Following a knee injury, retired Minnesota State Patrol officer Dennis O’Brien was unsure what to do with a barn on his property that dates back to the 1920s.
“I would like to have kept it up,” O’Brien said. “I used to keep cows back there.”
When O’Brien had difficulty finding a company to restore or preserve the barn, a friend of his suggested an alternative: Donate it to Heritage Barn Wood Products, which uses wood salvaged from old barns to create products including flower boxes, coat and hat racks, bird houses and feeders, novelty signs and wooden flags.
The 150-acre plot of land O’Brien lives on was formerly a dairy farm and saw mill.
The land’s previous owners were Kenneth and Irene Nolby. Kenneth Nolby cleared trees from around 80 of his acres and used the wood to build many of the buildings on his land, including the barn O’Brien has donated to Industries Inc., as well as to supply the lumber for many of the buildings in the unincorporated community of Day, where the land is located.
Heritage Barn Wood Products is operated by Industries Inc., a nonprofit which offers work opportunities to people with developmental disabilities.
Industries Inc. job coach Mike Walker boasts the Heritage Barn Wood country store in Cambridge holds the largest collection of barn wood American flags on the planet. No one has ever disputed his claim.
Clients of Industries Inc. receive job training and wages. Those who work for Heritage Barn Wood work on every stage of the production process, from demolishing the barns (which Walker says is mostly pulling nails) to painting, staining and assembling the wood, as well as burning text and designs into the wood. Clients also come up with many of the ideas for the types of products they make or the messages burned into them.
“The part I like is everything’s being reclaimed,” O’Brien said. “They go out there and do their thing and it’s always neat and clean.”
Some of the wood from O’Brien’s barn will be used in Heritage Barn Wood Products’ new Thin Blue Line flags, which they are producing to honor the work done by local law enforcement for the community. These flags are unique in that their colors are white, black and blue, rather than the usual red, white and blue. They have alternating black and white stripes with one blue stripe running horizontally across the middle.
The bottom black stripe of each Thin Blue Line flag represents criminals and the top stripe represents the public, with the blue stripe in the middle representing the law enforcement officers who stand between the two.
Walker and his workers have presented one such flag to O’Brien, made from wood salvaged from his barn.
“We try to always make a gift or two to the owners of the barns so that they have keepsake,” Walker said.
Another Thin Blue Line flag has been given to Isanti County Sheriff Chris Caulk.
One-hundred percent of the proceeds from sales of Heritage Barn Wood Products go to support Industries Inc.’s general fund, which is used to pay clients’ wages, Walker said.
Teams of Heritage Barn Wood clients work two days a week on a site for a few hours each day.
Each day before starting Walker holds a short meeting with his clients to make sure they know who’s working with whom, who’s doing what parts of the job and what potential hazards they should try to avoid.
“Our No. 1 priority there is the clients’ safety, of course,” Walker said, “but No. 2 is that it’s a work experience. They get a chance to be in the field working, they pack their lunches, we (use) bug spray, sunscreen, hard hats, leather gloves. The day might be shorter than what most people work, but it’s the real deal.”
Walker joined Industries Inc. in 2009, initially intending to work as a van driver. At the time, Heritage Barn Wood was a relatively new part of the company’s work.
“It was basically used at that point as something for our clients to do when their wasn’t any other work,” Walker said. “I took it over at the end of 2009 and every year we’ve increased our product line, our work quality and our sales.”
Walker prefers to use some of the roughest-looking pieces of barn wood on the company’s flags because cleaner cut pieces don’t impart the desired rustic effect for the final product. The clean-cut pieces don’t look like they came off a barn.
“You want them to look like what they are,” Walker said.
For more information on Industries Inc. or the Heritage Barn Wood Products, visit industriesinc.org or call 763-689-5434. Heritage Barn Wood country store in Cambridge is located at 601 S. Cleveland St.