In Pittsboro and beyond, pining for floors from old tobacco barns

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJuly 12, 2014 

— In the early days, Jonathan Grumette would drive in circles 50 miles out from Pittsboro, scouting old barns, hunting for heart pine boards as thick as a dinner table and long as a railroad tie.

He’d pull them down with a crowbar, and sometimes the old wrecks would collapse around his head. Other times, he would breathe enough bat guano to choke. Every time, he came home filthy, covered in dust, for the sake of his prize.

“I got farmer’s lung one year,” he explained. “It was dirty, dangerous work.”

Thirty years later, Grumette finds himself in the Chatham County woods, working inside a glass cube, selling antique wood floors to well-to-do customers – including Bruce Springsteen.

At Baba, the company he named after the Indian spiritual master he follows, the recycled wood is hand-sanded and fumed to deepen its color. Grumette’s oak and pine boards deck the penthouses of Manhattan, the tech-money mansions of Seattle and the homes of Hollywood big shots, all of it culled from empty tobacco barns and mills gone dormant.

Grumette’s story speaks to the world’s unlikely curiosities: America’s richest now line their floors with pieces of the country’s agricultural past, much of it collected on North Carolina back roads.

This discarded wood that once dried tobacco or sheltered horses now commands at least four and sometimes 10 times the price of what you’d buy at Home Depot, made valuable both by the decades it survived and the care spent rescuing it from the fate of old things.

Springsteen contacted him through an architect, who asked that the travel-averse Grumette come personally to New Jersey. When Grumette backed off, the country’s most famous rock star called him personally, telling him, “Jon, you’re the mystery floor man. You need to come up here.”

He packed his bags.

“He was a very nice man,” Grumette, 69, said. “He said, ‘We just want to do something beautiful.’ 

An auspicious start

Grumette’s mill at Baba sits on a 90-acre patch of woods outside Pittsboro – a slowly created campus that calls to mind, on a smaller scale, the private think tanks of 19th-century inventors: Thomas Edison’s Glenmont or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park.

Coming in the driveway, you pass a pair of giant granite boulders Grumette had moved to the entrance, one on each side.

Further in on the campus, a large lake sits on the left with a fishing pier. Grumette had that dug, and he imagines floating a houseboat there one day.

Then the mill itself appears, an open-air shelter the size of a high school gymnasium, slabs of wood stacked 15 feet high. The scent of freshly cut wood hangs in the air, drawing wasps and hornets. Until recently, Baba’s planer dated to 1934, a green model from Boston with “The Planers of the Woods” stamped on its side. Its modern replacement is only 10 or 12 years old.

Baba’s office consists of a single rectangular room walled with floor-to-ceiling glass, floored with unfinished heart pine planks 21 feet long. A boulder serves for a step at the door. Down a trail through the woods, Grumette constructed his bathroom by the same design: floor-to-ceiling glass on three sides, open air on the fourth, facing the lake.

“We tried to create an atmosphere so people would say they love to come work, and they do,” said Grumette, who employs about 18 people. “There’s never any backbiting.”

His sales and marketing representative, Myra Hogan, found her way to Baba’s campus after working for a competitor in Los Angeles and losing a sale to the strange little company in Pittsboro. When she moved to the area, she came asking around, curious.

“They seemed like neat people,” she said.

Grumette came south from Philadelphia in 1972, an architect with a pair of Ivy League degrees. He followed his first wife in her social work career and started out building hand-crafted homes until a friend’s phone call changed his life.

This friend called to say he knew where to get a load of antique heart pine lumber in South Carolina, cheap. Did Grumette have any money?”

“Well,” said Grumette, then a young man. “I can get $6,000 off a MasterCard ...”

They drove south, picked up the wood and unloaded it quickly. This was the thick heart pine that went inside the brownstones of Brooklyn, that helped build the Brooklyn Bridge – harvested so extensively that it has practically vanished.

“We made $50,000 in one week,” Grumette said, chuckling. “And it never happened again. So we got suckered in.”

Now oak is the favored wood, and occasionally chestnut. Grumette doesn’t fetch it himself any more, relying instead on two main suppliers in Virginia and a string of smaller ones in North Carolina. In the old days, farmers were happy to have their hulks hauled off for free. Now they charge up to $10,000.

And while that $50,000 week might have qualified as beginner’s luck, Baba is thriving as a high-end supplier of original surface wood flooring, selling for as much as $40 a square foot.

“We deal with really rich people,” Grumette said. “Houses with two people in it and five or six laundry rooms, six or seven washers. The idea is you don’t ever have to wait for a second load. But very nice people.”

And though Manhattan forms the core of his clientele, you can see Baba flooring locally, particularly at the Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro. Built inside the mill that once made silk labels, Oakleaf’s floors are tobacco barn heart pine from Durham.

“I’m standing on it right now,” chef Brendan Cox said. “This product is some of the best I’ve seen, and they’re local. So it was a no-brainer for us.”

Today Grumette spends half the year in Pittsboro and half the year in India, where he has a 7-year-old boy named for the spiritual master Meher Baba, who said he was the avatar, or God in human form.

On his website Baba.com, Grumette explains that his work is aimed at making people happy, doing good for both the client and the world and for celebrating all he holds beautiful.

“We try to uphold the values that would please Meher Baba,” Grumette said. “Honesty and integrity. We have never had a board sent back.”

Wide, thick wood

Sammy Ortiz started working at his uncle’s company 17 years ago, not long after finishing at UNC-Wilmington, and he, too, started out taking down barns with a crowbar.

Now he runs the mill’s daily operations as a vice president with a T-shirt, ball cap and thick beard, his hands stained brown from work.

One quality that immediately sets Baba’s wood apart from a lower-end board is its size, 12 to 18 inches wide and an inch thick. If it didn’t come from a barn itself, it might come from old growth wood stored inside the barn, maybe only 50 years old but just as thick.

“These farmers saved everything,” Ortiz explained.

Another feature is the wood’s surface. Baba doesn’t plane the surfaces, cutting only from the bottom until it gets to the right length. The tops of boards are each hand-sanded, then fumed with ammonia to pull out tannic acids and darken the wood.

“If you took a piece of regular oak and let it sit 100 years,” Ortiz said, “that’s what we’re doing with this fuming process.”

After that, all the knotholes and other imperfections are stuffed with round plugs and rectangular chunks called splines. That way, Baba can use longer boards without having to cut around the holes.

“If a high heel can go in it, it’s too big,” said Ortiz, explaining the rule.

All around him, the lumber sits stacked 15 feet high, bygone barns waiting their turn.

Starbucks and Chanel

Among its references, Baba lists the owners of Starbucks and Chanel.

Bunny Williams, celebrated interior designer, endorses their floors.

Ronald S. Lauder, billionaire son of the Estee Lauder cosmetics family, wrote this letter:

“Dear Jonathan,

I should have told you long before now how much Jo Carole and I love the floors. They add so much to the wonderful feeling of the rooms, and they fit into the décor as though they have always been there.”

But Grumette still calls his turn in reclaimed wood a happy accident, a chance to turn the unused into something vital, the unwanted into treasure. Clients don’t just want it to look pretty. They want it to tell a story.

That was the case for a top executive at Costco. When Baba put in his floors, Ortiz said, the curious client asked exactly where it came from. He enjoyed hearing of its history as a tobacco warehouse, and just for an extra kick, Ortiz told him what now stands in its place.

“It’s a Costco now,” he said. “He was tickled by that.”

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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