By Greg Johnson
You might say it all started back in 1996, when a former coal miner from West Virginia was scouting the hills of Northeast Kentucky, looking for old log cabins to restore. Someone in Flemingsburg sent him to talk to one of the locals.
“My name’s Mark Bowe,” he introduced himself. “I’m thinking about getting into the log cabin business.”
“My name’s Johnny Jett,” the ponytailed older man replied. “I’m thinking about getting out of it.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but they were at the beginning of a 20-year friendship that would, strangely enough, turn into a hit television show where they play themselves.
Jett and his friend Sherman Thompson had been dismantling log cabins and selling them, and they agreed to become Bowe’s suppliers. By 1998 they were working for his Lewisburg-based company, Antique Cabins and Barns, forming the core of what would later become the crew of “hardworking hillbillies” on the DIY network’s popular show, Barnwood Builders.
As TV shows go, Barnwood isn’t your standard fare. The hour-long episodes portray 7 easygoing guys doing pretty much the same things they’d be doing if there weren’t any cameras around. It’s obvious from their playful country boy banter that they enjoy working together. The only drama comes with the occasional structural collapse or hornets’ nest, or when the weather turns uncooperative. But they’re nice guys, and viewers admire their work ethic and find their knowledge of the old pioneer buildings enlightening.
For self-described hillbillies, they’re a pretty sophisticated bunch. Bowe has a master’s degree from WVU, he served on the Lewisburg City Council, and he owns an insurance company in White Sulphur Springs. Jett is a Vietnam veteran who maintained the Fleming County, KY, water system for 25 years. More surprisingly for a man who’s usually shown operating heavy equipment, he’s an accomplished artist who sells his work at www.johnnyjettart.com. Thompson is a farmer and tobacco grower, a bighearted guy who recently got a lot of attention on Facebook for an act of kindness he showed to a special needs child.
In addition to Jett, two other members of the crew have military backgrounds. Tim Rose, a Virginian who joined the team in 2006, worked for 10 years as an Air Force aircraft mechanic. Alex Webb, a Monroe County native who joined Barnwood in January 2016, pulled a hitch in the Army before becoming a locomotive engineer for Norfolk & Southern Railroad.
Graham Ferguson, originally from Summers County, has been on the crew since 2013, when he was introduced on the show as “the rookie”. He’d been doing landscaping; he knew Bowe because their children were attending the same school in Lewisburg. Max Hammer, a native Arizonian who manages the “Boneyard” near White Sulphur Springs where the logs are stored, rehabbed and assembled before delivery, was working as a fishing guide at the Greenbrier’s Sporting Club before he went to work for the company in 2015.
One thing all seven have in common is growing up with hardworking fathers who taught them how to use their hands. Many of them grew up on farms. They’re intelligent, but they like work that’s physical and concrete, where they can see what they’ve accomplished at the end of the day. You get the feeling none of them would be happy toiling away at a desk in a cubicle. The Barnwood Builders guys are the kind you want to have around if your furnace goes out in the middle of a snowstorm. They know how to do things. What they don’t know, they figure out.
Barnwood gets plenty of press. The coverage usually focuses on Mark Bowe, understandably, since he owns the company, hosts the show and is one of the producers. But because the projects they tackle are a team effort, we thought it might be interesting to talk with the whole crew. We caught up with them while they were working on a cabin on an island in the New River. We sat down at Pipestem State Park, and later at the Boneyard, and asked them about their work and their adjustment to being TV celebrities.
GVQ: On the show you have individual specialties. Johnny, you’re the heavy equipment operator. Sherman, you’re the chainsaw king. Graham, you and Tim are usually the animal whisperers, getting rid of the snakes and critters. Is that the way it really is?
Mark: The show creates archetypes, but in reality we all do everything. We all run equipment, we all use chain saws, we all notch logs. But Johnny runs equipment best and Sherman cuts the best notch, so that’s why they always seem to have the job on TV.
Graham: Tim and I are the bravest when it comes to dealing with snakes, so that’s why we end up handling them. No reason to destroy wildlife if you can rescue it. I guess I’ve rescued a few lizards, too, before the buildings fell on them.
GVQ: So if everyone can do everything, if half the crew got food poisoning tonight, the work would still go on as usual tomorrow?
Tim: We work as a unit. We don’t feel like anyone is the expert or the boss. If someone says, “Go do this,” or “Go do that,” we do it.
GVQ: The show portrays you as a work family, only it seems like you get along better than most families.
Johnny: We love each other. When I’m not with these guys, I’m missing them. I miss the TV crew! They’re part of the family, too.
GVQ: Where is the production company, Silent Crow Arts, based?
Bowe: New York City. They’re hillbillies, too - they just don’t know it yet. They’re all top-notch. We’ve never had a bad person in the TV crew. I think the show is as good as it is because every camera person and every sound person has the same passion for what they do as we have for what we do.
GVQ: Alex, you’re relatively new to Barnwood. How did you get the job?
Alex: I was working for the railroad and I kept getting laid off and called back. I was tired of the corporate life. I sent an email to Mark and he called me 10 minutes later.
Mark: I’d just pulled my bicep and I knew we could use someone. I got right into the interview questions you’re never supposed to ask, like “Are you fat? Can you lift things? Are you scared of heights? Can you run a chainsaw?” I asked him if he’d ever run a sawmill and he said, “No, but my dad and I built one.” Adding someone to the team is a group decision. I told him he could go to the yard and work with the guys for a couple of days, and if they didn’t like him, we’d send him away with a paycheck and a handshake.
