Knock On Wood
Hoosier Barn Heroes Breathes New Life Into Old Wood
As he was growing up, Bobby Williams gravitated towards a career in the church. He attended a Bible college for a year and a half before switching gears, transferring schools and pursuing a degree in pre-law. He made another pivot-turn while attending Indiana University, changing majors and ultimately earning an Education degree. Following graduation, he landed a job at Covenant Christian High School teaching English. Despite the various twists and turns in his career path, there was one constant in Williams’ life: his passion for wood.
“I’ve always enjoyed the side hustle of woodworking,” says Williams, who, as a newlywed, built decks and custom furniture for friends so he could earn money to buy fun tools like screw guns and air compressors. In 1999, Williams launched his woodworking business, BGW Construction.
When Williams was hired in 2000 at Plainfield High School as an English teacher and football coach, he tripled his workload. Even in the summer when he wasn’t teaching, he was firing on all cylinders.
“I’d have football practice in the morning, then build a deck in the afternoon,” says Williams, who landed several big jobs, including building a bar at Three Pints Brewing Company in Plainfield and a tasting room in Martinsville.
“Those jobs put me on the map as a designer and architect because they were unique custom millwork projects,” says Williams, who also built a cool pirate ship at a preschool in Noblesville.
It was a productive life, but between creating lesson plans, grading papers, coaching football and running his business, he had little time for family.
“My wife Karen looked at the numbers and said that the first thing to give up would be coaching,” Williams says. He did, and two years later, after 18 years of teaching at PHS, Williams quit teaching in order to devote himself to the business.
Williams hired his former PHS colleague and business-savvy buddy Jason Schoeff to help run it. The pair work well together in a yin/yang sort of way. As Williams puts it, “Jason is OCD to my ADD. He’s very good with the organizational side of things.”
For 50 years, his grandfather owned Williams Brothers TV and Appliances, a staple in Plainfield.
“Anybody from the baby boomer generation would remember the place,” Williams says. “They were the Walmart of the town before there was such a thing.”
“Someone would yell, ‘Hey, Bob!’ and 15 people would turn around,” says Williams with a chuckle.
Though his grandfather sold part of the property in the early 90s, the family still owns nine acres, two of which Williams uses for his business. He erected a 7,200 sq. ft. building (4,800 of which is used as a millwork shop). The rest is leased out for weddings and other events.
In 2014, a friend asked Williams to do the carpentry work for his 30×40 ft. booth at the Indiana Flower & Patio Show. They participated in the Belgard Challenge, an attraction that pits three Central Indiana landscape designers against one another. Williams outfitted the space with 1860s barn wood, and they won the challenge.
“No one else was doing barn wood back then,” Williams says. “Now it’s all the rage. I was an unintended trendsetter.”
Though Williams gets a kick out of the fact that he’s more qualified to teach Chaucer than to build a table, he recognizes that he’s got a skill set in both. In fact, this year Williams’ business won Best in Show at the Indiana Flower & Patio Show for their barn wood pergola, hand-hewn post-and-beam construction and bar with poured concrete countertops.
In 2015, a buddy of Williams’ named Jeremy Riddell, who had a bunch of old barn wood, asked Williams if he wanted to buy him out. Though Williams loved the idea in theory, in practice, he knew there was no money in it.
“There’s a saying in the barn wood industry that if you want to be a millionaire selling barn wood, start out being a billionaire,” Williams says.
Nevertheless, he was intrigued. He knew that barns are a bit like an endangered species. According to Williams, in 1992, there were two million antique barns in the Midwest. Ten years later, that number had dropped to 600,000 — many of them pushed over and buried. Williams loved the idea of saving the artisanship of some of these beautiful structures.
“I was romantically inclined to buy Jeremy’s business, but I wanted to run it in a different way,” says Williams, who launched Hoosier Barn Heroes in 2016 and has since used the wood to create furniture and home accent pieces.
The name Hoosier Barn Heroes was conceived by Williams and Schoeff, both IU fans and also fans of saving history. Customers frequently request mantles, tables and carvings. Wall art is also in high demand. For example, they created a “tree of life” piece for a family that’s 4×4 feet.
“The family has lived in America for generations but has a German heritage so the tree portion above the ground is of an American flag and the roots are painted as the German flag,” says Williams, who loves to repurpose century-old wood so that it can be enjoyed by future generations.
“We’re taking down old wood that’s grey with little pieces of dirt in it. Its color has been worked on by God for the past 150 years,” Williams says. “We sand it down, put a coating of polyurethane on it, and craft this beautiful piece of art.”
Though Williams thoroughly enjoyed his years of teaching and coaching, he has settled into a more balanced lifestyle now — one that enables him to spend more time with his wife and four children: Maci (22), Myka (16), KayDee (11) and Robbie (8). Through growth and renewal, Williams has determined that the process of repurposing wood is a great metaphor for life. Taking something that someone else may consider trash and repurposing it into something beautiful to be admired and celebrated is satisfying.
“No matter where we are in life, no matter what we’ve done, no matter our mistakes or missteps, we can still be redeemed,” says Williams, who hashtags every post on social media #redemption.
“This wood can tell a story for the next 150-200 years,” Williams says. “I love that we’re reclaiming history.”
Hoosier Barn Heroes is located at 172 Williams Trace in Plainfield. For more information, visit bgwconstructionllc.com/hoosier-barn-heroes or call 317-268-4487.