The family farm, the generations who inherit general stores—in Vermont, those are often obvious. But there’s another traditional business where family makes all the difference: in the sawmills that turn harvested trees into lumber for houses, breweries, stores, banks, and more modest home projects like decks and fences.

Colleen Goodridge speaks with pride from her white cedar-focused family business, Goodridge Lumber, Inc., in its 47th year in Albany, in Orleans County. When she does, she’s often speaking for many other sawmill operators in the region or the state, too. And she points out, “All of us are important. We’re typically invisible because we work behind the scenes, but we’re vital for healthy Vermonters.”

That invisibility suits Brad Deth, of Burke, where R&B White Cedar Products has notched 25 years on a back road. He doesn’t advertise or use social media. He doesn’t need to. “We’ve never had a problem getting our hands on cedar, with all local loggers,” he says. “We bought very heavy last year.” Looking around his lot of logs, rough and planed boards, he says, “We have a market for everything.”

The pleasure of the hands-on work and the steady need for it add up to why 69-year-old Dave Stratton, of Hardwick, hopes to saw until he’s 80, or whenever his grandkids get involved. “You don’t get into the mill business for money,” he says. “You do it because you love it.”

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Dave Stratton's Sawmill in Hardwick has a yard stacked with trees, mostly hemlock, his specialty.

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R&B White Cedar Products in Burke.

A Lifetime of Liking Wood

Steve Slayton is about 12 to 15 years into retirement from a career as the Caledonia and Essex County Forester, and he sums up his passion by saying he likes wood. He grew up with his parents’ sawmills in Hardwick and Greensboro, making lumber, shingles, cedar guardrail and fence posts. It was natural for him to get an education and work with the forests and the people who harvest from them.

If you like wood in the Northeast Kingdom, you live in a small world. Steve goes over to Dave Stratton’s mill when he needs a board. He likes the old-time honor system and the welcome, “They let me load up, and I pay at their coffee break.” He values the wood. “They produce a good product, the lumber is sized well, it’s almost in a finished condition when it comes out of the band [bandsaw]. They create a good board.”

But Steve worries about prosperity for the family sawmill, which he sees as equivalent to Vermont’s “25-cow farm”—an aging business model.

Looking back to when the region had larger mills, he guesses at some reasons for their disappearance, and a big one is the state’s northern neighbor. “What’s happened is the Canadians do a nice job of supporting their mills,” with health care, Hydro-Quebec power, modern facilities that are well lit and free of dust, and computerized. “It’s a totally different world.”

Paul Frederick, now the Forest Economy Program Manager for Vermont, lives in Hardwick and has some 37 years in the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. His numbers back up Steve’s view that mills keep closing and, despite some mills having higher production than 20-30 years ago, capacity is down to half of what it was a generation ago.

But the surprise for the mix has been the COVID-19 pandemic of the past two years. Since the pandemic started, the price of “dimensional lumber” – that is, lumber in the standard sizes used to build houses and more – has skyrocketed, along with supply issues. This led to fresh interest in purchasing from local mills. Though northern Vermont lacks large and even midsize mills, its small ones may prosper now. “In general, the lumber industry has fared pretty well during the pandemic,” Paul says. “The biggest problem is finding enough labor.”

Long Days, Plenty of Sawing

Both Brad Deth and Dave Stratton appreciate the help of younger men in their sawmill work. For Dave, the helping hands come from sons Eric and Ben, and his grandsons, who’ll lend a hand when they stop by on weekends. He wonders whether he can keep working long enough for those grandkids to grown up and take over. New owners from outside the family might want a more modern mill—and those cost huge amounts of money, not just for the new equipment but for the complex permitting process.

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Dave Stratton, right, gets a hand from his son Eric at the bandsaw.

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Middle: Brad Deth turns a tree into boards at his bandsaw, with Ted Hartsock, left, adding an essential second set of hands.

That wasn’t the only pandemic effect. “The world has changed in the last two years,” Brad says, calling the real estate effects locally, “pure insanity.” He’s seen bidding wars driving the price of building lots to about a hundred times what they cost when he was a young man. And then the buyers want lumber. “I’ve turned down more work in the last two years than I could do in 10 years!”

Like Dave Stratton, Brad Deth focuses on a good board. As a “microbusiness” putting out about 100,000 board feet per year, “We can keep a good handle on our quality.” He buys from local loggers he’s known a long time, and sells about 40 percent of his boards locally, with 60 percent to the wholesale trade. And it’s all cedar. “We have a market for everything,” he says.

