Historic barns are being stripped by thieves to fuel farmhouse chic trend
BURKESVILLE, Ky. — Just off a bend in the Cumberland River stands a weathered tobacco barn whose split and slivered planks have gone missing piece by piece.
Lois "Nan" Coffey, 95, points in exasperation with her tobacco pole cane at the gaping holes and absent barn doors that have left the structure stripped bare in places, like a skeleton with bones missing.
The barn is where her late husband, J.D. Coffey, a mechanic and reluctant farmer, once helped the family cure tobacco four-tiers high, and the breeze still carries remnants of the burley's dry, earthy scent.
Nan can't be sure how long those missing planks and doors have been gone — the doors had been stored inside the barn for years — but she knows what happened to them: thieves stole them.
In fact, her family called the county sheriff, placed a notice in the weekly Cumberland County News and put up cameras and floodlights in case the thieves decide to return. And if they get bold, Nan says she still has a pistol hidden in the house.
"Well, sure, I'd fire at 'em," she said. "I'd love to get it out."
Barnwood thieves have been stealing Kentucky memories across the commonwealth — from Todd to Russell counties — not for what's in them but to feed a growing desire for the Chip and Joanna Gaines' aesthetic of farmhouse chic. That is, taking ancient, weathered barnwood and using it to make a new house look old.
Sheriffs across the state have seen some barns stripped down to their frames and aluminum roofs. Law enforcement officials say there’s not much they can do to stop the thieves or to track down the wood.
But it has become such a problem that buyers of weathered wood have taken to asking for W-9 tax forms from those looking to sell.
Farmers in other states have also seen their timeworn wood stripped: Tennessee, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, South Carolina and Montana have had a few cases, though reports are rare.
But in Kentucky, with more old barns per square mile than any other state, barnwood thieving has been a problem for years. Call a sheriff to ask about a barn theft case, and he's just as likely to ask which one.
Theft cases have been reported in at least 13 Kentucky counties — Adair, Barren, Casey, Cumberland, Grayson, Hardin, Hart, Logan, Marion, Monroe, Russell, Todd and Warren — and there's no end in sight.
Barns stripped bare
Cumberland County Sheriff Scot Daniels can tick off a handful of thefts so far this year: two in Salt Lick Bend; one off of 485; another on North 61 off of 704; and then, there's the Coffeys' place.
In the community of about 6,700, seeing 20 or more barns pillaged in a given year isn’t uncommon, Daniels said. Some years, there's more.
"Someone will go back to their barns in tobacco time and the side will be gone," Daniels said. "The thing is trying to prove it, because you don’t know when it was taken."
Barren County Deputy Mike Houchens said not long ago, around Christmas, his office worked an investigation in which five barns were hit along isolated Mayhew Road.
Local lumber buyers are on "high alert" for stolen boards. When police ask, Houchens said they'll keep an eye out for anyone peddling wood that matches the quantity, color and age of what was taken.
"They tell us it's like a fingerprint on this wood," he said.
Todd County Sheriff Tracy White thinks his office has worked 10 to 15 cases in the last couple of years.
"We haven’t had as much of it lately because they’ve about stripped every barn that we’ve got," White said with a chuckle.
When White says the barns are stripped, he's not exaggerating.
"We’ve got barns that are standin’ that are nothing but the frame and the roof left," he said.
Arrests are few and far between. Hundred-year-old barn boards don't have serial numbers, and thieves usually work at night and away from main roads. Besides, in a lot of communities, seeing someone in a barn isn't the least bit suspicious.
But police still say the best bet for busting a thief is catching them in the act. Cumberland County deputies arrested a duo at a barn with hammers and crowbars in their truck.
In Logan County, after a buyer turned away someone trying to sell barn doors, police nabbed the thief and recovered wood that had been stolen in neighboring Todd County.
The Clarkson Police Department and Grayson County Sheriff's Office are pursuing a case against two men they say were found stealing several thousands of dollars' worth of boards off a barn last fall.
"I've had a few people that said, ‘They’ll try to put them in the penitentiary for stealin’ some lumber?'" Cumberland County's Daniels said. "Yeah. You know, bud? It’s still not yours to take. You’re still on someone else’s property that you’re not supposed to be on. You could be messin’ up their livelihood if that barn is used for farmin'."
Compared with what police in other states see, Kentucky is a veritable hotbed of barnwood purloining. But it is happening elsewhere, if not as frequently, officers say.
"No, no, no," said Jeff McCarter, a chief detective in Sevier County, Tennessee. "I've known it happen, personally, twice."
Oconee County, South Carolina, Sheriff Mike Crenshaw could remember a handful of cases during his 32 years in law enforcement.
"I can think of three or four instances … of wood being taken off of barns over time, or in some cases, the rusted tin," Crenshaw said.
Reclaimed wood's popularity exploded in recent years
The undeniable truth is that reclaimed wood is having a moment.
A quick search of Pinterest will give DIYers an endless stream of ideas for projects. Etsy returns more than 98,000 results for "reclaimed wood."
Chic restaurants are working the wood into their designs, and people want it in their homes, too.
"New, holding on and here to stay," Leslie Lewis Sheets, owner of LL&A Interior Design in downtown Jeffersonville, Indiana, said of reclaimed boards. "It's here and it's popular. Especially in Kentucky."
Her firm recently completed projects that used the raw timber on ceilings, floors and the backs of bookcases. Barnwood doesn't have the expense of stone or tile, is lower maintenance than a smooth, painted wall, and is more modern than paneling or wallpaper.
“If it’s weathered, it takes on the brown tones, the grays, some washed paint that may have been applied," Lewis Sheets said. "The texture. It’s welcoming. It's warm."
Justin Nagler, owner of Kentucky WiseWood in Louisville, said maybe five years ago, no one really knew how big the barnwood trend would become.
"At first, folks just wanted the barn down, and they weren't even trying to sell it," he said. "I've seen it change from 'Come grab it,' to 'How much will you pay me to take this barn?'"
Nagler said he got a call a week or two ago from someone offering to sell their barn — before it got stolen anyway.
Mike Serafini, purchaser for Lexington's Old World Timber, said he can look at barnwood and tell if it was a part of a clean takedown or a rushed job that might have been done by thieves. If the wood looks beaten and is in smaller quantities, that seller is probably going to be turned away.
"There's a hurried look to it," he said, "almost like they're ripping it off."
Old World Timber now asks people looking to sell wood to fill out a W-9, tax documentation for independent contractors.
"That's how we keep everything legit," Serafini said.
And if they refuse? "Those are the people you usually don’t see anymore.”
A barn's wood can net its owner anywhere between a couple of hundred and a couple of thousand dollars, depending on its size and condition. Wholesalers buy the wood for around 80 cents to $2 per board foot and sell it for $4.35 and up, depending on what it's made of and its thickness.
Nagler thinks the wood's history is one of the coolest parts about reclaimed materials: being able to look at a hand-hewn beam and see the ax marks, and seeing the old wood and knowing it's from nearby.
And maybe, Kentucky barnwood in particular has a little something extra for those looking to purchase it.
"Even if they’ve grown up here and they move away," Lewis Sheets, the interior designer, said, "it may remind them of home, or younger days, or visiting family that lived on a farm."
'Greedy and no-good' thieves
Nan reckons the pieces stolen from her barn are probably somewhere in a nice house by now, part of a picture frame or furniture.
Having the boards stolen is an invasion of her space and property, she said, but it doesn't make her angry.
“I guess that I’m older and material things don’t mean as much to me, I’d say."
But in case those "greedy and no-good" thieves come back, Nan says her pistol in a safe place for when she needs it.