The grain storage bin was a circle of sheet metal, about 30 feet across and 30 feet tall. Most people would look at it and think, "I bet they store corn or something else in there."
Vance Jones looked at it and thought, "I bet I could live in there."
So he did.
Hunting with buddies in the farm country of Illinois, Jones had seen grain bins here and there for years. With the idea apparently percolating in the back of his mind for a while, when one came up for sale, he bought it with the immediate intention of making a home out of it.
Brave or crazy?
"Let's go with crazy," he says.
After disassembling it, hauling it down South and rebuilding it on his three acres in Chickamauga, Jones has spent three years turning the sheet-metal structure into his home.
It has been wired and insulated, plumbing installed, a heating and cooling system put in, a septic tank dug, pipes run under the concrete floor to warm it up. Everything was inspected to make sure it fit city code "just like any other house," he explains.
But Jones, 50, figures about 95% of "the stuff you can see" is recycled, obtained in a trade for something else, found in old barns or bulldozed factories, given to him by family or, in one case, seen lying on the side of the road.
"Basically, being poor forced me to be patient and it enabled me to get a lot of stuff at really good deals and for free," says Jones, who laughingly admits to actually growing up in a middle-class home.
No matter. Digging into cast-offs, shifting through throwaways and finding treasures makes his adrenaline rocket.
"I love that type of stuff. I love finding junk. It's my passion. It's my hobby," he says.
His love of "that type of stuff" is apparent everywhere you look in his grain bin home, where Jones has used the soft browns of wood to soften the silver-gray hardness of the home's walls, a designer's eye he is deservedly proud to show off.
The ceiling in his kitchen and the headboard of his bed were the metal floor of the grain bin itself. Walls in the upstairs loft are wood from a lake dock he was ripping apart to rebuild. Jones rescued the planks from a pile set for burning.
"I thought, 'What would that stuff look like?' So I pulled it out of the garbage pile. I got paid to take it off and then it was free. If you don't have to buy it and you like the look, then go with it."
The doors for his master bathroom and closet came from a chicken coop. Two large ceiling lamps on either end of his kitchen bar were formerly used to keep chicken eggs warm while they were in the brooder getting ready to hatch.
Jones hit the mother lode when Chickamauga's Crystal Springs textile factory was torn down. For next to nothing, he brought home bricks, wood, metal, even a road-weary, two-wheeled flat cart used to move heavy items around the factory. He turned it into a coffee table.
"They were just going to throw it away," he says.
Sometimes his nose for a deal sniffs out something special. He points to a slightly disrespected metal lamp hanging from the ceiling in his living room. It was lying next to the road and caught his eye (or nose). Knowing it was a lamp but not much else, Jones hit the internet for more information.
"A guy had two of those," he says. "They were made in 1890 and were for sale for 500 bucks apiece."
With a degree in horticulture from the University of Georgia, Jones spent about 25 years in the landscaping business, making friends. With recommendations from those friends, he was hired to handle catering for the Sherwin Williams Co., making more friends. A few years ago, he started a business in small equipment used by construction contractors, making more friends.
With business and hunting buddies talking him up, word of mouth spread about his grain bin abilities and visions. Although Jones doesn't turn bins into homes for others, he buys the structures in states such as Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio, tears them down and brings them back for people to do what they will.
A woman in Strawberry Plains, Tennessee, wants three grain bins so she can open a bed-and-breakfast. Two other bins are in Sevierville for folks looking to turn them into houses. Others want them for outdoor pavilions and pool houses.
"Pavilions are getting really popular," says Jones, who built one next to his home. At some point, he plans to add a guest bedroom inside the cone-shaped roof.
All around his home — three acres bought from his family's farm — lay piles of sheet metal, lumber and various this and that, including an empty 500-gallon propane tank. He used a smaller tank to transform into a smoker/grill for his pavilion. A cutie-pie face on its paint-splattered surface is courtesy of his 21-year-old daughter.
All of it may look a bit confused and junkyard-ish, but Jones doesn't care.
"I refuse to throw anything away until I'm completely finished," he says. "If I've got it and I don't have to buy it, then why not? And then it's something nobody else has."
His future plans are to buy a smaller grain bin — 24-foot diameter vs. the main one's 30-foot — attach it to his current one and make a new master bedroom and bathroom.
After that, he's not sure. But he's not against selling it.
"I have no earthly idea what I could get out of this place right now, but if someone offered me enough money, I'd sell it," he says.
"I would do it again in a heartbeat. I absolutely would," says Jones.