In the six years that former Texas County resident Joseph Neal has owned and operated his business known as The Barn Savers, he has orchestrated the disassembling of more than 250 vintage barns and other buildings in several states and seen to it that much of the old wood from those structures is repurposed.
One of his latest projects took place this spring in Houston, when Neal and Company took down the old cannery building on Mill Street. His first project was an old barn east of Houston.
“We’ve come a long way,” Neal said. “Dismantling old barns and buildings is tedious but rewarding work. I never dreamed it would get to the point we’re at now.”
According to information found in archived Houston Herald articles, the cannery building was constructed in 1925 and for many years was home to the Houston Canning Factory, which was owned by Jack McCaskill & Son, who also ran the adjacent McCaskill & Son Roller Mill. The cannery produced the popular McCaskill brand of canned tomatoes, along with a large amount of canned beans. The structure was later used as storage space for the mill.
The white oak used to build much of the cannery is known for its durability.
“The building had surprisingly little damage,” Neal said. “There was a little water damage on the outer part, but there wasn’t any bug damage.”
A former Cabool resident who now lives in Conway, Neal grew up outside Plato and attended high school there before obtaining his GED and joining the U.S. Army as an engineer. He first looked at the cannery several years ago when it was under different ownership and ultimately connected by its current owner who was interested in having it removed.
“He knew we would salvage all usable materials,” Neal said, “and the history could live on through repurposing versus them dozing it and it ending up in a landfill.”
Basically, Neal has turned something he loves into a profession, as he has always had a passion for history. After being medically discharged from the Army, he attended college and considered becoming a history teacher but instead ended up with a degree in business project management.
“I enjoyed working with wood and stone in my youth,” Neal said, “and once I began dismantling and repurposing barns, the business took off.”
Always trying to find ways to expand and explore new methods of repurposing old materials, Neal is now milling flooring and accent walls, and learning to timber frame.
“I have a lot of pride in what I do,” he said. “I think it’s important that we share the past with today’s generation and tomorrow’s, and I think what my business and others like it are doing is good for the environment, because we aren’t cutting new lumber or throwing all these materials into landfills.”
Neal said he hopes his children can eventually take charge of the business and teach the next generation, while also providing a living for their families.
He said there are a few projects he has completed that stand out from the rest, including working on the Globe Elevator building in Superior, Wisc., which was the largest structure of its kind when it was built in 1887 using over 3 million board feet of old growth white pine and oak (more information on the massive building is available online at oldglobewood.com).
Another was a barn belonging to a man and woman in Texas County.
“The family barn meant a lot to them and was actually built by his father,” Neal said. “For them to allow me to salvage the materials so that they could live another life meant a lot to me. In fact, I built two beds out of some of the materials for my boys. I still have the beds, and they are one of the first builds I did out of reclaimed barnwood.”
Neal and The Barn Savers are also donating local reclaimed wood and other materials (as well as man hours) to help Houston native and outdoor author Larry Dablemont with the construction of a museum dedicated to the early history of the Big Piney River region.
“To be a part of something like that is really wonderful,” he said.
Neal knows he can’t save every barn or building he and his cohorts come across, so he has compiled a nationwide network of reputable reclaimers to help customers with their needs. One of those is his cousin Kendall Thomas, who recently started his own business right here in Texas County: Missouri Reclaimed Timber.
“After years of working alongside myself and others, I feel confident Kendall can take care of clients’ needs,” Neal said. “Having the ability to connect folks and take care of them is something that means a lot to me. God has really blessed me in this industry, and I want to help others any way I can.”
The Barn Savers primarily work the Midwest, with Missouri, Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky being the main areas of focus. They have also completed projects in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Texas.
Neal currently has contracts to disassemble more than 90 barns. Wood saved in the process finds new life in numerous forms of furniture and household items, like tables, mantles, doors, flooring and more. Siding from the cannery building will be used in the construction of a cabin on the Big Piney River.
The Barn Savers’ slogan is “saving history, one board at a time.”
“I think it is important that prospective clients understand what we do and why we do what we do,” Neal said. “We’re not out to tear down every beautiful barn in America. We target barns and buildings that are damaged beyond realistic repair and provide a service that comes at little to no cost to our clients. In return, the story gets told and we take the weathered materials and turn them into beautiful pieces to be enjoyed for generations to come.”
More information about The Barn Savers and Joseph Neal can be found online. Neal can be reached by phone at 417-554-1659 and Thomas can be reached at 309-276-7205.