SENIOR WRITER SUZANNE FREEMAN
Carpenter Ken McBride spreads out the wood he uses for each project like a painter’s palette. Some might call him a “Wood Whisperer,” a description that architect/builder Marley Porter said suits the 60-year-old artisan well.
Porter designed the Mormon Mill display at The Falls on the Colorado Museum in Marble Falls, drawing out a plan on an 8½-inch-by-11-inch piece of paper. McBride turned the black-and-white sketch into a three-dimensional work of art that moves as it would have 170 years ago.
“Anytime I have a weird or different or special thing I have designed to have built, I call Ken,” said Porter, who has worked with McBride for 18 years. “He understands and talks to wood.”
Built three years ago, the Mormon Mill replica actually turns a 400-pound millstone the exact size of the original stones used. Water from Hamilton Creek turned the wooden gears of the original mill as it ground corn and wheat into meal and flour. It was also used as a sawmill.
At the museum, visitors can easily turn gears with one hand and hear the machinery squeak just as the original workings did.
“I told them I could take the squeak out, but they told me no,” McBride said. “They wanted it to sound like that.”
When given the job, McBride was told to make it look 200 years old. He was preparing to distress new wood when the museum found 225-year-old heart pine from East Texas trees that had been used to build a barn in Mexico. The wood was sitting in Kingsland when the museum bought it.
In the weeks before work could begin, McBride researched the history of the mill and the building techniques used. He replicated the exact process and materials from the treenails (wooden nails) to the way joists and beams fit together.
“The tricks they used were amazingly simple,” McBride said. “They built things to stay. The wood made it so much more fun for me — and easy. Just look at the character in the beams. I couldn’t replicate that.”
He even used the same tools the Mormons would have used, some of which he had to make himself. He shaved the treenails with a drawknife and cut and squared the beams with a beveled ax.
“They asked me to build it with as little modern mechanics as possible,” McBride said. “Everything held together back in the day. It’s crazy to figure out. You have to use algebra, geometry, and physics. It holds itself together. The (treenails) keep it from shifting too much.”
McBride’s relationship with wood started at a young age. His father, who was also a carpenter, put a saw in his hands when he was 5 years old. It took off from there, he said.
“I always liked working with wood,” he continued. “I look at wood in a lot of different ways as far as graining and texture. I pick and choose, thinking about how is that one going to fit and how is that shape going to work.”
A native of Orange City, California, McBride moved to Cottonwood Shores in 1983. He and his wife, Barbara, built a home near his parents’ house, which they remodeled and moved into after his parents died. Remodeling is another McBride speciality.
“I like to make something ugly then turn it into something pretty,” he said. “Whenever you do a remodel, you have to do a demolition, and a lot of what you do makes it look really ugly. That can scare your customers. Then, you turn it into just what the customers wanted.”
As a customer, The Falls on the Colorado Museum has certainly been happy with McBride’s projects.
“His artistic eye, the level of detail, and the way he lets the wood ‘talk’ to him has resulted in three unique projects that stun our visitors,” said Darlene Oostermeyer, museum board chairwoman. “Ken has brought a heretofore unknown level of carpentry expertise to our museum displays.”
McBride also constructed two cases for Rockie, a 700-year-old bison skeleton found in nearby Briggs, and an intricate wall display for area geology.
You can see McBride’s work for yourself while discovering the history of the Highland Lakes at The Falls on the Colorado Museum, 2001 Broadway in Marble Falls. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.