Ozarkaeology 101: The reclaiming of timeless timber treasure from Ozarks barns
Threatened barns get new life as rustic treasure and more
By GEORGE FREEMAN
You won’t find Ozarkaeology in any dictionary, but you will find it on Facebook. You might even find it written in the ancient dust of a 700,000 board feet or so of rough lumber lining a warehouse that used to be the Springfield Stockyards.
A walk through the eye-level stacks of red and white oak, pine and poplar, cedar and cherry, hickory and walnut is a trip back to the 1800s. You can touch the axe marks and feel the wooden pegs in the hand-hewn timbers. What’s fine about this wood is its history and the story you wish it could tell.The wood comes from the barns that still dot a thousand fields and forests across the Ozarks, often more than a century old. Most of it was harvested right on the farms, harkening back to the time when the Ozarks was a leader in the production of timber for railroad ties, utility poles, pencil wood and even buttons made from mussels. Imagine the impact.
Beginning in the 60s, the farming and industry turned to metal barns. Their wood counterparts were often abandoned, and although a few still stand tall and stout, they often lean precariously from the effects of a hundred years of Ozarks ice storms, crushing wet snow and those blasts of straight wind that wipe out a town or a farm this time of year.
Lenny Clark looks at these barns and sees something different than most of us. He sees a wood floor or rustic furniture, or perhaps even kitchen cabinets. He might see custom doors or a fireplace mantle, a built-in entertainment center or veneer for garage doors on a home being remodeled.
Clark, a graduate of Kansas State University in architecture, supervises the reclaiming of barns before it’s too late. Steve and Jackie Owens, owners of the Joplin Stockyards, created Ozarkaeology with Clark as a stakeholder and hands-on manager. Some might lament that any barn should be reclaimed. After all, they are a part of the scenic Ozarks, just waiting to be photographed or placed on canvas by an artist. Once, the artist might even have used the barn as a pallet for a brand of tobacco.
Surely this is the next best thing for a barn that can’t be saved – to be painstakingly disassembled by workers who carefully pull them down nail by nail from a bucket truck. Once safely stored, every board foot is carefully scanned for nails. Round nails, square nails, wooden pegs are common.
Steve Cooper loves each and every one. The mill manager in Mount Vernon is also a master cabinet maker who knows wood grain as well as the rough surface of his calloused hands.
Eventually, these precious boards make their way to a high-tech planing mill and a multi-head molder in Mt. Vernon where they go through the laborious process that turns them into flooring. But first they are kiln dried for a precise moisture level – and to kill off any infestations of insects. From 40 to 50 percent of the wood is lost to dry or wet rot or insect damage.
It requires a combination of high technology and painstaking old-fashioned hard work. Eventually, the barn wood makes its way to the planing mill in Mount Vernon where it is fed into a sophisticated piece of 21st Century machinery.
Before that, however, a metal detector scans each piece for hidden nails. Workers sort every piece by hand in what almost seems like a museum of incredible treasure.
Maybe that’s the definition of Ozarkaeology, which really does beg for a well-turned phrase. Perhaps it might be something like “the magical process of reclaiming barn lumber and turning it into an art form you can walk on, or sit on, or just admire for hours in a relaxed way.”
Eventually, the wood will be shipped a far away as New York City. Mostly, it stays in the Midwest, and much of it remains in the Ozarks, as perhaps it should.
No one but the landowner may know that this wood was part of something so vital to the future of a nation.
And while to some it may seem sad to lose a barn, it is hard to imagine a kinder fate than one that allows the beauty to be preserved indefinitely.
From the square nail holes and rough saw marks to variations in color and kind come together , the result is timeless and priceless.
“Some of these barns are buried in the woods,” says Clark. “They really are kind of like artifacts that no one knows are there.”
Someone like Indiana Jones might appreciate that no one really knows how many aging barns there are these days. It seems like that few of them will be built of wood.