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The Grain of History: Firm Sells Quality Salvaged Wood

Mountain Lumber stocks old-growth and other rare planks taken from vintage buildings.

May 12, 2003|Chris Kahn | Associated Press

RUCKERSVILLE, Va. — Willie Drake's lumberyard could be a museum: The massive timbers come from forests that no longer exist.

Stacked two stories high are giant beams of American chestnut, a tree that grew in abundance a century ago in Appalachia before a lethal fungus made it scarce.

There are rows of 400-year-old longleaf pine unseen in today's forests and strips of rare English brown oak from antique barrels, scented from years of contact with cider and beer.

Drake has spent a lifetime looking for this wood, prying much of it from forgotten warehouses and abandoned buildings.

His company, Mountain Lumber, founded in the hills of Virginia 100 miles southwest of Washington, is one of about 20 firms that find old wood and sell it to customers looking for high-quality, hard-to-find lumber.

"When I started 30 years ago, all of this was going to the landfill," Drake said, waving his hand toward his company's six acres of reclaimed timber.

All around his lumberyard, workers hover over the old boards, rubbing them with metal detectors in search of rusted nails, buffing off grime and scraping the edges with a mechanical saw to make them straight again.

The older planks, known as old-growth timber, are swirled with tightly packed growth rings. Each board is unique, and placed side by side, their different colors give floors a checkerboard pattern.

Drake sells the boards for $5 to $20 a square foot, several times the price of new wood paneling.

"I don't think we'll see that kind of wood again in the forest. The conditions that grew those trees no longer exist," said Bill Ginn, the director of forest conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental organization.

The business of reusing old wood beams has grown since the 1970s as high-end home builders started looking for wood that was denser and of higher quality, Drake said.

Drake started his business in 1974. Even then, people were looking for rare wood. He began his company by driving around the Virginia countryside, chasing rumors of sturdy old barns and log cabins.

Mountain Lumber now deals with salvage from large factory warehouses across the country, such as a former Studebaker building built in 1922 in South Bend, Ind., and Boston's Westerbeke Fishing Gear Co. building, opened in 1935. The massive warehouse beams came from old-growth pine trees that are rare today.

Drake also sells English brown oak from hard cider vats in Britain and the Guinness brewery in Dublin. The vats gave the wood a darkened tint, and milling the cider boards gives off a strong scent of apples.

Drake completes 90 to 110 sales a month for a total of $5 million to $6 million a year. His lumber decorates parts of George Washington's historic estate at Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and the American Institute of Architects building in Washington.

"It's great that my company helps the environment," Drake said. "But I'm doing this because it's good business, because it makes money."

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