By Rick Abbott - High Plains Reader
Seth Carlson rubs his face and yawns. It looks like it was a long night.
He made his way over from his Moorhead shop to the office, located in a bustling industrial area on the western edge of Fargo, where the sounds of various machinery come through the window.
Carlson’s office serves as a sort of showroom. Samples of the reclaimed wood products he sells are scattered around the room. A weathered slab of two-by-fours stands near the window, its surface like a model of rolling hills, with old square nails still poking through. It’s one of many wooden slabs that were part of the Old Globe grain elevator in Superior, Wis. The elevator was built with these slabs stacked together to form a chamber into which grain was dumped. After dozens of years in use, with millions of tiny grains slowly eroding away the surface of the wood, it now is a valuable piece: part artwork, part construction material. Businesses have used them as showpieces, shining a light from above that casts long shadows over the hills and valleys in the weathered wood.
“There’s some that are like super-deep erosion, you know, really funky stuff, and that’s just from the grain hitting the walls,” Carlson says.
Carlson runs ICSS Design & Supply, a reclaimed wood supplier. Rather than throwing out centuries-old materials or churning them into wood chips, these pieces of history can be reused, providing a rough-yet-elegant addition to a room or being sanded and stained for a business’s entryway floor.
“The eroded wall sections, there’s literally no more of those in the world, so I’ve got the last supply in the world,” Carlson says.
Some ICSS clients include Vinyl Taco, Redoux, Wurst Bier Hall and Maxwell’s.
The November wind is bitingly cold as Carlson heads out the door of his office and across the gravel parking lot.
Stacks upon stacks of boards and slabs serve as a stockpile on the far side of the lot. Carlson walks quickly around the piles, trying in vain to shield himself from the chill.
The company that owned the Old Globe elevator was foreclosed upon earlier this year, opening up the huge supply of vintage wood. Carlson bought three semi loads full of lumber for a good price, although it still put him in debt.
“But it was a great opportunity to kickstart a business because it was a great way to get a lot of inventory really cheap,” Carlson says. “I know Fargo doesn’t really have a reclaimed wood supplier and Fargo is booming like crazy. It’s ridiculous how much construction and everything is going on here, so I really wanted to tap this market as quick as I could before somebody else did.”
It seems that quick action has paid off, with orders pouring in.
“Everything is coming in faster than I can manage it right now. The first two months, all I was doing was phone calls and emails trying to set up clients, and that’s finally kicking in,” Carlson says.
In the past, he says, if homeowners wanted to use reclaimed lumber in their homes, they would have had to be millionaires. Now, half of his sales are to people building homes in the $150,000-$200,000 range. With the nationwide average price for rough, reclaimed lumber nearing $4 a foot, Carlson sells wood for $2 a foot. The cheap prices are due to local sourcing and forgoing the expensive transportation that other companies use to move wood across the country.
Carlson says he’s surprised at the type of construction going on in Fargo.
“The cool thing is Fargo is way more progressive in terms of design and construction than I ever thought. I just assumed that everyone built the same boring house, but it’s kind of cool, getting really involved in the design and construction industry, how creative people are in town. It’s awesome, like, Fargo’s looking up,” Carlson says.
He says a big part of the job is informing his clients and builders how to use the materials.
“(The builders are) like, ‘What the hell do we do with this?’ ... You can show somebody an old chunk of wood and they’ll be like, ‘OK, now what?’ If you show them how you can use it, then it helps a ton.”
While not specifically trained in the business side of things, Carlson has been working with trees and wood his whole life. Growing up in Casselton, N.D., with a forester for a dad, he says his family is basically “a bunch of tree-huggers,” and they’re all “plant, Earthy people.”
Carlson studied acting at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he first combined a knack for construction and salesmanship.
“Broke as hell,” Carlson and a friend would sneak into the scene shop at night to build furniture and later sell it. One year, they started selling personal tap boards for students in the tap dance classes.
“We made one and put it out in the lobby in the theater and were like, ‘Tap dance boards $150, call Seth or Noah,’ and we got like 20 orders or something. So we were like, ‘Oh, sweet!’ so we snuck into the scene shop and made a bunch of tap dance boards, and that was just like an example of s—t that we did in college just to scrape by. So I was kind of forced into it,” Carlson says.
Back near the woodpile, Carlson hops into his warm and idling truck and makes his way back to the office.
Looking forward, and with reclaimed wood becoming more scarce, Carlson says local sourcing is key to sustainability, rather than shipping wood from across the country.
“We’re minimizing that impact a little bit more. The less semi loads and diesel trucks we send down the road is a benefit,” he says.
But for the short-term, it looks like the local supply will last for quite a while.
“It seriously would take probably 50 years before we would run out of useable product. In the near future, there’s no shortage,” Carlson says.
By Rick Abbott - High Plains Reader