story: Jon Lewis photos: Brent Van Auken
PHILLIPS BROTHERS MILL IN OAK RUN
Edmund Phillips visited his first sawmill in 1877 at age 5 and was mesmerized by the experience. Some 20 years later, in 1897, he established his own mill on North Cow Creek near Oak Run. Six generations later, members of the Phillips clan are still producing timber. A solid, reassuring sense of history permeates the mill, where little has changed over the past 112 years, other than moving it to family property on Bullskin Ridge Road in 1933. It remains the only steam-powered, commercially operated mill in the country, happily chugging away with 400-year-old technology in an industry that switched to electric power in the 1900s. There’s a simple reason the mill continues to use steam engines to run its saws and planers, says Gary Hendrix, who works with his son Gregg, the mill’s general manager: “We’re off the grid. If we brought PG&E in here, we wouldn’t make it.” Fuel for the boilers is provided by the sawdust, scraps and bark generated at the mill.
Just as its power source is somewhat unconventional for a lumber mill, the Phillips Brothers’ output is a little different as well. The mill’s products include custom boards up to 40 inches wide and timbers up to 30 feet long. “We offer dimensions people can’t get anywhere else,” Gary Hendrix says.
Contractors remodeling high-end homes in the Lake Tahoe area are frequent customers, seeking custom timbers with distinctive circular saw marks that give their projects a rustic, rough-hewn look. Gary Hendrix says the mill recently shipped a 16-foot-long beam destined to serve as the mantle of an enormous fireplace.
Closer to home, the Hendrixes sell a lot of tongue-and-groove flooring, rabbeted beveled lap siding, custom-cut table and counter tops, decking and pre-cut railing kits. A new product line was added in the 1980s when the men revamped the box factory—which had been producing lug boxes for California’s fruit industry—and began producing wooden gift boxes for regional wineries and for boxed sets of books and tapes.
The wood for the timbers, boards, siding and gift boxes all comes from the Phillips Brothers’ 920-acre pine and cedar forest that surrounds the mill. Just as the turn-of-the-century saws, engines and boilers are tended to with care, so to are the trees—an ethic firmly established by the four uncles who worked the mill from the 1930s to the early 1990s.
The four Phillips brothers—Arthur, Lewis, Edmund Jr. and Clayton—were advocates of selective harvesting to ensure their forest lands would continue to yield large trees for the generations to follow. Theirs were hard-working, frugal lifestyles, but the payoff was a forest that saw its inventory rise from about 2 million board feet of timber in 1933 to today’s estimate of 20 million board feet.
That stewardship will continue. To protect from development, fragmentation or overharvesting, Gary Hendrix and the other Phillips descendants granted a conservation easement to the Pacific Forest Trust in the 1990s.
“We take a lot of pride in our forest,” says Gary Hendrix. “We grew up in an area where trees actually had names. Box Spring, The Leaning Tower, Sunny Valley. It makes us proud to be able to provide a product nobody else produces.” Consequently, the decisions on which trees to fell are not made lightly.
Gregg Hendrix, who took over management of the mill in 1990, says the health of the forest adds to the gratification of running a historic operation. “We’re doing something entirely different each day, whether it’s running the mill, logging, sharpening the saws—and it’s all made possible by those uncles who didn’t go out and cut down the whole forest.
“Because of that, we still see a lot of old-growth trees. There are more than 1,000 trees out there, and a few of them die every year, and that’s where we get those 40-inch logs.”
Echoes of the pioneering days back in young Edmund Phillips’ time surround the Phillips Brothers Mill. A massive 1910 Best steam-powered tractor—which replaced the use of teams of horses for bringing logs to the mill, and was in use until 1938—is parked on the property. Old logging carts, fashioned out of black oak by Ed in his blacksmith shop, also adorn the area.
Gary Hendrix says there’s an effort underway to form a nonprofit organization to oversee the restoration of much of the historic equipment that has served the mill during its 112 years of operation.
The Hendrixes are happy to provide tours of the mill, its box factory and machine shop. They charge $10 a person to help defray insurance costs. For groups of 20 or more, they will “steam up” the mill and demonstrate how logs are cut.
Phillips Brothers Mill 29334 Bullskin Ridge Road, Oak Run • 472-3845 www.phillipsbrosmill.com