In The Northeast Kingdom, A Sawmill Owner Reflects On Life In The Lumber Industry
In the last 25 years, nearly 150 of Vermont’s sawmills have gone out of business, but Dave Stratton has more orders than he can fill. Independent producer Erica Heilman stopped by to talk with Dave at his sawmill in Hardwick.
Dave Stratton is a hard person to reach. He works 10 hours a day, at least six days a week, and he's been doing it since 1991. He's been thinking of getting done for years, but his customers have been asking him not to. A small sawmill is a tight community of independent loggers and truckers and customers. And the mill is where they do business and where they visit. And that's a lot to lose. I ask Dave why he bought the mill in the first place.
Dave: "I’d worked for the town for 13 years — sewer, water... And I was the boss, and I said, 'If I'm going to have headaches, might as well be my own.' So I bought it. And I always wanted to have a mill. My kids were young. They needed a place to work. So I bought it and they all worked here till they got older."
Erica: "Do you have kids who want to keep it?"
Dave: "No, no ... Too much manual labor. And they make more money doing other things today. So I don't know. That's why a lot of these little mills are closing because the kids don't want to take them over."
Erica: "Is that is that the main reason?"
Dave: "Yeah, I think so."
"I said, 'If I'm going to have headaches, might as well be my own.' So I bought it. And I always wanted to have a mill."
Erica: "This state used to be full of small mills. So what happened?"
Dave: "Well, just hard work for what you get, for the reward you get out of. I mean, you can work here your whole life, make a living, pay your bills, everything. But you get ready to retire, if you don't sell the mill, you can't put away money. It ain't like you're making a hundred thousand a year with a 401k and all that. And who's going to work killing themselves for 30-, 40-, $50,000 a year? Nobody any more. Mill’s about like sugaring. If you don’t like to do it, you better get out of it, because you ain’t gonna make a lot of money for the hours."
Erica: "Why do we need logging in the state?"
Dave: "Well, you know, I mean, wood, what’s it gonna do? Just grow up and fall down? I mean, it brings in a lot of guys, truckers and loggers and mechanics. My boy, he runs a log yard over next door and he makes good money. It's a good living. There's probably 20 truckers that come in here and 20, 30 loggers, you know, and that one yard over there, when they're going there, probably got a 100 people that are dependent on them.
"I mean, you let it die off and it'll be one of them dying things. And now all of a sudden, what are you going to do? Buy all your lumber from Canada or from Russia or somewhere? Right now we're still going here. And I depend on a lot of little loggers to bring me logs here. Because I'm small mill. A big guy comes in and says, ‘Well, I'll sell you half a million feet.’ Well I can't handle that ... I only do 200,000 a year maybe. So I depend on a little guy, because he cuts a nice log and cuts what I want. But, once you close these, you don't reopen, they don't reopen. And once the small mills are gone, somebody opens up a bigger mill around here, they got no competition, they can charge what they want."
"COVID, of course everybody living at home, they didn't realize their houses were such dumps til they were staying in there all the time. Well, now everybody said, ‘Jeez, I got to put some money into this place, this thing’s falling down on me.'"
Erica: "So why should John … why would John in Shelburne care about this mill staying open?"
Dave: "Well where does he think he’s getting his lumber from? Where are you going to get it? It ain't just like it just appears. I mean, the ones that are coming up here, a lot of them, I'm sure, are out-of-staters. There the ones building these huge post-and-beam houses. I don’t know where they think this stuff comes from if it just appears out of daylight or what.
"COVID, of course everybody living at home, they didn't realize their houses were such dumps till they were staying in there all the time. Well, now everybody said, ‘Jeez, I got to put some money into this place, this thing’s falling down on me.' Course they were never home before the COVID, because they were always gone. Then the neighbor found out, like I told one guy, I said, 'Well, they found out the neighbors weren't as nice as they thought they were because they're all building fences between.' I sold more damn boards for fencing than I did anything. Everybody is putting a fence up between them and their neighbors ...
"I mean, their decks were all rotted, they didn’t realize till now they’re not working, and then they build a new deck. They were home working out of the house and had time, so they build a woodshed, build this, build that. Some put additions on. But all of a sudden there was a boom instead of a bust ... It’s going down now."
"I'm not all about making money. My boy said, ‘Well dad, you ought to charge more money.' And I said, ‘Hey, what the heck, as long as I pay the bills and got food on the table.’ But over the years I’ve run into some wicked good guys. I like the mill. I like doing what we do."
Erica: "What’s the art of milling?"
Dave: "You know, it makes you feel good. You go to a place and there's your beams in a two or three million dollar... Well Lawson Brewery. We did all the beams for inside that brewery. Or you go down to a house or somebody will send me pictures of their house, or somebody will send me a letter saying, ‘I really appreciate that we could get them beams off you.’ Like I told my son, he said, ‘I don't know why you do it dad.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, someday somebody will say, ‘Well, you know that guy up there? He furnished lumber for a lot of houses.’ Make you feel good that you're doing something productive, you know, and people appreciate it.
"And even today, I got a lot of contractors said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ I keep telling them I’ll probably get down before too long. I said, ‘I don't know how much longer my health is going to hold out.’ And they said, ‘Well it better hold up for another 20, 30 years till I retire anyway.’ And there's a lot of things. I mean, pretty near every day you get a laugh. Somebody comes in and tries to put 10,000 pounds of lumber on top of a car. We've seen them crush their roofs. We’ve seen them lose whole loads out in the road out here. You see some of the craziest things people do.
"Right now we probably get 10 or 15 guys that come here and buy $2 worth of lumber. Just to talk with us. Seventy-five, 80 — they got nobody. They come here and my boy will go out and get the two-by and talk to them for half an hour. Don't make no money on it, but hey. I told my boy, 'What the heck, if it makes that guy feel good, your day’s complete.' So things like that. I'm not all about making money. My boy said, ‘Well dad, you ought to charge more money.' And I said, ‘Hey, what the heck, as long as I pay the bills and got food on the table.’
"But over the years I’ve run into some wicked good guys. I like the mill. I like doing what we do."