CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Mark Bowe specializes in making old things new again.
For the last 16 years, he has traveled all over the United States dismantling, reconditioning and reassembling old barns and log cabins.
Sometimes he and his crew put the structures back together just as they were built. Other times, they use reclaimed materials to build modern homes that only look centuries old.
And while the business is only a part-time venture for Bowe — he’s a full-time insurance salesman in White Sulphur Springs and intends to keep that job — his business could soon gain nationwide attention.
The DIY Network recently aired the pilot episode of “Barnwood Builders,” a show about Antique Cabins and Barns LLC, Bowe’s Greenbrier County business.
The episode, which aired last month, focused on Bowe and his workers as they took down an Indian barn built in the 1800s by Abraham Lincoln’s uncle Josiah. They used the wood to build a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
It’s not yet clear whether “Barnwood Builders” will be granted a full season on DIY. Network executives are currently in meetings to decide which shows it will pick up for the 2014 schedule.
Bowe seems optimistic about his chances, however.
He said DIY’s viewers jumped by 33 percent when the show’s pilot episode premiered Nov. 1.
Bowe began reclaiming old lumber in the 1990s while working as the human resources director for Independence Coal in Madison.
One of his coworkers asked Bowe to help take demolish an old building. Bowe found the structure was made of rare wormy chestnut, so he kept the wood and resold it. He then found another old barn, took it apart, and sold the lumber.
The business started taking off, so he quit his job at the coal company. The decision was a little too hasty, however.
“Three months later (I) figured out not everybody was going to buy what I was selling,” Bowe said.
He had to take a job in Knoxville to make ends meet, while continuing his reclamation business on the side. He eventually made enough to move back to West Virginia, set up shop in Greenbrier County and formed his business, Antique Cabins and Barns, 16 years ago.
In the beginning, Bowe just drove around West Virginia’s back roads looking for old buildings.
“I just knocked on doors,” he said.
He eventually made his way to Kentucky, where he met fellow reclaimers Johnny Jett and Sherman Thompson. The men became fast friends, and Jett and Thompson eventually began working for Bowe in 1998.
Since then they have completed dozens of projects, everything from backyard potting sheds to multi-million dollar homes.
Antique Cabins and Barns was hired to build a recreation of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home, which now stands in Lincoln’s presidential library in Springfield, Ill.
The company also built a recreation of a slave’s cabin at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate in Virginia.
But Bowe said one of his proudest accomplishments was a refurbished Logan County cabin that now stands in the West Virginia Culture and History Museum.
The museum’s former cabin was made of telephone polls.
“Even when I was a kid on field trips, I remember thinking, ‘That’s not a real cabin.’ Twenty years later I got to build a real cabin,” he said.
When Bowe and company find an old building, they number and tag each piece before taking it apart. The disassembled structure is then shipped to Antique Cabins’ “bone yard” in Neola, just a few miles outside White Sulphur Springs. That’s where the restoration process begins.
“After 150 years, the corners aren’t level, the tops have sagged. There’s quite a bit of work to make these old houses livable again,” he said.
The old materials are full of irregularities. No two logs and no two floorboards are cut the same, so everything has to be custom fit by Bowe’s crew.
They replace logs that are deteriorated, carve new notches in the logs to create tight seals and treat the lumber for bugs. All the work is done by hand, either with modern power tools or old-school hand tools.
“When you’re taking out a big hunk of log you use a power tool. When you’re refining it to get a watertight fit, you have to do that by hand,” Bowe said.
While structures are sometimes reconstructed in their original form, Antique Cabins often uses old materials to build new, modern structures.
That way, the houses have all the comforts of modern living — like modern plumbing and granite countertops — while maintaining an old-timey charm.
“It’s something real. Something handcrafted. Something manmade. It takes you back to a simpler time,” he said. “You wonder where the logs came from and who built them. It seems like you take less for granted.”
He said the old logs, boards, joists and timbers also create an atmosphere that cannot be duplicated with new materials.
“If you step foot into an old log building, all of your senses are engaged. You have the smell of the fire. You have the sound of a creaking old board or a thumb latch that’s been made by a blacksmith. It’s visually appealing, because of the irregularities,” Bowe said. “It just feels safer.”
The idea for a television show based on Bowe’s business began back in 2004.
An independent filmmaker named Rick Caplan stopped into Bowe’s office to ask about building a log cabin on his upstate New York property.
Bowe was busy at the time, but suggested Caplan visit the “bone yard” a few miles out of town and come back later. He did, and became so interested in Bowe’s business he asked if he could come back and shoot video.
Caplan produced a short film called “Down Home,” which is still available on Bowe’s website (www.antique
cabinsandbarns.com). He entered the film in some festivals and sparked some interest from cable networks, although nothing materialized.
Caplan eventually got the DIY Network to agree to a pilot episode of a reality television show based on Bowe and his crew.
“He’s been the driving force behind this. We’ve just been working,” Bowe said.
And while he seems a bit reluctant to become a television star, Bowe said he hopes the show will help combat stereotypes about his home state.
“I’m tired of seeing West Virginians at the top of the list on the bad categories and at the bottom of the list on good categories. We have to represent ourselves with respect,” he said. “The image we put out for West Virginia is one of hard work, family, loyalty and honesty.”
You can watch the pilot episode of Barnwood Builders at www.vimeo.com/77812671.