Reclaiming Rural America

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A glimpse of the 8,000 sf warehouse that is now Sangamon Reclaimed.

My friend, Meegan, recently started her own business sourcing lumber. Her sledgehammers are literally duct-taped together, and I mentioned wanting to connect her with some free tools. Of the dozens of times I’ve offered this opportunity, people have always pounced on it, but Meegan shut me down with, “No, listen, you need to talk to this guy Brian I’ve been working with who’s doing amazing things. Call him. I’m fine. I just need a forklift.” And so, when a stubborn Detroit woman who uses duct-taped sledgehammers tells you to do something, honestly, you just do it.

The next day, I reached out to the owner of Sangamon Reclaimed, Brian Frieze, a firefighter and veteran who started taking down barns and salvaging the wood. Now listen, I’m a member of the National Barn Alliance and lord knows I’ve been chased by dogs across several states while going in for a closer look, but unfortunately, we can’t save them all. The barns taken down by Sangamon Reclaimed will be burned to the ground if they aren’t carefully dismantled. Yes, burned to the ground.

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The massive building holds a retail store, a warehouse space, an office and a side yard.

Now part of what makes this story different from other deconstruction stories is that Brian understands rural America and he understands that these structures have been symbols of livelihood for the families around him for generations. He cares about that symbolism, the cultural heritage, and the materials. He not only painstakingly dismantles these structures, he actually researches their history and documents it. I work in salvage. This is not typical. This is lovely and important.

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This stroke sander has a 10′ bed and was brought in from New York. It’s a beast. A lovely, super handy beast. And great for large slabs.

Opening  your wallet yet? Brian also decided that Sangamon Reclaimed would hire as many veterans and firefighters as possible. There are now five employees doing deconstruction and using the saved materials to build furniture and custom installations. But the mission continues. In addition to rapidly growing as a retail source for lumber, barn wood, and handcrafted goods, the company is determined to help those suffering from issues like PTSD and survivor’s guilt, which can lead to some intense struggles with employment and housing. Sangamon Reclaimed has partnered with numerous groups that help vets with these hurdles, and lately, Brian has been looking into starting a job training program for veterans who currently reside at a local homeless shelter.

So, a big thank you to Meegan for the tip and introduction. Please send her your sledgehammers. The ToolMade Project was thrilled to partner with Craftsman and help Brian and his growing crew expand their tools and storage collection – we’ll post pics of them with their Craftsman loot soon. As an aside, despite their reasonable prices, I spent far too much money in their rapidly growing retail section. If you ever find yourself in Springfield, Illinois, brace yourself for their small but mighty store. I could reconstruct a Midwest 3-portal barn with everything I lugged back to Chicago.

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I snagged that black, white, and red flag and wiped out their entire stock of barn wood chevrons, thank you very much. Brian started a “Flags for Heroes” program, where a portion of each flag purchased goes directly to helping veterans and firefighters. They sell out like crazy.

 

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Community Glue Workshop and the very real need to shift our focus to the 4th “R”: Repair.

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Over the past decade, the environmental movement has had a resurgence focused on the production of more “eco-friendly” products than you can shake a recycled bottle cap “stick” at. Here’s the thing: for the most part, it’s complete rubbish. (Applause for the pun.) Recycling takes a tremendous amount of carbon intensive energy and often involves shipping goods overseas to be broken down, mixed with additional materials, and shipped back to be sold in a form that is a downcycled piece of cheap nonsense as compared with its original form. I know this is hard for folks to hear, but recycling, while often a better alternative to throwing something into a trash can, is not a really a sustainable practice. Period.

Often if something isn't working, the entire thing doesn't need to be scrapped! Don't be afraid to "look under the hood" and tinker. It's already not working, so you may as well give repair a shot!

Usually, if something isn’t working, the entire thing doesn’t need to be scrapped! Don’t be afraid to “look under the hood” and tinker. It’s already not working, so you may as well give repairing it a shot.

We also have “repurposing,” which has become incredibly popular in recent years because it’s fun, creative, and keeps materials out of the landfill. It’s something we all should certainly do, but often times it also results in downcycling. Someone will repurpose an existing item that has a broken part—say a toaster with a broken spring—and turn it into a flower pot. Your standard toaster is comprised of hundreds of parts and complicated methods of metal extraction and other processes that are labor intensive and often manufactured in other countries under questionable employment practices. You know what else can be a flowerpot? A leaf. A cupped hand. A single piece of fired clay. Your brother’s gaping mouth if you shove a plant into it. Any simple thing, really.

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Image from The Toaster Project. That there’s the insides of a very basic toaster. Those parts took a lot of energy to create and came a real long way to make it to your local Target.

My point is: let’s just fix that toaster and not waste the kabrillion pieces that do work inside of that sophisticated little heat trap, people. In 2012, my friend Ally and I started Community Glue Workshop in Chicago because, quite frankly, we were pissed off at the fact that the environmental movement had in no way embraced one of the most obvious and abandoned part of sustainable living: REPAIR. It even starts with an “R,” so why it was never promoted is beyond me (P.S. “Reduce” is totally legit). Producing and consuming more materials is the opposite of the solution—“green” or no—and not fixing what we already have only leads to more consumption. Maybe you have a flowerpot now, but you’re still in need of a toaster and will go out and buy a new one anyway, and waste all the embodied energy in that original toaster, which is a big old shame and not doing the planet any favors.

That's a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

That’s a mighty pretty toaster that we fixed. Definitely a more sophisticated piece of machinery than any old thing that can hold dirt.

Not able to order replacement parts? That’s absolutely a problem, yes. Manufacturers intentionally don’t sell those parts like they used to in an effort to force you to buy new items. To get around this hiccup, Community Glue has used an inexpensive 3D printer to make simple little new parts when needed. Don’t have access to a 3D printer? Honestly, most of the time we can find another fix that doesn’t require the production of a new part. There are many ways to skin a cat, and that’s why fixing is indeed a creative and innovative process.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn't you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Fixing, fixing, fixing. Most of these humans have never met before, by the way. Much more interesting than going to a big box store, wouldn’t you say? Also, I know that you can buy a new lamp or headphones or skirt for a reasonable amount of money, but most of the time, fixing is FREE. Beat that, Walmart.

Community Glue is comprised of about 10 regular, dedicated volunteers who come together once a month to fix anything folks can fit through the door, from broken table legs to vacuums to bra straps. It doesn’t matter if we have never seen anything like it (in fact, those are the most fun projects), repairing is also a collaborative process and we can almost always figure out a fix or at least diagnose the problem. There are exceptions: perhaps your exploding microwave from 1984 is accidentally cooking your brain through a cracked something-or-other and needs to be disposed of. We get that. But more often than not, the materials we consume are repairable.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, stuff gets done.

Folks meet, mentorships happen, people without resources get some help.

Next month I’ll be posting more on Community Glue Workshop and featuring our October repair clinic. I’m not gonna lie, I’m very excited to finally give some props to our amazing volunteers, curious, smart, generous buggers that they are.

If you're in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let's have at it!

If you’re in the Chicago area, check out one of our fall repair clinics. Can it fit through a standard door? Let’s have at it!

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding "green" goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. Folks don't look that happy taking a pile of stuff to the recycle bin. Nope.

The organizers. We got mad about the misinformation regarding “green” goods and practices and decided to do something that is actually useful for our community. You can, too. People are into it.