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OLD WOOD, NEW LIFE

BY BARRY WALDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY BY HOLGER OBENAUS

SPRING 2017

 

If you were to find yourself meandering through the rivers, creeks and streams of inland Charleston County during the warmer months, you might come upon an earnest young man in a wetsuit driving a mysterious contraption through the murky water. If his little dingy is lashed to a jerry-rigged pontoon boat piled high with a giant winch, that would be Justin Herrington, diving for treasures hidden in the muck and mire of our waterways. 

Buried gold and diamonds? No, nothing so prosaic. 

We’re talking logs. Virgin, dense, old-growth cypress and longleaf heart pine. Some stood for 4,000 years before they were chopped down and left in their watery tombs by 18th-and 19th-century loggers. 

Early European settlers used the tidal flows to transport their quarry to the many sawmills that dotted the waterfront in those days. In the process of felling old-growth trees with axes and lashing them together for their trip downstream, loggers left hundreds of sections to roll away or sink, only to be discovered and retrieved by an intrepid and enterprising 21st-century entrepreneur. Those virgin forests have been wiped out, so the wood Herrington dredges is irreplaceable. 

So begins the life of the wood that Herrington and his partner, furniture maker Bill Long, fashion into gorgeous furniture, floor planks and more. Old-growth virgin cypress siding covers historical Charleston homes, and heart pine beams continue to support the roofs of homes south of Broad Street— homes that have weathered devastating winds and war over the years.

Yet, Herrington’s resurrected wood is just as durable. Because old-growth trees competed fiercely for sunlight, they grew slowly and their annual rings crowded together. Soft or hard, old-growth lumber is strong, and, having been preserved underwater for centuries, it emerges from the depths prepared for a second act better than new-growth or farm-raised timber could ever be. 

Because trees aren’t being harvested, Born Again Heartwoods is the ultimate green business. But the unique value of these reclaimed timbers might lie in what we think about when we view them. After all, these trees date as far back as the Bronze Age. Some were around when East Asians marched across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska. They were here when Romans ruled the world and Jesus was crucified. The stories they could tell! 

In Herrington’s and Long’s hands, the timbers have new stories to tell as they become tables, cabinets, bar tops, flooring and paneling, artwork and more. “People come for the story but leave with quality and beauty,” Herrington says. 

So what would possess a college-educated native of Meggett, South Carolina, to search the ribbons of water around his home for “sinker logs” and wrestle them onto shore? Why would he invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and permits to dig up these sleeping giants? And how did he learn the techniques?

It turns out that Justin Herrington was just the man for the job. His dingy, sawmill, pontoon boat and winch—not to mention hundreds of drying pieces of lumber—sit on the 10 acres of property where he was raised and his parents still live. Growing up hunting and fishing these parts, he knows the byways that support his habit. He also does his homework to learn where the old sawmills once stood. 

Having come of age in his dad’s farm equipment business, he knows how to fashion an apparatus that will hoist timber from river depths and how to dry wood that’s been soaking up water since before George Washington was born. 

Partner Bill Long traded his suit and tie for the life of a craftsman. He has been creating and restoring “pieces of art that happen to be furniture” for 40 years. Long uses only period techniques to create furniture that could fool even the most vigilant experts on the Antiques Roadshow.

Every piece of furniture he creates is one of a kind, because every piece of wood has its own unique history. Preserving what was once lost and special appeals to Long, who often fashions furniture around a signature feature of the wood— even an imperfection, like a knot or a pecky (a pecky is a hole in cypress caused by a fungus). 

The Dewberry, a new hotel across Meeting Street from Marion Square, commissioned Long to create a giant table. He used the root ball from a massive water oak—usually discarded when fashioning furniture—and turned it upside down to form a table top. Since old-growth wood is durable and rot-resistant, The Dewberry will, for decades, own and display a gorgeous piece of furniture that has no comparison. 

Born Again Heartwoods boasts a breathtaking variety of high-end slabs, panels and furniture that touch us in a way other products can’t. The warmth and character of the wood, its rich, natural coloring, add meaning to each piece. While these products are top quality, they’re sold at reasonable prices that make them accessible to potential customers. In sum, the elegance, romance and value of virgin old-growth wood is undeniable.

 

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Born Again Heartwoods transforms lost wood into exquisite art

 

JASON A. ZWIKER | March, 2016

There was a time when the bottomland forests of the southeastern United States were vast and dense. Saplings fought to find the sunlight, shedding lower limbs to break through the canopy. The trees that made it were changed by the experience, made incredibly strong.

