Staff from Moraine based Outdoor Living Group stand in front of processed lumber. The company’s sawmill operation helped people clean up their yards after last year’s tornadoes. L-R Chris Trembley, Jake Kingery, Tony Niekamp, Barrett Niekamp CONTRIBUTED
Photo: contributed
Photo: contributed

Local lumber business helped tornado trees find new life

During this difficult time, it’s easy to forget that last May, Dayton was in the middle of another crisis when several powerful tornadoes left many homeless and many more to deal with property damage and devastation.

Barrett Niekamp and his dad, Tony, are owners of Moraine-based Outdoor Living Group. Niekamp had been working on expanding the business when the tornadoes hit last Memorial Day weekend.

“My dad started the company in 2003 and historically we have been in the hardscape and water-feature industry,” Niekamp said. “We’ve done a lot of water gardens and we even built the big children’s garden at Wegerzyn Garden Center.”

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After majoring in entrepreneurship at Sinclair Community College, Niekamp knew he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps in the family business. And he started becoming more involved in the company.

“I started the sawmill part of our business mainly to provide income in the winter,” Niekamp said. “It’s been a good move.”

It may seem completely contrary to his business model, but Niekamp has developed an enduring respect for trees over the years and salvages nearly everything he processes from locally sourced trees.

“I’d rather that our trees remain living,” Niekamp said. “There is always a company or someone supporting logging. It’s necessary to an extent, but I don’t need to do it.”

This was never more exemplified than after the tornadoes left behind hundreds of felled trees, many of them very old and large. In the aftermath, Niekamp saw an opportunity not only to salvage some amazing lumber, but to help his neighbors at the same time.

“Most people don’t have the equipment to clean up such large pieces of trees,” Niekamp said. “But I know a few people in the industry and that gave me a jump start.”

Niekamp started working as much as he could, driving around neighborhoods hardest hit by the storms and offering to clean up yards at no cost. Most people had no need for large pieces of wood, so he ended up hauling most of it away.

“I started getting calls from all over the area,” Niekamp said. “We were able to do quite a bit of clean up for people.”

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Niekamp, who did most of the cleanup work himself, continued to run his businesses during this time, and usually went out in the evenings after work to help with clean up. He often worked until 11 pm each night. In addition, he found himself loaded down with wood for his sawmill businesses — he estimates about 200 logs altogether, of all different types. And today, nearly a year later, he is still processing the wood so it can be sold to craftsmen for making furniture and other items.

“It takes a long time to get the wood processed and dried,” Niekamp said. “A minimum of a year, in some cases. It comes down to the thickness of the lumber and the time it takes to minimize defects.”

Though Niekamp himself is a craftsman, he said his focus now is more on the supply side since many local companies and furniture makers need wood as a raw material. Outdoor Living Group focuses exclusively on hardwoods such as maple, oak, ash, cherry and walnut. The wood salvaged from the Dayton tornadoes will eventually become cutting boards, shelving, tables and even beautiful keepsakes. Some pieces have already been used and are allowing the lost trees to continue being appreciated by local families.

“If I picked up the wood in Kettering, I can tell someone who lives in Kettering that the wood came from nearby,” Niekamp said. “Knowing the history of the wood goes a long way for people. None of these people wanted their big trees gone. But it happened. And some people asked if they could have a slab returned after we processed it.”

With the north Dayton area being one of the hardest hit, Niekamp said he ended up spending most of his time there. Many homeowners ended up losing all their trees, along with all the shade they provided. But Niekamp has helped the salvaged wood become something new – and each piece has a story to tell.

“You can’t rebuild those memories,” Niekamp said. “People lost houses and lives. I know what I did was just a small part of the clean-up effort and many people won’t ever recover.”

Niekamp said he’s proud of the way the community worked together in the clean-up effort and that it shows how Dayton continues to persevere, in the face of much adversity.

“Everything takes time,” Niekamp said. “You can’t go back to the way it was exactly, but you can try to help.”

Find the Outdoor Living Group on Facebook and Instagram or visit the company’s website: OLGohio.com.

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