Northern Illinois man finds new uses for parts of old barns

Phillip Hartman
Associated Press
Dan Sutton stands next to a barn beam that he has started to remove from a barn in rural Morrison, Ill.. The barn, located off of Route 30, is the 95th barn that Sutton has dismantled to reclaim the lumber since starting reclaiming lumber in 1980.

ROCK FALLS, Ill. (AP) - When Dan Sutton was learning contractor skills at his father Chet's side in Whiteside County, he took his advice to heart.

"He told me, 'Danny, save this lumber. They don't make it any more,'" the younger Sutton, now 62, said.

That bit of fatherly advice led Dan to open Barn Owls Reclaimed Lumber Co. 10 years ago. A two-person operation run by Sutton and his girlfriend, Rhonda Decelles, 55, the company carefully disassembles old barns to get the wood for reuse by builders, artists and others. 

In some ways, Barn Owls is itself coming full circle. Dan said his father, Chester Sutton, and uncle Don Sutton were contractors out of Lyndon after World War II.

"They did a lot of work for the farmers, and now I'm recycling the barns. I've been saving barns for 30-some years. One of our logos is 'Save the past, build the future,'" Sutton said.

Dan Sutton works to organize his selection of barn wood at his Barn Owls Reclaimed Lumber warehouse in Rock Falls. He has sections for red painted wood, white painted wood and "gray" or unfinished wood. Sutton also organizes it by size and condition.

While wood is a the biggest part of what Barn Owls recovers from barns, any materials left in the buildings are fair game.

"All artifacts in these barns that the farmer doesn't want, we reclaim that. The door hinges, whatever scrap stuff is in there, basically, is ours for the job," Sutton said.

The business' Facebook page features some of the works created from materials found in barns. One photo is of a fall planter made from a reclaimed livestock water tank, and another shows hog feeders turned into planter boxes.

Sutton's on his 95th barn so far, having just started to disassemble a barn on Morrison's west side near the intersection of state Route 78 and U.S. Route 30. He's willing to travel to work on a barn, working in Carroll, Lee, and Whiteside counties.

Some of the barn hardware that Dan Sutton has salvaged from barns.

"I'll supply anybody who wants to build anything. I'm trying to supply the lumber. I'll go to Ogle – wherever somebody's got a barn they want me to save and reclaim, I'll go a good distance," Sutton said.

Decelles handles the organization and pulls most of the nails (even those can be reclaimed). The work isn't fast-paced, since Barn Owls' aim is to disassemble the barn, not demolish it. Some jobs can take anywhere from a month to a year and a half.

Sutton has done some custom work with the wood he recovers, which a lot of contractors don't want to use.

"I've done room additions, furniture, and flooring," Sutton said.

After taking barns apart for a decade, Sutton's found a variety of unique items. He said the oldest wood he's found is cedar from a Civil War-era barn near Shabbona.

"The strangest thing is a lot of beautiful character in lumber that the animals chewed on. We call it horse chew or cow chew," Sutton said.

Even after all this time, old barns are still standing and in need of removal. Sutton will take people for a ride and point out where the barns are.

"When we go for a ride, they say, 'I've never noticed them.' Barns are out there standing, but they're too much expense because the farmers don't have the livestock. They're falling down," Sutton said – and when those barns do come down, Barn Owls will be there to pick up the pieces.