Barbara Wampler comes to the rescue of neglected, vintage textiles. Catherine “Rabbit” Janecka brings new life to weathered wood, chipped resin, and rusted iron. These “champions of second chances” repurpose, repair, and recycle items that others might consider trash.
Their endeavors require unique talents plus boundless patience.
Barbara’s on a mission
Don’t look for Barbara in the fray at a garage or estate sale. While other shoppers compete in a heady adrenalin-driven rush to pick over trinkets and treasures, she stands back. Barbara wanders in after the bargain hunting throng dashes off to the next sale.
Calm and self-assured, her practiced eye seeks clues to a potential prize. Barbara might find it stuffed in a dusty old shoebox, partially hanging out of a white plastic grocery store sack or hidden in the bottom of a cardboard box, camouflaged by more appealing goods.
Shoved under a table or on the fringes of the sale space, it represents an afterthought at best or an apology of sorts to the original owner.
One man’s trash…
Who buys an old hand embroidered tea cloth that’s half finished? Who wants a few matching quilt pieces, far short of the number needed for a quilt? Who needs an unfinished needlepoint picture? Who values long, narrow strips of colorful fabric prepared for an unknown project?
“When I come across an old, unfinished piece that someone once put a lot of time into, I think it deserves to be finished and treasured,” Barbara says.
“It seems to claim me, versus me claiming it.”
Typically, an item Barbara chooses to take home doesn’t have a price tag. When she asks about the cost, the seller’s reaction is a blank stare. Never believing it would sell, they had put that unwanted piece out just in case someone like Barbara showed up.
“Sometimes they’ll tell me to take it or they price it really, really cheap. Then the seller usually gets curious and asks what in the world I plan to do with it. When I say I’m going to finish it, they think I’m joking.”
“I wonder about the women who made the pieces and what they were like.
“When I was a child, I would go up in the attic of our farmhouse and spend time admiring the fabrics of old clothing and household goods stored in trunks that likely came from Czechoslovakia in the late 1800s,” she says.
The Smithville, Texas, resident has had a lifelong interest in antiques, especially needlework and handwork, but has an interest in other collectibles.
Vision is her innate gift
Seeing far beyond an item’s original purpose, Barbara can envision a fabulous new life for a rescued item. It rarely bears a resemblance to its original form.
Then she sets about methodically creating it.
“I like working with bits and pieces of fabric. Ideas and possibilities just pop into my head when I sit down with these textiles. Combining them in interesting ways is really fun.”
Tying up loose ends
Sometimes Barbara, whose mother taught her to sew when she was a child, must master a new skill to finish a craft. Although YouTube offers boundless instruction, she prefers to sit quietly and follow the steps in a book on her lap. Currently, tatting is on her list to study.
Occasionally she is disappointed when a piece is too fragile to rework or repair.
Barbara often works on several reclamation projects at once. Some take only a few minutes to complete, while others take weeks.
“It’s ironic, but I’ll sometimes be working on a project that triggers memories from my childhood. I like that,” she says.
Picking up too many unfinished projects is a hazard because they stack up.
“My husband says my sewing room should be cleaned out,” she adds.
Barbara thinks there are more than enough abandoned projects out there to go around. She will gladly share.
“Since the pandemic has slowed down our pace of life, perhaps more people will get interested in repurposing, reusing and recycling.”
Rabbit sees past rust and peeling paint
Rabbit views the world through the lens of an artist. Her skillset is even broader, though, because she combines her God-given painting talent with self-taught restoration skills.
Drawing upon a palate of creativity, experience and instinct, she undertakes the rescue of a wide range of relics that have seen better days.
“A pile of old barn wood or a piece of furniture hauled out to the curb gets my attention. I’m not particularly curious about what it used to look like or who once owned it.
“I’m interested in what it can become,” Rabbit says. “How can I make it functional again?”
Rabbit expects the unexpected
“I tell people I’m a small town artist. I paint whatever someone in the community needs painted or repair whatever they want fixed. That’s my business. I find time to do some projects for myself, as well,” she explains.
I called Rabbit about my rusty old cream can. Was it too far gone? I knew Rabbit would level with me instead of telling me what I wanted to hear.
A farming icon from the early to mid-20th century, a five-gallon steel cream can symbolizes how families like ours earned a nominal weekly check to make ends meet.
Like the vast majority of small farmers in those days, my mother and dad milked cows morning and evening every day of the week, 365 days of the year, when I was growing up in Southern Alberta.
The cream was separated from the skim milk, which was fed to the milk cows’ calves we called pail bunters. The rest of it was fed to the pigs who enjoyed it immensely.
We kids helped.
Once a week, 52 weeks a year, rain or shine, bitter cold or pleasantly warm, Dad drove to downtown Calgary to deliver the cream in several of these five-gallon cans to Central Creameries Ltd. Each weighed about 40 pounds.
