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If home is where the heart is, then Cape Fear Riverwood has obviously captured the hearts of lots of North Carolina homeowners. Since the late-1990s, this Wilmington-based company has been providing homeowners with unique wood flooring and more--thanks to heart pine logs pulled from the depths of the Cape Fear River that the company retrieves and restores from the depths of the Cape Fear River.

Pine Power

These logs, which are mostly heart pine along with some cypress and other mixed woods, sank to the bottom of the Cape Fear River during the long-ago heyday of forest harvesting in the region in the 1700s and 1800s. Logs that had too much resin or became waterlogged sank when they fell off barges or as they were being floated downriver to mills. These sunken and sediment-covered logs, which are generally 300 to 700 years old, are what Cape Fear Riverwood officials (and many homeowners) now treasure.

While water can often warp wood, it can also work wonders on it. That’s certainly the case with wood that’s been in the Cape Fear River for hundreds of years, where relatively cool water temperatures and the lack of oxygen preserve the logs. Wood that Cape Fear Riverwood retrieves from the river typically has a unique greenish cast to it that is a result of the dark tannins in the Cape Fear. This hue, the incredibly tight grain of the wood, and the age and rarity of the logs are all factors in making the wood--especially heart pine--so popular.

“Homeowners who want high-quality flooring with lots of history ingrained in it have fallen in love with what we do,” says Steve Hendrix, Cape Fear Riverwood’s president. Hendrix, who was an executive with Krispy Kreme for more than 25 years, learned about the company when he was building his dream home on Lake Norman, which he just completed this past fall.

After installing close to 2,000 square feet of the flooring, he liked the wood and the company’s concept so much that he became a partner. “I drew the short straw and became president,” Hendrix says, joking. “But I really do love introducing homeowners to our historic heart pine, just like I discovered and now enjoy.”

Hendrix says heart pine no longer grows in any quantity, in that it’s not financially feasible to let them mature to 200 or 300 years of age. Because the entire region was originally covered in heart pine, it might take more than 100 years before an immature tree even received sunlight. Thus, heart pine forests that were harvested centuries ago weren’t replanted in heart pine but, rather in loblolly, short needle, slash pine, and other species that grow to maturity in 20 or 30 years.

Log Life

The process of how this heart pine goes from to river to homes is almost as intriguing as the history of the wood itself. Though Cape Fear Riverwood originally used leased sonar, barges, and cranes to find and retrieve the wood, they are now purchasing all of their own equipment so they can guarantee a consistent supply for their customers. This is allowing the company to better keep up with demand for their flooring and other products.

Hendrix says that, in the mid-1700s, there were more than 50 timber mills in the first 30 or so miles of the Cape Fear River (between Burgaw and Southport), with heavy logging continuing until the early-1900s. The company has generally concentrated its recovery efforts around these mill sites or elsewhere in the Cape Fear where numerous logs seem to have sunk (like bends in the river). Thus far, the company has pulled more than 25,000 logs from the murky Cape Fear, providing a form of tree harvesting that’s environmentally friendly (no trees are cut, the river bottom is cleared of large logs, and small matter is left behind for small fish habitats).

The muddy logs are cleaned and set out to dry before being trucked to Cape Fear Riverwood’s mill and lumber yard in nearby Navassa. Here, they’re cataloged and milled for various uses. Hendrix says the quality of the wood is what makes the logs so attractive. “You just can’t find this type of long, wide, and close-grained lumber anymore,” he says.

Out at the mill and lumber yard, partner Fred Mitchell often shows potential customers how the floor boards and other Cape Fear Riverwood offerings are created. Another Krispy Kreme veteran, Mitchell, who is now vice president of operations for Cape Fear Riverwood says, “We especially love finding old logs with chevrons marking where pine tar, rosin, and sap were extracted from the trees in Colonial times.” These logs are often transformed into mantles, with the chevrons creating a unique facing. Mitchell says wood that was “damaged” by the Turedo worm is also prized, with lightly pockmarked wood used for flooring and heavily holed wood turned into picture frames and other decorative items.

