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Former Case buildings help businesses salvage wood

The last remaining parts of former J.I. Case Co. factory buildings from the early 1900s are taken down in December, as part of a project to raze 15 buildings in Racine’s Water Street redevelopment area, also known as Machine Row. The demolition work marked the start of a massive salvaging operation to reuse lumber, Cream City bricks, metal and other materials. (Mick Burke/The Journal Times via AP)

The last remaining parts of former J.I. Case Co. factory buildings from the early 1900s are taken down in December, as part of a project to raze 15 buildings in Racine’s Water Street redevelopment area, also known as Machine Row. The demolition work marked the start of a massive salvaging operation to reuse lumber, Cream City bricks, metal and other materials. (Mick Burke/The Journal Times via AP)

By MICHAEL BURKE, The Journal Times

RACINE, Wis. (AP) — Racine officials’ decision to clear away Racine’s Machinery Row, also known as the Water Street Redevelopment Area, might have marked the end for the old industrial buildings standing there.

But it was also the beginning of a massive salvaging operation seeking new uses for lumber, Cream City bricks, metal and other materials. By harvesting lumber, project officials are hoping to ensure that at least some of the wood used to put up those buildings will go on to become flooring, furniture and cabinetry.

Since mid-September, the Appleton company Urban Evolutions has been buying and dealing in old-growth timber, maple flooring and decking from both the former J.I. Case Plow Works and two former J.I. Case Co. factories.

Urban Evolutions is getting the wood from Veit & Co., the New Berlin contractor overseeing the deconstruction work in the Redevelopment Area. Jeff Janson, president of Urban Evolutions, said he pays the going price for whatever he can salvage.

“I’m buying it by the board foot,” he said to The Journal Times. “If he (Steve Hosier of Veit) gets it out of the building and does a good job, he’s going to make more money.”

The first big job of the deconstruction project, Janson said, was to pull out the old industrial building’s maple flooring. He and his fellow salvagers were able to save close to 200,000 board feet of flooring and about 400,000 board feet of decking, also known as subfloor. (A board foot is 1 by 12 by 12 inches, or 144 cubic inches.)

Much of the flooring is being sold to retailers, Janson said. He expects to get more than 1 million board feet of timber from the Case buildings, which were put up between the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A driver straps down a load of timbers taken in December from two former J.I. Case Co. factory buildings in Racine’s Water Street redevelopment area. (Mick Burke/The Journal Times via AP)

A driver straps down a load of timbers taken in December from two former J.I. Case Co. factory buildings in Racine’s Water Street redevelopment area. (Mick Burke/The Journal Times via AP)

“And (the wood) weighs about 4 pounds a foot, so you can kind of do the math on how much we’re saving from the landfill,” Janson said. Some of the timber pieces from the site weigh up to 1,500 pounds each.

Shawn Burks, owner of Antique Woods of Louisiana, is a large buyer of wood from the Case buildings. Both he and Janson say those timber pieces are something special. They were obtained from huge longleaf yellow pine trees that were 300 to 800 years old when cut down, Burks said.

Many people are familiar with the soft pine lumber that can be found at big-box home-improvement stores. Longleaf pine is anything but soft.

“This wood was (growing) prior to the steel industry, for the most part,” Janson said, “and it was considered as strong as structural steel. Some of them are probably as strong as some steel.”

Burks’ 28-person company designs and builds lodges throughout the U.S. and makes custom-finished wooden floors, walls, cabinetry and furniture.

“Just about anything to do with wood, we fool with it,” he remarked.

So far, Burks has bought more than $500,000 worth of Case wood from Janson, most of it for his company’s own projects.

Burks said there’s much he likes about longleaf yellow pine, saying it’s not merely strong but also beautiful. “I like the density, the growth rings — the slow growth and the tensile strength, the pitch, the colors,” which include reds, browns, oranges and yellows, he said.

The virgin forests that produced the longleaf pines are gone, Burks said. “The only place you will see timbers like these are river bottoms and buildings like these.”

Burks said Janson is distinguished in the wood-salvage business for his honesty.

“Generally, the people who start the job never finish it,” Burks said. “He and Veit have done a tremendous job.”

“We have a saying: ‘There are more honest people in the drug business than in the antique-wood business,'” Burks said. “They will generally take the candy out, and it will look like an atomic bomb hit.”

Urban Evolutions has its own store and showroom in Appleton, 35 employees. In its best year, it had about $8 million worth of revenue, Janson said.

More than half of its business comes from supplying flooring to the retail and residential markets. In the past 15 years, for instance, the company has done work at more than 500 Urban Outfitters stores.

“Because of that,” Janson said, “I get orders almost every week to replace a floor that either was flooded, damaged, hurricanes; we replaced all the floors in Puerto Rico.”

Urban Evolutions, which Janson owns with his wife, Robin, also makes furniture for a company called Room & Board and for the Sundance Film Festival, which was founded by the actor Robert Redford.

Janson said he will retain most of the maple pulled from the Case job and sell it over the next three years.

Burks promised to buy about 1 million board feet; the rest Janson is selling to other companies. He has shipped Case wood to North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania.

“I’m selling to other companies that are like mine,” Janson said. “Maybe a competitor, but that’s all right.”

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