In disassembling and taking down dozens of old barns and other historic buildings over the past three years, Cabool resident Joe Neal has seen plenty of interesting and unusual things.
But during one of his most recent projects, the founder of “The Barn Savers” business came across something wonderfully unexpected. While taking apart a 16-foot by 16-foot outbuilding on a property adjacent to Kash Creek in the Old Success area of Texas County, Neal discovered it was actually a cabin built in the early 1870s. Better yet, when he and his crew removed the one-inch thick outer planks (or “cladding”), dozens of well preserved hand-hewn white oak logs were revealed.
“I didn’t even know this was a cabin until we started pulling boards,” Neal said. “The overall condition of the logs is pretty amazing; you have to realize that this cabin is 150 years old. And these were old growth oaks they use, so we’re talking about lumber that’s about 300 years old.”
Since beginning his business in 2016, Neal has overseen the razing of about 150 old buildings, including 75 barns.
“We’ve been busy,” he said. “We do about a barn a week on average.”
When Neal razes a structure, the worthwhile wood is sold to a variety of clients in multiple states, including a successful local barnwood repurposing specialist. But due to strong connections with Buckeye Barn Salvage and owner Jody Lykins, most of the material ends up in Ohio.
“He loves Missouri barns,” Neal said, “and the fact we get a lot of good oak and walnut here, and not a lot of soft wood.”
The lovely white oak logs from the recent project will be used in construction of an office next to a home in Mansfield, a town of about 46,000 people located between Cleveland and Columbus.
“It will be air conditioned, and we’re even going to put a fireplace in it,” Neal said.
The logs used to build the cabin were obviously hand-hewn due to markings on them consistent with those caused by a broadaxe. Their ends were joined using the half dovetail technique.
“What they did was take a round log and split it,” Neal said, “and then there would be bark on two sides and it was hewn flat on the other two sides. They would fill the space between the logs with mud, clay, grass, straw or anything else they could use.
“These people were dedicated; I can’t imagine putting something like this together. It took several people and several big animals to get these logs. And considering the circumstances, the work they did was amazing.”
Neal said the cabin’s logs were preserved because white oak is resistant to bugs, and the cladding helped prevent water damage.
“We don’t get to do a lot of cabins because they don’t survive,” he said. “The good thinner stuff from a job like this ends up begin wall covering or small furniture and the thicker stuff often becomes flooring.”
About two years ago, The Barn Savers took down the old Charles Neal cabin in Texas County that was purchased by a woman in the Chicago area who was creating an Old West town. Neal didn’t do the rebuild on that one, but will this time. Prior to moving the logs, he’ll meticulously label and number each piece.
“Then I’ll take them to Ohio and be doing the whole job, not just the raw structure,” Neal said. “I’ll do the finish work, chinking and everything else. When it’s all said and done, this will be a fully-functioning place that should live on for another 100 years or more.”
More than one current TV program deals with the subject of repurposing entire historic structures. Neal said those shows – and what he does – are part of a trend.
“I think a lot of people are starting to pay attention to the past more, and they’re focusing on bringing things back to their roots,” he said. “And it’s a ‘green’ thing; you’re not going to Lowe’s and buying lumber, you’re recycling. And it’s not just the wood, we’re repurposing the tin and doing things with the hay trollies and grain bins, like making light fixtures.
“We don’t look at things as they were intended 150 years ago, we look at them and think, ‘how can I make this practical in today’s world?’ In doing so, we get to save as much as possible.”
While he makes his living through The Barn Savers, Neal sincerely enjoys having a role in preserving a bit of history.
“To me, it’s an incredible feeling to put my hands on something that somebody 150 years ago literally took from a log and made something nice,” he said. “And they did it by hand; these weren’t just weekend projects and they have stood the test of time.”
Neal’s slogan is “saving history, one log at a time.” The recent cabin project is a prime example.
“This was an opportunity to not just demolish and repurpose, but to actually save something historic,” Neal said. “That’s important to me.”
MORE ABOUT THE BARN SAVERS
More information about The Barn Savers is available on the company’s Facebook page. Joe Neal can be reached by phone at 417-554-1659 or by email at email@example.com.