Finding True Value with Eric Hollenbeck and Blue Ox Millworks
By Jordan Venema
Something BeautifulNovember 2015
By Jordan Venema
Eric Hollenbeck describes Blue Ox Millworks as the result of an evolutionary process. Not unlike the wood with which he works, Blue Ox began as rough, raw material, and from it Hollenbeck has made something beautiful.
That evident evolution of Blue Ox began 42 years ago, when Hollenbeck began a logging company with three partners, including his brother. But its real beginning goes back even further – to the jungles of Vietnam, and to a shop class in high school.
“My auto shop teacher got me a diploma,” says Hollenbeck. That teacher arranged for Hollenbeck, who at 16 also worked full-time as a surveyor for a timber company, to graduate by taking a one-hour English course where he was allowed to write poems. Without his teacher’s intervention, Hollenbeck, who is dyslexic, may not have graduated. “Every poem I got an A over F – an A for artistic and an F for spelling and punctuation.”
“I’ve never been able to read. I didn’t learn to read well enough to get through a newspaper until I was 50. But I didn’t have to know how to read. My wife reads. She read everything to me that had to be read. What I had to do was become the very best at what I do,” explains Hollenbeck.
“Being dyslexic, I always thought that what I do can’t have any great value because if it had value, people who could read and write would do it.”
Hollenbeck’s dyslexia informed his identity. He became a doer more than a sitter, a man who worked with his hands, who accepted discomfort and difficult as the baseline of life’s experience.
After high school, Hollenbeck joined the military and fought in Vietnam. “My whole tour I spent in the jungle,” he says. “I never came out, always in combat. I learned to exist like that” – except for two nights when his company was brought to a gargantuan “tent city,” where they were given R&R, beer, food, unheard of luxuries.
“Then on the third morning, they separated the troops by religious affiliation, gave them last rites, and that morning we made an assault into A Shau Valley – a company of 68 guys against six companies.” It was back to the jungle.
It’s not that Hollenbeck rejected life’s comforts, but sought selfreliance. “There’s safety in that,” he explains. “It’s the same way with the tools I use.” In the same way, his dyslexia equipped him to work harder, not to rely upon the easy way out. This is why, in part, Hollenbeck doesn’t work with automated tools. He says with a laugh, “Yes, I have an innate fear of comfort.”
After he left the jungles of Vietnam, Hollenbeck returnd to the Redwoods and formed the logging company with his brother, and with a $300 loan, they purchased a used chainsaw and an old 1954 Ford flatbed truck. They had to borrow gas to return from their first logging excursion.
Then in the mid-1970s, three years after starting their company, “the housing industry went into a recession, and when the housing industry sneezes, the timer industry dies of pneumonia instantly,” says Hollenbeck.
His business partners left, but Hollenbeck built a sawmill and “I started selling boards to make dinner money.”
Then in 1978, Hollenbeck was asked to contribute to Eureka’s Eagle House, a huge Victorian renovation project. “That was my schooling,” says Hollenbeck. “I made every stick of wood that went in that building.” For three and a half years, the architect would make sketches on napkins, and Hollenbeck would duplicate them.
With no woodwork training and by using old tools, some close to 100 years old, Hollenbeck mastered a trade that many had forgotten. The same self-reliance that got him through his dyslexia and the jungle was pushing him to use tools that many would consider antiques.
“The new tools are easier to use, faster, do some of the thinking for you,” Hollenbeck says. That was never an option for Hollenbeck, for whom process was just as important as the product. The “problemsolving” aspect of creating his own tools was also helpful to working through his struggles with PTSD.
“I had no idea what PTSD was, what was the matter with me,” Hollenbeck says, but his shop became “an island of safety, and anything I wanted, I built.” His shop started as a windowless shell, but soon had a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, a foundry, machine shop. Here, Hollenbeck, toughened by his struggles, created beautiful works of art.
“It wasn’t until 20 years ago that we opened for tours that I got an image-mirror given back to me that I had never seen before,” says Hollenbeck. “I mean my wife always has given it to me, but she’s my wife – that’s her job. But when the world started to give me that image, then I began to realize the uniqueness of what we do.”
What they do at Blue Ox Millworks is really nothing short of realizing the dreams of architects and designers, from making moldings and balusters to custom projects like a full-size replication of Abraham Lincoln’s hearse.
About 15 years ago, a teacher toured Blue Ox and suggested that Hollenbeck begin working with remedial school children. Hollenbeck partnered with the Humboldt Office of Education to create an alternate high school program for students who, like him, were doers more than sitters.
“They are great kids,” says Hollenbeck. “I understand them, I get them. There’s not many people in their world, the education system, who has empathy for them.”
But through a hands-on program where they learn the forgotten tools of the trade, they’re getting more than skill and a passing grade. “What they get is self-esteem, and the moment they get that, the world is their oyster. Because then they know they can do everything.”
In the last year, Hollenbeck also began working with combat veterans. “I get what it’s like trying to come back into the fold, and it’s damned hard,” he says. Just as Hollenbeck has grown through the slow, challenging process of working with wood, he’s hoping other combat veterans will find their self-worth.
This year, he and a group of 15 veterans completed a replication of Lincoln’s hearse, which was used as the centerpiece of the parade celebrating the 150th anniversary of his funeral. They were flown to Springfield, Ill., in May, where more than 150,000 people witnessed it in the parade.
“We were honored as the craftsmen that built this, and that was the greatest healing that could have happened for these guys and gals. That was huge. The building of the hearse was one thing,” says Hollenbeck, “but being honored for doing something good for society, and not having to use a weapon to do it – that was huge.”
Fifty years after leaving the jungle, Hollenbeck is still crafting his own identity. As he said, the greatest honor those veterans could receive was acknowledgement for their service as individuals beyond their identity as soldiers. For Hollenbeck, his high school students and the veterans with whom he works, this process isn’t one that ends after the armistice is signed, or after the diploma is handed off – it’s a process that will last a lifetime, and which will yield a greater product than a finely crafted Victorian reproduction: the real final product is an individual aware of his own worth.
Blue Ox Millworks • 1 X St., Eureka
(707) 444-3437 • 9am – 5pm