Friday, August 28, 2009

Eureka! – The Blue Ox Mill

During my recent trip to Eureka, I had the pleasure of meeting Viviana and Eric Hollenbeck. The Hollenbecks run The Blue Ox Mill in Eureka.

Paul Bunyan watches over the operation -

Among many other things, The Blue Ox Mill is home to “the world's largest functioning collection of human powered equipment from Barnes Manufacturing, one of the most efficient manufacturers of human powered tools in the 1800s.” "Human powered" simply means without electricity. I'd never given thought to how wood was cut or sawed way back when. How did Victorian homes get all those fancy corbels and doodads?

On my visit, I took the Eric-guided tour and it was fascinating. If you have any interest in tools at all, you really should see the page linked above. In fact, spend time with the whole web site. I'm not the least bit mechanical but I found myself really interested in these antique tools. They were surprisingly fast and efficient and really cleverly made.

This is Eric demonstrating one of the vintage machines -

In his hand he's holding a fence picket he's just made with one quick move. I think the big machine pictured is a rip saw from 1890. Now I wish I'd taken video of the demonstration. Next time.

I took a picture of this 1909 printing press because it's from the same year as our house -

All the publicity posters for the play were printed on it.

Joana Carrillo and Jason poster (c) photo and poster by Stacia Torborg

Eric said he began collecting these vintage machines by just finding them here and there, abandoned and rusted around Eureka. He cleaned them up and today they work as well as new. Maybe one day when the oil runs out and the power shuts down, we'll all have to work on devices that are truly mechanical and not just electronic. When that day comes, we'll really know where our stuff comes from.

The Blue Ox is a combination Millworks, Historical Park and School of Traditional Arts.

Its web site describes the millworks as “a custom shop specializing in Victorian architectural details and historic reproductions. Blue Ox manufactures everything from hand carved newels to custom wood windows, from 24 foot columns, to custom redwood gutters, gable decorations, siding, corbels, moulding, and more." Eric is one of the few craftsmen in the country doing authentic restorations of historic homes and businesses.

I wondered how many of these were created at the Blue Ox -

Eric is also one of the few craftsmen allowed to salvage old growth redwood from fallen trees that remain on forest floors. Old growth redwood can also be recovered from riverbeds. Felled trees were transported by water and occasionally would fall from their conveyance into the cold river where they’ve remained submerged in mud for a 100 years or more. At one time those trees weren’t worth recovering but they are now. Old growth redwood is in demand by those who demand truly authentic restoration of Victorian period homes but those old trees aren’t there for harvesting anymore. The few that remain are protected in parks. Ninety six percent of these trees, trees that had lived for over a thousand years, were cut down to build homes like mine and like Mr. Carson’s. I shudder to think what trees were felled to make the playground bark I trampled in my childhood, while my state was governed by a man who famously claimed “if you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” Like with so many of our natural resources, there's always more until there is none left.

Eric also showed us where he makes his own wood stains using substances like walnuts in vinegar -

With all the stains we had to test for the wood in our house, I'm glad we didn't have to make each one ourselves!

As if woodworking, printing, and stain making weren't enough The Blue Ox also serves as a school for youth who haven't found success in a traditional class room. There are also classes in blacksmithing and ceramics and even more!

Cornerstone Theater's Jason in Eureka, was performed on the site of The Blue Ox Mill. In the play, a young Eureka couple inherits an old Victorian home in disrepair. They accept the challenge, encounter a homeless man (Jason) who sleeps on their property, learn about historic preservation and through committing themselves to their neighborhood they learn about the conflicts in their community and through the luck of the inheritance and their own perseverance, create their own place in the world. In a parallel story, the mythological Argonaut, Jason, has been unjustly disinherited and so embarks on a quest for the Golden Fleece to regain his kingdom and assure his rightful place in the world.

Our rightful place in the world is hard for a lot of us to find. I think the Hollenbecks have found theirs.

This post joins the Hooked on Fridays blog party at Hooked on Houses. Head over and see what others are hooked on today.


Creations from my heart said...

Thanks for stopping by to see the roosters. What wonderful photos of victorian homes. I have always wanted to live in one. Stop by again. Blessings...Sherry

Susan Lang @ Designing Your Dream Home said...

Hey! This is fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing. Also, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment on my blog!

Terry said...

Let's hope the craftsmanship that remains will survive through the efforts of enthusiasts and teachers at Blue Ox. It's such satisfying work for boys (and men) who don't have much fun in classroom. Girls too.

Why S? said...

Thank you, visitors.

Terry, thank you pointing out that among the many functions of the Blue Ox, one of the most important may be ensuring the survival of these skills. Eric warned that one day, it could be that no human will understand the tools that we depend on. And of course, the other very important function is engaging the interests of young people who might otherwise be lost to less productive activities.

Anna at modern bathroom vanity said...

That is very true that before people didnt have all of these massive electric tools that we use today. And yet everything looked so beautiful. People used to put love and care in whatever it is they were building and it lasts to this day for all of us to see. Its very nice to hear that someone has an interest in collecting those tools to see how it worked

Matt said...

Thanks for an excellent look back into the way things used be done. I love stuff like this. I've seen many manual woodworking machines at steam shows, etc and whenever I ask if they are for sale, i get this look like "ARE YOU KIDDING?".

I can see why no one wants to part with these machines. I love the new state-of-the-art stuff, but have an even stronger longing for these gems.

Thanks again for this post.

LBTudor said...


Sorry I didn't make it to your open house a while back. I normally don't leave LB on the weekends. Hope it went well. Chat soon...

Why S? said...

Hi Matt. Thanks for visiting The Hill. If you ever visit Eureka, CA you really should stop by the Blue Ox. You would really enjoy the tour.

LB, it was lovely. We had a great time. If you ever do happen to come into LA on the weekends, you're always welcome to visit our house on red hill. We'd love to meet you in person.