Artist, craftsman, historian: one carpenter, many passions

Small Business

“Right man, right place, right time,” said Al Leal, president of Al’s Old House Repair, LLC.  

His historic carpentry and renovation business landed him in the “right place” of Red Cloud, Nebraska, a town with fewer than 1,000 people, and at the former home of Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and the internationally known Willa Cather Foundation.

Leal has come a long way since returning to his hometown of Clear Lake, Iowa after serving in the military. He joined the business with nothing more than a borrowed saw and a pair of pliers.

Clear Lake, Iowa, to Corpus Christi, Texas, to Red Cloud, Nebraska was the route Armando "Al" Leal’s family took to find a place rich in history. His business include his sons in their fourth generation carpentry business which began in Madrid, Spain.

Al's Old House Repair is not your typical carpentry business. "Restoring history one board at a time," is their motto, and Leal stays true to that statement.

Extensive research goes into each project. For various projects, he has made many visits to the Nebraska Historical Society and the Willa Cather Foundation archives.

Last year, Leal reached out to Dena Beck, senior project leader with Center for Rural Affairs’ Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), for assistance.

“Working with Al was different than the clients I had worked with in my 10 plus years with REAP,” Beck said. “His work not only supports his family and creates jobs, but also preserves a living history of Willa Cather and her time in Red Cloud. Seeing his work in varying stages is amazing and inspiring to me.”

Leal received a microloan from REAP to expand his business. Al and his wife have also worked through the REAP Women’s Business Center to utilize bookkeeping assistance to help streamline operations.

In 2016, Leal began work on the Matthew R. Bentley/Wick Cutter House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of Red Cloud’s Seward Street Historic District. The house is also separately listed as an important Cather site, as it is the former home of a man Cather based a villainous character on.

Leal once again dove into research by reading a literature review relating the significance of the structure to Cather.

In My Ántonia, Cather wrote about Wick Cutter murdering his wife and then committing suicide. The crime actually did occur, but not in this house, as Cather portrayed it. Bentley shot his wife to death then killed himself in 1912, but that happened in Arkansas, where Bentley moved to in 1904.

Leal mentioned having the privilege to put together a group of craftsmen, valuable to his team. One honorable mention member of Al’s team is David Lovejoy, local farmer/rancher/wood shop craftsman. Plans are to complete the Bentley house in summer 2018.

“Red Cloud saw many immigrants when the town was formed, and you can appreciate that fact with the architecture found in the town: Italian, Victorian, Gothic, Spanish, and German,” Leal said. “Salvage is the ultimate goal, followed by replacing pieces from the same period, then painstaking, but rewarding, recreation, which few, if any, people can differentiate from the original.”

Though the historical significance of the Wick Cutter House hits close to home, Leal found his passion for this work 20 years previously.

“In 1997, I was offered the opportunity to collaborate with the Texas Historical Society in a long and complex process restoring The Murphy Ranch House, a historic stagecoach stop, in Mathis, Texas,” Leal said.

Leal discovered how restoration work tapped into his professional carpentry skills and complemented his interest in research, history, and replicating the fine craftsmanship of early immigrants. The work revealed a talent and a passion for historic restoration that, until then, he hadn’t discovered about himself.

“Houses tell a story,” Leal said. “I sometimes think these beautiful, yet neglected, homes and buildings speak to me and tell me what they need to be revived to their former glory. These pieces of history need to be saved.”

See more of Al’s work at his website

At a Glance

Al’s Old House Repair
804 North Seward Street
Red Cloud, NE 68970

Top photo: Al Leal, owner of Al's Old House Repair, points out features of the Matthew R. Bentley/Wick Cutter House in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He began work on exterior and interior restorations in 2016.

Middle photo: Al showing original wood at Kaly House, a bed and breakfast in Red Cloud, Nebraska. He completed exterior and interior restorations from 2010 to 2013.

Bottom photo: Dena Beck, REAP senior project leader and loan specialist, stands on the front porch of the Kaly House with Al. REAP provided Al's Old House Repair with a microloan.