July 5, 2013

The Lumber Mill

Further along the road from the Ranch the road ends, sort of, at a sawmill, one of the last steam operated sawmills in the country. The Hull Oakes Lumber Co. is a family business, and those families have lived in the area for generations. This place is amazing. Stepping into the mill is like stepping back in time. Much of the machinery dates from the 1930s, as do some of the buildings.  If parts of a building wall or floor wear out, new pieces are cut right there as replacements. The air smells of iron infused steam and heavy grease, highlighted by notes of coniferous resin. Speech is impossible, the machinery grinds, moans, clanks and whirs, while the giant saw blades screech while cutting the timber. The mill workers use a language of hand signals because of the noise. If you take a tour, be sure to accept the offered ear plugs.

On the day I went to visit, two of the boilers were fired up. At least one of the giant iron bellies of fire had a first career powering a steam ship. In the past, wood chips and sawdust from the milling operations were the fuel burned in the boilers, so very little went to waste. Today, it's impossible or nearly so, to find parts or part fabricators to keep these old beasts in working order. Just recently, electric engines were installed to run the machinery. These days, the sawdust and wood chips are sold off, some to the pulp mills to make paper.

The land surrounding the mill is planted in Douglas Fir, future material for making lumber. During an earlier visit, my host showed me stands of timber he planted before I was born. He says it might be just about ready for harvest now. Talk about long term planning! A tree farmer (or Forrester) plans for and cares for his crop, but at the end of the "season", it might be harvested by his children or grandchildren.

These pictures are taken in the room where the saw blades are resharpened. The blades are like giant band saws. Just like a knife, they can be resharpened, but every resharpening removes material. Eventually, they get too narrow for the machine they are for. The gentleman in the picture is Don, and he was my guide. He's the one who planted those trees I was just mentioning.
The boilers are housed in the building behind Don, on a lower level. If you look just to the left of the stairs, there is a doorway leading down there. Overhead are the conveyor lines that bring sawdust into the building to feed to the boilers. There was wet sawdust that needed burning off, so it didn't rot the storage room floor, and that's why the boilers were running. I feel very lucky having seen this place. Maybe it's because I grew up in Southern California. Here is a place that has been occupied by and operated for generations by the same families. A place where the raw material grew within miles of where it is made into finished goods. A local business, where if you need a batch of lumber cut to a size you can't find at the local hardware store, you just need to pick up the phone.  While I was there, they were cutting 12"x12"x54' timbers, and they can go even bigger. Visit the website and check out the Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. Maybe I'm just a geek, but I think this is a really special place.

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