Historic Mercantile lumber draws a crowd, has stories to tell
By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
As crews toiled away within the confines of the Missoula Mercantile this winter, those at Home ReSource puzzled over the monumental task of moving, sorting and stacking an estimated 200,000 board feet of lumber.
There were nails to pull, prices to set and, above all, a method was needed to make it available to the general public.
“Everyone wanted it right away, and we just weren’t ready when it started coming out of the Merc,” said Katie Deuel, executive director of Home ReSource. “We’re so aware of the value of this wood to the community, and we wanted to do it right.”
With the lumber stacked about the expanded lumber yard, Home ReSource opened its doors Tuesday to a steady stream of customers looking for wood painstakingly salvaged from the Mercantile.
Withing an hour of opening for the nonprofit’s lumber sale, one man rang up a $1,300 charge buying rare timbers for a home project. A woman bought smaller pieces to make a kitchen table.
“One of the unique things for us is that we took down the Merc, which is a building that means tons to our community,” said Deuel. “This is wood that came from our local forests. It seems like both human history and our natural history. It’s part of our heritage that way.”
Crews with Home ReSource began deconstructing the Mercantile in February, shortly after a District Court judge ended a protracted legal debate that pitted community activists against the owner of the building and developers looking to repurpose the property.
By March, crews had removed the structure’s roof and by April, most of usable lumber had been salvaged from the building. Much of the wood, including galleon-sized 6x8s and planks measuring 16 inches in width, is rarely seen on the shelves of area home improvement stores.
“You aren’t going to find this kind of wood,” said Deuel. “It’s old growth wood with tight grains and it’s clear. It was sitting in the Merc for 100-plus years. We hope it goes somewhere and stays for another 100 or 200 years.”
To accommodate the arrival of so much lumber, Home ReSource expanded its yard to the west, more that doubling its space. Amid the stacks of lumber and planking sit steel I-beams and pillars, pipes and other salvaged goods.
The deconstruction effort, carried out by a crew of 13, was the largest ever undertaken by the local nonprofit.
“We’ve never had this much wood here,” said Deuel. “We’re pretty strict about safety, and we have a pretty clear process when we go in and take down a house. We thought really long and hard about how we were going to take that building apart.”
During the process, Home ReSource worked closely with another contractor, who orchestrated changes along the way. The contractor was new to deconstruction and wasn’t that interested in the process when the project began.
By the end, Deuel said, the contractor was sold on the process.
“As a nonprofit, our goals are to provide affordable materials to the community and to reduce waste, which is where the deconstruction comes in,” said Deuel. “All of this would have gone into the landfill if a big machine would have taken that building down.”
That could have meant tossing out centuries worth of history, much of dating back to the old-growth forests that were present long before Europeans occupied western Montana and logged the landscape.
Much of the wood now bears the notches of 19th century construction. The timbers are rough cut in places, bearing the scars of a bygone century.
“We’re going to make a table for our kitchen, and maybe some benches to go with it if we can find the right stuff,” said Marcy Hanson, who came looking for wood with personality.
“It’s sad to see an old building like the Merc come down – it kind of breaks my heart,” she added. “But I love that they’ve reclaimed the pieces of it so that it’s not a total loss. We’re taking a little Missoula history home with us.”
The rings present on thick timbers run tight, lending partial insight to both the climate and the age of the old-growth trees before they were felled and milled. Some were harvested before Montana became a state.
In other old-growth timber taken in Montana, isotopes have been found with traces of the Pacific salmon that used to migrate inland. To Deuel, such stories told by the wood is fascinating, making it prized for community reuse.
“Commercial projects come up once in a while, but there aren’t a lot of buildings like the Merc,” said Deuel. “It was actually five buildings in one. By today’s standards, it was overbuilt. There was a forest of trees in there.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org