Mother Earth Living

Salvaged Soul: A Salvaged Wood Home in West Virginia

Willie Drake's family retreat in the West Virginia mountains exemplifies his life's work: salvaging and reusing beautiful old lumber.
By Judy Ostrow
November/December 2007
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A deck overlooks the trout stream that flows past the house. As a gift to the Drakes, builder Bruce Wohleber fashioned a handmade Adirondack chair for each family member.
Photo By Michael Shopenn

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Made entirely of salvaged wood rescued from across the country, Willie Drake’s unique home in the West Virginia mountains is the perfect ambassador for his reclaimed wood business. Willie’s company, Mountain Lumber, gives wood from across the globe a second life; the organization has rescued more than 20 million board feet of pine and other woods since it opened in 1974. Willie’s home is a beautiful embodiment of his business’s motto: “Every floor has a story to tell.” The kitchen counters are reclaimed Russian oak from 1920s railroad cars; cabinets are local wormy chestnut. The redwood porch flooring hails from a Richmond, Virginia, water tank; the porch’s columns are from a 19th-century Massachusetts textile mill.

In the early 1970s, Willie was a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, but he felt a longing to be closer to nature. He left the university in search of a lifestyle that would keep him outdoors, near the woods and mountains he loved.

Willie began working as a carpenter, a chance job that ended up sparking his life’s passion when a contractor asked him to find some chestnut for a client. It was the perfect job. The hunt for old chestnut—virtually decimated in North America by blight in the 1930s—meant using his skills as an outdoorsman and put him in contact with the people and terrain of backwoods West Virginia.

“I became totally excited by the idea of looking for salvageable wood,” Willie says. “It gave me a reason to be in the mountains, kept me in contact with the mountain people, whom I’ve always enjoyed, and gave me a good product to sell to my friends.”

Soon he’d moved beyond the backwoods and began scouring cities for wood to salvage from deconstruction and redevelopment sites.

Surfaces with stories to tell

While Mountain Lumber is based in Ruckersville, Virginia, Willie continues to trade in reclaimed wood throughout the West Virginia mountains. He and his wife, Lisa, and their two small children enjoy the area so much that they built a vacation home there on a pristine trout stream surrounded by thousands of acres of national forest.

Willie worked with architect Jay Dalgliesh—another Virginian with ties to the mountains—and local builder Bruce Wohleber to create the 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom house with an open porch and a massive outdoor hearth built from stone gathered on the property. “We didn’t need a huge house,” Willie says, “because there’s so much to do outside.” Hiking, fishing and cross-country skiing are right out the back door.

Willie used reclaimed wood for nearly every part of the house, from the floors to the ceilings, built-ins to cladding. The crew only used new lumber for the frame. The home’s interior glows with the patina of aged timber; outside, cypress board-and-batten siding harmonizes beautifully with the rustic, wooded surroundings. The home’s beauty works to Willie’s advantage as both homeowner and businessman. “We bought about 40,000 square feet of the cypress [we used on the house’s siding] in Michigan, but when clients saw it, they passed because they thought it looked too dirty,” Willie says. “Once we cleaned it up and I used it for the house, customers could see how beautiful it was. We sold out of our supply in six months.”
“Salvaging lumber is a green practice,” Willie says, “and I love it for that reason. But ultimately, what engages people with this product is its unique look and what that look accomplishes. Old timber has a warmth and a patina that cannot be duplicated.”

A Conversation with the Homeowner

What advice would you offer other homebuilders?

WILLIE DRAKE: Really research your builder. When you find one with whom you get along, be willing to wait for him to be available. We’ve built several homes, and the best projects were those in which the builder we hired was our first choice. You just can’t overestimate the importance of a craftsman who will listen, offer helpful suggestions and make you feel comfortable through the process.

What was your favorite part of this project?

WILLIE: I love the originality of the house and the fact that every part you see is reclaimed wood.

What’s your favorite room?

WILLIE: My choice is the sunroom. It brings the outside in and puts me close to nature, even if the weather’s bad. My children’s favorite is the tower room. Being up high among the treetops makes them feel like they’re in a fort.

What would you change?

WILLIE: It would have been nice to add a sleeping porch off the master bedroom. It was in the original plan but didn’t fit in our budget. Sleeping porches are a great traditional feature in the South, and I personally love using one. But even without it, the house suits us very well.

The Good Stuff

■ Reclaimed wood is used throughout the house.

■ Local stone is harvested right from the property.

■ The massive stone chimney provides passive-solar advantages by storing the sun’s rays, which add to the home’s warmth in winter.

■ The home’s vertical design creates a more compact structural footprint, so less land had to be cleared to build it.

■ Wood used on the ceilings and some walls is stained white to reflect and enhance natural light.

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