Reborn Barns takes Alberta's crumbling farms and turns them into something new

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Ryan Steblyk constructed his first feature wall from reclaimed barn wood five years ago, but his affinity for preserving prairie history began much earlier.

Ryan Steblyk -- Photo by Amber Bracken

Ryan Steblyk -- Photo by Amber Bracken

In high school, Steblyk, founder of Reborn Barns, drove down Highway 15 from Lamont to Sherwood Park every day. The hour-long amble through the rural outskirts of Edmonton would take him past the same old barn he had watched wither away since he was five, driving into the city for Ukrainian dance lessons.

Every year the barn would lean a little more, until eventually it succumbed to the effects of gravity, collapsing into a heap of weathered planks and beams. The next week, it had vanished completely — ashes lingering where the structure once stood.

So when it came time to tear down an old outbuilding on his grandparents farm five years ago, rather than trash the old wood, Steblyk decided to repurpose it.

"As we were taking it apart, I got to feeling the material and seeing the age in it," says Steblyk. "That got my gears turning. Why wouldn’t we show off this type of thing? This is a small piece of Alberta history that we’re trying to throw out right now.”

As Edmonton celebrates Western Week from Nov. 3 to 12, Edmonton Made toured Reborn Barns' new studio to find out more about the business of reclaiming the built structures that supported rural livelihood.

The owner of another successful business, marketing firm Boom Street Media, Steblyk didn't set out to start a woodworking company. Up until a year ago, crafting home furnishings and feature walls was a hobby that the self-taught craftsman performed out of his garage.

The tables turned when Steblyk bought and renovated a small workshop and retail space in St. Albert’s Campbell Park. With his focus now on Reborn Barns, he continues to design websites and graphics on the side.

Word of mouth has kept Steblyk busy since he built that first wall. Seeing the raw beauty on display within his home, friends and family began asking him to take on more and more projects.

“It was hard to say no, because the opportunity to work with my hands was calling to me,” he says.

For Steblyk, working with reclaimed wood isn't a trend, but a philosophy. Not only is there a clear environmental benefit to re-using materials — rather than applying aging agent — but giving old wood new life is Steblyk's way of preserving prairie history.

I love when the objects and materials I salvage can tell their own story. It's like a window into our past when you can see how salvaged items were actually used and it brings a human factor into our pieces. You get to imagine the actual farmer hanging up his lantern after checking his cattle some 100 years ago. This can't be experienced with a "made-to-look-rustic" assembly line piece from overseas. -- Photo by Amber Bracken

I love when the objects and materials I salvage can tell their own story. It's like a window into our past when you can see how salvaged items were actually used and it brings a human factor into our pieces. You get to imagine the actual farmer hanging up his lantern after checking his cattle some 100 years ago. This can't be experienced with a "made-to-look-rustic" assembly line piece from overseas. -- Photo by Amber Bracken

According to the National Trust for Canada, nearly 6,000 wooden grain elevators once dotted the skylines of Canada's prairies. Today, fewer than 14 per cent of these iconic structures remain. Many other decommissioned farm buildings suffer the same fate. Reborn Barns honours and preserves these relics by transforming them into beautiful pieces of art, furniture or home decor.

Each unique patina tells a story, which Steblyk documents through the many conversations he has with farmers and landowners.

“To learn how the province was built, on the backs of a lot of these farmers, is just such a humbling experience," says Steblyk. "It’s been awesome to learn our history in such a hands-on, first-hand way.”

One piece stands out within the neatly elegantly staged showroom. Amid rustic trays and mirrors, wine racks and coffee tables, sits a simple plank, cast in cement.

On the floor next to the window, a discoloured hole in its centre matches the rusted hue of an accompanying kerosene lantern.

Located outside a barn that Steblyk salvaged, this board once held a large metal spike, which in turn held that very lantern. For 60 years, these relics were part of daily tradition. For six decades, a farmer grabbed the same lantern off the same nail, as he checked on his livestock.

“That’s one of my favourite parts about working with this kind of material,” says Steblyk, “the little dents and dings and scratches and nails; every little piece has a story that is lost in time.”

For more information on all things Western Week visit the Edmonton Tourism website.