Showcasing the Mountain State
June 2, 2016|
Mark Bowe, a West Virginia native and star of DIY Network’s “Barnwood Builders,” is finding success in combining his passions: authentic salvaging, historical restoration and casting a positive light on the Mountain State.
By Samantha Cart
Mark Bowe isn’t letting fame go to his head. The West Virginia native and successful entrepreneur, who has turned his passion for business into two prosperous companies and a burgeoning television career, is using his celebrity status to champion the Mountain State.
Bowe and his crew at Antique Cabins & Barns, a Lewisburg-based company, are the stars of the popular show “Barnwood Builders” on the DIY Network. The team of six travels the country dismantling and restructuring antique barns and homes and restoring the hand-hewn log and timber frames.
Craftsmen Johnny Jett, Sherman Thompson, Tim Rose, Brian Buckner, Graham Ferguson and Bowe pride themselves on refurbishing the log and timber components of each building exactly like the pioneers did it 150 years ago, creating structures with nostalgia and character that reflect our country’s history. Antique Cabins & Barns ships its wood products all over the United States and is known for its devotion to authentic salvaging.
“Barnwood Builders,” which just entered its third season, was born out of a documentary film made about Bowe’s business in 2004. After sitting on a shelf for almost a decade, the film made its way into the hands of a few major networks, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Reality TV was no good at the time, especially anything that was being made in West Virginia,” Bowe says. “Many networks contacted us about doing a show, but they wanted us to fight more and have more drama. We refused to do it. The DIY Network said, ‘We love you guys, and we’ll take you just the way you are.’ I guess holding off paid some dividends, because I think we did the right thing.”
Bowe had reservations about breaking into television because he was concerned about the way writers, producers and directors would want to portray his home state. “I think every West Virginian has a reservation about outsiders because it seems like anyone who comes from out of state is taking our coal, taking our land, taking our gas, taking our timber and taking our water,” says Bowe. “I’m still a hillbilly at heart, and I was afraid to give them my likeness, my image. But after I met the producers at the DIY Network, I found them to be kind and full of integrity.”
The cast of “Barnwood Builders” has taken down or restored more than 400 buildings. During the process, they deconstruct and try to save most, if not all, of the timber. They transport the pieces back to their facility in Greenbrier County, which they have named The Bone Yard, and replace any bad pieces with pieces from other buildings.
“Every time we do a project, we have two buildings,” says Bowe. “We have to go tear down another one just for parts. You can’t go to a store and find 200-year-old logs that have been cut by hand.”
Each building is evaluated on the crew’s 25 percent rule: if a building is more than 25 percent deteriorated, it will be used for parts only. After the wood has been restored, the men deliver and assemble, and the restoration portion of the project is complete. “Any good builder can take over from where we leave off,” says Bowe. “We do what we do because people are often intimidated by a historic building, but if the bones are good, it’s not a matter of restoring. It’s just a matter of building around those bones.”
While the guys have completed projects all across the country, including South Carolina, Montana, Colorado and West Virginia in season two alone, there are two in particular that Bowe will always remember.
In 2013, the crew created a full-scale replica of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood cabin that sits in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL—a project that helped launch their careers. “It was a special project because Abraham Lincoln’s cabin is an American icon, and we were chosen to recreate it,” says Bowe. The second is a cabin exhibit completed for and featured inside the West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center in Charleston.
Bowe and his crew entertain 1 million viewers each week, but the show has not affected his business the way he expected. Since “Barnwood Builders” premiered in 2013, the gross sales for Antique Cabins & Barns have only increased about 25 percent because the company’s products and services are so specialized. “We have a lot of people calling us wanting us to repair barns and fix old cabins, but we’re a product-based company, so we can’t really travel the country and repair just any houses and barns. It’s not a good business model,” says Bowe.
However, breaking into television has launched Bowe on a path he never imagined. The DIY Network recently offered him the opportunity to film a pilot for a potential spinoff show, which aired secretly in March. The show, “Made With Pride,” was listed on all television guides as a rerun of “Garage Gold” but was actually a test for the new pilot. “Not only do I host the show, I also produce the show,” says Bowe. “I will travel the country and meet masters of different crafts, like blacksmiths, showing the world that artists and craftspeople still exist.”
Adding television personality and producer to his resume of husband, father, craftsman and entrepreneur, Bowe has enjoyed local celebrity status over the past few years. “We do get recognized sometimes, mostly in West Virginia,” he says. “The awesome thing about getting recognized for me is that it’s not really a star-struck kind of response. Very few people want our autographs or anything like that. They want to talk to us, shake our hands and say, ‘Have you seen that old barn on Route 33?’ It feels more like I am connected to part of a family, and I love that.”
Bowe is thrilled that his passions have come together so he can genuinely enjoy every aspect of his working life. “I love everything about the physical nature of what we do, the blue collar aspect and the historical aspect,” he says. “In terms of the show itself, I love being playful with clients and the creative part of putting the show together.”
Above the work and recognition, though, serving as an ambassador for the Mountain State is Bowe’s favorite part of working in the television industry. “I wear the West Virginia logo on my t-shirts, and I get to expose the entire country to kind people who work hard and take pride in what they do. It gives me great pleasure that people from all over the country are saying, ‘I’ve never been to West Virginia, but because of your show I can’t wait to visit, pass through or take a look at the scenery.’”
Bowe loves that the show reaches a diverse audience, from those who don’t know West Virginia is a real state to West Virginians who have moved away. “So many people have ties to West Virginia, and as our population continues to age and leave, we’re putting our state out there,” he says. “I want to help get West Virginia off the bottom of the good lists and the top of the bad lists. That is really important to me. We have producers in NYC calling this place the Best Virginia, and they’ve done a great job of bringing attention to us as a state.”
Bowe attributes his success to the hardworking people he has surrounded himself with, including his family. While they cannot come to every shoot, his wife, Cindy, and son, Atticus, can frequently be found on the set of the show. “I don’t do anything without my family,” says Bowe. “There is so much that goes into making a TV show, and none of it is possible if we don’t have supportive families. My wife has been amazing. She helps out with all social media, managing the office, merchandise, the website—she takes care of everything. The other guys bring their families along when they can, too, and they are the people behind the scenes that really deserve a lot of credit. It is really a testament to the support we get from our spouses and kids.”
Along with his family and employees, Bowe has also surrounded himself with fair and knowledgeable co-workers who make the restoration process possible. “There is always a compromise when you’re restoring an old building between what our forefathers did 150 years ago and what modern codes require now,” says Bowe. “We have to be really careful, but I’ve surrounded myself with a really good group of architects that understand the limitations. More often than not we have people that encourage us—inspectors and others—that get the value of what we do. They rarely try to stop the process.”
While he has already enjoyed tremendous success, as an entrepreneur, Bowe is always looking forward. With the money he has earned from “Barnwood Builders,” he is launching a furniture line and expanding Antique Cabins & Barns to offer new ways of constructing and repurposing timber that it hasn’t offered in the past.