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Story from

The Post Star

April 3, 2007

Wood with character
Cambridge man salvages boards, beams from barns that have seen better days

By SARAH SUTTON
ssutton@poststar.com
Published: Thursday, April 05, 2007

CAMBRIDGE -- They line the fields in various states of disrepair -- roofs sagging, sides rotting, fragile in their old age.

Some are too worn to salvage, others too expensive to maintain. Many, it seems, are hanging by a few rusty nails, waiting for a gust of wind or fallen branch to deliver the final blow.

But when an old barn falls, the life of its more than 150-year-old wooden parts is far from over.

For more than 20 years, Frank Pratt has been there when barns come down, salvaging what he can from the resulting pile of cast-aside wood.

The few boards and beams in good condition might be used to lengthen the life of a more fortunate barn, one that needs just a little patching up. But some of the wood he saves undertakes another journey altogether to become the floorboards of multi-million-dollar homes.

"Barns to me are like a crop," Pratt explained one sunny afternoon at his Cambridge workshop, his blue jeans coated with sawdust. On his hilly property, he has built two barns and renovated his house -- which was crumbling when he bought it -- with wood recycled from area barns. "When they take down a big one, there's a big pile, and only a few pieces to salvage."

Pratt has been in the recycling business so long that he receives the first call when a barn is slated for demolition. He travels throughout New York, Vermont and the Amish Country of Pennsylvania to retrieve the 19th-century wood.

On most warm days, though, Pratt spends time in his workshop, preparing the boards and beams for the contractors who purchase them. He doesn't make too many changes -- just washes them clean, pulls out the nails, and smooths them down with a planer.

Pratt is not sentimental about his work.

He likes the feel of the old boards beneath his hands. He likes the solitude of working alone in his yard with piles of weather-worn wood.

But to him, recycling wood is just a job, one he prefers to the contracting work -- and his stint as a dairy farmer -- that he did in his younger days.

"It just fits," he says with a shrug, revealing his recently gap-toothed grin. He knocked out his two front teeth when he fell from a ladder last year and is still waiting on the replacements.

Perhaps the best part of his job these days is that antique wood is becoming increasingly popular among new-home buyers, and as a result, more profitable for him.

"Nature and time and weather has made the wood what it is, and you can't replicate any of that," explained Erich Gutbier of Red Mountain Construction Co. when he stopped by to see Pratt and pick up some beams for use in a fireplace. "Nail holes, knots, splits, cracks -- even the color you can't reproduce."

Gutbier said he often constructs multi-million-dollar homes for his clients, and more and more of them are requesting antique wood, even though it's more expensive in many cases than newer wood products.

"In building, there are few things you can get away with putting in a million-dollar house that has holes in it, nails in it, and people's scratched initials," he said, before following Pratt into one of his barns to select the best pieces of lumber for his project.

Most people who buy recycled lumber fall into one of three categories.

There are the environmentally conscious, those wishing to build "green." There are those with old barns or houses on their property who need wood for restoration purposes. But most often, people seek out antique lumber to add a rustic feel to their homes with wood that has a history.

Sometimes that history is apparent, as was the case with a soon-to-be floorboard marked with the print of a horseshoe. And sometimes it is more subtle, like the board worn smooth from years of bearing the weight of piles of wheat.

Every once in a while, Pratt finds a lead bullet buried in a board.

"There's no bullet hole in there, and you know it was in the tree before it got sawed out," he said. "You mark it and tag it and the people can leave it right there and they can create their own story about who got shot and missed, or in what war, and so on."

Though the wood gets a second life in Pratt's workshop, there are many who would prefer the 19th-century barns stay in their original form. Yet the cost of upkeep prevents most people from restoring the barns on their properties -- home repairs usually come first.

Michael Tomlan, associate director of Cornell's graduate school program in historic preservation planning and a member of the New York State Barn Coalition, said that for the average person, wooden barns have outlived their usefulness and no longer serve a function for most homeowners. Additionally, most modern farms use technology that has advanced past the structures' traditional uses.

"When you look at it, we are a suburban nation," Tomlan said. "The majority of us get fruits and vegetables from a grocery store."

In the past, barn preservation grants have been available through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, but those are only awarded to a small group of distinctive historical barns, and most of them are match grants. Still, Tomlan receives calls at least three times a day from people seeking to make preserving their barns financially feasible.

"There are so many barns, but the reality is, they're dropping like flies," he said.

The barns of the region were built by hand, most of them before the Civil War, from lumber chopped from local forests. The wood was dragged from the sawmill, often by sleigh during the winter, as wood could travel faster over the snow-covered ground than by ox cart.

Much of the wood Pratt works with has been used two or three times before it reaches his hands, and comes from barns so worn that preservation would be financially impossible for most, he said.

"Everything has a life span," he said, standing among the piles of wood that, with any luck, will see another century. "Most of these barns are reaching the end of theirs."

© NATHAN PALLACE - Old barn beams salvaged by Frank Pratt sit in front of his Cambridge workshop and storage area on Wednesday afternoon.
© NATHAN PALLACE - Frank Pratt looks over a board he has run through a wood planer to strip it of its outermost weathered layer. Much of the wood that Pratt salvages and recycles comes from barns more than 100 years old.
© NATHAN PALLACE - Frank Pratt uses a claw hammer and pry bar to remove old nails and other metal objects from a piece of the wood he has salvaged from old barns all over the Northeast. Taking out these objects is part of the recycling process he does before putting the wood back on the market for resale to clients who want to make their homes look more rustic.