At Orr-Reed Wrecking, Hannah Hargrove Inherited Treasure in a Junkyard

One day in 2013 Hannah Hargrove stopped being a kid. She had been out of college a year, working in the family business. On the day her father, John Hargrove, was killed in a bar fight, the business became hers to run. She was 23.

One of the first calls she took was from a client backing out of a major deal. "They said, 'No offense, but with what's going on, we don't want you to do our job.' I said, 'Well, I take offense.' They said, 'Without John, we don't trust that it's going to get done.'"

She had a funeral to arrange. Now she also had to go sell some new business, but she was ready. That one year working with her father, between her graduation and his death, had prepared her.

"I don't think that he was planning to go out one night and get murdered. But I do think he knew that his heart wasn't great anymore. He was 150 pounds overweight. I do think that he knew that the best case for his family to go on without him was to make sure I was prepared."

As she talks, I become keenly aware that this is not the same person I interviewed two years ago. That person really was still a puppy, full of enthusiasm and play, wet behind the ears. This person is a boss. This is somebody who can make tough decisions and tell people what they need to hear. I hear confidence and command. I say something about it. She says she was already a changed person when he died.

"We called it John Hargrove boot camp, because that's what it was. He prepared me to be a grownup. It was a hard year of yelling and screaming and fights. But it was the best year of my life. I got to spend the whole year with my daddy, and it did prepare me in ways I didn't even know he was preparing me for."

The business, Orr-Reed Wrecking, is revered among old house restorers, professional and amateur, as one of the best resources in the region for salvaged architectural elements. But when John Hargrove owned and ran it, the place was an expression of his own big chaotic personality. Doors and windows, fireplace mantels, molding, siding and weird wooden stuff you couldn't identify lay in mountains and drifts, half of it exposed to weather, half not. Finding what you were looking for was always a treasure hunt.

In the year she has been the boss, Hannah Hargrove has brought about an astonishing transformation. "Welcome to my girlified junkyard," she says, greeting a visitor in the tidy little antique shop she has installed at the front of the place. I do a double-take. I distinctly remember broken toilet parts and paint-peeling house fragments here — lots of stuff I wanted to step around. Now it feels like a boutique.

Orr-Reed is on Rock Island, which really is an island in the old natural channel of the Trinity River, although the island lies largely hidden now beneath bridges, levees, culverts and fill-dirt, the man-made arms of the city reaching out to clutch it close and mask its independence. Orr-Reed is one of a few old businesses on Rock Island Street where the original eccentricity still peeks through.

She takes me to the yard in back, a place I have visited many times over the years as a customer. Before this week, I don't think I had ever once walked through that door and out into that yard without trying to remember when I got my last tetanus shot.

It's astonishing. All of the doors and windows and architectural elements are arranged neatly in departments along scrubbed and swept concrete walkways. It's the Home Depot of old stuff.

"Some people are mad at me," she says. "They think I've wrecked it."

Oh, yeah, I think, but those are dilettantes. They never ran out of a no-longer-milled size of novelty siding in the middle of a major house repair and had to come flying down here to search through random stacks of lumber while three visiting scholars from Latin America are waiting on the clock with hammers in their hands but no wood.

Hannah is showing me the old toilet department. "Imagine that," she says, "putting all the toilets in one place." But my eyes are flying down the aisles hunting for novelty siding. Oh my gosh! The novelty siding is all in one department, and it appears to be stacked by size! That's a two-hour search reduced to 10 minutes! Yeah, dilettantes be damned, this is great.

We return to her office and chat about the business for a while. In her year with her father she learned how to develop new business, do the books, call in the payroll, pay the taxes. Since his death she has added a lot of inventory control that wasn't there before, and she has learned how to hire people and fire people.