Timekeepers of timber
Sept./Oct. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Joyce Mansfield
Photos by Matt Salvo and courtesy of Phillips Brothers Mill
Historic mill in Shasta County runs full steam ahead
Father and son Gary and Gregg Hendrix operate Phillips Brothers Mill and serve as stewards of the family's 920 acres of forestland.
To wander around the buildings that comprise Phillips Brothers Mill in Oak Run is akin to time travel. The mountain air is alive with pops, squeals, whistles and hums. Yesteryear's structures and equipment, and the surrounding natural forest, ooze history. The mill's story begins with generations gone by, but it also speaks to present and future.
Phillips Brothers Mill, just outside Redding, remains the last fully steam-powered commercial mill—in the entire United States. As such, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
"My great-grandfather moved up here and settled before the Homestead Act," said 77-year-old Gary Hendrix, a Phillips family descendant. "We're six generations here now, and I'm third generation at the mill proper."
Gregg Hendrix culls and thins weak and dying trees one at a time.
A former high school art teacher who spent summers at the mill, Hendrix now works alongside his son, mill manager Gregg, and together, father and son assure the continuation of this family legacy. Phillips Brothers Mill produces custom lumber as well as wood products, such as birdhouses and gift boxes, handcrafted in their onsite box factory.
Taking care of tradition
In Shasta County, timber has been a top agricultural commodity for more than a century. Similarly, this mill's roots trace back to Gary Hendrix's grandfather Edmund Phillips, who in 1897 built his first sawmill. He had 11 children, and in 1933, he and his eight sons established the steam-powered mill in its current location on Bullskin Ridge Road. Eventually, the four eldest sons ran the operation and with no children of their own, chose seven nieces and nephews, including Hendrix, to inherit their estate.
The 11 children of Edmund Phillips, who started the sawmill business, gather together circa 1980. From left, Clayton, Clifford (Kip), Thelma, Edith, Ed, Lillian (Gary Hendrix's mother), Arthur, David, Lewis, Norman and Elmer.
"We grew up knowing the land in terms of names and places," Hendrix said, describing various trees, springs and valleys throughout the family's 920 acres of forestland. "When you grow up on a piece of property and you've been taught to respect it, the meaning is really important."
As a result of their dedication to the land, the cousins placed it in a conservation easement with Pacific Forest Trust.
"The property can never be subdivided or broken up into smaller units," Hendrix explained. "It has to be managed as a sustainable, bio-diverse, multi-age forest in perpetuity."
This approach to forest management is easy for the Hendrixes, as they follow the lead of previous generations.
Gregg Hendrix moves tress with a 1970s Mack self-loading logging truck.
Like the Phillips brothers before them, Gary and Gregg Hendrix are improving the forest by culling and thinning weak trees, fireproofing and leaving strong trees to grow. They carefully log one tree at a time—whether pine, cedar, fir or oak—minimizing damage to the surrounding forest. Tree regeneration occurs naturally, although the family does occasionally replant slow-growing patches.
"Our goal is to make the forest the best it can be, so primarily what I do is a salvage operation: I go out and aggressively go after the trees that die," said Gregg Hendrix, explaining that a tree's demise can result from disease, insect damage or lightning strikes. "We cut them down just as they die, and they're salvaged and made into a product that theoretically may last 100 years. There's enough dying in the woods that it really sustains what we do quite well."
Timing the timber
Those dying trees create a unique product, said Bill Lorrain, a builder of high-end custom homes in the Tahoe-Truckee area.
The mill's steam-powered 1906 Best tractor gets powered up for special events and is showcased on the property.
"The standing trees get a blue stripe up and down the wood as they're going through the dying process," he said. "It streaks and adds a lot of character to what would otherwise be just a pine."
Lorrain has relied on custom lumber from Gary and Gregg Hendrix for about 12 years and makes a trip to Phillips Brothers Mill every few weeks.
"When it comes to their mill, they make anything I need, and it comes in a very unique-looking way, with the striping or with the circular saw marks," he said.
