Reclaiming timbers from historic barns, factories, and municipal buildings from Americas industrial past is not for the faint of heart. It takes an intrepid soul with the drive of an explorer, the knowledge of an architect, and the savvy of a CEO to bring high quality reclaimed wood into our shop and eventually onto your floors and walls.
Reclaimed wood always has a story to tell about where it came from and its original use, but the often-untold story is how it was acquired by the Pioneer Millworks team. We caught up with Michele Caryl our long time Acquisitions Manager to talk about her role in the reclaiming process and hear just a few of her favorite stories from the road.
Q. How did you get started with the acquisition of reclaimed wood for Pioneer Millworks?
A. I owned a design/build construction company with my first husband and around 1996 the housing industry in the Western New York area completely tanked. I kept running our business for a time while my husband took a job with another construction company, but eventually the contracts stopping coming in and we had to move on.
Pioneer Millworks was just starting to expand and I was offered a job working in the burgeoning Reclaimed Wood division. I was fascinated by what Pioneer Millworks was doing in the industry, which was incredibly unique at the time, so I took the job. Early on I was a production manager with the company which evolved into an acquisitions role as demand for reclaimed materials started to rapidly grow in the building industry.
My first foray into the field to look at a building was to Chicago where we bought all the wood from an old meat packing plant. That’s how it all got started for me. On that trip our founder took me through the building and showed me what sort of things to look at from a reclaimed perspective. My professional background in construction & architectural design gave me the knowledge to understand the structural components and their placement in the factory making it easier for me to get an accurate count on the wood components we wanted to buy. It was like using my background in reverse, now I had to look at how to carefully deconstruct these old buildings rather than to construct new ones.
Q. Around the mill your travels are legendary, as well as the amount of your time and skill it takes to source our reclaimed wood, what are some of the more memorable trips into the field you have taken?
A. I must preface these stories by saying as a woman working in this industry, I have been asked many times if I was ever afraid to go into these old buildings. In most cases I was not afraid to go into them, even though I was often alone. Typically, my fears were more about getting hurt and no one finding me for a long time if I dropped my phone, but I am always careful to not walk in questionable/rotted areas of the floor and to stay over the timbers supporting the floor – particularly in barns.
I remember visiting an old pharmaceutical factory in New Jersey which had really nice Heart Pine and Douglas fir in it that we ended up buying in the winter of 2006.Walking through the building on my own, I noticed it was filled with debris and garbage, as if the company had abandoned it overnight and just left everything behind. Because it was a pharmaceutical company there were things like old scales, test tubes, and beakers everywhere. As I made my way through the building floor by floor measuring timbers eventually, I ended up on the third floor which was filled entirely with animal cages, which I assumed were used for testing when the factory was operational. The floor still smelled strongly of animals and looked like a scene from an apocalyptic movie, which made me feel uneasy. This was not a factory with a happy story to tell other than that it was shut down. I finished my walk-through somewhat quickly after seeing the cages and made my way down to the first floor. Near the exit on the first floor I heard a strange noise to the left of me and when I looked over there was a large pile of what looked like burlap bags, which made me pause, and then I noticed that the bags were in fact moving, as I got a little closer I realized there was a homeless man under the pile who had gotten into the building and was sleeping underneath the pile for warmth, so I got out of there real fast after that.
On another trip I went to look at the Mersman Furniture Factory in Ohio back in 2007. The demolition partners on that project had an earlier relationship with Pioneer Millworks, and I had met with them a few times prior. I was touring the building with them, taking measurements and samples of wood, and eventually we came to a set of stairs leading down to the basement and one of the guys suggested I go down there to take a look at “some really big timbers in the basement”, so I go down the stairs to take a look and he shines a flashlight on a female head that was floating in the water that covered the basement floor. It turned out to be a manikin head that they guys had planted there as a prank specifically to scare me. I think I gasped but I knew exactly what it was as soon as I saw it. They still thought it was funny and got a big kick out of it, it was a good-natured kind of gag.
