South Dakota Furniture Maker Rebuilds After Fire

By JIM HOLLAND, Rapid City Journal | February 25, 2014

Furniture maker Monte Pittman knew once a wind-driven fire pushed its way into his workshop north of Whitewood, S.D., there would be no stopping it.

Pittman lost a 36-foot-by-48-foot building, all of his woodworking tools and three vehicles to the early-morning blaze on Jan. 20.

But there’s no stopping Pittman either.

Building and selling custom-made indoor and outdoor furniture and other items under the name of PittSticks, Pittman was forced to scrap plans to exhibit at this month’s Black Hills Stock Show. But he still planned on being at the recent Black Hills Sport Show and Outdoor Expo.

He said he would display a few surviving pieces from his inventory, including a bar, gun cabinet, dresser, bookcase and small decorative boxes, all crafted from wood salvaged from trees killed by mountain pine beetles.

“We’re still up and running and able to keep producing. You just can’t stop. You have to keep moving,” he said in a recent afternoon as he set up his booth at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

The Black Hills Sport Show and Outdoor Expo typically features more than 100 vendors offering recreational vehicles, boats, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and outfitter gear filling the civic center.

For Pittman, pine beetles have been a bane and bonanza. Wood from the dying trees has a unique grey color.

“The only good thing the beetles accomplished is they gave character to pine that it didn’t have before,” he said.

“The downside of the beetle-kill pine is when this stuff catches fire, it’s so dry, it just burns like toilet paper,” he said.

That’s what happened to Pittman’s shop. Embers from a scrap pile fire he thought he had doused the day before were blown into dry lumber stacked next to the wood-frame building.

“I had hoses there. It was calm that day and I had soaked everything down like I always do and I would have bet big dollars that I had it all put out,” he said.

Not quite out, unfortunately.

Wind-swirled embers found the outside lumber and blew the flames into the shop, which contained another 2,000 to 3,000 board feet of more tinder-dry pine.

“We had 50 mile-per-hour winds. Between that and the fuel source, there was nothing you could do to stop it once it got there,” Pittman said.

Fire departments from Whitewood in Lawrence County and other surrounding communities responded to keep the blaze from spreading.

Pittman said he called in the alarm at 3:30 a.m. and 45 minutes later the shop, a car, truck and delivery van had been incinerated.

His home, upwind from the shop, sustained only minor heat damage.

Pittman’s love of woodworking stems from growing up on a family dairy farm not far from his current home.

His mother, Jeane, built much of the cabinetry and furniture at the farm and at age 84 still operates a small craft shop with wood items she builds.

“I grew up in the country and around the trees and the forest. This is a good getaway, and I’m not a person that likes to sit around and watch TV. This is what I do to keep from sitting around the house,” he said.

Pittman, who has worked at Rapid City Regional Hospital for 34 years repairing surgical equipment, started cutting his own wood and picking up wood from local tree services.

“About five years ago, I saw people chopping up really nice oak trees for firewood. I just knew in my heart that I hated to see those kinds of trees cut up for firewood. They could be made into something,” he said.

For now, Pittman is working out of his brother Martin’s neighboring upholstery shop until he can rebuild his own shop. He had used the heated-attached garage at his home as a finishing room for completed furniture before the fire.

“I will be back to full strength and we will be smarter and safer. I will never burn a scrap pile again. I’m going to buy a chipper and mulch everything,” he said.

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