Precious few remnants of that bygone era can still be found, and those that can are mostly preserved at the bottom of rivers; way down deep where the currents run strong and the only light is the light you bring with you.

When artist and craftsman Bill Long runs his hand along the edge of virgin cypress recovered from the bottom of a Lowcountry river, there’s reverence in his touch. “You can hardly count the rings,” he says. “There’s no comparison. This kind of strength and beauty has been lost due to modern cultivation.” Nearly all of the old growth was swept away in the years between the Civil War and World War I, as forests were clear-cut in a massive wave of industrialization. 

Together with Justin Herrington, Long creates objects of extraordinary beauty from these prized old growth sinker logs, recovered from rivers such as the Edisto and Santee. A 16-foot dining room table they crafted from live edge pecky cypress with black walnut inlays recently found a home in a North Carolina hunting lodge. Another one-of-a-kind table is destined for Hallie Hall animal sanctuary in Hollywood, SC. Their workshop abounds with works-in-progress: tables, benches, platters and bowls turned from rare burls, and assorted objets d’art. 

These works are highly prized by collectors. For the last several years, they’ve shown at Southeastern Wildlife Expo and are represented by Rebekah Jacob Gallery.

The story of how it all comes together is amazing in and of itself. 

“Before there were trucks or trains, logs were floated downriver from the mills,” Herrington explains. “On most of the logs we pull up, you can still find the peg hole where they were lashed together.” Just knowing where to start looking means digging through history; the old books, maps, and ledgers that tell the tale of where the mills stood and what paths the logs traveled. After that, Herrington’s years of experience as a diver come into play. 

The bottom of a Lowcountry river is not a place for the unprepared. “It’s not like diving in open water,” Herrington says. “The currents are powerful, it’s dark, and when something snags you, you have to know how to remain calm, read the situation, and untangle yourself. If you don’t stay calm, things can get very bad, very fast.”

Once the wood is on land and properly dried - something that can take months to years, depending on thickness - the art begins.

There’s a natural poetry in the work that Long and Herrington do. The wood itself drives the design; they don’t force a shape upon it. They prefer to leave the natural edge as found. The tops of the tables they craft are smooth as silk; gorgeously finished displays of the art inherent in the grain of the wood. 

For Long, the restoration of antique furniture has been the work of a lifetime. Well versed in the techniques of the great English masters – Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton – and influenced by 20th-century sculptor-craftsman George Nakashima, Long is one of those who can tell at a glance the likely time and place in which a piece of furniture was made and, should it be in disrepair, he knows the proper techniques for putting it right. 

His exquisite craftsmanship and artistry are delivered with humble whimsy. “A split in the wood just means we can stamp a butterfly on it,” he says. What he jokingly refers to as ‘stamping a butterfly’, of course, is an expertly set hardwood inlay, perhaps of walnut or rare Santo Domingo mahogany, that seamlessly joins a natural flaw in the wood and transforms it into high art. 

That’s because they don’t see flaws when they look at this rare wood. They see history, swept clean by 200 years in the river, silky smooth, marked with patterns that make each finished piece unique. And they simply allow that history to tell its own tale. bornagainheartwoods.com

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1800s-era sunken logs are now treasure; here are the men who find them

 

DAVID ZUCCHINO | July 13, 2014

Hewitt Emerson stuffed himself into a wetsuit, took a deep breath and plunged from a barge into the murky black waters of the Edisto River.

Emerson swam down to the muck of the river bottom more than a dozen feet below. On deck, his buddy Justin Herrington scanned the banks for alligators and monitored drooping live oak limbs for dangling water moccasins — his Ruger P35 pistol close at hand.

They were in search of treasure — hand-cut logs well over a century old, the forgotten legacy of milling operations that flourished along the river until after the Civil War. Emerson was trying to locate the butt end of a shapely longleaf pine he'd spotted from the barge. The logs can command thousands of dollars for their intricately beautiful grains and long, straight cuts.

Across the coast of the Southeastern U.S., pine and cypress were harvested into the late 1800s. Most logs were lashed together with metal "spike dogs" and floated or towed downstream to mills.

Inevitably, many of the timbers broke loose and tumbled to river bottoms or became embedded in riverbanks. They are now perfectly preserved specimens prized for milling into tables, mantles, bed frames, flooring and bar surfaces.

The special properties of the Edisto River turn old logs into sustained jewels. The Edisto is a "black water" river — the color of black tea because of tannins, or humic acid, released by rotting vegetation. The tannins preserve the wood, which spends generations in waters depleted of oxygen that would normally cause decay.