The huge logs are first cut into appropriate sizes before being taken into the mill for finish cuts, with boards destined for flooring going through the giant Weining Five-Headed Molder and coming out with tongue and groove cuts that are ready for someone’s home. Typically, homeowners only add a coat of polyurethane or other protective finish, in that the wood looks great in its natural state.

A Company With Heart

The company got it’s start almost a decade ago when Wilmington woodworker and cabinetmaker Vance Chamberlin began the arduous process of getting permits from various local, state, and federal agencies to search for and retrieve the logs, which he originally located by scuba diving in the muck. His small-scale operation, then called Riverwood of North Carolina, turned the wood--retrieved by winches--into much sought-after furniture that he hand-crafted.

In 1999, Chamberlin’s brother-in-law, Pete DeVita, saw the opportunity of expanding the business to include wood flooring and Chamberlin eventually left the company on friendly terms. “Simply stated, these logs looked beautiful in homes,” says DeVita, who is still a shareholder at Cape Fear Riverwood.

Many homeowners obviously agreed with DeVita, as did officials in charge of the restoration of the Thomas Day House/Union Tavern in the Caswell County town of Milton. Originally built in 1818 as an inn, the structure also served as the workshop and home of well-known furniture maker Thomas Day. It was severely damaged by fire in 1989, but restoration efforts included the use of heart pine flooring from Cape Fear Riverwood to keep the restored building as historically correct as possible.

But more modern homes have also gotten into the act since the company expanded the business to include wood flooring, which now accounts for 90% of its business. Wilmington’s Mort and Judy Neblett are among modern-day fans of the company’s wood flooring. “We used more than 3,000 square feet of the wood for flooring, a mantle, and outdoor benches,” says Mort. “The mantle is made with big slabs of Cape Fear Riverwood pine that were covered with barnacles and loaded with character. We think Cape Fear Riverwood is a great and unusual product with a great history to it.”

Joy and Hobson Morgan are other happy flooring customers, with about 850 square feet installed at Westbrook, their historic home on the Cape Fear River near the Elwell Ferry in Bladen County. “We couldn’t be happier,” says Hobson. “The contrasting colors and green patina of Riverwood pine readily reflect the uniqueness of our Cape Fear region.”

Several Wilmington restaurants also have Cape Fear Riverwood. These include Salty’s Restaurant and Wilson’s, where visiting diners can get a first-hand look at the historic wood flooring in use.

Though the company developed quite the following in eastern North Carolina, DeVita always thought other homeowners in the state and further afield would be interested in the company’s offerings. Thus, when Steve Hendrix showed an interest in the company that went well beyond his own dream home, DeVita pursued him as a partner to help the company expand once again.

There are now a total of four partners in the business and, as word spreads, the demand for their wood flooring continues to grow. Will that demand ever deplete what awaits below the Cape Fear’s surface? DeVita and Hendrix don’t think so, in that more than 300 years of logging probably led to at least a million sunken logs. “From our research, we’re confident we shouldn’t ever run out of logs to retrieve,” says Hendrix.

While wonderful heart pine wood flooring has grown into and will always be the company’s core business, Cape Fear Riverwood found there’s also a market for other products made out of this historic wood. “We now offer popular Adirondack-style chairs that may last forever, kitchen countertops, dramatic doors, really cool CD holders, tables and other custom-made furniture, picture frames, and much more,” says Hendrix.

Whether you’re looking for unique flooring, a stunning kitchen counter, or simply a CD holder with a story, Cape Fear Riverwood provides a way to have a unique piece of North Carolina history in your home. This is truly wood with lots of heart.

To Know More

Cape Fear Riverwood
118 Old Dairy Road
Wilmington, NC 28405
(910) 798-9663