Eric Hollenbeck didn’t plan to be a time traveler, or a museum curator, or a model of how to take care of troubled youth or returning war vets. But on the rambling compound of his Eureka-based company, Blue Ox Millworks, anyone can see how Eric is quietly and humbly creating something far greater than a place to cut wood.
On a tour of the compound you can see artisans at work, using period tools to cut elaborate wood decorations, moldings, and embellishments. Most pieces are custom ordered to restore or re-create parts of classic Victorian edifices—including some private homes and grand public buildings like the Governor’s Mansion and the nearby Leland Stanford Mansion in Downtown Sacramento.
“What’s so cool is that we aren’t just making the same architectural pieces; we’re making them on the same equipment that was used back then,” explains Eric, who grew up in Eureka, a coastal city with a long history of logging and mills. “You come here and you get to see the largest working collection of human-powered equipment left in the U.S., from a scroll saw built in 1868 to a cut-off saw built in 1902.”
Eric didn’t set out to create a museum-worthy collection of machinery; he just didn’t have the money to buy anything new. When he opened the business in 1973, he was a returning Vietnam vet with a $300 bank loan. “I started a logging company, milling dead and diseased trees for the Forest Service,” Eric recalls. Seeing the need for custom architectural pieces for the region’s rich collection of Victorian-era buildings, Eric set out to start Blue Ox (named after the famous companion of folkloric logger Paul Bunyan). But with only the $300 loan, “I had to go out and find the old junk nobody wanted. I didn’t have the time or the money to buy new stuff—or even newish stuff,” he laughs.
His pre-Internet company needed a sales catalog, so rather than pay someone to print one, Eric got his hands on a turn-of-the-century printing press and made the catalog himself. Some clients wanted period tiles, so a ceramics shop was added to the mix, as well as a plaster shop for more Victorian-era details.
Today, you can take a tour to learn about the crafts as they’re being created. Walking around the site, you’ll see something else that stands out: young people handling the woodworking tools and creating custom pieces. In addition to its regular business, Blue Ox Millworks now serves as a school for at-risk youth who produce their own creations that are then sold in an on-site store. “They make it, and they get to keep the money,” explains Eric, whose desire to give back is palpable. In fact, he has recently established a nonprofit to help returning combat veterans. And there are plans to grow Blue Ox into a multi-acre crafts village.
His veterans have already begun to produce remarkable works, including a precise replica of the horse-drawn hearse that carried the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln. “He was the first U.S. president who said that America had to take care of its veterans,” says Eric, who adds that he has been told that the hearse will be used in funeral processions for all future presidents. “It’s from Podunk, Eureka, built by a bunch of combat vets,” says the incredulous Eric. “Isn’t that something?”