Doing Business: Recycling the Past

June 5, 2014 in front, Summer 2014 Issue by Lookout Alabama

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James & Company preserves history and saves trees by giving salvaged, antique-wood products a second life.

by OLIVIA GRIDER | photos by RANDY and OLIVIA GRIDER

“He looks like an ol’ hippie,” one of Donnie James’ customers tells me with a grin the day before I am to meet the founder of James & Company, a pioneer in the reclaimed-timber industry. “His knowledge of the history of different wood products is amazing.”

I find him right on both counts.

With his ponytailed goatee, patched plaid pants and slight build, James easily could pass as a relative of Willie Nelson. And the similarities don’t end with appearance. In addition to running a national business, James is a songwriter and musician who has built a state-of-the-art outdoor concert venue in the rolling fields just outside Collinsville, Ala.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()] Witnessing the energy and vitality James radiates, I’m not surprised he can manage such a sideline. But his primary passion, the one that really lights up his intense blue eyes, is preserving antique-wood building materials for future generations to enjoy – and saving thousands of trees in the process.

“We’ve recycled the equivalent of over 38,000 trees,” James proclaims proudly, “and sold 22 million board-feet of wood.”

If you’ve ever seen an old barn burned or watched the demolition of a historic building and cringed at the thought of the history and beauty being lost, you will be glad to know James & Company exists.

The company has salvaged materials from railroad depots and trestles, courthouses, homes, barns, textile mills, other industrial buildings and more, with some structures dating to the 1700s. James’ favorite reclamation was a roadhouse built on the route between Philadelphia and Washington in the 1740s. He’s sure George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers stopped in for a brew while traveling between the old capital and the new one.

“We are recycling things from our past, from when our country was first here,” James says, adding that the items are great conversation starters.

“Most people should find it interesting to have something in their house from a 19th century textile mill or a courthouse built in the 1700s. It’s part of the comfort and warmth of home to have something like this – and it doesn’t have to be flooring [the company’s biggest seller]. Maybe just a mantel from a pioneer cabin.”

And then there is the quality of the wood and the environmental impact to consider, he continues. “We’re farming trees now just like we farm cows and cotton,” James says. “We put chemicals and fertilizers on them so they’ll grow fast. A lot of the wood is basically worthless when it’s cut. It doesn’t have the beauty, the weather resistance or the appeal our wood has.”

Some of the wood James & Company sells was more than 400 years old when it was felled centuries ago.

James and wife Roxanne were running a high-end, interior-woodwork construction company in Montgomery, Ala., when James was asked to “dismantle” a mansion in the Old Cloverdale area of the city. Through the project, he realized the aesthetics and stability reclaimed wood provided
and was inspired to found James & Company.

“He really was one of the first people to start this kind of industry,” says daughter and James & Company office manager Shannin Betz. “We didn’t have any competition when we started this.”

In the beginning, James hired crews and the company dismantled buildings itself. But he also trained demolition firms in the work. “What we’ve done is we’ve taught demolition contractors to become deconstruction specialists,” James says.

Now James & Company typically sends flatbed trucks across the country to pick up the dismantled goods. As word has spread about the possibility of reusing antique wood and others have gotten into the business, more materials are being recycled.

Betz says she receives calls every day from property owners and contractors. “I think more people are thinking, ‘I might be able to make a little money on this instead of just burning it,” she says.

While small, especially considering its national and even international reach, James & Company isn’t a one-man operation. The business relies on 13 employees, many skilled craftspeople, as well as three James family members.

Co-founder Roxanne James tells us more about the company.

LOOKOUT ALABAMA: How did the business
get its start?
ROXANNE JAMES: Donnie and I founded James & Company after selling our trim construction company to a partner in Montgomery.

The company was officially founded in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1995, and we moved back to Alabama in 1999 to be closer to family.

LA: We understand the company sells antique flooring and timbers, reclaimed brick and custom doors. Please tell us what else you offer and where these materials come from.
RJ: We also do custom windows, cabinets, furniture, beams and trusses by customers’ designs or ours.

Most of the heart pine comes out of buildings that are being dismantled in Chicago and around that area. A great deal of the heart pine was actually grown in the South and shipped to Chicago to rebuild after the Chicago Fire in the 1800s. Our heart pine has come from some pretty famous buildings in Chicago. We have a line of flooring that we make from the old Helene Curtis building and the Zenith building, both built in the 1920s.

We have had Douglas fir from the Old Salt Lake City train trestle and redwood from buildings in California that were built in the early 1900s. We have a large inventory of chestnut wood. A blight that came in 1907 killed almost every chestnut tree in the United States. About the only way to get American chestnut now is from reclaimed barns.

We also have a lot of antique oak that is supplied from northern areas out of barns and buildings.

One of our big sellers is mushroom wood. The wood is used as a growing platform for mushrooms, and the resulting planks are unique andhave a beautiful color and texture that is not found in any other wood.

LA: What type of work is done at your facilities?
RJ: At our main location in Lebanon (an unincorporated community near Collinsville, Ala.), we have a de-nail station where the wood is metal detected and all metal and nails are removed. After that, it goes to the sawmill, where it is sawn to size for whatever is needed for the order – beams or planks. We mill flooring to order and do all types of beam orders and truss systems. We have a portion of our shop where we build doors and windows, stairs and furniture.

