Salvaging history, one plank at a timeJune 29, 2016
Independence— it’s what makes our country great. That can-do spirit inspired settlers to spread across America’s frontier and fight the odds. What they left behind— cabins, barns, shanties— tells their story. Our story.
But what happens to American history if these fragile structures disappear?
A few Southern West Virginia companies are making sure that doesn’t happen. Whether recycling pioneer cabins or commissioning salvaged pieces, they’re preserving our past, one beam at a time.
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John Petretich, owner of Virgin Timber in Oak Hill, is awed and humbled by wood— the older, the better.
There’s a mysterious beauty all its own: durable and tough, but lined with delicate whorls and ripples. It’s like looking into a tree’s soul.
“West Virginia’s virgin timber has been gone since the 1920s,” he said. “Wood is a renewable resource, but timber like that will never be harvested again.”
He’s talking about the mammoth trees that used to pepper our mountains. In antique photos, West Virginia loggers casually pose by 200-foot giants. All that growth, coupled with wide girths, meant massive oaks, chestnuts and other hardwoods.
“When surrounded with all that history, sometimes you can really feel what it would have been like to live here 100 years ago.”
John remembers the moment he first became smitten.
“10 years ago, my wife and I moved into our current house,” he said. “It’s a nice place now, but at the time, it needed a ton of work.”
John recalls flipping through newspapers and scouring ads for construction material. As it turned out, a man in Mullins had just torn down his 1913 house and wanted to sell the wood.
Intrigued, John visited the property.
“I was blown away at the quantity and quality of the wood in those stacks of lumber,” he said. “The character of the wood grain was different from what I had ever seen before. I came to realize that these boards were cut from virgin timber— massive trees that could have been 100s of years old.”
Among other things, John took home the thickest 2x4s and widest rough-cut planks he had ever seen. He also noticed something else: old-fashioned saw marks and nail holes. Their character set his imagination afire.
“I incorporated that wood into all sorts of beautiful projects at my place,” John said. “I never looked at old, dilapidated houses that same way again.”
That initial discovery paved the way towards Virgin Timber. Forever impressed by antique wood, John takes particular pleasure in preserving Appalachian artifacts from the dump— a sorrowful fate for many frontier homes.
“It’s exciting to ponder the artistic possibilities in random cool pieces of wood as they come off of the structure,” John said. “ ‘These would make good table legs,’ or, ‘Wow! Check out the grain on this board!’ ”
Sometimes, Virgin Timber comes across antique belongings: old newspapers, magazines, glass mason jars, bricks, wavy glass windows and more.
“When surrounded with all that history, sometimes you can really feel what it would have been like to live here 100 years ago,” John said.
It’s just like a treasure hunt, with that tingling sense of the unexpected. But there’s another fulfilling aspect to Virgin Timber’s work: salvage. John said most dilapidated houses are fodder for heavy machinery. Beating the wrecking ball is his moment of triumph.
“At that point, you take something that was refuse or waste and turn it into something that has real value and potential,” John said.
And Virgin Timber does a marvellous job raising Appalachian history from the dead. Chestnut, cherry, hemlock, maple, oak— all get a second lease on life. Even better, John and his team reincarnate each piece into a glowing example of craftsmanship. Run your finger along any piece of his furniture. Trapped beneath the glassy finish are grainy eddies, currents and ripples.
What do they create? Just about anything: sturdy dining tables, benches, counters, cabinets. Virgin Timber excels at made-to-order pieces, too.
“Floors get replaced, cabinets get replaced as tastes change… even houses have a lifespan. A well-made table, on the other hand, has the potential to remain useful indefinitely.”
“We have also been experimenting with building solid wood cabinets entirely out of recycled wood— no plywood,” he said. “That’s exciting!”
But, he has a weakness for reclaimed wood farm tables.
“I like the idea that long after I’m gone, these tables will continue to be used and enjoyed as people share meals and conversation,” he said. “Floors get replaced, cabinets get replaced as tastes change… even houses have a lifespan. A well-made table, on the other hand, has the potential to remain useful indefinitely.”
Most of us have grown accustomed to stuff that ages rapidly after a year or 2. We’re used to chucking out cheap goods and replacing them. Companies like Virgin Timber, though, respect the environment and your wallet. No wonder John’s business attracts so many customers.
“Our clients recognize the value in buying furniture that is built to last,” he said. “Plus, many of them like the environmental aspect of having furnishings built with recycled materials.”
There’s also something appealing about owning a piece of American history. You can look at your table or mantlepiece and know it once served a pioneer family. Mass-produced furniture, on the other hand, lacks that romantic touch.
“Our source materials are authentic, unique and interesting, and we use them to create beautiful furnishings customized to the tastes and needs of our clients,” said John. “Who wouldn’t want some of that?”
Wild Rock, the state’s first sustainable community, prizes historic wood. Virgin Timber constructed a queen-sized swing bed for Wild Rock’s luxury treehouse. Just seeing that creamy wood frame, peacefully swaying above the forest… it’s hard to imagine how it might have ended up in a landfill.
That’s not the only reconditioned feature. Mark Bowe, owner of Antique Cabins and Barns and producer of “Barnwood Builders,” just completed Wild Rock’s newest luxury retreat: Peregrine Pavilion. The airy structure, which blends into the Gorge’s craggy backdrop, is made of reclaimed barnwood and fence boards.
“The roof is even made of self-rusting Cortens Steel, similar to what you find on the New River Bridge,” said Carl Frischkorn, Wild Rock’s managing director.
When companies like Wild Rock commission recycled furniture, they echo Virgin Timber’s business philosophy.
“There will come a day when all of those kinds of houses are gone,” John said. “I like to think that we play a part in preserving history by recycling some of these houses into beautiful and useful things that will hopefully be enjoyed for many years to come.”
Other salvage companies in Southern West Virginia echo his beliefs. Vintage Log and Lumber in Alderson rescues antique homes and barns, but with an added specialty: entire disassembly.
Once the company finds a neglected barn or mill, they number each piece and move everything to their warehouse. After that, the building waits for someone to restore it into a B&B or rustic retreat. Choose from 18th-century homes, graceful carriage houses, hand-hewn cabins and even mill machinery.
Vintage Log also crafts grand stone mantels, hand-carved stone animal troughs and lofty archways— artistic touches you can’t find elsewhere.
Renick Millworks in Renick decorates homes with antique floors and timbers. Chestnut, aged American oak, heart pine and granary oak beams— each has a distinct patina and character. They can warm up your home with countertops, moulding, stair treads and paneling, too.
The beauty of antique wood is that it adapts to any style. And because they’re recycled, vintage planks make your house environmentally friendly, too. Now that’s a happy ending!
piece by Katie Lindsey