After Dad unloaded his cream on the dock, he would pick up his clean cans from the previous week and go into the office to collect a small check.
My can, which was manufactured approximately100 years ago, likely first belonged to Grandpa Wylie before it served our family. It was taken out of service about 60 years ago when the steel rim around the bottom weakened to the point that it was no longer safe. However, it was never thrown away. Those who lived through the Great Depression hesitated to part with items even if they were worn out. How fortunate for me!
Projects are full of surprises
“I tried sandpaper to get the old paint and rust off, but the steel surface is pitted. It needs to be sandblasted,” Rabbit told me.
“Have at it,” I replied.
Rabbit and I have an unspoken understanding. She doesn’t second-guess how I write stories and I don’t second-guess how she approaches restoration projects. We simply appreciate each other’s work.
How Rabbit works
Several years ago when she decided that a winter wind had whistled through her carport workshop far too long, Rabbit decided to do something about it with new lumber and secondhand windows and doors.
“I sketched out the wall, but I build like a kid. I figured it out as I went along. My husband, Chad, pointed out it isn’t perfectly square, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s functional, you know?”
Rabbit’s artistic skills surfaced when her parents, Thomas “Rabbit” and Lorine Holub, enrolled her in the first grade at St. Michael’s School in Weimar. The other 43 children in Sister Carola’s class soon started to try and copy her pictures.
“I thought everyone could draw and color like I could, so that surprised me,” Rabbit says.
You name it: repairs on a vintage resin angel statue, a full-size bar on coasters, an exuberantly painted picnic tabletop extension or Halloween and Christmas yard-art plywood cutouts, Rabbit can create it. A significant part of her business is signs she produces for local companies.
Rabbit says her sons, Clayton, Jack, Willie and Hank, might have thought that drawing and painting was “too girly.” While her granddaughters are a little young yet to assess, Rabbit sees promise in one of her seven grandsons under seven years old.
“Wyatt is the only one who always wants to color. The other boys aren’t interested,” she says.
Like Barbara Wampler, Rabbit must exercise great self-control.
“I have to stay away from garage sales because I buy too much junk. I enjoy finding new uses for old pieces, but it takes time,” she says.
Barbara and Rabbit’s enthusiasm for repurposing, repairing and recycling reminds me that ‘new’ doesn’t always equate to ‘better.’ What are your thoughts?
As always, please pass this story along through social media or email to others who might enjoy it. I’m always happy to have more readers. Thank you!
P.S. In my next post, you’ll meet Carol MacKay, another Champion of Second Chances, who is drawn to vintage studio portraits like a moth to a flame.
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Wonderful people. Wonderful story. I am liked minded about treasuring pieces found at sales.
Thanks so much, Gesine. What you, Barbara and Catherine like to do reminds us that fun projects exist that don’t have to cost a lot of cash. Working on them, however, does require a good deal of TLC!
Catherine is a very good friend of ours. She had painted old windows for us to be used at our daughter’s wedding and numerous signs for our bay cabin. I love her pure soul and respect her god given talent.
Jenny, I’m always amazed at Catherine’s ability to visualize what I see in my mind. That’s a gift. I think it’s because, as you indicated, she’s not hung up on herself. She possesses God-given talent for sure!
Great stories, Elaine.
Thanks, Margo! I appreciate your kind words.
My kind of people! My enthusiasm always outstrips my results but it’s great fun to find those overlooked treasures.
I’m glad you appreciate Barbara and Catherine’s view of the world, Elinor. When I told Catherine what Barbara likes to do with unfinished crafts, she immediately said, “I’ve got to meet Barbara!”
Love the story about restoring the cream can Elaine. Brought back fond memories of my my childhood on the farm with my grandpa and grandma who milked cows every day and would take their cream to town once a week. Working on the farm helped me to understand the rewards of hard work and to mold me into the person I am today. Thanks for the memories.
Rick, I’m delighted that my post brought back vivid memories of your grandparents and helping them on the farm. They would be proud to know that you credit much of your success in life to the lessons you learned at their sides as a child. You and I were fortunate, indeed, to have role models like that. By the way, my dad always wore a suit, tie and hat when he took the cream. The only other times he put it on was for church and funerals. I guess that speaks to how important that weekly ritual was.
Beautifully written story about two inspirational artists. Glad you were able to have your milk can restored. It is beautiful.
Thank you, Catherine for your feedback! Yes, I’m very pleased that the old milk can has a new lease on life holding computer paper in my office. I thought you would enjoy seeing the lettering because you are so accomplished in calligraphy yourself. It’s an art that requires patience and talent!
