Rural Crookston couple creates beauty one board at a time
CROOKSTON, Minn. — How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Well, that depends. If the woodchuck is named Benoit and you're talking about 100-year-old wood, the answer would be: None. Not a sliver.
That beaten-up chicken coop out back of the trees. The falling-down granary. The sagging barn with not a stitch of stain left are all treasures not to be wasted.
Jason and Lacey Benoit, of Benoit's Barnwood in Crookston, wouldn't chuck a single board.
The couple, who live on a farm outside Crookston with their three young boys and another baby on the way, might be the Chip and Joanna Gaines of northwest Minnesota — you know, the very popular hosts of HGTV's hit home renovation series "Fixer Upper."
Like the Gaineses of Waco, Texas, the Benoits tend to see the world a little differently. Where some people see a rickety, ramshackle building, the Benoits see rustic beauty — and maybe a giant-sized farm table, a wall of hand-hewn oak and a heavy-duty, wide-plank bench.
"When I look up and see certain boards or certain cuts, I already can envision the things it will be," Jason says. "I saw this table as soon as I walked into the barn. I said, 'This is going to be a great table.' "
The table he imagined with its live edges and cross-leg supports now weighs about 400 pounds and is covered with an impenetrable coat of epoxy, the initials of its new owners engraved in tiny script on top.
"We strive for quality, and we want to give them something different," Jason says. "Not something you can just go downtown to get. We want to give people what they want, and we want them to love it."
Quality, craftsmanship and functionality are an important part of any piece the Benoits build. Inside the couple's downtown office and showroom, Jason demonstrates by hopping atop a sturdy tack box made to carry horse bridles and bits, socks, shin guards and the like.
"I would park my pickup on that. It's structurally correct," he says with another hop. "Sure, you can go to a big-box store and buy a bench, but it might last only three years. I build things so they don't wobble ... anything that shakes and wobbles, pretty soon the leg starts to come loose and, pretty soon after that, it's on the curb."
The Benoits believe in building things to last. After all, if a barn was built in only 1892, its wooden bones should be good for at least a few more years.
For the past three years, the Benoits have been taking apart barns piece by piece to build custom tables, sliding doors, wooden walls, door frames, chairs, benches, fireplace mantles and pretty much anything else the mind can imagine.
They first started out small and built more "crafty" projects, Lacey said, but they soon learned that custom builds are really what people want.
A prebuilt bench "gets a lot of looks and maybe some orders, but everyone wants it shorter, wider, taller, deeper or a different color," Jason said. "They're cool idea pieces, but they don't move."
That's where the collaboration comes in. Customers can check out ideas on the Benoits' Facebook page or stop by the showroom to visit and look through a project book. Oftentimes, the job might also involve a trip to several sites to pick out just the right wood.
"Most of the inspiration comes from each piece of wood you see," Jason says. "But, honestly, the best thing is when somebody calls and says come on over and take a look at our space and just see what you think. And we get to create it. That's fun. That never gets old."
Lacey agrees. "I did jump on Pinterest for a little while just to find new things, but oh my gosh, it was almost harder being on there. I didn't want to double up or re-create something somebody else already had done. We wanted to create something all our own. So, we ditched Pinterest and went to creativity itself."
Jason gives her a light elbow and laughs. Personally, he says, he's never looked at Pinterest and he wants to set the record straight on that.
The family way
Jason says he has had a love for building things all his life. When he was just 14, he and his dad built a small cabin in the woods out of 1-by-8 red posts that had a former life as a University of Minnesota horse fence.
The cabin wasn't very big or very special, he said, but it had a vaulted ceiling and they built it using whatever salvaged wood and tin materials they could find.
"That's just what we do," he said. "Grandpa started it. He lived through the Depression, so he saved everything that was ever usable. My dad does it. All my uncles do. Using reclaimed wood is just what we've always done. It wasn't really a trend or anything. In our family, you just reuse stuff. You do what you can. Save money if you can."
And if that's lesson No. 1, the second rule is "you don't do a sloppy job."
"You do it right. You do it the best and the strongest and the right way. Every time. There's no excuse for anything less."
Jason certainly stuck to that plan when he built a full-sized bar inside his friends' large trucking shop in rural Crookston. The Jake Break Bar at Reit Rock Trucking and Reit Rock Paving is decked out and full of detailed, personal touches. Caged barn lights hang under a tin awning and shine onto the company's carved logo on the countertop below. Door fronts feature the names of company trucks, and the barn-wood back wall is decorated bar-style with a hodgepodge of skis recovered from a linemen's vehicle, rusted license plates and a "surprise" Grain Belt board.
The break area, which seats as many as 20 people, is perfect for hosting safety meetings and also doubles for office space during the day and happy hour after work.
Needle in haystack?
With so many ambitious projects, a guest wonders if the Benoits ever worry about running out of old barn wood.
"Not in my lifetime," Jason says. "Sure, on the main traveled roads around here, you don't see them anymore. But all you do is get off the asphalt and they're everywhere."
The Benoits now work with 30 properties within a 100-mile radius to handpick their raw materials. And every time they enter a new barn or building, it's a new adventure. The structures are filled to the rafters with their own stories and secrets.
"It's really crazy some of the history you find in the old stuff. I'm really into that," Jason says. Along with a lot of hearts and initials, they say they find a lot of "incriminating cigarette packs" and antique liquor bottles. One barn had a cork-style whiskey bottle stuffed behind the walls every 30 feet.
Lacey once found a glass medicine bottle labeled "Kickapoo Indian Cough Cure" with its "gnarly dark syrup" still intact. "I tell you, a whiff of that and it would have cured me," she said. "It smelled like pure alcohol. I don't know what they put in it, but I bet it worked."
The Benoits say that whenever they find a piece of nostalgia such as scratched-out initials they will cut that piece out and make something special for the landowners. The keepsakes have been known to bring back long-forgotten memories and tears.
After seeing dozens of barns and historical treasures, the Benoits say they have yet to find two: a coffee can full of money or their perfect slant-roof barn.
If they ever find it, Jason says, they will pour a foundation and rebuild it board by board on their own farm. It will be their new home.
"That's our dream of dreams," Lacey says.
If you go
• What: Benoit's Barnwood office and showroom.
• Where: 103 S. Broadway, Crookston.
• Call: (218) 289-1142.
• Email: Benoitsbarnwood@outlook.com.
• Facebook: Benoit's Barnwood.