Monday, September 26, 2022

Furniture That Talks

This kitchen island is from heart pine and white oak harvested from Stonewall Mill and Tupelo Compress.
This kitchen island is from heart pine and white oak harvested from Stonewall Mill and Tupelo Compress.

Tupelo furniture maker transforms antique wood into singular works of art and craftsmanship, and each piece tells a story

A dilapidated old barn or long-abandoned cotton mill may be an eyesore to some folks, but to Shannon, Misissippi furniture maker Butch Cook, it’s a potential treasure trove—a rich and varied source of both antique wood form him to incorporate into handcrafted furniture as well as a wellspring of timeless stories of a bygone era, tales of hardworking men who toiled with hammers, ropes, and mules to build a nation with their bare hands.

Cook, founder of Vintage Flooring & Furniture in Tupelo loves those old stories nearly as much as he appreciates the reclaimed wood—gorgeously aged and imbued with history—that he and his team reshape into exquisitely fashioned, one-of-a-kind tables, bed frames, wardrobes, desks, night stands, and custom-made flooring. When he gets ready to dismantle an old barn or factory and harvest its wood, Cook makes sure to record the history of the building, too, so that every new piece of furniture that comes out of it has a story—and a mystique—of its own.

Cook and his team have torn down old buildings around the United States, including in Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, and Michigan. “Taking a building down is much like building it, only you do it backwards,” Cook says. “Whatever was done last, we do first. A lot of TLC goes into handling the wood, making sure no one is hurt and the wood does not get damaged.”

The lumber, beams, panels, bricks, and pavers are hauled back to the company’s facility in Tupelo, where state-of-the-art machines scan, detect, and remove all nails, bolts, and other pieces of metal. Once the material has been made safe for saws and planers, the wood gets stored in a warehouse until it’s needed for one of Vintage Flooring & Furniture’s many artisan projects.

Patience and Vision

With a true artist’s mindset, Cook steers clear of the cookie-cutter approach to furniture making and design, preferring to let the material guide his hand. “Working with this old wood requires patience and vision,” he notes. “Most of the designs of the furniture are created by the wood itself. Sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own. The character of the aged wood gives each board a beauty of its own, too. There’s a world of difference between one finished piece and another. It’s neat to know that you own the only one like it in the world.”

This wardrobe is made from white oak and heart pine harvested from Tupelo Compress and Sweetwater Mill.
This wardrobe is made from white oak and heart pine harvested from Tupelo Compress and Sweetwater Mill.

Much of the furniture’s distinctive character is derived from the antiquity of the original trees—including Tupelo gum, southern yellow pine, sycamore, walnut, cherry, and other species of oak—that provided the wood.

“We are all about showing off the color, or patina, that can only be created by a century of aging. In fact, most of our lumber is from old-growth forest that had never been cut over,” Cook said. “There’s nothing here that grew fast. Most of our heart pine came from trees that were saplings in the forest 450 years ago. The growth rings are often so tight, you can’t count them. This means the wood is harder and more durable than the lumber from today’s forest farms.”

Cook tore down his first barn back in 2000 in a tiny North Mississippi hamlet called Jesus Name. All the owner wanted in return, Cook recalls, was enough space to plant his collard greens. “I felt that was fair for me but not for the future collard farmer, so I offered him $200 to boot,” he adds. “After about five weeks of scorching-hot weather, I got the old fellow to sign off on our completion. As I was walking back to my truck, he yelled, ‘Hey, feller, come ‘round about fall and get you a mess of them collards. They’ll do fine in that manure.’ Somehow, though, I just never got around to taking him up on the offer.”

History in the Wood

Since then, Cook and his team have dismantled log cabins and barn houses dating back to the 1830s. He can tell you a funny or touching story about most of them, including a yarn about an old log cabin in Red Banks, Mississippi, that had once been invaded by Union troops during the Civil War. The tale involves an elderly couple, some chickens, a gold watch, and an ornery mule named Jumper. Another building, an Amish-built barn constructed in central Michigan around 1900, sparks a personal story about cow manure in a high hay loft and the possibility of seven-foot tall cows—that could fly.

This flooring is southern yellow pine, circa 1900.
This flooring is southern yellow pine, circa 1900.

Other buildings that have furnished antique wood for Cook and his craftsmen include a stately manse in Houston, Mississippi, built by Joel Pinson, who once engaged the legendary Sam Houston in a duel over a pretty girl; the Gulf Ordinance Plant, a huge munitions factory in Prairie, Mississippi, that helped the Allies win WWII; and a cotton mill in Florence, Alabama, that once employed more than 400 people, mostly women and children, many of whom were inordinately fond of skinny-dipping.

Aside from the entertaining stories, Cook takes pride in the fact that his line of work is ecologically sound. “Today, everyone’s concerned with preserving our forests, recycling and minimizing the usage of natural resources that are threatened with extinction,” he says. “Terms like ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ have become household words. We are all of these and more. Every time we produce a gorgeous piece of furniture, we have saved a tree. That’s why we say, ‘Trees love what we do.’”

So do his customers. Not only is every individual piece a singular work of art and craftsmanship, it’s also constructed with future generations in mind.

“We build our furniture to last forever,” Cook says. “There is a market out there that’s tired of shoddy imports which have a nice outward appearance but, on the inside, it’s nothing more than filler boards with cosmetic makeovers to make the customer think they’re getting a bargain.”

With its staff of seven highly skilled craftsmen and an inventory of between two million and three million feet of reclaimed lumber, Vintage Flooring & Furniture builds its furniture using a special bolt system and mortise-and-tenon joinery that ensures long-lasting quality and durability along with a top-secret seven-coat finishing process that reflects elegant taste.

“Our furniture is not a cheap reproduction of some knock-off, and our customers appreciate that,” Cook says. “You’ll find our furniture in everything from Jim Walter homes to $45 million mansions from coast to coast. If you want furniture that will last forever and increase in value and beauty with age, something rare, unique and solid through and through, come see us.”

Meanwhile, Cook relishes the opportunity to continue creating heirloom furniture that’s as timeless as the human spirit itself. “It has truly been a satisfying experience,” he says, “finding this old lumber, rescuing it from deterioration, rot and destruction, and turning it into something awesomely beautiful and seeing other folks enjoy something that they will be able to keep for generations.”

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