John Shoneman has touched practically every historical house in Hillsborough.
If you’ve ever strolled through downtown, drove through a Hillsborough neighborhood, visited the museum, or marveled at the modern design of the new Coldwell Banker and Paynter Law on Churton Street, then you’ve seen the craftsmanship of Dovetail Construction, a company owned by John.
A sign of quality and craftsmanship, a dovetail joint, often found in antique furniture, binds wood together like puzzle pieces for a sturdy and long-lasting piece of furniture – a poignant way to describe John and his obligation to quality work.
Read more on News of Orange here.
Finding a small town
John headed here from Chapel Hill, rolling – literally, on his motorcycle – into Hillsborough, at that time just a “sleepy town,” in the early 1970s, before the traffic light was installed at US-70 and Churton, in its place a stop sign.
As he looked to head over the bridge into town, he saw blue lights in his rear and was pulled over for rolling through the stop sign.
The next day, he came into town for a second attempt, yet again earning blue lights before the bridge. With shaggy hair and a full beard, he was taken to the police department, which sat on W. King St. at the time – they told him, “we’ve got our eye on you.”
But the rest is history, as “the hippie from Chapel Hill” eventually got over the bridge and has been here ever since, well-known and surrounded by a strong community, one that warmly greets him as he walks up to Cup-A-Joe, and that speaks well him when his name or one of his projects come up in conversation.
Building a life, finding his niche
John attended UNC Chapel Hill on a tennis scholarship, gaining his degree in psychology, but finding that working with his hands, crafting and building, was where his passion was.
Though his first job in Hillsborough was as a dishwasher at the Colonial Inn, he eventually began carpentry work building apartments on HWY-15-501 for $2.25 an hour, where John said, “I thought I was in heaven, you know, riding my motorcycle to work – gas was only 30 cents a gallon.”
He is full of reminiscent tales like this – speaking about how downtown used to look, with nostalgia as he flipped through old newspapers from the 1970s and ‘80s, seeing old friends, and looking for a specific image of himself from the 1970s, about which a story was written about his eldest son’s home birth in a cabin he built on the Eno, with no running water or electricity.
When he arrived, he first rented a house on Tuscarora Dr. from Lonnie Coleman, which has now been replaced, but behind the house, after John cleaned the brush, a spring was found as well as gazebo remains. He asked Coleman about it, and the long-standing story was that people would come from far and wide to bottle this “healing” spring water.
He lived simple – having come to Hillsborough for that reason, the rural atmosphere, nature, and the “friendly people” in town.
Many of his jobs came through connections in town, though after a while, he made a name for himself and work was a steady flow from there on out.
Business origin, becoming his own craftsman
His first contracting job in Hillsborough was at the old Orange County Library, now the Orange County Historical Museum.
He was contracted with a partner to rebuild the four columns on the front – a feat in itself to construct a column and then install them, he said.
Eventually, he formed a company with two other partners, called Sunrise Salvage Company, and they were hired to remove and salvage the houses behind the new courthouse where the Eno River Farmers Market Pavilion now sits.
Through this project, John became reinterested in old architecture, leading the salvage company to morph into a construction company too, renovating and restoring old houses.
He began grafting new additions onto older houses as well, creating a contrasting hybrid of new and old, with his construction grounded in new technology and carpentry though highly dependable in skill – hence the Dovetail Joint.
Dovetail Construction Company was born and John partenered with two of his friends, though eventually each moved on to other work and John gained full ownership of the business in the mid-80s, becoming incorporated in 1990.
“There weren’t a lot of contractors that wanted to mess with old houses, because of different methods, dealing with out-of-level floors, it’s slower and it’s messier,” he said. “I really came in during a sweet spot.”
He didn’t have to bid against other contractors for old house repair, he found it creative, challenging, and worth it – and there was an abundance of old houses right in town that needed help.
John continually read up and taught himself everything he needed to know for any project put in front of him, as he was always on site, a part of the crew, when he took on new projects; John said he didn’t describe himself as a contractor, but a builder, because his hands needed to be involved as well.
He would take on a big job, sometimes lasting last 8-9 months, and as he wanted to ensure quality and establish relationships with the client, he was always on site – and it worked, as most of his friendships stemmed from the contracts, and after each project, the phone would “miraculously” ring with people asking, “When can you start ours?”
Saved houses, remaining a builder
John has built everything from the cabin he lived in on the Eno, to new-old houses, historical houses, office spaces, countertops, lighting fixtures, niche furniture for local places and far more.
“I’ve saved some pretty neat houses in town,” he said.
One special project he recalls was called “The Boy Scout Hut,” or the official-unofficial haunted house in town years ago.
“People said that house would benefit from 5 gallons of gasoline rather than a renovation,” he said. “But we saved it, we jacked it up, put a new foundation on it, restored it, and [the owner’s] daughter still lives there today.”
Other projects, to name a few, include: the Nash Hooper House, Nash Law Office, Pilgrim’s Rest, the Ash House – 3 different times, The Mangum House, The Rochester House, The Bingham House, the Masonic Lodge, the Sawyer House, The Walker House, a house he built called “It Had Wings” on Tryon, and many more.
“This is a builders dream in some ways,” he said. “The volume of work that I’ve done over the course of these years, I’ve done virtually within a 6-block area.”
This area serves as an architectural narrative of John’s career, his life, as an artist, a builder.
Business retires, craftsman continues
His first project was at the museum, and his last project under the title of Dovetail Construction was the project at Paynter Law and Coldwell Banker – a space that might as well be an office out of SoHo, New York.
With clean design, reclaimed wood floors and staircase, expose brick, an elevated ceiling to allow abundant natural lighting, a spiral staircase outside leading up to a rooftop terrace overlooking Hillsborough with restaurant smells wafting in the air, and restored arch windows classic to the corner of Churton and W. King St., this was a good note to end on.
John said he has always had “a creative impulse,” so though he is done with this portion of the business, his hands are surely not done crafting – he is building a house for him and his wife, and he has a another business call Funktional, where he makes light fixtures, furniture, sculptures, and various artwork out of recycled and reclaimed items.
See his artwork at the Vistor’s Center Art Show at the end of April.