At Wildwood Eccentrics, a one-time logger from Whitefish is breathing new life into old wood
Story by Tristan Scott | Photography by Sally Finneran
There came a time about 20 years ago, after spending half his career in the timber business, when JL Halverstadt gave up cutting down trees and started picking apart old western ranch buildings, piecemeal style, one plank at a time.
“For a while, I couldn’t sit down at a bar and order a beer without being told I was destroying the planet,” he recalls of his time working as a logger during the so-called “timber wars.”
Then he began to notice a trend — high-ticket homes were being constructed out of old scavenged wood used for trim, siding, interior décor, and furniture, and the owners were paying top dollar to affect the rustic “new pioneer” motif.
“These days, I’m saving trees by the acre,” he said of his pivot to professional wood scavenger. “It was profit-motivated, but it was also environmentally motivated. Every year we probably save 60 acres of forest.”
More than 15 years into his new calling, Halverstadt doesn’t take any guff over the lumber he harvests, except maybe from a skeptical old rancher, curious as to why someone would pay good money for a wind-buckled barn or a dilapidated calving shed, only to take it all apart, piece-by-piece, nail-by-nail.
Sure, he’s gotten crosswise with a “No Trespassing” sign or two, and he’s pried nails from ancient, monolithic grain elevators until his arms were numb and his shoulders ached, but it’s all been worth it.
The lumber he harvests now looks its age. Much of it is weathered brown, cinnamon-stained or silvery gray. It’s riddled with nail holes and buckshot, tattooed with the rusted outlines of old iron hinges and spackled with silver-dollar-size splotches of lichen, a stamp of its authenticity — it takes a half-century for a lichen culture to grow on wood like that. The old wood comes twisted and distressed and sun-bleached, pocked in saw-cut markings, and it scarcely betrays any hint that, once upon a time, it was painted an iconic western red.
“There’s an authentic calligraphy that’s inscribed on barn wood,” he said. “You can’t fake it.”
Still, not faking it aside, a casual observer might dismiss Halverstadt’s bounty of faded wood as something that should have been tossed on the scrap heap or burned in the bonfire.
But not Halverstadt.
“One man’s trash, you know?” says Halverstadt, who turned all that trash into so much treasure that he opened Wildwood Eccentrics, a local outfit specializing in custom reclaimed wood products that appear in more than a dozen businesses in downtown Whitefish and Kalispell, and well over 140 homes in the area, and hundreds of others across the country.
To him, as well as to a growing contingent of interior designers, contractors, and home and business owners, it’s the perfect specimen — “We call it perfectly imperfect,” he adds — a strain of wood frozen in the past, seasoned by time and weathered by Mother Nature herself. It tells a story of a bygone era when ranchers and homesteaders built barns, grain sheds, machine shops, and corrals out of what was readily available — old-growth Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, not the stuff box stores sell.
Back then, they built them to last, and last they have.
The rolling foothills and plains east of the Rocky Mountain Front bristle with these old buildings. There are gothic gable barns with shafts of sunlight peeking through thatched roofs, illuminating trussed-rafters that lean with the wind. There are sway-backed grain elevators arranged in tombstone-like rows, columns of gold glimmering on the pale prairies. There are beaver-slide hay-stackers silhouetted against the landscape like colossal teeter-totters, the bobbing metronomic ghosts of a utilitarian past. And then there are the log-snake fences that run to the edge of the earth. All of it is ripe for the picking, for the right price.
“I keep the old-timers in beer money,” he says with a chortle.
Halverstadt is giddy just thinking about it.
“Reusing this wood is a way to preserve our history and conserve our natural resources,” he said. “Reincarnating it brings out its soul, brings out its purpose.”
The Flathead native estimates he owns a half-million square feet of old barns, buildings and homesteads, the lion’s share of it right here in the Flathead Valley and east of the Divide, where an overgrown jungle of fading agricultural infrastructure exists, as integral to the heart of the landscape as the tidal waves of limestone that swell out of the Front.
Besides its organic beauty and place in history, the old wood develops colors, textures and stain patterns that can’t be replicated any other way. And the 80- to 100-year-old lumber is of much better quality than more recently harvested wood, the tightness of the grain having grown impenetrable as the old-growth trees aged.
“People ask me whether they need to paint or weather proof this stuff,” he said. “It’s been out in the elements for 100 years. It’s going to do exactly what Mother Nature intended for it to do. It’s going to last.”
“A lot of builders try to fabricate this style,” he added. “But it’s pretty hard to fabricate barn wood because it’s tough to replicate Mother Nature.”
Halverstadt has made a new career out of turning old wood into finely crafted custom siding and decor in homes, restaurants and retail outfits.
In downtown Whitefish, 13 bars, restaurants, buildings, art galleries, and a hotel bear his signature style, while nationwide, luxury homes from Manhattan to Malibu boast Wildwood’s custom reclaimed wood products.
“We’ve kind of helped give Whitefish a facelift,” he said. “It’s like a living showroom. People visit from all over, and then they call me. Because I’ve got the most wood.”
Whitefish native and small business owner Trek Stephens called on Halverstadt to supply a cache of old wood for The Toggery, the outdoor apparel and shoe store in downtown Whitefish. And he called again when he opened an outlet in downtown Kalispell, requiring some 7,000 square feet of old, uniform planks and beams, most of it for the store’s classic hardwood flooring.
“That reclaimed décor, especially when you mix it in with other elements, it really fits in with the Montana style,” Stephens said. “Even though people are using reclaimed wood everywhere, Montana is just a natural fit for it because we are so proud of our heritage and the old-time look and feel of those buildings.”
A quaint wooden barn lost among a field of greening corn, or a shed set against a wind-scoured prairie, is a classic pastoral tableau, to be sure. And while for today’s modern farmers many of these aging barns have lost their purpose, homeowners will pay good money for the rarefied accents, as well as for Halverstadt’s keen eye for design.
For Halverstadt’s part, he enjoys the process of bargaining for the wood with fifth-generation Montanans, the gritty labor of taking the buildings down and, conversely, the occasion of working with buyers who can afford any style of home they desire.
“I might buy the wood from a rancher who meets me one night drunk as a skunk with a donut wheel on his truck and a flatbed full of reclaimed product, and it’ll end up in an oil baron’s house,” Halverstadt said. “I get to work with people on both ends of the spectrum.”
Repurposing wood is Halverstadt’s preferred way of preserving Montana history, and he’s developed an intimate knowledge of the state’s trove of old buildings. He’s taken down barns, homesteads, bridges, and dams — structures that stitch together the fabric that built the West — and he is familiar with the origin of every plank and beam.
“When you spend a dozen hours swinging a crowbar, pulling nails out of a building until your shoulders hurt, you remember,” he said.
He’s recovered logs from the Stimson Dam, built in 1886 on the Blackfoot River of “A River Runs Through It” fame, and spent two-and-a-half years dissembling the old O’Neil lumber company in Kalispell.
On his property near Columbia Falls, Halverstadt has five acres of reclaimed wood — thousands upon thousands of square feet of Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, planks and beams of every shape and size. The wood is prized both for its rustic look and for being an environmentally responsible choice.
“People who feel a commitment to the green movement like the fact that you’re reusing something instead of cutting down more trees,” he explained.
Check out Halverstadt’s work in downtown Whitefish at The Galleries, Mama Blanca’s, Dick Idol Galleries, the Montana Taphouse, Spotted Bear Distillery, Tupelo, the Firebrand Hotel, the Red Caboose, The Toggery, and more.
“Anything that looks old, beat up or wore out is probably our stuff,” Halverstadt said