If you were to find yourself meandering through the rivers, creeks and streams of inland Charleston County during the warmer months, you might come upon an earnest young man in a wetsuit driving a mysterious contraption through the murky water. If his little dingy is lashed to a jerry-rigged pontoon boat piled high with a giant winch, that would be Justin Herrington, diving for treasures hidden in the muck and mire of our waterways.
Buried gold and diamonds? No, nothing so prosaic.
We’re talking logs. Virgin, dense, old-growth cypress and longleaf heart pine. Some stood for 4,000 years before they were chopped down and left in their watery tombs by 18th-and 19th-century loggers.
Early European settlers used the tidal flows to transport their quarry to the many sawmills that dotted the waterfront in those days. In the process of felling old-growth trees with axes and lashing them together for their trip downstream, loggers left hundreds of sections to roll away or sink, only to be discovered and retrieved by an intrepid and enterprising 21st-century entrepreneur. Those virgin forests have been wiped out, so the wood Herrington dredges is irreplaceable.
So begins the life of the wood that Herrington and his partner, furniture maker Bill Long, fashion into gorgeous furniture, floor planks and more. Old-growth virgin cypress siding covers historical Charleston homes, and heart pine beams continue to support the roofs of homes south of Broad Street— homes that have weathered devastating winds and war over the years.
Yet, Herrington’s resurrected wood is just as durable. Because old-growth trees competed fiercely for sunlight, they grew slowly and their annual rings crowded together. Soft or hard, old-growth lumber is strong, and, having been preserved underwater for centuries, it emerges from the depths prepared for a second act better than new-growth or farm-raised timber could ever be.
Because trees aren’t being harvested, Born Again Heartwoods is the ultimate green business. But the unique value of these reclaimed timbers might lie in what we think about when we view them. After all, these trees date as far back as the Bronze Age. Some were around when East Asians marched across the land bridge from Russia to Alaska. They were here when Romans ruled the world and Jesus was crucified. The stories they could tell!
In Herrington’s and Long’s hands, the timbers have new stories to tell as they become tables, cabinets, bar tops, flooring and paneling, artwork and more. “People come for the story but leave with quality and beauty,” Herrington says.
So what would possess a college-educated native of Meggett, South Carolina, to search the ribbons of water around his home for “sinker logs” and wrestle them onto shore? Why would he invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and permits to dig up these sleeping giants? And how did he learn the techniques?
It turns out that Justin Herrington was just the man for the job. His dingy, sawmill, pontoon boat and winch—not to mention hundreds of drying pieces of lumber—sit on the 10 acres of property where he was raised and his parents still live. Growing up hunting and fishing these parts, he knows the byways that support his habit. He also does his homework to learn where the old sawmills once stood.
Having come of age in his dad’s farm equipment business, he knows how to fashion an apparatus that will hoist timber from river depths and how to dry wood that’s been soaking up water since before George Washington was born.
Partner Bill Long traded his suit and tie for the life of a craftsman. He has been creating and restoring “pieces of art that happen to be furniture” for 40 years. Long uses only period techniques to create furniture that could fool even the most vigilant experts on the Antiques Roadshow.
Every piece of furniture he creates is one of a kind, because every piece of wood has its own unique history. Preserving what was once lost and special appeals to Long, who often fashions furniture around a signature feature of the wood— even an imperfection, like a knot or a pecky (a pecky is a hole in cypress caused by a fungus).
The Dewberry, a new hotel across Meeting Street from Marion Square, commissioned Long to create a giant table. He used the root ball from a massive water oak—usually discarded when fashioning furniture—and turned it upside down to form a table top. Since old-growth wood is durable and rot-resistant, The Dewberry will, for decades, own and display a gorgeous piece of furniture that has no comparison.
Born Again Heartwoods boasts a breathtaking variety of high-end slabs, panels and furniture that touch us in a way other products can’t. The warmth and character of the wood, its rich, natural coloring, add meaning to each piece. While these products are top quality, they’re sold at reasonable prices that make them accessible to potential customers. In sum, the elegance, romance and value of virgin old-growth wood is undeniable.
Barry Waldman is principal of Big Fly Communications, a public relations and marketing firm for small businesses and nonprofits.