For the last three years, Emerson, 28, has steered his barge along rivers in South Carolina in pursuit of "sinker wood," as the logs are known. With his unruly hair and shaggy beard, he looks like a laid-back nature child, but is actually a successful Charleston entrepreneur — with interests in Internet services, a restaurant and woodworking.

It's exceedingly dangerous work -- not the easy money it might look like on TV. If you've got a log on a winch and it slips off on top of you, you're dead.- William B. Barr, owner of a marine and terrestrial archaeology company in Leesville, S.C., on hunting for "sinker wood"

On this sunny day, he and Herrington were searching for logs to be sliced into slabs at Herrington's sawmill nearby. Herrington is 34, slender and cleanshaven, with curly black hair. He's a self-described "country boy" woodworker who lives next door to the sawmill.

Young, active and physically fit, the men are drawn by the lure of the hunt for attractive artifacts they consider potential works of art.

Underwater, Emerson found the end of the pine and struggled to wrap the log with a steel cable. His find was a beauty — nearly 20 feet long, 15 inches in diameter.

Emerson fought the log for a long while, coming up for air several times. He finally got the cable around it and clamped a huge set of metal tongs on the wood.

Herrington cranked the electric winch. The log slowly emerged from the cloudy water like some sea beast, thick and massive, a mottled green and brown.

"Oh, yeah — got it!" Emerson shouted from the water. "You can see the ax-cut on the end."

Herrington's yellow lab, Sinker, padded across the barge to sniff the funky-smelling specimen.

After considerable effort, the men lashed the log to the side of the barge.

"Oh, that's a fine log," Herrington said, inspecting the prize. "It has a giant heart — I can see that from here."

Known colloquially as a "heart pine" and commercially as "hard pine," the log's core had matured and hardened in the water over the decades to a swirling, tightly packed grain.

"That's a beautiful piece," Emerson said. He shook his head briskly to expel river water from his hair and beard. "The rings are tighter than I thought."

The log could be worth up to a couple of thousand dollars, Emerson figured, once it was cut and milled, then dried in a solar-powered kiln.

Herrington said he sold a cypress table for $7,500 and is asking $10,000 for a massive fish he carved from a cypress log. In his workshop, he's also using cypress to fashion an expensive 20-foot-long bar commissioned by a tavern owner.

The two men cut most recovered logs into long slabs that expose the grain. "Slabs are what people want," Emerson said. "An old tree is great, but a giant slab out of that tree is even better."

Despite the commercial value of sinker wood, few people in South Carolina expend the cost and effort to recover it, said William B. Barr, who owns a marine and terrestrial archaeology company in Leesville.

"It's exceedingly dangerous work — not the easy money it might look like on TV," Barr said. "If you've got a log on a winch and it slips off on top of you, you're dead."

Barr said he knows of only seven people who hunt sinker wood in the state besides Emerson and Herrington. Only a couple turn a profit.

Sinker wood is also gathered in North Carolina and Florida, said Jim Spirek, South Carolina's state underwater archaeologist.

"I get calls from people interested in it — until they find out how much money you have to invest and how hard the work is," he said.

An annual South Carolina recovery permit costs $500 for in-state residents and $1,000 for others, Spirek said. But to legally recover sinker wood, one also must pay $8,000 to $10,000 for a "submerged cultural resource survey" to inspect and map a mile of river bottom for artifacts such as schooner wrecks, fossils, and "man-made artifacts" such as sinker wood.

Spirek said Emerson and Herrington were operating with expired annual permits and needed to renew them to avoid fines if they removed any logs from the water. Emerson said he discovered belatedly that the Edisto permit was three days out of date.

Cypress trees were harvested for use in boat hulls and boat decking because of their length and density. Longleaf pines were in such demand for their long, straight trunks that they often were designated "king's trees" during the colonial era and reserved for making ship masts, Barr said.

The pines were also tapped for rosin and turpentine. Many pine sinker logs recovered today still bear "cat face" cuts, or chevrons, where the trees were slashed to drain resin.

The standard log was cut 14 1/2 feet long, Barr said, though some logs exceed 16 feet and can weigh hundreds of pounds. Emerson said the biggest specimen he'd recovered was a 30-foot cypress. Some trees, especially cypress, were well over a century old when felled.

To locate logs, Emerson often relies on sonar or studies old railroad maps to determine where logs were unloaded from the river. But on this day on the Edisto, he and Herrington used a more basic method — the naked eye.

They scanned the river for "floaters" — logs that had broken free from the river bottom or banks. They also looked for "big naturals" — trees that were never logged but tumbled into the water on their own. Those may be taken without a permit, Spirek said, as long as the root ball is left intact.

