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The Barnstormer

A country boy becomes the barn king of the Midwest

By Laurie Pike

mikewenglerBarns were Mike Wengler’s playgrounds. As a kid in the 1970s he’d swing from ropes in his family’s barn to drop down into sweet-smelling hay below. As a teenager, in the ‘80s, he worked in barns, earning $5 an hour baling hay for farmers in and around his native Oxford, Ohio. He has always loved the old wood structures, but never imagined that they would become a career for him. It was a circuitous route; first a side project, then, boosted by the reclaimed-wood design trend, the centerpiece in his portfolio of property-oriented businesses.

“How many tornadoes and blizzards has this thing been through?” Wengler asks, motioning to a 2,000-square-foot beech and poplar barn on the edge of Mt. Airy. A handful of workers trim planks on saws and mount them to the sides of the structure’s skeleton. Irregular notches and other marks made by axes, adzes and chisels are still visible on each beam of the barn, which was originally constructed in the mid-1800s. “Without power tools!” he marvels.

Wengler had found the barn last winter in Liberty, Ind., and meticulously dissembled and transported it to this small dairy farm less than 10 miles from downtown Cincinnati. The clients had initially considered a new building for their seven cows, but decided that an old barn would look more fitting next to their century-old house amid hills gently rolling down to a pond.

The Mt. Airy farmers didn’t spend the money—$150,000, which included stubbed-in electricity, a new roof and a new concrete foundation with drainage—just because old wood is trendy right now. Barns are classic. But barn wood, and reclaimed lumber in general, is finding its way into myriad new uses, in settings both rural and urban. It’s the wall treatment in a restaurant, the merchandise table in a boutique, the bench in a nail salon. Wengler’s company Timber Frame Reclaim, which sells barn lumber in addition to moving whole barns, has taken off thanks to this recent rage.

“A lot of modern building materials can be kind of sterile, but reclaimed wood has inherent character from its history,” says Joe Kinzelman, owner of E13 Workshop, which designs and constructs furniture and interiors. E13 used Douglas fir and heart pine beams and siding sourced from Timber Frame to make tables, benches, wall cladding and shelving for Rhinegeist Brewery. The stunning revamp of Rhinegeist’s historic Over-the-Rhine bottling plant into a taproom, event spaces and a rooftop bar is a case study in old materials helping create cutting-edge environments.

Having dismantled more than 100 old structures in his 10 years in this specialized nook of the construction business has made Wengler the barn king of the Midwest. Clients in Vermont and North Carolina have counted on him to find and move the kind of spaces that literally bring people together.

Max Brabson, a banking industry retiree, hired Timber Frame Reclaim to move a barn from Greenville, Ohio (northeast of Dayton) to Otto, N.C. “There used to be a really cool old barn on the property, but over time it fell down,” says Brabson, whose family homesteaded the land in the 1800s. “It had been my desire to put a historic barn back on it.”

Wengler and an architect colleague decreased the size of the original barn, shortening the length but not the width. Brabson was delighted to hold his annual family reunion in the barn last summer. He showed off to the three-dozen relatives an old ladder found in the barn whose round rungs had been worn flat from decades of use—not exactly the kind of memories you’d generate in a place made of sheetrock and stucco.

Mike Wengler didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do as an adult. In college he ricocheted between studying business, welding, landscaping and scuba diving. He wound up cutting grass for a living. But he did develop a nose for business. He grew a lawn-care business and then started another company for excavating sites and constructing commercial buildings, such as storage units.

That second business led, unexpectedly, to the barn world. In 2006, an Oxford Township client hired Wengler to take down a barn that had become a teen hangout. The local authorities worried about safety, since the building had been more or less abandoned. Still, “It was in pretty good shape,” says Wengler, who recognized immediately that it was a Yankee-style swing-beam barn—elevated from the ground with a crawl space underneath, and wide-open enough that one could swing horses around inside it rather than back them in.

Wengler’s business owned the equipment needed to take the thing down, but he understood the value of the lumber, so he kept it. His team had the expertise to not only carefully dissemble a 200-year-old building, but also, he realized, to meticulously put it back up. It helped that he owns a sawmill.

What Wengler didn’t know a decade ago was that the design world was, at the time, tiring of the over-the-top Hollywood Regency motif, and was soul searching. It hungered for something authentic yet sophisticated. Vintage but different from the overplayed mid-century modern. Antique but not overwrought. Barn wood fit the bill, and on top of all that, it was eco-conscious.

It then became the backdrop to the lumbersexual trend in fashion. When men in long beards and plaid shirts sat down to drink a craft beer, where better than upon a reclaimed-wood stool? The neutral colors and quiet texture of barn wood made it a seamless cohabitant with other decor themes, so the look was easily incorporated into a variety of settings, which has in turn given longevity to the trend.

“It’s an easy way to create something a little new and fresh in a room,” says Correna Starbuck, a stylist based in Columbus. “The repurposed nature of the material makes people feel good about using it.”

Wengler stocks slabs as small as 4’ x 5’ and beams as long as 30 feet. He will sell a single oak mantle for $600-$1,100 or thousands of square feet of weathered lumber, for commercial uses such as a restaurant wall or flooring, for six figures. Beech is the most common wood used in barns in this region, so that’s what he’s got in spades, while oak constitutes 10-15 percent of his stock. In smaller amounts he stores poplar, chestnut, maple, sycamore and walnut.

Wengler’s experise as the barn whisperer means that he gets asked to look at a lot of old buildings—of which there are fewer and fewer. Many people assume that losing the kind of huge beams that you can’t source at Home Depot means the end of their beloved family barn. “It’s ironic,” Wengler says by phone, getting ready to drive to Florida to re-stock an architectural salvage yard. “The past couple of years I have convinced a lot of people to keep their barns in place.”