When you meet Bruce Sutton, you first notice his hands are almost twice your size. He’s 60 years old but looks much younger, and could easily pass as a visitor from centuries ago.
Bruce has Cherokee blood in his ancestry, not uncommon for the part of North Carolina in which he lives. A hardworking wilderness spirit gives him the quintessential carve-a-home-in-the-woods mentality. It’s a personality trait that serves him well in his role as a hunter of historic log cabins.
Bruce Sutton spends his days searching for antique structures for clients who want them reconstructed or just want salvaged timbers for their homes.
Sutton has sought out old barns and log cabins for the past 10 years. He scouts the back roads throughout Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, always alert for potential subjects: rusted tin roofs, abandoned and dilapidated barns, split rail fences, and classic wood homes that look old enough to have an old wooden structure hiding somewhere on their land.
Like a treasure hunter, Sutton will often search for days without results. But the chase is worth it — he finds intense enjoyment in hunting for those remaining visages of our past and helping to make them a part of the present in someone’s home or backyard.
Sutton lives in Crabtree (population 900 or thereabouts), a small mountain community in the western part of the North Carolina. He and his wife Karen live in an original log home he built 30 years ago. Up until about 10 years ago, he worked in management for a local company. One day he decided to spend his time looking for old log cabins. He wasn’t quite sure how he could develop an income. He contacted builders who would be interested in using the old antique wood beams, such as Finley Merry, owner and builder of Highgate Community in Highlands, North Carolina. Merry hired Bruce to disassemble and relocate an 1870s cabin, made of poplar and heartwood pine, from Cocke County, Tennessee, to Highgate.
That’s how it began.
Sutton has found, disassembled, and rebuilt, or acted as supervisor and/or consultant to 10 cabin projects to date. A typical find-and-restore project involves several steps.
First, a cabin with the proper structural and aesthetic requirements must be found. Word may filter down from his extensive network of sources, or Sutton may discover one during his frequent driving forays. Once the cabin is found, Sutton must then locate the owners of the property. Often these cabins are on lands that are not occupied.
The second phase is for Bruce to photo-document the find for closer inspection — rotted wood, roofing problems, or other structural issues that will require post-reconstruction attention.
Many of the owners are reluctant to tear down these cabins, but Sutton shows the importance of relocating them to an area where they’ll be carefully rebuilt and, more importantly, looked after.
Once the home meets Sutton’s criteria and the owners agree to sell, Sutton begins his careful deconstruction of the cabin. It takes Sutton and his three-man crew three or four days. The most difficult part is always the beginning, when a cabin must be taken apart from the top down. Plate logs — hand-hewed square logs — must be carefully extracted, numbered, and stored for shipping.
One of Sutton’s most spectacular finds was a pre-Civil War cabin that he relocated and rebuilt for Finley Merry. He’s currently working on something even more historic: a 175-year-old Tennessee cabin that, according to local legend, has two human skeletons beneath it.
After that, Bruce Sutton will continue his quest to find long-forgotten treasures, hidden behind dense thickets of trees or along hard-to-maneuver rustic roads, and will do his best to find them a new home where their historic construction will be appreciated.