Designing a Staircase for the Carolina Bed & Breakfast

Filed under: Outside Asheville, Re-decorating

If you had told me a year ago that one of the most interesting parts about adding on to our Bed and Breakfast in Asheville would be our trips to lumber yards and iron foundries I would have thought you were joking.  As my family can attest, my  interest in  hardware and hardware stores is pretty much limited to the paint department and the garden center. As James likes to joke, after five minutes in Lowes or Home Depot, my eyes start to glaze over.

So, I was not anticipating a memorable or interesting trip when Caine, our contractor (Dry Ridge Builders) told us we needed to head out to Bee Tree Hardwoods in Swannanoa, NC to pick out the beams for our staircase.  The staircase in question is being built in our addition and as part of the design we have chosen to build a “floating staircase“.  In our case, this means that the treads will be supported by a beam (or beams) underneath them and are not connected to or supported by the wall.  We had already found the hardwood we are using on our floors–Brazilian Canary wood–at the Scroungers Paradise (which I wrote about in a previous blog) and while there wasn’t enough Canary wood for the treads, we found some lovely Hickory at Gennet Lumber here in Asheville which is a pretty close match.  But the beams needed to be kiln dried and at least fourteen feet long and four by twelve inches in thickness and for this we had to travel out to the  Swannanoa Valleyto Bee Tree Hardwoods.  The Swannanoa Valley is a lovely spot located between Asheville and Black Mountain.  The community of approximately 4000 people is considered to be a part of Asheville, although most of the residents of Asheville speak about Swannanoa as a separate town.  Regardless of who lays claim to it, it is a beautiful valley surrounded by mountains on all sides.  This particular morning was sunlit with clear blue skies and the route to the lumberyard took us along a gently curving and swooping road past fields and farms. So far the trip was not too bad!

We turned down a dirt drive and into the site of Bee Tree Hardwoods.  There were two fork lifts running back and forth with towering pallets of wood and the dust was blowing everywhere, and out of this cloud of activity appeared Peter Tenant, owner and President of Bee Tree Hardware.   Peter is a bit of an anomaly.  Dressed in khaki shorts with a large floppy hat covering relatively long grey-black hair which hung in ringlets on his neck, he appeared to be an Asheville transplant–one of what my children call “hippies” who came here in search of an alternative life style.  But shortly into our conversation, it became clear that Peter is a true mountain-man.  He began working with lumber when he got his first job at the age of 19 with a local Ethan Allen Factory working on their wood kiln.   Shortly thereafter he decided that this was something he could do on his own and attempted to secure a $100,000 bank loan to finance his business. As he put it, “They laughed my sorry ass out of the bank and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”.  Roll the film forward about 12 years and his brother persuaded him to try again.  They bought their first fork lift and built a small shed in which to house it and then went to work on building the furnace and kiln.  But this time, Peter wasn’t interested in loans.  He told his brother he wouldn’t quit  his job (which now mostly consisted of closing down Ethan Allen Factories) until he had $100,000 in the bank.  It didn’t take them more than a few years to achieve this goal and Peter said a happy good-by to working for a large company and struck out on his own.

I knew before we moved here that North Carolina has a long history of logging and furniture making.  High Point, in the center of the state, is one of the furniture centers of the United States and closer to home, the eponymously named Hickory is another large wood furniture center. So I expected to find interesting people who worked with wood but I had not expected to find them in lumberyards.

Peter knows wood. He can talk about the grain and color of just about any hardwood and in almost every case, he has used the wood himself or knows someone who has.  And like so many North Carolinians he has a way of backing into a story with a pause at the outset just long enough to make you notice but short enough so it’s worth the wait. And the stories weren’t just about wood; he told us one about a man who had a piece of solid quartz from the mountains here which he could make “sing” by running his finger around the rim the way you would a crystal goblet.

Peter recognizes that each piece of wood tells a story and each is different, so he moved huge piles of lumber in order to pull out the beams he thought we would like.  He is deceptively strong. The beam he is carrying in this picture is 16 feet long, and 4″ x 8″ thick.  He carried it as if it weighed no more than sack of potatoes.  (But he was also very nice and indulged James by letting him “help” move the wood around.)

And finally, after choosing the wood for our stairs, we found some beautiful red cedar for the fireplace mantel.

So we drove home to the Carolina Bed & Breakfast from Swannanoa, covered in dust but with yet another wonderful Asheville story to tell.


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