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The garden beds that Tina Deth encouraged Brad to make became a hot item during the pandemic, with startling sales figures.

On a typical day, Brad walks the 30 feet from home to his office at 5:30 a.m., goes over texts and orders, sharpens a few blades. Then, he says, “I have my coffee and call my old man.” Brad’s 82-year-old father Reg, the “R” in R&B, still checks by phone on the business every day, and in summer walks over from his place up the road. Brad works long days, and most days of the year. When he says he takes Christmas off, his wife Tina laughs and calls him a fibber. “Last Christmas he made garden bed pegs all day,” she says.

Dave Stratton’s workdays are similar: They also start at about 5:30 a.m., although now, at age 69, he doesn’t work all seven days of the week, and he’s cut back on his original 80 to 90 hours a week. “If you aren’t working, you’re sitting at home doing bills,” he points out. He’d rather be sawing.

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Dave Stratton connects with sawmill customers during his lunch break.

Most mornings, Dave pauses to read the paper at 6 a.m., “and make sure my name isn’t in the obituaries,” he teases. Customers arrive bright and early to get loaded. A lot of his buyers are in their 50s themselves and tell Dave they hope he’ll keep sawing for another 10-15 years, to mesh with their own retirements.

“The average age of loggers in Maine is 52 years,” he says as an example. “There are no young people coming in.” On the other hand, his grandsons, now ages 14 and 15, already help him in the summertime, and he’d love to see them take over his mill one of these days.

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Vermont sawmills and their production dropped by more than half, from 1990 to now. Courtesy of Paul Frederick, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

New Business Models

Sustainable management of forests isn’t new to Vermont. With six generations of Curriers behind Currier Forest Products on Harveys Hollow Road in Danville, the family estimates they’ve been committed to this for some 200 years, and their forest management and mill have FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification. Joel Currier, whose family-based operation also includes John Plocic, established Currier’s Farm Forest Products in 1997. They hand cut to length, have a specialty in large timbers, and can produce items for historic restoration, as well as standard lumber. Although the Curriers were not available for interview for this article, their website, currierforestproducts.com, gives great perspective on their diverse operations.

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Joel Currier at Currier Forest Products. Photo courtesy of Mr. Currier, from his website.

Retired county forester Steve Slayton tagged the need for specialty products as part of what’s promoted independent “portable sawmills,” which can be brought to a landowner and customized for a job. As an example, he pointed out St. Johnsbury resident Stan Crane’s use of such a sawmill to create the gazebo at St. Johnsbury History & Heritage. “Hobby mills” may make “exquisite things,” Steve adds.

Specialized needs have brought great delight to Dave Stratton, whose beams have been given away and sold through an HGTV special that involved a dream home in Stowe. He’s done business with post-and-beam experts at Yestermorrow for about 25 years and provided the beams for the new Lawson’s Brewery in Waitsfield. When he visited and saw them in place, “It made me feel pretty good!”

The diversity of today’s sawmill projects can bring people into it for the joy. Dave tried other careers, but at age 30 found this, and hasn’t looked back. He reflects, “My dad worked in the [granite] sheds all his life and he hated every minute,” so Dave chose what delights him, instead. “I always did like working with my hands.”

Although the number of large and medium-sized sawmills in Vermont has dropped in half over the past 20 years, Steve Slayton notes new motivation for those going into forest products work. He sees many on private land becoming more altruistic in their management, with emphasis on carbon sequestration, wildlife support, and clean water. In Vermont, he reports, there are obvious effects of climate change in the forests, most particularly in the presence of ticks, moose herd survival, and maples being tapped far earlier than in previous decades. Careful stewardship often drives landowners to directly connect with the people who shape lumber from their trees.

“The first 50 years of my life we never had ticks to contend with,” he says.

Colleen Goodridge points to the forest management that sawmill owners promote as essential for both forest and economic survival. The harvests from forests include maple syrup, Christmas trees, and recreation, as well as lumber. “All the things we receive as benefits and sometimes take for granted are because of this supply chain, with often generations of families,” she adds.

Colleen worries about the aging of sawmill operators. She estimates their average age in Vermont to be 60, and says narrow profit margins, in part due to a heavy regulatory burden, mean, “not a lot of young people coming to fill those shoes. These young people need to be able to make a living.” On the other hand, like Brad Deth and Paul Frederick, she sees the pandemic’s effects of placing people at home, where they start long-postponed projects, as a plus for the mills, especially as prices have escalated for wood from out of the area. “People have developed an appreciation for local suppliers,” she says.

