs, pear and olives, from which he presses his own oil. All of the bounty inevitably finds its way into one of his outdoor cooking venues, which range from a Weber kettle and gas grill to a vintage Japanese ceramic Kamodo cooker he retrieved from a friend's garage and restored.

His favorite, however, is a wood-fired oven he built himself from a set of Australian plans he found online. The stucco structure includes an outdoor fireplace within steps of a long family table beneath an arbor strung with old-fashioned Italian string lights.

Mattei always has a project going. His latest is an 80-square-foot treehouse completed last summer. The small cedar-shingled hideaway, inspired by a picture he saw in one of treehouse master Peter Nelson's books, sits 30 feet above the creek on a beam bolted into four redwood trees. A redwood bridge leads to his own little retreat, decorated with his father's old fly-fishing rod and basket. Every day he claims a spot in his treehouse, whether it's in the little loft for a nap, the window seat for reading, in a hammock beneath it. In the early evening he likes to settle into a chair on the deck with a cocktail. From this perch he can watch the steelhead and coho salmon making their way upstream to spawn.

"I love living here," said the man who spent his work life providing customer service for others but who now lives for pleasure, relaxation and the next big project. "There's no cell phone reception here to speak of, so we just leave them in the car." All the more time for a man to play the old-fashioned way - outside.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.