Alex: I kept working and two months later I’m still waiting for Mark to let me know if I got the job. I’m wondering, “How long is this damn interview?” We were working in Franklin, West Virginia, and I finally asked him, “So did I get the job or not?”
GVQ: I guess you did – you’re still here.
Alex: They used to call Graham the rookie. Now I’m the rookie.
Tim: Alex is a lot smarter than he looks. He uses words like oxymoron and antithesis.
Alex: I had two years of college at Columbus State University in Georgia.
Tim: That explains a lot.
Mark: Since everybody can do everything, we really don’t have a rookie. There’s not an inexperienced person on the crew. When Sherman and I have to leave, somebody’s going to take over the job, but you don’t know who it’s going to be until they decide to step up and do it. Everyone falls in line. Graham’s the youngest, but he’s not scared to take control of a job. He’s turned out to be an exceptional hand.
GVQ: Graham, you were a landscaper. How did you become one of the Barnwood Builders?
Graham: I was self-employed. I knew Mark, and he told me he really needed some help for a week or two. After a week of working with Sherman, I just wanted to keep working. The week turned into three months, and then it just kept going.
GVQ: Are they going to let you play your banjo again on TV?
Graham: I really don’t play very well, but I was surprised how good it sounded.
GVQ: Maybe they dubbed it in.
Graham: Yeah, I was thinking that, too.
GVQ: Mark, do many people pester you for jobs?
Mark: A lot of people call, thinking they want to work with us. Then they find out what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to sacrifice your home life, you’ve got to get dirty, you’ve got to do hard physical labor in all kinds of weather. You’ve got to be willing to work until the job is done, no matter how long it takes. They lose interest pretty quickly when you explain what’s involved.
Alex: I’ve lost 20 pounds since I started.
GVQ: Are there job qualifications?
Mark: We try to hire people who are kind and hardworking. That’s about it – you’ve got to have a good work ethic and be a kind human being. Everything else is learnable. We have a No Assholes policy. We don’t hire people who aren’t nice. We won’t do jobs for people who aren’t nice. We won’t buy from them, and we won’t sell to them.
GVQ: Do you have many fans? Are you recognized in pubic?
Tim: It’s mostly Mark and Johnny.
Johnny: My dad is my biggest fan. He says, “Johnny used to be Gene Jett’s son. Now I’m Johnny Jett’s dad.” He’s 85. I talk to him every night at 10:00 o’clock.
Graham: Once in a while someone recognizes me and wants to know what we’ve been up to and where we’re working. It’s not bad.
GVQ: Mark, we’ve heard you sing the blues before about fans showing up unannounced at your home, wanting to meet you. I guess if they’ve seen the show they think you’re such a nice guy you won’t mind.
Mark: It goes with the territory, but it still bothers me.
GVQ: You’ve been doing business as Antique Cabins and Barns for 20 years. How many buildings have you taken down or restored?
Mark: We figure it’s probably somewhere between 420 and 430.
GVQ: Has TV been good for your business?
Johnny: It’s helped us prosper, but if it hadn’t happened none of us would be out of work.
GVQ: Do you have favorite projects?
Tim: The 100% Cabin in Camden, South Carolina, that we turned into a hunting cabin. It looked really good when we left.
Sherman: The Boy Scout lodge in Pennsylvania. We loved interacting with the kids.
Alex: The one-room schoolhouse in Franklin.
Johnny: I’d have to say the log chapel in my hometown with the stained glass windows we rescued from another church. We’re having church in it next week.
GVQ: That window looked really heavy on TV.
Johnny: There were 8 of them, but they only showed one. We only had to move two.
Max: Graham and I built a huge custom home at the Boneyard and we took it to Cashiers, North Carolina. When the rest of the crew showed up for the build they hadn’t even seen it yet. I felt proud of that one because it was mainly just Graham and me.
Graham: I liked the ones in Colorado and Montana because we were in a different environment with amazing scenery. But if I had to pick a favorite I’d say the Boy Scout lodge. Usually we’re working for one client, but we were working for a whole community. We felt really attached to the kids, and the families were so grateful.
Mark: I don’t really have a favorite project, but I remember every client we’ve ever had. I remember our connections with the clients more than the jobs.
GVQ: You all trace your work ethic and your skills back to your younger days working with your fathers. Are you trying to pass the same lessons along to your own kids?
Johnny: I put my son on a backhoe when he was 10. He’s been making a living running equipment his whole life.
Mark: You can’t do better than learning from Johnny. He can pick your teeth with a forklift.
Sherman: My daughters are chinking log houses now.
Max: Our 8-year-old son helped me demolish some stone steps. You don’t see many 8-year-olds swinging a sledgehammer. He helped me rebuild the steps in wood. He mows the lawn, he runs power tools.
Graham: My 13-year-old daughter helps with firewood, and in the garden.
GVQ: Maybe other parents who read this will be inspired to unplug the video games. Do any of you ever think about retiring?
Johnny: I wouldn’t ever consider not going to work. Why would you?
Sherman: It’s what keeps us alive. It’s your heart.
Mark: The company’s been going for 20 years. The show’s a good ride, but we know someday it’s going to end. When it’s over we’ll just have to reach a little deeper and figure out how we’re going to keep making a living doing what we like. We’re always thinking about it, and we’ve got some ideas. We’ve got a furniture line coming out. We’ve got a line of tiny houses. Whatever we do, we’ll still be working hard and we’ll still be taking pride in what we do. We’ve never been sued. We’ve never had to hire a lawyer. If you don’t like our work, we’ll fix it for you. If you build it like you’re going to put your mama in it, people will be happy.