Woodworker branches out from homes to accessories
For many log homebuilders, the north woods' economic downturn spelled disaster.
But for Bruce Beckley, it heralded in an opportunity to let his creative juices flow, and for his general contracting business to branch out.
The builder of spec homes turned to making elegant but sturdy furniture and what has become his forte - timber shelters.
Beckley has spent early spring doing the home and garden show circuit, from Minneapolis to Bemidji to Walker.
"The economic turndown was refreshing," Beckley said. "It gave me an opportunity to be inventive," to be open to new opportunities and depart from "tried and true methods."
Beckley said he likes the artistic side of creating furniture, pergolas, sun porches and outdoor parlors.
"As building slowed down, I was looking for something to set myself apart from the pack," he said. "There's a builder on every corner."
Because his "thinking focuses more on the timber shelters," he's apt to diminish what he's done in the past, including the remarkable renovation of a flat-roofed, century-old home in Akeley. The transformation, still a work in progress, is a work of art.
An Iowa native
From Ames, Beckley began coming up to the region around 1964 with his grandparents, who summered on Leech Lake.
"I never could think of why anyone wouldn't want to live here," he said.
In his senior year of high school he essentially interned with a contractor.
After a move to California, he established roots in Hubbard County in 1978, founding the general contracting business that bears his name.
He built exquisitely detailed log homes with heavy timber railings adorning majestic stairways, wooded walls reaching toward cathedral ceilings, all bearing the imprints of a master.
He built two developments on Ten Mile Lake, the last in 2008 when the market was turning sour.
The owners of the first two homes liked what they saw and went together to purchase the development around the time other contractors' spec homes were being foreclosed on.
"I couldn't have asked for a better scenario," he said with obvious relief.
In between he worked on his Akeley home.
A barren gray place
Only Beckley could see the potential in the gray nondescript home he purchased in 2002 behind a used car lot.
Nestled in a grove of trees, the house is nearly invisible to the outside world until you're upon it.
Today's view is light years different from the flat-roofed structure Beckley began with.
With the addition of a second floor and two turrets on each end of the house, the tan structure looks comfortable and unique in its new skin.
Beckley wonders if he "went a little crazy."
The second floor add-on is still in progress after nearly a decade. Beckley says his focus has strayed and he'd prefer making furniture and his timber shelters, which he began building a couple years ago.
The flat roof went and room-by-room the house underwent a transformation, especially the main floor bathroom.
A glass-block encased sunken shower is one of the innovations Beckley had added to his environment without sacrificing the home's senior character.
Dark cabinets in the kitchen, which was added to the building in 1953 with other rooms, were refurbished, When Beckley found an antique hatchet, he carefully carved a holding space in the cabinets to display it.
He's used dark earth tones and faux marble painting in the living room. But far from being a dark place, the home capitalizes on the windows and light. White woodwork throughout is a stark contrast to darker wood floors completed with excess lumber from homes he built.
He left the dining room floor its original wood, thinking he would re-do it as time affords him. The dark painted gray floor seems perfectly in harmony with the rich wood tones on the floors of the adjoining rooms.
His pots and pans hang from the kitchen ceiling. In a touch of whimsy, he created an arched door for his pantry. It's panted white.
Vintage artwork, braided rugs and antiques complete the look of a genteel country home.
And Beckley added touches, such as the closet floor vent for dirty clothes that keeps the house in immaculate condition.
On to new ventures
Beckley began building the timber shelters a few years ago, again to set himself apart from the pack.
Each is as individual as a child with its own identity.
Some, called pergolas, are open structures crying out for an Engelman ivy to climb to the rafters.
Others, such as an add-on he built to an 11th Crow Wing Lake home, are useful as a three-season porch with the addition of vinyl windows, at one-third the cost and the weight of glass.
Others are like a stunning wooden gazebo that sits in its natural state on a lawn or lake vista.
They've attracted a lot of interest perched on a lot off Highway 34 near the Akeley VFW. Using only Minnesota woods, Beckley also designs porch kits for the co-it-yourselfer.
The diversity of their uses, as sun rooms, porches, pagodas and canopies, matches the myriad of styles Beckley can craft them in.
Have a seat
Along the way, Beckley began building furniture, sturdy love seats and benches that he also experiments with. One wood bench outside his home has just been power washed to expose the wood grains.
Another popular design has the graceful curves of a 19th century fainting couch.
He's been advised to raise his prices on the furniture. "Dirt cheap" doesn't carry the cache he's looking for, he admitted.
But his endeavors keep him content, creatively challenged and financially above water.
In his spare time he cross-country skis, kayaks and canoes.
After more than three decades in the north woods, he can't envision living anywhere else but where he earns his trade, surrounded by the wood he turns into art.