Enjoyed reading about these two amazing ladies. I love old textiles, too. Elaine, please keep writing these amazing stories. They make my heart happy. Donna
Donna, so happy that Barbara and Rabbit’s stories resonated with you. Thank you. I’ll continue to write because of feedback like yours! It’s all about making hearts happy isn’t it?
Elaine, you always make me smile! I am honored you felt me worthy to be a part of your wonderful stories. Thank you. You and Emil are a treasure in our communities. I’ve enjoyed doing artwork for y’all through the years, but mostly the chat time with y’all when dropping off or picking up your stuff! You bring a smile to everyone with your stories!
Barbara, I look forward to meeting you sometime and viewing your creative talents.
Thanks so much, Catherine. You are a treasure! I am so glad you said, “Yes,” when I asked you if I could tell your story!
Your stories bring back memories of my early childhood after my Mom died when I was 6 years old and two of my Aunts took me as my interim Moms. One lived on a farm near Coldspring Texas and I did many farm chores including milking the cows and “slopping” the hogs. I remember the milk cans used but have tried to forget the experience with the hogs! Thanks for your stories and the memories they bring. Leon Ullrich
Leon, it’s great to hear from you and learn a little bit about your childhood. While I’m sure your aunts could never take the place of your mom, they must have doted on you. If I remember the hogs correctly, they were enthusiastic eaters. I can still hear them grunt with appreciation! Thanks so much for writing.
Another wonderful story, Elaine. I love how the cream can turned out!
Thanks, Anne. Yes, Rabbit certainly made a proverbial silk stocking out of a sow’s ear! I see the bright yellow paint with Dad’s name and address on it every day and wonder why I didn’t have it renewed and repurposed years and years ago!
Barbara and Rabbit, I guess God in His infinite wisdom knew just who He should endow with this special talent for taking bits and pieces from the past and recreating them into such beautiful restoration for today’s world to enjoy. Your PATIENCE in these endeavors? Guess He provided that, too!
Brenda, thanks for recognizing how special Barbara and Rabbit’s talents and patience are. I agree!
Hearing about the old cream can restoration made me think about the old butter churn we used to have back when our family lived on the farm. Dad had cows that gave good milk with cream on the top. Mom would skim the cream from the milk bucket, and put the cream into the churn and the oldest children would take turns making butter! It was fun for us and we’d say, “Is it butter yet?” It seemed to take forever. The square jar that the butter churn screwed onto just right was originally a Folgers Coffee jar! I just now went to look if I still had the old square jar that we had takem from my husband’s uncle and aunt’s home after they both passed. His aunt always had cookies in the jar. I searched everywhere in the pantry and coat closet next to it, but no luck. No square jar!! Did I dream it, or what???
Barbara, I love hearing your memories of growing up on the farm. Your description of making butter is very true; I thought it took forever. Needless to say, I didn’t like churning because it was too slow, but I still had to do it now and then. I hope you find your Folgers Coffee jar that your husband’s aunt and uncle used. I bet you’ve put it away carefully and when you lease expect it, you’ll come across it! Let us know when you do. Maybe it could have a “second chance” as a cookie jar again!
Oh reading this makes me happy, happy, happy! Rabbit’s “nest” is on my road between “home” and “town”… always a special treat to experience her seasonal yard art plus sneak peeks of her projects! She is one talented gal!
The Kobersky family and Rabbit’s family. Salt of the earth people! It doesn’t get any better than that!
The best part of your story Elaine, your title says “Part 1”. I could never get enough!
I agree with you, Peggy, that the Kobersky family and Rabbit’s family are truly salt of the earth. Especially in troubled times like these, it’s heartening to to see what talented individuals are creating with the support of their friends and community. I’m very proud to call both Barbara and Rabbit our friends! They are staying the course, focusing on what brings them joy, which they willingly share.
Now, I am getting curious, since I learned that Rabbit’s “nest” has seasonal yard art (yart) and sneak peeks of her projects. I admire creativity out of ordinary things. So I need to get a car full of friends to take a drive out in the country to look for the Rabbit’s nest!
Barbara, you and your friends would have fun taking a drive to Weimar to visit Rabbit so give her a call. You must see her beach-inspired back deck and the striking painted cabinet she repurposed from two old pieces of furniture. There’s no telling what she will be working on, but Halloween is right around the corner!
Sounds tempting!! Now to get my friends interested in this excursion!! My friends have varying interests. I do have quilting friends who may enjoy the concept. They use their talents to use excess fabrics to make interesting quilts which I love to see.
How you turn what many of us would overlook into an interesting story is a gift. I enjoy getting to know the people who provide fodder for your stories.
Thanks, Linda! Growing up on the farm, I learned about the power of storytelling firsthand at the kitchen table when neighbors and friends would drop by for an unexpected visit. The stories I heard and how they were delivered has stayed with me always.