Now the owner of Culpepper’s Otto Depot, a business specializing in architectural salvage, vintage lighting and hardware, the 34-year-old leans back in his office chair with a smile. Sunshine cascades through large plate glass windows into the enormous wooden railway depot in Otto, which looms tall and majestic alongside U.S 441, just south of Franklin.
“Today’s society is a disposable society, and everything that’s made these days is crap,” he said. “The items in here are actually good because they’re from a time when people took care in making something. These aren’t a bunch of consumer-made goods, it’s things made with care and quality.”
Culpepper remembers wandering and searching for unique treasures as a kid growing up in Franklin. He’d stroll the nearby woods, always keeping his eye peeled for a forgotten piece of the past.
“Everyone thought I was crazy picking up and collecting all these things. I was called a hoarder even before hoarding was cool,” he laughed.
After graduating from college at Western Carolina University with a degree in public relations, Culpepper decided to not go down the road he studied. He didn’t want to wear a suit everyday, rather he wanted to be his own boss and decide his own fate. Eventually, his father started a marine salvage company in Florida. Culpepper saw an opportunity and moved join the business.
“I wanted to wear flip flops to work everyday,” he said. “When I was in Florida, I realized if I took the job seriously I could really make a career out of it.”
The business grew, with both father and son evolving in their techniques and talents in making the past come alive again with a modern-day purpose. The searching and salvaging continued, while Culpepper married and started a family of his own. Once children came into the picture, it was time to come back to Macon County and raise them in the mountains.
In June 2011, Culpepper began designing and gathering materials for what is now his replica train depot building. The property it currently sits on was actually once home to the Tallulah Falls railway depot, though the present day structure is fashioned after a depot in Oxford, Miss.
“Everybody builds metal buildings today, and I don’t like metal buildings,” he said. “People tell me all the time, ‘Thank you for building something cool and different.’”
With his business coming out of the gates strong, Culpepper doesn’t have a moment to sit and enjoy the success. Besides working upwards of 60 hours a week manning the store or taking apart old buildings, he also traverses the world looking for the next great item. He’s salvaged cannons from an old Indonesian fort, pieces from Bangladesh and materials from seemingly every corner of the United States.
“I have two passports filled up already,” he said. “And there have been times overseas where I had to follow the sun to make sure I’m going the right direction so I don’t get beheaded.”
Gazing out of the store’s front window, a large tail from an airplane sticks out of the back of his pickup truck. When asked about the tail, Culpepper said he was driving through the area that day and noticed the hunk of metal sitting on an abandoned property.
“I was driving around and almost broke my neck turning around,” he said, smiling. “It was from a plane that wrecked in Andrews years ago. I asked the owner if he wanted to sell it, and he did.”
Aiming to sell in bulk and wholesale, Culpepper wants to be the main source of material for interior decorators, designers and builders. It’s about having duel purpose things, which are functional and aesthetically pleasing.
“My motto is ‘We supply what catches the eye’ and ‘Stack it deep and sell it cheap,’” he said. “If people are able to make money off of these things, it makes my job easier. I don’t like to be salesman in the suit. If you want something, it’s here, and I’d be happy to help you find it.”
So what keeps him going day after day, searching through dirty old house after dirty old house?
“It’s incredible to take something from a rat-infested abandoned home and make it into something beautiful – it’s rewarding,” he said. “Walking into this store is refreshing and exhilarating for me. I love coming to work. I have a lot of stuff, and I like it. If you build it, they will come.”
Want to go?
Culpepper’s Otto Depot is located at 8214 Georgia Rd., Otto, N.C. 28763. The depot is south of Franklin on U.S. 441. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
828.524.0495 or www.ottodepot.com.