The men plunged into the water wearing wetsuits and flippers and swam down to search for logs.

Emerson and Herrington discovered several promising specimens and marked the locations on a hand-held GPS device for later retrieval.

Along the weedy riverbank, they stumbled across a massive, partially submerged cypress. Emerson went under and fought to get a cable around it but couldn't shoulder the log out of the muck. He marked the spot on the GPS.

Toward dusk, Herrington turned the barge back toward home. They chugged along the glassy, deserted river past abandoned rice plantations, lurking alligators, white egrets and turtles that slid off logs and plopped into the dark water.

At the landing, sweating and cursing, they managed to get the longleaf pine log tied up along the bank. Then they slogged onto dry land, wet and sunburned, one more sinker log closer to payday.

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GOING WITH THE GRAIN

Stephanie Boozer | August 2012

You can just see the love in Bill Long’s one-of-a-kind furniture pieces—love of the wood, that defining grain, and the pure form. It’s a passion that Long has nurtured for almost 30 years as a restorer of fine period furnishings for Golden Associates Antiques, though it wasn’t until the recession hit that he began focusing on building his own designs.

“I love what I do and consider myself blessed,” says Long, in the shop of his Hollywood farmhouse, surrounded by chests and tables in varying stages of disrepair, slabs of raw wood, and original works waiting to be finished. Next to a chest of drawers dating to the early 1700s (which will sell for around $14,000 after restoration) sits one of Long’s modern creations, a one-armed rocker that seems to emerge organically from the gnarled wood. The artist only uses wood felled from area plantations or recovered from the murky depths of the Edisto and Santee rivers. As a native Charlestonian and College of Charleston graduate, he continues the city’s long tradition of furniture makers, and his reverence for that heritage extends down to the source of the wood itself. “That’s just part of being Southern,” he says.

 Bill Long

Bill Long

Several years ago, Long had just set to work carving an impressive piece of mahogany he’d been saving for about 10 years when friend and neighbor Helen Bradham walked into his shop and ordered him to stop. “I told him that he was going to make it into a table for me,” recalls Bradham, adding that today no visitor to her home can resist running a hand over that silky smooth tabletop. Long built a pedestal and polished the wood in its original shape, the underside still carrying his initial carving marks. “It’s so rare to find someone so full of magic and talent, with such individual, unique ideas. When you walk away from his shop, you know you were in the presence of a true master,” says Bradham.

Inspired, Long began to build benches and more tables as the raw wood serendipitously fell in his way. In direct opposition to the confines of his period restoration work, he followed the shape of the wood, letting its inherent qualities dictate the flow of each piece. As a respectful nod to furniture maker George Nakashima—one of the fathers of the 20th-century American craft movement—Long incorporated butterfly joinery into a tabletop, but at irregular, off-centered intervals. With his Old-World building and finishing techniques applied to a modern design aesthetic, Long’s own style emerged. Fifteen pieces in and with growing outside interest, he looked to Rebekah Jacob Gallery to help with the business of his new life as an artist.

 “Art is so subjective,” says the craftsman. “But I know if I please myself, I’ll please others—and that’s what’s happening.” A pair of benches adorns the downtown law office of Young Clement Rivers, and a chair is in the works for a New York couple. A massive chunk of sunken cypress still bearing the marks of the axe that felled it hundreds of years ago also waits, destined to become a dining table.

“Once I have a vision, the execution is nothing,” says Long with a grin. “I’m just letting the wood be what it is.”

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Quest for old timber dredges up dispute: Santee Cooper stops divers collecting logs from Lake Marion

written by: Bo Petersen

Huge logs lie like ghostly hulks in the riverbed silt across the region, the forgotten debris of another age. They are stray virgin-growth cypress and heart pine that sank as the old lumbermen floated piles of timber downstream to the mill.

Along the old Santee River, the leftover logs are now the stuff of a corporate tug-of-war.

Commercial divers Nate Tarpein and Justin Herrington want to hoist the big hunks from 30 to 50 feet beneath Lake Marion, haul them back to their Meggett woodworking shop and mill them into boards. They're not talking about the sort of massive commercial harvest that stripped the South Carolina bottoms at the turn of the 20th century, or the mass felling of trees before the river was dammed for the Marion-Moultrie lakes.

They just want a few logs at a time. With their jury-rigged pontoon hoist, it can take some three or four days just to get one of the logs to the landing. The timber is as big around as a drainage pipe and as heavy as lead. But the logs sell for $2 per board foot; the milled boards can sell for five times as much, depending on quality and other factors.

