April 29, 2010 in City

Wood salvage team nails niche

By The Spokesman-Review
 

And now for the rest of the story.

Thirty-thousand board feet worth of story, to be exact. That’s the amount of wood that Spokane’s Bruce Johnson figures came out of dismantling the 100-year-old grain elevator I wrote about back in November 2008.

Ah, yes, I remember. The Leaning Tower of Presnell Road.

That’s what I dubbed the Adams County landmark for its crazy tilt that resulted from two failed attempts to yank it down for salvaging.

That listing grain elevator was a phenomenon that drew gawking pilgrims to the site 15 miles south of Ritzville.

This would be the ideal moment for me to utter something sarcastic about what passes for excitement in the Ritzville area. At least it would be if I hadn’t traveled 75 miles to get to the rustic edifice.

But I’m glad I saw the gravity-defying sight while it stood. I tell you what, that old gray elevator was more bent than the Spokane Police Guild.

About as useful, too. Since ceasing operation in the late 1950s, the structure had served as a giant drafty coop for itinerant birds and assorted varmints of the field.

No wonder owner Bob Walli wanted it “down and out.”

And this seems like the place to get back to Johnson. He called the other day to see if I’d like to know the grain elevator’s fate.

I told him absolutely. So I met Johnson in his East Sprague Avenue office Tuesday afternoon. The moment I walked into ReHistoric Wood Products I spotted a number of sample panels of richly grained wood on the walls.

Yes, Johnson affirmed, knowing what I was thinking. The wood came from that same tipsy elevator.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Unbeknownst to me, Johnson and longtime friend John Morrow had begun a wood reclamation enterprise not long before my trip to Adams County.

Johnson, 57, has quite a lumber pedigree. His parents operated a sawmill near Lewiston, he said. And most of Johnson’s adult life has been spent around wood, from logging to buying to building.

Johnson said he decided to go after the old-growth Douglas fir and Western larch that can be salvaged from barns, grain elevators and industrial buildings that were built before World War II.

Such wood commands a premium price due to quality and the natural patina that occurs from being aged by ever-changing elements.

Johnson read my column about the leaning tower and smelled an opportunity.

He called farmer Walli. He visited the site. A deal was struck and deconstruction eventually began.

Johnson outlined the 60-day process it took to render the elevator into a manageable form.

The walls were taken down, the boards separated. About a gazillion nails were removed, which must’ve been a tedious task.

Why so many nails?

Those carpenters of yore, Johnson explained, were actually paid according to the number of nails they used. With that incentive, you can begin to imagine how nail-ridden the ancient elevator was.

Once the de-nailing process was completed, Johnson said, the wood then had to be scanned with metal detectors to catch any nails that were missed.

Finally, the boards were stacked by size and stored.

Not all of the wood was salvageable, of course. Johnson estimated that 30 percent of the wood was so dried out that it would crumble into sawdust at the slightest pressure.

The usable lumber, however, is magnificent. (See for yourself at www.rehistoricwood.com.)

Most of the wood has already been transformed by Post Falls-based Aagesen Millworks into fine flooring and siding in locations such as a log home in Missoula, cabins in Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake, and the Flying Goat, a Spokane pub that will be opening soon at 3318 W. Northwest Blvd.

Down to a mere 20 percent of the once-leaning lumber, Johnson said he and Morrow are already on the prowl for more recycling opportunities.

Despite his extensive woodsy background, Johnson said he learned an important lesson from his first salvaged silo.

To explore the elevator, he said he wriggled his way into it only to find himself crawling through knee-deep piles of dried critter poo. Not only was this disgusting, but such animal excrement has been known to carry dread diseases.

“Pigeon, skunk, coyote …” said Johnson, laughing heartily. “I’ll never go into one of those things again without wearing a mask.”

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at dougc@spokesman.com.


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