Rio History: Driftwood Treasures

Special to the PRESS

I remember that day clearly.

A tiny silvery dot closely followed by two straight white parallel lines, streaked across the brilliant turquoise blue sky on its final approach to the airport in Brownsville. Looking toward the Gulf I could see that the surf was flat and the beach sand was packed hard and wide like a super freeway.

I shifted into low gear as I arrived at the eastern end of Highway 100. Under normal conditions I would simply steer my Jeep Wagoneer off the edge of the road and head to the beach but not this day. I stopped just in time. More than eight inches of sand had washed away from the edge of the blacktop during a recent tropical storm, leaving a dangerous drop-off.

Backing up, I looked for a place to access the beach.

Suddenly, a large flat bed truck, loaded with beams and driftwood turned off the beach and headed towards where I was parked. The sand is deep there so the driver hit the gas as he sped around the low dunes. I waved my hands, trying to get his attention but to no avail. I actually shut my eyes and moaned aloud as the front tires of the speeding truck hit the lead edge of the blacktop. There was a loud whumping sound followed immediately by what sounded like a child dropping a handful of Lincoln logs into a large tin can. Beams, lumber and stray lengths of rope and netting shot forward off the truck, onto the road. The force of the impact was so severe that both front tires were flat and their rims were bent.

A nearby sign proclaimed: End of Pavement.

I found the beach littered with driftwood, boards and flotsam of all kinds and as I traveled north I almost ripped the oil pan off the jeep but managed to swerve around the stump of an enormous cypress. At that moment, I wished sorely that I hadn’t sold my old winch truck. The branching roots from these swamp giants make excellent bases for glass topped tables.

I’ve heard of people finding teak and mahogany logs after a good storm so I always examine the bigger trees in an effort to identify them.

A beachcomber gave me the location of an ancient pecan tree that washed ashore about 20 miles north. It looked as if it was a live tree caught by rising flood waters. Unfortunately no sawmill would want to cut such a find. The salt and sand embedded in the wood could quickly dull the sharpest mill saw. It would be different if it were found in fresh water, though.

I once read an AP story that told of divers salvaging a 100-year-old wreck in one of the Great Lakes. The cargo of bird’s eye maple logs had been preserved in the icy cold lake waters and was worth over a million dollars in today’s market.

A friend of mine bought an old farm house sitting on five acres of land overlooking the Mississippi River near Lacrosse, Wisconsin. The day he closed on the deal he brought in a crew from a local sawmill. The wood choppers carefully cut two old walnut trees, digging up the root system in the process. The wood from the trunk would be used as veneer while the gnarled old roots were carved into gun stocks for custom made shotguns. The two trees paid for the property and the remaining 23 trees will be his retirement!

Another man found a fallen tree in a public park after a violent storm. The park rangers were happy to allow him to remove the tree. He had it cut to specifications and was able to panel his home in a beautiful maple paneling.

My favorite story though, is about a man who paid so much for a rosewood log from Brazil that he had to hire guards to watch it until he could get it to the mill. Instead of cutting it into boards and making one or two pieces of furniture, he turned it into veneer. He then used the paper thin sheets of wood to craft one hundred game tables. To date over half have been sold at the incredible price of $12,000 each!

I wasn’t lucky enough to stumble across such a treasure but I did find some nice shells and an incredible piece of driftwood that resembles a gorilla. For now, it sits in a box along with other “Faces in Nature,” waiting for the day that my partners, Dennis Franke, Rod Bates and myself will raise enough money to build a museum on South Padre Island.

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