Walk up to Fred and Jane Ridpath’s front door and you’re greeted first by an inviting bench fashioned from an old Chevy pickup tailgate. Then by a one-of-a-kind table created from a treadle sewing machine base topped with an electric-wire spool. Nearby, a screen door sprouts an impressive key collection.
“I never really collected all this stuff,” said Fred, 46, of Oxford, Nebraska. “It just started collecting around me.”
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Years before it became a national trend, the couple latched onto the repurposing craze in home décor. Inside and outside of their modest home are the fruits of their scavenging and labors: old refrigerators, washtubs, wringer washers, vintage doors, flooring, manhole covers and even the ubiquitous vacuum cleaner, from a 1915 Hoover on up.
Fred inherited his salvaging calling from his dad, a carpenter by trade. He would help his dad tear down old houses, barns and other structures that were destined for the bulldozer and save the weathered barn wood, tongue-and-groove flooring and other reusable items prized by many. Jane learned the value from her grandfather, who built his own house from salvaged wood and even molded his own bricks. “He used to say, ‘If you don’t have a use for it, find a use for it,’” she said.
It’s that philosophy that drove the Ridpaths to reject what they see as a “throwaway” culture and create what has now become their business and source of income.
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One day years ago, city officials called Fred and asked him to take over a property that needed to be torn down because it was unsafe—his first job as a house salvager. “They were amazed,” Fred said. “We took everything, including the kitchen sink.”
That first job led to more. Currently, the Ridpaths own four houses that Fred plans to dismantle piece by piece. The couple proudly says that they recycle at least 70 percent of their teardowns. From unsafe, dilapidated houses they can salvage wood flooring, doors, windows and frames, light fixtures, siding, even concrete, which goes to a customer who grinds it down to make coarse concrete that doesn’t puddle. But shingles and plaster are slated for the landfill.
Trash To Treasure
They do it, they say, because they hate to see old things wasted in a landfill and because it makes them a good living. Some of the pieces they salvage may catch Jane’s eye as “keepers.” But most are sold to architects, designers, decorators and artists because, after all, they are not hoarders. They use eBay, Craigslist and other online sites to advertise their finds, but they also sell items face-to-face at flea markets and other venues. They are members of a Facebook group called Nebraska Architectural Salvage and Junktique. Fred also favors big modern cities like Colorado Springs, Colorado, which has a number of wealthy people but not much old junk.
Whether it’s Victorian, arts-and-crafts, art nouveau, shabby chic, industrial or steampunk, Fred said he sees a demand for unusual items that otherwise would be buried in a landfill.
“I can’t see it all going to the dump,” he said. “Even trailers have metal and copper that can be recycled. And copper at one point was bringing $4 a pound.”
Buyers are using architectural ornaments not only to restore old homes but to add visual interest to new homes. Old doors turned sideways, Fred said, are sought after for headboards. Porch columns, peeling paint attached, can double as pieces of art in front of an otherwise dull wall. Old store signs can lend a historical flavor to a contemporary interior.
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Doors can bring anywhere from $20 to $150, depending on the wood and ornamentation. Flooring can bring from 50 cents to $3 a board. Wood flooring on a typical house can sell for $3,000 or more if the house has some historical value, but as Fred said, “You’ll earn it.” Some customers want old cabinet-style TVs to turn into aquariums. Carpenters want barnwood for cabinetry.
Not all architectural salvage is valuable at first sight. For example, old wooden ladders are in demand by country-home decorators. One customer buys fan blades to put in trees. When the wind blows, the blades spin.
Fred even sold an outhouse to a customer in nearby Arapahoe, Nebraska. “He stained it all up, carved out a half moon and installed it in his yard as a tool shed.”
Sitting in the couple’s dining room is an old barn door on which an artist friend painted a pastoral scene of—what else—an old barn.
“There are some creative people out there,” Fred said. Some get their inspiration from the do-it-yourself project websites like hometalk.com and pinterest.com, which have further raised the demand for old things.
Other than cuts and occasional bruises, one particular hazard the couple faces when taking down old houses is the presence of asbestos, the fire retardant that has been found to cause lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.
“First thing is you have to have an asbestos inspection,” Fred said. “If it’s fine dust or powdery, you have to bring a company in to remove it and that can get expensive.” Asbestos can also be found in old linoleum tile, shingles and even glue. “You are taking a risk if you don’t have proper equipment,” he said.
And there are other hazards of the trade. Fred likes to tell the story of a house that had been occupied by a hoarder. He stepped inside and nearly gagged from all the trash and had to wear a Class III respirator because the owner also kept a dozen or so cats.
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“But underneath all this trash were antiques from his relatives who had operated a feed and appliance store,” Fred said with a hardy laugh. “When they closed the store, they brought all this neat stuff home.”
At another house, the floor had caved in from the weight of three pallets loaded with cast-iron meat grinders. He sold the valuable ones and hauled the rest to a recycling center.
“It is amazing the treasures you can find in some of these old places,” Fred said.
The Scavenger Style Spectrum
The term refers to popular styles during the Victorian era, which is associated with the reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria, 1837-1901. It is an eclectic mix of historical influences, including Japanese, Middle Eastern, Gothic and Tudor. Victorian home exteriors, furniture, walls and floors are usually highly ornamented, elaborate and rich in color.
ARTS & CRAFTS STYLE:
Emerging in the late 1800s, this design style was a reaction to the extreme “fussiness” of Victorian design with its reliance on mass-produced but poorly made decorative pieces. Instead, the arts and crafts movement emphasized quality craftsmanship, clean lines and simplicity.
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Popular starting in the 1980s, this decorating style can be described as emphasizing rustic or cottage elegance, an effect achieved by the use of white or soft pastel paints on distressed but good-quality furniture and decorative pieces. Layers of peeling paint are preserved on old items or added to new ones to achieve the effect of careworn furnishings. The term “shabby chic” was coined by fashion designer Rachel Ashwell in the late 1980s.
Drawing on science fiction of the Victorian era, steampunk harks back to a time that never was but only imagined in the minds of such writers as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Objects that suggest steampunk may be steam-power equipment, gears, pulleys or the interiors of clockworks. Ship portholes or other fittings, especially if made of brass, would fit well in steampunk décor.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.