There was also a trip to Alabama in 2008 that was memorable for me. I was going to meet with a demolition company that was new to us at the time because they had a building with some large Douglas fir timbers in it that they were taking down. When I set up the trip, they were rather insistent that I meet them at the site of the demolition in a rural area at around 3pm because afterwards the owners of the company wanted me to have dinner with them in their home, adding that if I wanted to stay the night they had a cabin on their property they would put me up in so I didn’t need to find a hotel. At this point I had never met these people and I was kind of hesitant to do it, saying that I was used to these kinds of trips and staying in hotels, but they were kind of adamant about it, so I conceded to saying in their cabin.
I met with the project manager at the demo site in the afternoon as discussed with my rental vehicle, and after taking a look at the fir timbers the gentleman I met with suggested that I leave my car there and ride with him up to the cabin and that he would bring me back down to the site in the morning on his way back down to work, which I hesitantly agreed to thinking these meetings are very much about the relationships we create with the demo guys. I got in his truck, and we started driving down a back road into the mountains, and he turns to me and says, “I bet I know what you’re thinking about… Deliverance. You’ve seen the movie Deliverance, right? Here I am, a stranger in rural Alabama taking you up to a cabin in the woods.” Not wanting to offend him I said it had never crossed my mind, but of course it had, I mean what was I thinking getting myself into a situation like this?
We both laughed, which set the whole thing at ease because he basically confirmed that he knew I was thinking this was kind of a crazy thing to be doing under the circumstances. Eventually we get to the “cabin in the woods” that I was told I was going to be staying in, and we pull up to this late 1800s Victorian house that was sitting in front of a large pond with fountains behind it and woods to either side set far back from the main road. The entire house inside and out (including the roof shingles) was made of this beautiful old original Heart Pine. An absolutely gorgeous house, completely restored to its original condition with granite counter tops added and wrap around decks.
Apparently the “cabin” had been in the owner of the demolition company’s family for generations, and they now lived in a newer house nearby. I ended up having dinner with them in the gardens of their home (about the equivalent of three city blocks away into the woods) where I discovered beautiful landscaping tended by their professional gardener, Tito’s Handmade vodka, and an amazing dinner prepared by their in-house chef. They even had an antique train caboose on the property that was turned into a kind of “party train car” with a bar and lounge in it, overall, it was an impressive property in a very rural area. The least I can say is it was not at all what I expected when I first got into the truck at the demolition site, and we did make a deal the next day to buy all the fir timbers from the demo project.
Q. After so many adventures sourcing reclaimed wood for Pioneer Millworks over the years, what keeps you going and what do you enjoy most about what we do?
A. I have to say I have met some rude people in this business, but they are few and far between. Most of the people I have encountered on the road looking at old buildings to reclaim wood from are really, genuinely nice folks who welcome you in. It’s kind of good to keep those relationships going, because a lot of these people we still buy wood from years later.
What keeps me going beyond just the unique adventures and people I have met along the way is that I think it’s very important to save these timbers and reuse them, so they don’t just end up in a landfill somewhere, that’s the biggest part of it for me. There are a lot of advantages in using reclaimed wood; it has a much richer color and patina than fresh sawn wood and it has aged in unique ways – the nail, bolt, and peg holes all have a story to tell about us saving the history of these buildings. At some point we are going to run out of these old buildings with heritage wood in them, and if they are going to come down because the building itself cannot be reused, we should at least try to save the wood in these old structures to carry on the legacy of the trees that went into them.
This job is meaningful to me for multiple reasons. I have had a lot of rewarding times doing this work and done a lot of things I have felt good about, but there have also been a lot of challenges. Specifically, the past few years with the pandemic have been challenging, but I also kind of thrive on that too. If my life was just normal and steady, I would be kind of bored with that. I like the challenges, the adventures, always being busy, always different, I really enjoy it all.
Michele is a veteran of the days when Pioneer Millworks was a tiny operation in Shortsville NY. Often out of the office digging through a ramshackle building talking the value of timbers with partners and clients, Michele's most happy spending her time with her husband, two beautiful daughters, her guitar riffing son Evan, and her grandchildren.