Every mill in America has a guy with the diverse array of skills required to keep its equipment humming. But a millwright with artistic skills like Dave Pedersen’s is a little harder to find.
Story by Doug Pedersen, Photos by Thomas Boyd
There are some intense levels of darkness in the early morning hours. Thankfully, the lights from oncoming log trucks nicely illuminate the way and work better than coffee to wake you up. It’s pre-dawn, but the morning crew at Douglas County Forest Products has been at work for hours.
Approaching from the sawmill is a deceptively small Daihatsu work truck. In it sits a millwright who enjoys the industry he’s chosen, even if he isn’t thrilled with his current mode of transportation.
At every mill and factory in America you’ll find at least one millwright who installs, repairs, welds, maintains and keeps everything running smoothly.
It’s honest and sometimes difficult work, but Dave Pedersen never takes it for granted. He also takes his work home with him, in a sense, crafting artwork from old horseshoes, saws and other bits of scrap found here and there.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
“I’ve been here since 1995,” Pedersen says over the whine of the micro-truck engine and tinny interior, from which wafts odors of fast food and axle grease. “Been workin’ mills since 1977,” Pederesen adds, shifting into something similar to third gear. “Guy named Bob got me my first job in Prineville.”
Back then, the logging industry was booming. Every small town in the Pacific Northwest had plenty of work. But it wasn’t destined to last. Controversies like the spotted owl and deforestation gained traction. Logging slowed. Mills closed. Jobs were lost and so were plenty of families.
“I was kinda lucky because I had joined the safety committee with a guy named Bill. He was the millwright in the truck shop. I got trained to maintain the sawmill,” Pedersen says, easily swerving to miss another large chunk of metal. “I learned to be a millwright on the job.”
However, the mill Pedersen had called home for 16 years finally had to let him go. The sawmill was closing and the rest of it wasn’t far behind.
“I did roofing and framed houses for a few years. Anything to stay afloat,” Pedersen says, steering the mini truck through a maze of impossible doorways.
A few years later, he’d moved to Roseburg to be near his kids. One night, he found himself in a local watering hole called the Cozy Corner Tavern in Sutherlin. It’s the type of place where good people come to commiserate and celebrate. Sometimes both. On this night, Pedersen was offered a job.
“The guy next to me said he needed another millwright,” he says. “I took him up on it. Been with Douglas County Forest Products ever since.”
A quarter-century later, the industry has redefined itself, and the change is apparent at this sawmill, particularly in the Cogeneration (combined heat and power, or CHP) building. This marvel of engineering burns the sawdust and bark from the mill. That heat boils water into steam that in turn spins large turbines.
The end result is a mill that generates its own electricity from its own byproduct. It also uses the steam it produces to heat large kilns.
While the mill includes a planer, sawmill, machine shop, kilns (and kiln shed), and shipping shed, it also employs plenty of hard-working, down-to-earth people who crack open a beer or two on the weekend. Like Pedersen, they don’t associate timber with high tech, but that’s exactly what it has become.
Parking the truck, Pedersen leads the way along ladders, walkways, underpasses and past a long-forgotten can of Copenhagen. Moving quickly overhead are logs in various states of cut and debark.
Simply put, Douglas County Forest Products creates 2-by-4 and 2-by-6 boards in eight-, nine-, and 10-foot lengths. But that’s where the simple ends. What starts with full-size logs quickly becomes the building blocks for neighborhoods everywhere. In a single day, the mill cranks out enough sticks to frame more than 40 average-size homes. That’s about 160,000 boards a day.
With sharp-eyed professionals sitting behind controllers and computer screens, log after log zooms through scanners. In less than a second, computers determine exactly how many boards can be extracted from each log just before those logs are sent on to large, sharp saws whirling ominously behind impressive, almost artistic, metal guards.
Many of these machines are Pedersen’s responsibility, and he doesn’t shy away from adding a bit of flair to his millwork.
“I like that I can put some art into everything,” he says as he checks a weld for stability. “Keeps things interesting. And when you make things look a little different everywhere, it keeps people on their toes. Keeps them safe.”
He isn’t kidding. The sheets of metal separating the saws from fleshy fingers are all distinct and artistic.
When the whistle blows to go home, Pedersen uses his skills with a different kind of flair. At his home just down the road from the mill, Pedersen spends more than 20 hours a week using his millwright skills to craft products he sells under the name Creative Western Art.
“I bought every handsaw I could find in Roseburg,” Pedersen says, pointing at a wall packed with them. Each one is expertly cut to reveal a salmon flying from the top. “I sell these all over.”
His work can be found in Roseburg at Cowboy Tree Yard and Garden Center on Northeast Chestnut Avenue as well as Douglas County Farmers Co-Op on Northeast Stephens Street.
“Someday I’ll drive around with my girl, Dee, to art shows and stuff and sell them,” he says.
While this millwright has the drive and talent to move forward with that plan, he’s content working alongside his team at the mill and devoting hours to crafting art from horseshoes, old saws and various bits of scrap.
Everywhere you turn at Douglas County Forest Products and at his home alongside the interstate, you’ll spot the art of a millwright and a local who is proud of his work, heritage and the quiet life he’s found in the Umpqua Valley.