For thousands of years, tall majestic longleaf pines shaded the Florida landscape. After Europeans arrived, they discovered that their wood was strong and termite proof, and cut them down to use as building material.
Longleaf pine lumber, dubbed “heart pine,” was used in homes throughout the South, and also shipped to the North for residential and business construction. Since it takes about 100 years for a longleaf pine to grow to maturity, the trees slowly disappeared.
H.K. Usher has spent much of his life bringing the wood back to Florida. He finds it across America in buildings that are slated for demolition, buys it, and hauls it to the First Coast, where his company uses it for hardwood floors.
He considers it his mission to rescue the wood and give it a second life.
“It’s beautiful,” he says. “Termites can’t eat it, it’s been drying for a hundred or more years, and it doesn’t warp.”
He’s found the wood in warehouses, old business buildings, abandoned homes, and even lining the New York City subway. A lifelong Southerner, when he locates wood up north, he says he makes a “game” of getting it back.
“I say, ‘I’m here to get the wood your carpetbaggers and grandfathers stole after the Civil War,’” he says, with a gleam in his eye. “Since I’m standing there with a fistful of hundred dollar bills, they welcome me with open arms.”
For several decades, Usher was president of his Mayport-based company, Florida Heartwood Pine Flooring. After some health challenges, which included a liver transplant in 2010, he went into semi-retirement and is now a consultant for his son-in-law’s business – Pine Floors by Tim Taylor.
His wife, Annabelle Lea, an artist and former theater and museum set designer, is also a creative consultant for the thriving business. Projects include the installation of the wood floors in Salt Life Food Shack in Jacksonville Beach, another Salt Life in Miami, and the new Salt Life that opened in April in St. Augustine Beach. His company is also contracted to install floors in the new Atlantic Beach Country Club clubhouse in Atlantic Beach, and also in some of the new homes slated to be built in the community, formerly known as Selva Marina.
His recent supply of wood came from an 1850 cotton mill in Alabama – “some of the nicest I’ve ever seen,” he says. Like all things with a history, reclaimed wood has a character that adds life to any space. For Usher, such sustainable enterprise is something to celebrate. He says, “I get to take something that was destined for the landfill, and make beautiful floors out of it. I love it.”