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Published February 16 2012

Junkers' love of collecting cast-offs featured in new blog

FARGO - As a little girl, Sarah McCurdy recalls watching her grandfather sift through a huge pile of old motors on the family farm near Cavalier, N.D.

Decades before anyone used words like “repurpose,” C.R. McCurdy often did exactly that. He kept a stash of old machinery on hand, just in case he needed to salvage parts for farm equipment or the family’s electric motor-rewinding business.

Grandpa McCurdy’s frugality left an impression. His granddaughter, now 31, routinely combs estate sales to find mismatched Depression glass and scans flea markets to unearth beat-up dressers with good bones.

Likewise, she has two friends, Dan Nisbet and Laura Caroon, who share her passion for uncovering the “jewel of the pile.” All three are young, creative types who have become junkers – people who rescue items that are old, dilapidated or just plain unwanted and then find smart, stylish, new uses for them.

Unlike antique collectors, junkers rehab items that most other people don’t want.

“The pieces we find are damaged and aren’t in prime condition,” Caroon says. “It’s taking pieces that don’t have any obvious value and turning them into something unique.”

Now the treasure-finding trio has launched Midwestjunk.com, a platform to share decorating ideas, showcase “before” and “after” projects, sell items to other junkers and publicize flea markets or other junking events. Although the blog is barely a month old, it has attracted contributors from as far away as Ohio.

“Part of the fun of junking is sharing what you found, what you did with it and what its original story was,” says Caroon, who by day runs Frozen Music Studios, a photography business.

“We want to showcase ideas and inspiration for others. We would love to have people from all over the Midwest be able to use this,” adds McCurdy, who displays some of the rehabbed junk she sells through her business, Refined Junk, in her basement workshop.

Evidence of McCurdy’s junking expertise is everywhere. Yardsticks and long rolls of paper are stashed in an old country mailbox. A tiny blue school desk – the same one McCurdy sat in during preschool – is stationed in one corner. And one wall is dominated by the repurposed metal windmill vane from her family’s farm.

This vane, finally liberated from countless harsh winters in North Dakota, looks almost like a hanging sculpture indoors. “My brother hung it up with airplane cable,” McCurdy says proudly. “It probably weighs 25 pounds.”

One creative trio

The blog was actually the brainchild of Nisbet, a graphic artist and former Fargoan who now lives in Waukesha, Wis.

Just like McCurdy, Nisbet’s love of old things also was inspired by his grandfather.

And like many Depression-era kids, his granddad saved a bit of everything on his East Grand Forks, Minn., farmstead.

“There was always a barn or shed to look through,” Nisbet recalls. “That’s probably where I got the bug from.”

Nisbet would grow up to enjoy the lure of what he dubs “barn-fresh finds”: vintage oil cans with retro graphics and old metal signs advertising products that no longer exist.

Nisbet knew he wasn’t alone in his quest for old treasures. The popularity of websites like Pinterest, the renewed interest in recycling objects and shows like “American Pickers” are ample evidence of that.

And so he coaxed his two friends to come on board. Over burgers at West Fargo’s JL Beers, they scratched out their ideas on the back of an old grocery list.

The three of them had the perfect skill sets for such a venture. Nisbet would tackle design, Caroon could shoot photos and McCurdy, a freelance writer and former TV reporter, could oversee content management.

The idea wasn’t really to make money as much as it was to connect with other junkers and give them their own display hutch in cyber-space.

However, if the site happens to make a little money along the way, they wouldn’t mind.

“For now, it’s just a group of us having fun together,” says Nisbet, who routinely meets with his fellow vintage-philes via Skype. “We’re introducing it to people who might not be familiar to it. And it’s just fun talking about all our neat finds.”

Typical topics on “Midwest Junk” include posts on prized vintage finds (a recent entry, titled “Hoot Couture,” raved about owl salt-and-pepper shakers), design ideas and – a reader favorite – “before” and “after” photos.

A market page helps save junkers from becoming hoarders by giving them a spot to sell unwanted junk. And another spot includes tips on cool places to track down vintage finds.

For the latter, Caroon gives a shout-out to a shop called “The Garage” in Grand Marais, Minn., in one post.

“I spotted a yard full of junk and was immediately intrigued,” she wrote. “Then I saw the words, ‘Art, Antiques, Coffee and Free Wi-Fi’ in hand-painted letters. What more could a junk girl need?”

A green thing to do

Caroon’s transformation into “junk girl” began early, when the Coon Rapids, Minn., native used to accompany her mom on antiquing trips.

She initially collected antique perfume bottles, but her interests expanded and diversified.

“I’m passionate about being green, so from there it was just a natural progression into junking,” Caroon says.

She now collects everything from furniture and old signs to vintage cameras and granny square blankets. Like McCurdy and Nisbet, she gets many of her finds at estate sales, auctions, garage sales, thrift stores and relatives’ attics.

One of her favorite discoveries so far: a table so far gone that it seemed destined for the landfill. She figures it had been used as a crafting table, as it was blemished with different colors of paint, scratches, dried glue and cracks in the wood.

“I saw something in it,” Caroon says.

She updated the hardware and found the perfect shade of blue paint – a soothing aquamarine that friends have taken to calling “Laura Caroon blue.”

Now, “people want to steal it all the time,” she says, smiling.

And that, these three say, is really what it’s all about: recycling and rehabbing what others have rejected.

It’s enough to make C.R. McCurdy proud.

While visiting her granddad in the nursing home one day, Sarah McCurdy told him about her new adventures in old junk.

“I didn’t know quite how he would react but he smiled and shook his head as he said, ‘I never thought you would be one to get into the junk business,’ ” McCurdy recalls.

Her grandpa then told her it broke his heart to see perfectly good items wind up in a landfill.

And he proceeded to regale her with tales of some of his favorite junk finds, proving that junkers are always junkers at heart.

Now she – and her friends – will carry on the tradition.