Our recent trip up the coast of Northern California wouldn’t have been complete with a stop to see Eric Hollenbeck at his Blue Ox Millworks, Historic Park and School Of Traditional Arts in Eureka. Stepping inside these doors and walking around the grounds of Blue Ox with Eric is an endlessly fascinating trip back in time, yet grounded in the present. Here vintage tools, machinery, techniques, and materials create products that are still in demand for architectural preservation, as well as educating younger generations in the satisfaction of creating traditional products with their hands, including a wood-gas fired car with a wooden body. Eric’s knowledge and passion for his work is as outsized as Paul Bunyan’s stature. Or maybe that is a statue of Eric? It rather looks like him.
We got to know Eric in 1989, after our 1866 vintage historic house in Los Gatos sustained extensive damage in the Loma Prieta earthquake that year (picture from after renovation). Its condition then was already a bit ratty; the 360° wrap-around porch was a mess, the finely detailed railing on the second floor and widow’s walk on top had been replaced by a crude 2×4 railing, and many other exterior details were also worse for wear.
In a story best left for another time, we decided to drop a very large chunk of money into a complete foundation-up restoration and expansion, tearing off a poorly-designed addition and expanding the house to the rear, with all the same original architectural design and materials. To make a long and expensive story short, let’s just say we got a bit carried away in our efforts to make it truly authentic as well as comfortable to live in (three bathrooms, but all with pull-chain wood-tank toilets). You get the picture: This Old House meets Money Pit.
It ended up costing at least twice as much as the preliminary estimates. Don’t ask what the final tally was; it’s still a painful subject, especially since I lost my high-paying job just as we were finishing it up. Which explains why I sent the contractors packing and finished it up myself. And why we sold it a year later, at a loss. In the Bay Area, that takes some doing!
Since our house was totally built out of local old-growth redwood, and we wanted all of the replacement millwork to be the same, it didn’t take long to find Blue Ox, as that’s exactly what they specialize in. In what was once an old power plant on the swampy edge of Humboldt Bay, Eric started doing custom millwork after he bought it in the early seventies, initially to store his logging equipment. Eric “grew up” in the woods, and became known for his redwood salvage logging, reclaiming trees that had been down for decades, or longer. Eric’s fascinating history and that of Blue Ox are in more detail here.
Let’s get started, with the main building first. This is a drafty old barn, but it exudes warmth from all of the old machines and handwork that takes place here. Old wood always feels warm, even on a windy and wet winter day.
Eric is a collector of old machinery, and so opening a school (an alternative high-school program in conjunction with the Humboldt Office of Education) to keep them in use beyond what the millwork operation demanded was a natural development. Almost all of the kids that come here would probably not be in school otherwise, so working with their hands as well as their heads has given many of them skills and self confidence that they otherwise would likely have have never developed. Here’s a bunch of treadle-powered jig saws.
This is one of the rooms where custom millwork is assembled. It’s a bit quiet today, but other time I’ve seen this room stacked with corbels, doors, columns, etc. Blue Ox has done work for clients all over the country, and government projects including the White House.
Lots of lathes for turning all sorts of columns, posts, newels, and gingerbread trim.
The big planer has “Mother” lettered on it. Eric has collected one of the largest collections of vintage planing knives in the world, and it’s likely he has one to match just about any piece of millwork. If not, he can make one up.
The tenoner is the oldest piece of equipment, dating from 1865. And obviously, it’s still hard at work. All doors here are built in the traditional way with 4″ tenons.
Eric’s interests have long expanded beyond millwork, and as folks have donated old machinery, which always seems to finds a new use. Like this old printing press; the students print their yearbooks on this,
each student composing his personal page with the old moveable type.
Someone donated a whole typesetting shop, and its not just gathering dust.
There’s a catwalk that gives nice views down into the workshop areas.
Another view of “Mother”.
Looks like some railing is being assembled here.
Eric has also assembled a vast collection of molds for architectural plaster castings.
There’s even a shop for reproducing the original wood finishes.
The last room up here in the back is the spinning and weaving shop. It can take the students three days to prepare the loom for weaving.
Let’s step back out into the wet and tour the rest of the place.
There’s old equipment everywhere, including this classic Cat logging dozer. These are the machines that really mechanized logging operations.
Did this old Humboldt Bay wood boat get washed ashore here doing a big storm? Things just appear here; anyone wanting to make sure something old and vulnerable has a chance of surviving will send it over to Eric. Whether he’ll ever get to it is another story, but at least it always feels wanted here.
This 1948 Studebaker fire truck has found its likely final resting place.
How it became a fire truck is a story in itself.
Blue Ox built this trolley-bus some twenty years ago for hauling tourists around Old Town Eureka.
This very vintage fork lift still hauls the rough cut lumber from the saw mill to the planing mill. Anyone know the manufacturer?
I’m not so sure about this front end loader, though. I don’t know how Eric keeps as much of it all going as he does.
Sadly, the main sawmill is currently out of commission. Blue Ox sits on a marsh, and a few of the sawmill’s wood pilings finally gave up the ghost. Eric says he’ll get it jacked up and running again. Last time we were here, Eric fired up the big Chrysler flathead straight eight engine under the floor that drives the big 52″ circular sawblade (not pictured). Hearing the un-muffled eight and the sawblade strain against old growth redwood logs is a treat for the senses.
But the lumber planer is still at it.
Fascinating lawn ornaments abound everywhere.
Undoubtedly, in Eric’s mind, each one has a story, and a possible future.
Behind these doors, Eric is going to show us an automotive-wood project that started twenty years ago, but is now back on the front burner, literally.
A couple of decades ago, Eric built a wooden body for a home-built roadster. It’s now being “renovated” by the students, and will get a new exterior coat of marine grade plywood.
It will ride on this frame, which is a mixture of early fifties Chevy front portion welded to a Buick coil-sprung rear section (my apologies for the poor focus). But even though there’s steel, this is all about wood: as in running it from wood fuel.
Wood gas has a long history, and during WWII, wood gas powered vehicles became quite common in Europe, due to the extreme shortages of oil. The tank on the right is the gasifier, where wood is burned in a chamber, but incompletely, releasing the gas. The Chevy six in the roadster will get a second throttle valve and venturi below the gasoline carburetor, allowing dual-fuel operation.
A number of old buildings have found their way here, and have been re-purposed as classrooms.
Someone donated a collection if fine old wagons and carriages.
This flat-bottom wood scow is a replica of those once used in Humboldt Bay, and was built a few years back with the idea of giving tours in the bay. So many dreams; only so much time…
A fully equipped ceramics studio.
And the kiln to fire the ceramics in.
The Blacksmithing Shop, also fully equipped.
And shingle-making too.
Another distinctively Blue-Ox painted old truck, a Dodge, in front of another building that found its way here.
Farming is also on the agenda, likely with the vintage John Deere in the background. Eric used to have a team of oxen too; maybe they’re still around somewhere. It’s not easy taking it all in on a short schedule; too much information on too many subjects that Eric has all mastered.
There was only one disappointment about this visit to Blue Ox: Eric’s 1951 Buick strait-eight Dynaflow sedan wasn’t out front. It’s been his daily driver for some twenty years, and it’s a consummate curbside classic: lots of patina, but a strong runner. That is, until a distributor drive shaft recently sheared, and took out some other internal components. I was really looking forward to finally writing it up; oh well. It’s a good excuse to come back.