Lindsay R. Mohlere
Tucked in a 28-acre valley at the end of Dawson Road, six miles from Monroe, Oregon, a rare piece of American history thrives. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Hull-Oakes Lumber Company continues to produce lumber using equipment and techniques much like it did when the mill opened in 1937.
According to Todd Nystrom, Hull-Oakes president and owner, his grandfather’s uncle, Wes Miller, was the first of the family to start the mill. “The mill’s been in place since 1917. After it burned down in 1936, my grandfather, Ralph Hull, leased the site from Miller and built the mill. We’ve been running ever since.”
Hull-Oakes was the last American sawmill to use steam to power its operation. The last day of steam was in June 2013. “We’re still able to run steam, but to stay competitive, we went to electricity. Everything’s still in place, intact, ready to go. If we wanted to run steam, we could but choose not to. Day-to-day maintenance is too much. Some of the machinery is over 100 years old. No one makes parts for these things anymore,” Todd says.
The mill is also registered with the Historic American Engineering Record and the U.S. Park Service. Original photos, drawings, and Ralph Hull’s biography are recorded in the Library of Congress.
Adapting to the Specialty Challenge
Known for being able to mill large and long Douglas fir logs, Hull-Oakes has cut deep into the dimensional lumber and specialty products niche. Although the specialty business is not without challenges, Hull-Oakes’ flexibility and versatility keep their saws hard at work.
“The challenge is finding the right logs for specialty orders,” Todd says. “In the 80s, we got eighty percent of our logs from BLM and Forest Service. Now we don’t — maybe three to five percent. All the rest is from private landowners, the state, and BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs].”
Nystrom explains that older logs have a better chance of having something wrong with them. You can buy two or three logs and none of them make the grade. “It’s tough to get everything absolutely perfect.”
Don Wagner, the company’s recently retired forester, still plays an active role as the company historian and ambassador. He explains that the company doesn’t care much for old growth timber, preferring second growth Doug Fir. “Old growth is like a 95-year-old man. Might look good on the outside, but you know something is haywire on the inside.”
Todd’s son Nathan, the company’s log buyer and forester, explained that most mills have downsized to handle the smaller logs coming out of tree farms. “They can’t handle the oversized logs, so they put them out to bid. That’s how we keep in business,” he says.
Hull-Oakes has the capacity to cut logs nine feet in diameter and over 85 feet long. “There are some other mills that cutbigger logs. It can be very competitive, but they don’t cut as long or as large as we do,” Nathan adds.
The company also has other attributes “We’re very versatile. We can change on a dime if we have to. If somebody needed an order within two or three days, say a weird piece 2 3/8 by 4 3/8. It might be just one piece or a hundred. Our customers like that we work to try and get the lumber they need. It’s a challenge, because it’s difficult to get the right logs. They want it now, but sometimes they have to wait.” Todd says.
One of the company’s recent special projects was the Arc Encounter, a one-of-a-kind, historically themed attraction in Williamstown, Kentucky. The amusement park features the largest timber frame structure in the U.S., a 510-foot- long replica of Noah’s Arc, designed to be family oriented, historically authentic, and environmentally friendly. The Arc Encounter is set to open July 2017.
Other special projects include support beams for the restoration of the USS Constitution, bridge stringers, gold dredge beams, and a custom-milled mast to rebuild the 1895 lumber schooner C.A. Thayer, which is on display at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.
In 2015, Giustina Land & Timber, along with Hull-Oakes Lumber Company, earned the Northwest Oregon Area Operator of the Year award for two stream improvement projects.
“We were contacted by the Long Tom Watershed about their project to open fish passage on Ferguson creek. They had a couple of culverts that were in pretty good shape but weren’t fish-passable. One culvert was on our property and another on Giustina land,” Nathan says.
Together, the companies volunteered labor and equipment to open five miles of stream for coastal cutthroat trout to spawn and access cold water habitat.
“Long Tom would provide the pipe, rock, and other materials if we would provide all the labor. We have done some watershed work in the past for critical species like steelhead and salmon, but this was our first project with the Long Tom Watershed. We then talked with Giustina. They had a specified road crew and a pretty good system to get the job done,” says Nathan. “They had done quite a few big culvert jobs in the past. Their road crew supervisor oversaw the day-to-day tasks of the project, and we provided labor, a dump truck, and some other equipment needed.”
Consistent Productivity the Key to Success
Since 1937, Hull-Oakes has continuously produced around 18 MMBF annually and expects to keep putting up those numbers in the future. “We’re tied to construction but not tied tight. A lot of our product goes to bridges, highways, oil fields, railroads, road building in North Slope—wood plank roads, even barn boards. Nobody can take the time to do that anymore,” Todd says.
According to Wagner, Hull-Oakes is also unique in the way it goes about its business. “A traditional mill manufactures their materials, tells the salesmen what they have, and then the sales force sells the product. We’re 180 out from that. What happens here is the customer calls our salesman and tells him what he wants or needs. If the salesman takes that order, it goes right to Nathan. From there, Nathan goes to the logging contractors or to whatever site he thinks he can get that log. In some cases, Nathan has to hand that order to the timber faller to get the right log. In fact, most of the lumber in the yard had been sold and waiting to get shipped out.”
Another non-conforming aspect of Hull-Oakes is they field their own logging crew. While logging contractors cut most of the timber coming into the mill, the company operates a small shovel logging side to pick up the slack and handle smaller tracts.
“We ran our own log crews until 2004,” Todd says. “But we drastically reduced. We run a small crew now, operating a 2014 John Deere 3754D along with a CAT D7. We didn’t have enough of our own land and timber sales were tight, so I decided to go with contract loggers while keeping a small crew to fill in when needed.”
Currently, Hull-Oakes employs about 65 people, but like most timber industry jobs, finding the right employee can be difficult.
“We’re kinda out in the sticks, so it’s hard to get people from town,” Todd says. “When we hire someone, everyone starts out on the green chain. We take our time with new hires and move them up through the ranks when we’re pretty sure they’re going to stay. The plant is not automated, so the employees, in many cases, do more than one job, rather than sit around computers and push buttons. It’s labor intensive work.”
Nathan says that the company has invested in the employees rather than in equipment like larger, high-tech mills. “Sure, we have a laser that measures the saw lines, but the decisions that our people make are made between the ears. There’s no scanners or optimizers to tell the operator what they should be doing. Jobs are very labor intensive compared to modern mills, so it can be challenging finding workers with the right skill set. We have to take new people and raise them up.”
Hull-Oakes offers a good wage scale along with a 401K, paid vacation, health insurance, and company bonuses in their benefit package.
“We also have a benefit that no one else ever talks about,” Wagner adds. “As the economy goes up and down, so do sawmills. Hull-Oakes has never lost a day because of the economy since 1937. Eight hours a day, five days a week. No matter what’s going on, they’re going to have a paycheck.”
Expect to see them in business for many years to come.
On the Cover
Photo taken at the 2016 Oregon Logging Conference
2017 OLC Show Guide
A comprehensive listing of all the events, panels and exhibitors of the 2017 OLC.
Hidden Historical Gem
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Hitting the Ground at a Gallop
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