The world of lumber-jacking joined the ranks of reality TV in 2008 with the History Channel series "Ax Men." The logging companies featured on the show (currently midway through its sixth season) tend to come from two regions: the Great Northwest and the Southern Bayou. On Sunday, that will change when a crew based in the Midwest joins the cast.
The introduction of Wisconsin Woodchuck on Sunday's 8 p.m. broadcast is confined to just one segment of the show, but in those few minutes it is clear that the crew will bring something different to the "Ax Men" formula. The crew's demeanor is far less theatrical than that of the other crews on the show; when two workers find themselves trapped 80 feet in the air, they wait patiently as the crane operator calmly takes out the owner's manual to figure out the problem.
Just as importantly, the work itself is distinct from that of a traditional logging business. Rather than harvesting wood from forests or swamps, Wisconsin Woodchuck is focused on a single project: dismantling an antique grain elevator in Superior, Wis., and then selling the reclaimed lumber to high-end builders and furniture designers who appreciate the unique character of the wood and support the concept of re-use — and are willing to pay twice the going rate for what comparable two-by-six boards would cost at Home Depot.
Built in 1887, the grain elevator holds 6 million board feet of antique old-growth wood. It was once (according to the company's website) the biggest grain storage facility in the world.
Wisconsin Woodchuck has been working on the project since 2005 under the watchful eye of former Tribune reporter and national editor Judy Peres and her partner David Hozza. The couple splits their time between the job site in Superior and an apartment in Evanston. Just under 20 percent of the building has been dismantled so far, and the marketing arm of the company — Old Globe Reclaimed Wood Company (oldglobewood.com) — is struggling.
Financially, the company is in dire straits. For Peres, their participation on the show is a Hail Mary. She's hoping the exposure on "Ax Men" will generate publicity and therefore more customers for their wood.
Though a longtime journalist (she was with the Tribune for 28 years), Peres admitted she was unaware of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that often characterize reality TV, including the so-called Frankenbite, whereby producers edit together unrelated clips and sound bites to "improve" and heighten the drama, often changing the nature of what was actually said.
And then there is Mark Gustafson, who was featured on the first two seasons of "Ax Men" (along with his Oregon-based company). Last summer he told his local paper the Daily Astorian that "so much of it was pure fabrication through editing. Some of it was just outright false information because they thought it was cool to spin things a certain way. When we watched it, we were just kind of going, 'That didn't happen,' or 'That didn't happen that way.'"
Peres was frank and forthcoming about her company's prospects when we spoke earlier this week about her hopes for their upcoming story arc on "Ax Men" (which was filmed over four weeks in July).
I couldn't help wondering if she sees the writing on the wall. When she spoke about the company, it was in the past tense. "We did it because it was there and because we could — our kids were grown, we weren't paying college tuition anymore, we really weren't responsible for anyone but ourselves at that point. It was an adventure and it was romantic. Saving this wood was a really good idea, it needed to be done.
"It seemed like a really good idea," she said, "until you got up close to those buildings. And then you say, 'Oh my gosh, how do we do this?' It's like deconstructing the pyramids."
Q: How did "Ax Men" come into your life?
A: I got a call one day out of the blue from one of our customers called saying, "You're going to get a call from someone from the History Channel, they might be interested in doing something on the Globe elevator project." This was in May. And the next day I got a call from a producer in Hollywood who said she worked for this show called "Ax Men" and it was a pretty big deal, it had 3 million viewers, it was about the lumber and logging industry and they wanted to broaden their scope a little bit.
So they sent a cameraman-slash-producer, and he came out for 48 hours to shoot what they call a casting. They wanted to see who the characters were, what we looked like on camera. And they wanted to get a sense of what the site looked like. And while he was here on site, we had a mishap. We had two guys stuck in the crane basket 80 feet in the air.
Q: That moment is in Sunday's episode.
A: Really? That's interesting, because it wasn't shot by the main crew.
Q: In December, a cast member who was fired from A&E's "Storage Wars" filed a lawsuit saying the show was staged and fake. So I was wondering if that moment with the crane malfunctioning was real.
A: That actually happened. Nobody was orchestrating this.
Q: What was going through your mind as this was happening and there's a guy filming all of it? Were you worried about lawsuits or looking like knuckleheads? Or did you think, "Hey, drama! They'll love this"?
A: I think all of the above. We were thinking, "Well, this is going to give them something, isn't it?" At the same time, we didn't know how this was going to end. We're worried about the guys in the basket. It was a nailbiter.