“The character of the wood, that’s where the story is,” said Heritage co-owner Adam Krauklis. “You’re looking at something that might have been a beam that’s now a mantel, and you can see the mark from where the tractors would have pulled in or the horses would have walked on. And, of course, there are things that only Mother Nature can achieve with rain, wind, sun and snow over many years. I mean you can’t find these materials at lumberyards. It doesn’t have the character.”
The pieces frequently come with a back story, like the Zenda barn-turned-table. The barn belonged to two men, English immigrants who purchased farmland in Wisconsin, then decided they wanted English brides to share their new homes.
“They put an ad in the newspaper in England that they were looking for wives and that they had property in the United States,” Krauklis said. “They went back, got their wives, came back to Zenda, built the farm, built the barn and this is the wood they used, the table that we’re sitting at now.”
Heritage’s own back story is just as interesting. Krauklis, a drywall contractor in Illinois, grew up in Elkhorn. Several years ago on a visit back to Elkhorn, he was looking for wood for a home project when he noticed a dilapidated barn and asked the barn’s owner if he could have some of the wood siding.
“Take what you need and put it to good use,” the farmer told him, so Krauklis got his longtime friend, Seth Hanson, to help him take the barn down.
Soon Krauklis and Hanson, a carpenter, realized the potential of repurposed barn wood. They began Heritage Beam and Board in 2011 on the site of Hanson’s family’s hobby farm. Krauklis’ wife, Emily, a graphic designer, commutes from Illinois to manage the day-to-day business with Hanson, while Adam stays involved, but maintains his drywall contracting business.
Heritage has shown some of its pieces at furniture shows in the Chicago area. The company also joined the Lakeland Builders Association and the Geneva Lake Chamber of Commerce. They’ve also created a website.
Heritage has gotten jobs building walls for exhibits at trade shows in Wisconsin, Illinois and even California. They’ve designed and built furniture for owners of existing and newly constructed area houses and vacation homes.
Their most popular orders are for tables, doors and fireplace mantels, but they’ve crafted other pieces as well, in both rustic and contemporary designs.
“You can tell what the wood is, but it’s got a completely new application, completely different design aesthetics, and that’s kind of cool,” Emily Krauklis said.
John Rante has several Heritage pieces -- including a bench, mantel, dining room table and barn wood mural -- in the Lake Beulah home he shares with his wife.
“We weren’t looking for cookie-cutter furniture that you could buy at any furniture store. We wanted original pieces that were truly one of a kind,” Rante said. “We love the story behind each piece of furniture -- the fact that it comes from a local barn and is being repurposed.”
Heritage has a small crew of workers. Often it’s just Adam Krauklis and Hanson who dismantle the barns. The two say they’ve taken down 15 barns in the last five years, the oldest dating back to the mid-1800s.
“Not to sound snobbish, but if the barn is too new -- generally 1960s or later -- we won’t take it down, just because we’re mostly looking for old-growth materials,” Hanson said. “The older the wood is, the tighter the grain is and the more character to it.”
All that’s old isn’t necessarily useable, however. Barns open to the sky for too many years could have rotted floorboards or insects may have eaten through joists.
“Still, there’s always something that we can use, and if you cook boards in a kiln for a number of weeks, you’re good,” Hanson said. “But for the most part, we don’t pick up a lot of stuff that’s already on the ground.”
The wood is stored at Heritage, where carpenters, builders and customers can take a firsthand look at the available inventory.
An upper room in a renovated barn sports finished tables, mantels and other pieces amidst black and white photographs of old barns.
“When we do custom pieces, customers can see and touch the wood. They can see what the wood looks like when it’s smoothed out, see the finishes that can be used,” Emily Krauklis said. “They can put their hands on the piece of wood that’s going to end up in their home or as part of their table. It’s not like they’re ordering it online from someplace.”
“We also do material sales of reclaimed wood, whether it’s beams, siding or tongue-and-groove flooring,” Hanson said. “We have relationships with builders and designers, particularly designers. They know what their customers want but they just don’t have an avenue to make it happen. We can provide that avenue for them.”
Emily Krauklis said Heritage also is establishing a network of area artisans, such as a metalworker who created a zinc tabletop that a customer wanted.
Hanson conceded that the number of older barns is dwindling as new, mega-dairy farms take over the landscape, but said Heritage salvages other older buildings as well. When the former Waal’s Department Store in Walworth was demolished last summer, Hanson and Krauklis removed all the floor joists -- some of which they glued, clamped together and turned into fireplace columns.
One of Heritage’s customers who grew up in the area and is now retired in Virginia was visiting Wisconsin when he saw the floor joists.
“He said, ‘I used to get all my clothes from Waal’s. I’ve got to get a piece of that,’” said Adam Krauklis. “So he took some and he’s taking it back to Virginia to work on in his workshop.”
Emily Krauklis points out wood taken from a barn belonging to Meyer Lansky, a major organized crime figure with Chicago connections.
“That’s kind of crazy. You wonder what happened on that floor,” she said.
But like the table with a Zenda pedigree, every barn has a story.
“We work really hard to connect each piece with the barn so that the people who are getting the table know which barn that is from,” Emily Krauklis said.
She said she recently has started videotaping interviews of the barn owners telling the history of the structure and hopes to put the edited interviews on Heritage’s website.
“It’s a hard thing watching a family barn that maybe your father, grandfather or even great-grandfather worked in and now it’s going to be turned into a cornfield or a pole barn,” she said. “The barn really matters to these owners, and sometimes they consider this like an organ donation where they’re giving us the materials to see that (the wood) has a new life. We’re finding that a lot of people who are sentimental about their barns are calling us because they’re excited about these pieces.”
“These building materials are part of our local Midwestern heritage and these barns are disappearing,” Adam Krauklis said. “You think about those hand-hewn beams. A carpenter back in the 1800s would have felled a tree, taken it from a round log to a square log with an ax. And the guy who would have done that has been gone for many, many years, but his work is still here. In fact, he’d probably be pretty amused to see what that beam is now. It’s not part of a barn like he envisioned it was for 100 years. Now it’s a mantel on a fireplace in Elkhorn or Lake Geneva.”
Besides the wooden siding and floorboards, Heritage Beam and Board owners have salvaged a number of other items from barns, including antique hardware, hinges, wooden ladders, metal pulleys, crates, window frames, even a railroad crossing sign.
The items are on display with furniture pieces in a barn showroom at Heritage.
One of Adam Krauklis’ favorite found treasures is a haymow basketball hoop.
“We’ve also got a door with dozens of initials that have been carved into it over the years and that ended up getting turned into a coffee table,” he said. “We pretty much try to salvage everything that would have a purpose again.”