MILLERSBURG — There's something tragic about a tumble-down old barn, slumping abandoned and unused beside the road.
When Millersburg resident Carolyn Linton sees an aging barn, she sees opportunity. Her furniture company, Green Meadow Barn Company, turns old barn wood into sturdy handcrafted furniture — and reclaims the wood's history in the process.
"It's a way to preserve our heritage," Linton said.
Linton's interest in carpentry started when she was a little girl growing up on the family farm near Chillicothe. She'd take scraps of wood and turn them into toys for herself and her brother. She also remembers sitting in the family's barn, looking at the beams and thinking about how fun it would be to turn a barn into a house.
"I have no idea where I got the idea," Linton said.
Decades later, she married her husband and the pair moved into a home in Columbia. Low on cash, Linton decided to ask her father for some spare wood from the farm and turn it into antique-style furniture. She planned to scrap the furniture once she'd saved up enough money to buy new items.
"Then, people wanted to buy it," she said.
Linton honed her skills working as a general contractor and building her own house, complete with "28 old doors that were swinging when Abe Lincoln was president." And when her dad passed away, Linton inherited the family barn, built in 1894. She disassembled it, loaded it onto a truck and hauled it to her 30-acre farm in Callaway County.
"I spent all summer cleaning and sanding all of those beams," she said. "It's hard to get 50 men together to raise a barn nowadays, so I had to borrow a crane."
Linton salvaged two more barns: one she converted into her home, and another now holds piles and piles of reclaimed barn wood.
"At the time I built my house, people started telling me about old barns that were available," Linton said. "So I went to see all of those. Now people call me, but at first I had to drive around looking for barns and hopping fences."
She realized she prefers building furniture to rehabilitating entire barns. About 22 years ago, she officially launched Green Meadow Barn Company and turned her love of reclaimed wood into a full-time business. Linton still builds most of the pieces herself, though she's working on training an apprentice.
"My heart wants to let those barns live on and let their significance be recognized, their reputation of strength and dignity be saved," Linton said. "But many aren't suitable for restoration."
Linton admires the hard work and ingenuity that went into the barns — built at a time when nails were expensive, many used a system of wooden pegs to hold the structure together.
Even those that can't be rebuilt can still serve families for decades more when converted into furniture. The tables, benches, boxes and more Linton builds wear their history proudly: Some still have old red paint staining their surfaces, while others have nail holes. And every piece is marked with a pewter medallion showing the barn from which its wood was reclaimed and the year it was built. Linton also writes the history of the barn somewhere on each piece.
There was a time when Linton didn't get the appeal natural flaws bring to wood, she admitted. For a while, she chose only the most intact boards for her furniture and sanded off every scrap of paint. But a fellow artist changed her mind. Brian Mahieu, a plein air painter who lived in Fulton at the time, offered to swap her a painting for one of her tables.
"I said, 'Why don't you choose the boards,'" she recalled. "So he looked through my boards — 'Oh, this one has bodacious grain' — and then he asked, 'Where are the nail holes?'"
Linton was surprised Mahieu would want a hole-y board in his table, but he eventually sold her on the character that kind of imperfection can bring to a piece. Now, she sees preserving those "flaws" as one of the ways she can preserve a barn's heritage.
"In 50 years, I want someone to turn over (one of my pieces) and say, 'Oh, that's where this came from,'" she said. "One lady in St. Louis, she bought a table from me. She told me that every time her daughter has friends over, she'll get down on her hands and knees and read them the history of the barn from the bottom of the table."
Find Linton's work at greenmeadowbarncompany.com or at the annual Best of Missouri Market at the Missouri Botanical Garden. To visit Linton's Callaway County show room (1626 Quail Run, Fulton), call 573-592-0331 and set up an appointment.