Achieving that look begins at the sawmill, where each log is hand-maneuvered, measured and precisely cut into lumber. Later, the cut wood moves through the planing mill, where rough materials are turned into finished products. Much of the current machinery dates back to late 1800s and early 1900s, as does the equipment in the nearby machine shop. In that room full of gadgets, parts and pulleys, Gregg Hendrix has mastered techniques for maintaining and repairing the pieces required to preserve this historic technology.
A former art teacher, Gary Hendrix designs and illustrates products in the mill's box factory, including birdhouses and gift boxes, each individually made, as son Gregg shows below.
"He's the millwright, machinist, chief timber faller, manager," Gary Hendrix said of his son.
"From the time I was 2 years old, I had a tool in my hand and was taking something apart, so this just fit right in with me naturally," said Gregg Hendrix, who started managing the mill in 1990. "I knew literally from the time I was 10 years old that this was what I was going to do."
All of this is accomplished without electricity, except for a steam turbine that occasionally generates power to sharpen the mill's saws—but even that was done with a hand grinder until a few years ago.
Building a better box
The mill's adjacent box factory is also steam powered, but includes two generators (one of which is steam powered) for running some electric lights and box-construction equipment. That building was constructed after the four Phillips brothers returned from World War II, which was the only time the mill was ever closed.
The box factory started with producing wooden fruit crates called lug boxes. During the early 1980s, as cardboard began replacing lug boxes, Gary Hendrix, more deeply involved in the family business by then, suggested something new.
"I said we could do better making wooden gift boxes instead of agricultural boxes," he said. As expected, lug boxes did phase out and the mill continues to produce custom boxes for other products such as wine, beer, honey, tea, spices, nuts and DVDs.
The box business evolved to include other handcrafted items, such as salmon planks, bird feeders and bat houses, all of which showcase Gary Hendrix's artistic and design talents. Production, including branding, is done one box at a time.
"I stumbled across one of their boxes and I fell in love with it as a way to make our own gift boxes," said James Mazzotta, new-business developer and manager of Enjoy the Store.
For years, the store has ordered the items with their "Made to Enjoy" brand for gifts and to use as flat-rate shipping boxes.
"We've sent gift crates to almost every state in the continental U.S.," Mazzotta said. "Using their boxes helps create an experience for the recipient."
Preserving the past
The box factory is the final piece in using all parts of the trees in the Phillips forestland. Wood scraps and sawdust are used to fuel the mill's five boilers, where fires burn hot to power 13 steam engines and the site's steam-powered machinery. There are well over 100 pieces of historic equipment here, according to Gary Hendrix, who said there is equal treasure in the surrounding healthy forest's trees as they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air.
Like the forestland under their care, Gary and Gregg Hendrix consider Phillips Brothers Mill a meaningful and important contribution to future generations. Plans are underway to create a nonprofit to further preserve the property's many historically valuable assets, and the father and son point out that all of the Phillips descendants take pride in their ongoing stewardship of the land.
"That's why they had the conservation easement written up," Gregg Hendrix said. "But my great-uncles had been managing the property like that anyway. They spent their whole lives growing a forest, and now, we're just continuing to do the same thing."
- One forested acre produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day.
- During the course of its life, a single tree can absorb 1 ton of carbon dioxide.
- Approximately one-third of the Golden State's 100 million acres is forests.
- Forests provide beauty, recreation opportunities and homes for Californians as well as for nearly 650 species of fish and wildlife.
- California has more forestland than any other state except Alaska and is among the top five producers of wood products in the nation.
- California's forests provide 110,000 jobs and a total payroll of $4.2 billion annually.
- Lumber, furniture and paper are common products, but trees also produce rayon for the clothing industry; lignin that thickens food and cosmetics; torula yeast for baked goods; and flavors and fragrances from tree oils, which are used in foods, beverages, cosmetics and medicine.
Sources: The Forest Foundation and the California Forestry Association