As younger people enter this field, they are sometimes not noticed because they haven’t yet inherited the ownership of long-time family businesses. Still, they are affecting the business choices, as today’s aging owners look for younger partners in their mills.

Changing Ways, Changing Machines

The sawmill machinery at Dave Stratton’s Hardwick mill may not be the newest, like a Canadian mill might boast. But he covers a range of options for shaping wood, with a Sanborn bandsaw, a two-headed re-saw, a double edger, a trim saw, and a four-sided planer, as well as a generator for power.

“You can’t modernize these little mills enough to make it all automated,” Dave says with a shake of his head. He keeps track of other mills, including in the Stratton, Maine, area, where he noted two new saws at a cost of $14.5 million. When he had to replace a planer (probably from the 1920s that became hazardous due to, “belts always breaking, knives could come out,” he opted for a 1987 model—a new one like the one in Stratton, Maine, could cost $3.5 million or more.

Dave also points to the cost of permits. Although his first building didn’t need a permit, the second one did, and he spent five or six years in negotiation with the town and state, in part because of his location in a flood plain. “Today you couldn’t even start a mill in Vermont without a tremendous amount of money for permits,” he says.

That fits with what Colleen Goodridge notes about the high regulatory burden for Vermont sawmills—something she says is being worked on at the state level.

Those costs also affect how Brad Deth manages the machinery for his modest mill operation. He uses a 25-year-old Wood-Mizer bandsaw, installed more recently to replace the original one that now sits up the road from his mill. And as the time approaches to replace that one, “I have a brand new 1996 Wood-Mizer sitting in a box for when this one runs out!”

The larger operation that Joel Currier owns in Danville, with its emphasis on forest stewardship and diverse products, requires a different approach to machinery. The mill produces massive timbers up to 60 feet long and needs to be able to plane 24-inch-wide floorboards. Joel’s forest harvests have also drawn attention for his use of lighter weight machinery in the woods.

One kind of machinery that’s changing Vermont sawing is the “portable” sawmill. Jeff Hale in Danville uses a Wood-Mizer portable band sawmill to shape lumber on customers’ property. The cost of a portable sawmill starts around $4,000, making it ideal for people who want to saw part-time or have more flexible use on location.

Paul Frederick, the Forest Economy Program Manager for Vermont, points out that this kind of machine means the numbers of mills in the region aren’t always clear. “It sort of depends on what you count,” he says. “We know there’s a lot of portable sawmills out there, but they’re hard to find.” He chooses to count only mills that occupy a piece of property: about 50 of those in the state now.

Staying very small, whether with a portable sawmill or another “hobby” size, suits a certain personality, too. Lee Abbey, with his 1985 Wood-Mizer bandsaw, considers himself retired after a career of logging and sawmilling, including a St. Johnsbury location for a few years. Now he cuts some lumber for friends and neighbors at his home on the North Danville Road. “I just plug along as much as I want to do,” he explains. Although he had fun with custom sawing, the lifting, pulling, and stacking can be tough.

Yet wood continues to draw him: “It’s not so much what kind, it’s the quality,” he says. “I’ve spent time early in the morning and late at night seeing who’s cutting and where. If someone’s got good quality, I’m interested.” Lee draws satisfaction from connecting with others. He sent what might have been the first customers to Joel Currier’s larger business, sold elm to master craftsman and cabinetmaker David Patoine, and enjoyed having Jake Langmaid saw for him. “I’ve worked with people, got ‘em started. Wood is what I do.”

It’s too soon to count how much the pandemic years have affected sawmill production and purchases in this region. But Colleen Goodridge sees the changes as significant, saying, “It’s a time to make us visible.” With her personal mantra of “honor the past, strengthen today, and shape tomorrow,” she points to the connection of sawmills to a core value of Vermonters: the working landscape.

“Generations of families are generating their lives in this work,” Colleen says. “Support them or lose them.”

Dave Willard, long a Peacham resident and a State Lands Forester, says that anyone who likes to be able to buy, say, 10 two-by-fours needs the small local sawmills. “You can’t do that at bigger ones. [Today’s small sawmills] are usually older family-run mills, because they always have, and they enjoy doing it.”

Or as Brad Deth says, in running a small sawmill, he considers himself fortunate. “I’ve met fabulous people over 25 years, built great relationships,” with customers and the local loggers. He repeats the word, because he means it so strongly: “Fortunate!”