Vacationers and wanderers venturing north up Interstate 5 in Oregon might consider deviating from their path and, at Highway 126, just west of Springfield, slide over to Highway 99. Nestled in the 47 miles between the rival universities in Eugene and Corvallis are wonderful small towns, exquisite farm country and wooded hills. Slightly west of the tiny township of Monroe is a hidden relic that is alive and well called the Hull-Oakes Lumber Company.
This sawmill is a throwback to simpler times when strong backs and hard working people manipulated large logs and cut them into long, perfectly sized beams. This is not “the run of the mill” corporate mega giant that cuts millions of trees into two-by- fours for sale in giant box stores and lumberyards. By industry standards, Hull-Oakes mills a twig’s worth of the trees that are processed annually in Oregon. It specializes in the Old School style of milling lumber, and the crew of 60 skilled and highly motivated millwrights and other workers are dang proud of what they do.
On a tour of the mill, the first thing our guide, Dan, made clear was: “We don’t use old-growth lumber; we don’t want it and can’t use it. Old trees are like a 100-year-old person; there’s a lot wrong on the inside. The only trees cut by the mill are second-generation fir, between 60 and 100 years of age. These are harvested from various tree lots: our own, Indian reservation, private suppliers, or state land.” No old-growth clear-cutting is allowed here; Oregon’s strict environmental laws see to that.
Every wood scrap in the plant is used, absolutely nothing goes to waste. Bark, stripped from the logs before cutting, is sold for mulch and garden use. Sawdust is recycled to suppliers who make it into stove heating pellets. Large scraps are chipped and sold to a peppermill and remanufactured into cardboard boxes. That leaves just the logs to deal with, and this is where the mill, founded in 1937, excels.
Time-Honored TechniquesCustom cuts for jobs where large wooden beams are required are the mill’s forte—even the large mega mills come here for high-quality specialty cuts. From the raw logs floating in the millpond waiting to be fed into the massive band saw, to the finely finished cut beams, the entire process is handled expertly and precisely. The cutting is overseen by skilled machine operators who know exactly what cut is needed and control the log’s rotation and position on the massive roller-cutting table. One at a time, logs as long as 85 feet are quickly fashioned into long one-piece rectangular beams; the full length debarked logs travel through the saw blade, then backwards, cutting in one direction only, they’re rotated and slide through again. The logs zip through and are shaped in about two minutes.
Incredibly, the plant still uses most of the original equipment from its 1930s operation. Components are continually rebuilt or recycled by the employees, no outside help is used, or desired, and today’s tech heads probably wouldn’t understand how the equipment actually works in its complex simplicity. The staff is expert at innovating repairs and creating parts to keep the plant online. Like the wood it processes, nothing is thrown away. Antique parts to keep the operation going are obtained from old dysfunctional mills and equipment auctions. A couple of adages: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and “One man’s junk is another man’s gold” play true here.
Other than changing the old steam-operated power source to electricity, for greater reliability (the old steam unit still works) and environmental concerns, the plant has never been upgraded to the world of electronic wizardry. The only computers are used in the front office; other than a laser to precisely guide the massive band saw, the mill uses a communication system that is slowly being lost; worker conversations. The millwrights have a paper worksheet and daily meetings that lay out what goes where, and they verbally—no radios or cellphones—keep things moving and on track. It’s an art in itself!
Every two hours the plant shuts down—this is not part of a worker contractual agreement. The massive band saw blade is switched out at regular intervals to keep the cutting edge sharp and precise. But the employees don’t get much down time, an experienced saw blade repairman take seven minutes to switch out the band, and then the plant goes back into operation. The removed cutting edge is taken into the shop, inspected, cracks are repaired, missing teeth are replaced, and then it’s sharpened and readied for another run.
After the lumber receives a final planing to smooth it, and a visual inspection, it is sorted, by hand, and stacked into the correct area for shipment. Again, the skill of the employees keeps the right materials in the right place. The finished product is bound together, moved to the holding yard, and waits for customer pickup. To hold costs down, the company doesn’t ship; all sales are transported by the customer.
As a testament to the ability of this unique and specialized business, in 1986, the mill donated a picnic table to the local park. It is a single piece of Douglas fir; four inches thick, four feet wide, and 85 feet long. The tree must have been massive because four identical pieces were cut from one log. They too are scattered throughout the state as Paul Bunyan sized picnic sites.
The next time you’re wandering through the local shopping mall, or dining at a favorite restaurant, and question where the huge beams that support the structure come from, the answer may be that they were supplied by a lumbering ghost that hasn’t figured out its time has passed. It just keeps on keeping on—-the way it has proudly done its work for over 75 years.
John R. Swaim is a retired computer systems analyst and RVer. He has chronicled many of his travels in two comedic travel books that can be found at 5thwheelturns.com. He recently published a new E-Book titled U.S. Misstory A Presidential Missed History, a fictional account of the U.S. Presidency. It is available through Amazon.com under his author name J.R. Swaim.Research Campgrounds, Plan RV Safe Routes & Turn your phone into an RV GPS.
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