We have a warehouse building in Fort Payne where we mostly store wood. Sometimes wood is prepared for the moulder at that building.

LA: What are the benefits of antique and reclaimed wood compared to new growth?
RJ: Besides just the richness and character that is seen in the old wood, the old-growth wood is a lot more stable – there is a lot less shrinkage and movement. And customers get to join us in the fight to save trees. A lot of them love the story behind where the wood came from. We do supply a certificate of authenticity by request.

LA: Who are your main customers and how do they typically use James & Company products?
RJ: Our customers are primarily builders and architects. We have a lot of customers we have been doing business with since we started. With increased Internet use, we do get a lot of customers who are just people searching for old wood to use as mantels and to add beams to their homes.

Donnie was a contractor, so he does a lot of takeoffs from architects’ plans where they request us to quote jobs using all our materials – for beams, flooring, stair treads, trim and for wherever else they need wood in the home or building.

We have had some pretty famous customers. Our first really big customer in Arizona was Old Tucson Studio. We supplied a majority of wood for the rebuild after it was destroyed by fire in 1994. Old Tucson Studio is where a lot of old movies about the Wild West were filmed. Donnie has become close friends with Marty Stuart over the years because of the wood as well as music. Donnie first supplied Marty with wood
to remodel Roy Orbison’s home that Marty and his wife, Connie Smith, purchased in Hendricksonville, Tenn. Marty and his band, The Fabulous Superlatives, have played at two events held at DreamField Outdoor Theater.

Another few are Benton and Jackie Dorrance, owners of Campbell’s Soup Company, Herb Alpert from the Tijuana Brass and owners of one of the Firestone family mansions in Pebble Beach, Calif., where we sent over $800,000 worth of antique white oak.

LA: Where are most of your customers from?
RJ: We ship products all over the U.S. and Canada and have shipped overseas before. When we first opened here, we were still shipping a lot all over the country. We were one of only several companies that did this type of business. Over the years, with more people doing this in other locations,
our business has gotten to be more localized, and fuel costs are definitely a factor. But we still have regular customers in places like Medford, Ore.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy?
RJ: We want our customers to be happy. Our business has been built primarily by word of mouth. We want to produce a good product that people can be proud of. We want our employees to be happy. Even though we’re a small company, we have benefits like paid vacation, paid holidays and insurance in order to keep quality employees.

LA: Why did the company choose Collinsville as a location?
RJ: We decided to leave Arizona when Donnie’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. We realized we were too far away from our family. We wanted to live in an area that had mountains as opposed to Montgomery, which was just flat. This property used to be a family farm. We still have our residence where the original residence was. It is right down the street from the business.

LA: What does the area offer employees in terms of work/life balance?
RJ: There are a lot of things to do in this area. There are music festivals, some beautiful parks and a lot of participation in school sports.

LA: What role does James & Company play in the community?
RJ: We recently supplied materials for the remodeling of a municipal building in Fort Payne. We are always donating and advertising to help with school events. We support the animal preserve Tigers for Tomorrow, and Donnie is on the board of directors. They have used our wood for den enclosures and construction of a classroom and souvenir shop.

Donnie built the DreamField Outdoor Theater, and we had a yearly Earth Day event to promote environmental issues. That is on hold right now, but we will be doing something with that again in the future.

LA: What are the company’s plans going forward?
RJ: We are in the process of the largest expansion in company history. Our flooring capacity is being increased by 200 percent. In the last year, we started end-matching our flooring. Our shop and storage facilities have doubled in size.

Our goal is to set up a dealer/distributor network throughout the Midwest and Southwest. We already have distributors in the Northeast and Northwest. We have been working with a company in the Netherlands and would like to increase our overseas market.

LA: What else should we know about James & Company?
RJ: Donnie believes 3,000 to 5,000 trees are saved every year due to our recycling old timbers. One of the most unique things about James & Company is to walk around the place with Donnie. His knowledge of wood, the stories behind where it came from and the history are his passions, and it shows.

Learn more at jamesandcompany.com.

The Dream Field

Donnie and Roxanne James launched DreamField Productions and Dream-Field Outdoor Theater in 2007 to promote environmental awareness. The 3,000-square-foot structure Donnie built out of reclaimed wood houses a recording studio with a backstage area for musicians and features a top-notch sound system and acoustics.

The outdoor theater is set in a 40-acre field in Wills Valley, between Lookout and Sand mountains, and is across the street from James & Company’s headquarters.

Many shows benefitting charities and promoting environmental awareness have been held at the venue, and the Jameses look forward to many more, but say without an alcohol permit the venture isn’t financially viable.

“We are in the process of trying to get it approved for an alcohol permit,” Roxanne James says. “We were not able to get enough sponsors to make a go of it without that.”

The Uptown Lowmen

James & Company founder Donnie James is also a guitarist and songwriter. He’s a member of the band Uptown Lowmen, which is set to release its debut album, “Low Down & Dirty,” soon, with tour dates to follow. The five member band features a self-described “reactionary, eclectic, indie” sound and was formed in 2010 to fill a slot at DreamField Theater’s Earth Day Festival. Hear a sampling of songs
and learn about upcoming performances at reverbnation.com/uptownlowmen.

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