"We're just trying to make a decent living," Herrington said.

They already have been harvesting in the Edisto River, under a series of state cultural resources survey licenses that allow one or two "sample logs" to be pulled. Because of the historical significance, the logs are considered potential archaeological artifacts. Finds must be monitored and reported.

They received a permit for the Santee and retrieved the first logs. But when the logs were off-loaded at the ramp, Santee Cooper workers who saw them said cease and desist. Unlike most riverbeds, which are under state jurisdiction, the Santee lies under the lake. And Santee Cooper owns the lake, right down to the rights to the old Ferguson Mill timber and the forests of trees the utility felled before filling it, officials maintain.

"The submerged logs are covered by that deed and they can't be removed without Santee Cooper permission," said spokeswoman Mollie Gore.

 Justin Herrington recovered this cypress tree that shows the crevices of 'shake ring' damage from high winds during storms. 

Justin Herrington recovered this cypress tree that shows the crevices of 'shake ring' damage from high winds during storms. 

Tarpein and Herrington are fuming. Santee Cooper didn't buy these logs because they never got to the old Ferguson Mill, they contend. The state signed off on the removal, and Santee Cooper is a state agency. They have hired an attorney.

All but buried in the back-and-forth are the logs themselves.

Hand-forged shackles

Virgin-growth black and tupelo cypress is so indestructible a wood that cypress beams are still fresh and sturdy under the crumbling, 200-year-old Koger House in Dorchester County. The wood has a marble-like beauty. Virgin growth heart pine is considered nearly as durable and occasionally has prized curly pine grains. When cut, the trees often were hundreds of years old.

In a century under the water, the big timbers lost their sap wood, the flimsier outer layers, but the heartwood remained true. The logs themselves have an ancient quality. The trunks with their flared roots have lines so alive that the divers keep a "trophy cabinet" of overturned, cutaway trunks in the yard that looks like a sculpture garden

"Every one of these is antique. The river sculpted them," Tarpein said. And they are history. Tarpein and Herrington point out crevicelike cracks in one cypress cut that are "shake rings," years where hurricane-force storm winds twisted the tree's age rings apart.

They have historical value, said Chris Amer, the state's underwater archaeologist. Timbering at the time was a huge industry that nobody really knows much about. Studying the logs could tell more about how they were cut, whether with ax or saw, how they were floated down the river, he said.

Tarpein and Herrington can show the holes that were punched in the logs for pegs to hold them one against the other while floating. They bring out rusted, hand-forged iron shackle chains that bound them, and an old ax blade. The two were diving for fossils when they first came across the logs and were enthralled. They began diving the Santee after researching the old town of Ferguson and its mill.

Ferguson was the company town built by Francis Beidler, the owner of what became Audubon's Francis Beidler Forest, and Benjamin Franklin Ferguson. The pair owned the Santee River Cypress Lumber Co., a classic mill town with its own commissary and its own money. Largely abandoned by the 1940s, it was flooded when the lakes were filled.

The Santee logs were cut in the vast Congaree bottoms, and the timber is huge. One of the diver's finds is a cherry log nearly 4 feet in diameter.

"We can find plenty of smaller wood in other rivers," Herrington said. "But these, people need to see these."

Aquatic Habitat

The divers, both 31, have their work cut out for them. Santee Cooper is a state-owned utility that operates quasi-independently and does not receive any state taxpayer funds. Its officials run it largely like a private corporation.

After the divers were stopped at the landing, Amer was called to a meeting with Santee Cooper officials. He says his hands are tied.

 This cypress tree, recovered by Tarpein and Herrington, still shows the marks of the ax that felled it.

This cypress tree, recovered by Tarpein and Herrington, still shows the marks of the ax that felled it.

"Theoretically, I could give a license to recover (more) logs. But the deed says Santee Cooper owns the timber. To give these guys a license would be moot," he said.

"We bought the property. We have a deed for the property. The deed conveys both the land and its timber to Santee Cooper," Gore said. "A survey license does not entitle the holder to take our property. It's a matter of stewardship, really."

Ironically, as sunken stray logs have floated to the surface over the years, Santee Cooper has dragged them off to a burn pit.

"When they float to the surface they become a hazard. The reason it matters (if the divers remove the bottom logs) is that while they are on the bottom they are part of the aquatic habitat," Gore said.

The divers say there's plenty of aquatic habitat down there. Their LCD lights lit up trestles, wellheads, graves and concrete structures.

"I just think it's a shame for these logs to sit down there and waste away," Herrington said. "People need to see (the wood). They sure don't have to be burned."

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