Jay Robertson, owner of Kentucky Wisewood | Photos by Andrew Dewson
Jay Robertson, owner of Kentucky Wisewood | Photos by Andrew Dewson

It’s hard to even come close to estimating the number of tobacco barns that dot the Kentucky countryside. All were once a crucial part of Kentucky family and agricultural life, but now many have fallen into disrepair – rotten, infested with bugs and dangerous. Modern tobacco companies don’t use old wooden barns, and relatively few families still grow their own acre or two of tobacco.

So what do people do with old tobacco barns on their property? Well, they can just wait and let nature take its course, allowing the rot to get to the point where gravity does the rest. Paying a company to remove the barns is an expensive but swifter and safer undertaking, even if they’re just using a bulldozer and taking what’s left to a landfill or a bonfire. A pretty tragic end either way. 

An alternative is to give Kentucky Wisewood a call, have them dismantle the barn, treat as much of the wood as is useable, and recycle it. They’ll tear it down for free and who knows what that barn could become — flooring, furniture, a bar… or even Larry Bird’s refurbished childhood home. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Kentucky Wisewood — based in the booming Portland neighborhood on the same lot as Tim Faulkner’s new gallery — is the brainchild of 26-year old Jay Robertson. “There are plenty of people around Kentucky who have been recycling barns for years,” he says, “but I am the first and so far the only business exclusively servicing the Louisville market.”

Robertson graduated from Ballard High School before attending the University of Florida’s engineering school, where he specialized in construction engineering – ironic given he now earns a living in destruction. “It’s essentially the same thing, only backwards, and it helps knowing how these buildings were put together before you start tearing them down” he says. 

Word of mouth, scouring Craigslist and driving down country lanes and knocking on doors has been Robertson’s primary marketing method so far, at least in terms of acquiring the raw materials he needs. “I’m really not equipped to start tearing barns down on my own, so at the moment I get help from friends and family. It’s a tough job to do it properly, particularly if you want to save as much of the barn in its original state as possible.”

And old barn
Salvaging barn wood

Tobacco barns heavy: Robertson estimates that each barn he tears down ends up filling at least 10 trailers – his estimate is that a barn will run to between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds of wood. That’s a lot to haul off on your own, even after the rotten bits have been chopped off.

“I get rid of anything with a hint of rot or bugs, but even after that, most of the barns I have pulled down have yielded about 75 percent treatable, usable wood. It’s a remarkable amount considering that these barns have been largely untreated, out in all of the weather Kentucky can throw at them. These barns are extraordinary buildings, as is the wood they were made from,” adds Robertson.

At that point Robertson is left with the raw materials which are power washed and recycled. Most of the wood is pine, cedar and oak, but there is also some Kentucky Rainbow Poplar, a wood with colored grain that is native to the state. Oak is generally the most desirable, but they are all hardwoods, even the pine — which is not the same as the pine that is grown fast and farmed for the modern construction and paper industries.

Considering none of these trees were farmed, some would have been at least 100 years, possibly 200 years old, when they were chopped down to build these barns in the first place. So a 200-year-old barn might be made from wood that is now 400 years old – much older than the state of Kentucky itself.

Table constructed with wood salvaged by Kentucky Wisewood
Table constructed with wood salvaged by Kentucky Wisewood

Given the work that goes into reclaiming this wood and getting it into saleable condition, it would be easy to assume the end result would be expensive. It’s not – at least in its raw form. “For flooring purposes, we are about mid-range in price terms,” says Robertson. “You can certainly spend much more than what our flooring costs, even at Lowe’s or Home Depot. That said, only artisans are going to work with the wood that we sell, so really it’s up to the furniture makers themselves and what they create that is going to dictate the end price for the consumer.”

As more Kentucky artisans seek to maintain the state’s heritage, Robertson expects demand to increase. The bar and the furniture at The Silver Dollar bar and restaurant on Frankfort Avenue is largely constructed using wood reclaimed by Robertson, and the new Revelry Gallery in Nulu has a partially reclaimed wood floor supplied by Kentucky Wisewood.

Artist craftsman Adam Horton, who has a studio on Story Avenue, was responsible for the flooring at Revelry’s gallery. “I get really excited about using this repurposed Kentucky wood,” he says, “particularly the wood that comes from barns that have such a rich local history and family heritage. It’s really important to make sure as little of it as possible ends up in a burn pile. I feel more than just an attachment to this kind of wood – I feel a responsibility to make something timeless with it”. 

A decent mill worker can turn Wisewood’s reclaimed wood into pretty much anything – flooring planks, wood suitable for furniture-making or merely decorative pieces of history. A beautiful cedar barn post, complete with branch notches, sits in the back of Robertson’s workshop. Re-conditioned, stained and varnished, you’re not going to get much change out of $600 if you want to buy it.

Robertson adds: “Kentucky has gone from an agricultural state to a service state, just like most of the South. We have abandoned our family-owned farming structure, and most modern farms have no use for old wooden tobacco barns. So not only are there thousands of barns sitting unused, almost all of them could be repurposed and given new life. There’s a lifetime of barns to pull down within a few miles of downtown, so I think this is a business that has vast potential.”

So where does Larry Bird fit into all of this? Well, Illinois-based businessman Dan Fowler bought the NBA legend’s childhood home in French Lick, Ind., a couple of years ago, and is using wood supplied by Kentucky Wisewood to rebuild parts of the home. “I needed native Red Oak to rebuild the garage, which was where Larry played basketball growing up but was in very poor condition,” says Fowler. “It turned into something of a quest. I couldn’t use modern lumber, and Kentucky Wisewood came to the rescue. It’s great to put something that has been standing locally back into use.”

It isn’t just barns that can be reclaimed – with the constant development of real estate in downtown Louisville, Old Louisville, NuLu and Portland, there is potentially an incredible supply of wood that could be repurposed on our doorstep. “It is awful when wood from old houses or buildings ends up in the trash,” says Robertson, “It’s all Kentucky and Louisville’s heritage – and we should be doing everything we can to save it.” 

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Andrew Dewson was born in Spain and raised in England to very Scottish parents. Dewson was investment editor and markets correspondent for The Independent newspaper in Great Britain and has also written for The Financial Times, Financial News and Private Equity News

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