MILLINOCKET, Maine — Steve Sanders thinks the tree stumps he keeps at his West Branch Heritage Timber LLC sawmill were part of a red oak that Henry David Thoreau paddled past in his famous canoe trip up the Penobscot River in 1846.
The gray and brown blocks are about as tall as tombstones and bear what looks like ax blade scars among their few hundred rings. Since his company’s workers fished the wood from Quakish Lake, which is part of the river system, and red oak grew only along the riverbank, the tree was probably among those harvested when river-driving loggers built a dam that expanded the lake in 1898 or 1899, Sanders said.
Sanders loves the stumps for their history.
“I am going to turn those into pedestals for glass tables so you can look at them and see history. You can see one man’s labor with an ax in a hardwood tree,” Sanders said Friday. “The wood brings you back to an era when everything was done by hand. When you think about the wood that came down the river every year and you realize that it was done by men, wood and oxen, you see it was just an incredible feat that they did.”
The company, which also is known as Great Northern Timber LLC, has harvested 20,000 tons of wood from the lake since it was formed in the fall of 2010. Sanders and company co-owner Tom Shafer seek as many commercial and industrial uses for the wood as they can find.
The owners see the lake wood as a specialty-niche product useful and highly decorative for its rich earth tones, created by the trees being submerged for hundreds of years among minerals that seep into the wood.
Its uniqueness was among the reasons Shaw & Tenney of Orono, a company that started making wooden oars and paddles in 1858, chose West Branch as its primary supplier of wood for nearly 300 paddles the Orono firm is producing for L.L. Bean to celebrate the retailer’s 100th anniversary this year.
West Branch has supplied wood for pulp tests at six Maine paper mills, including the new Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket. The tests went well. The company hopes to land a contract as a mill pulp supplier and can produce 40,000 tons annually of wood for the next 20 years just from what’s in Quakish Lake, Sanders said.
“That’s enough to make us one of the largest suppliers of wood for any one paper mill,” Sanders said.
The new River Drivers Restaurant just outside Millinocket is a showcase for just about all of river wood’s decorative uses. Owner Matthew Polstein used West Branch products for almost all of the restaurant’s floors, wainscoting, interior trim, stair treads and architectural moldings.
“It looks great and with the character and history of it, it was really something we wanted to use,” said Polstein, who moved his restaurant on Millinocket’s Airport Road to his resort site in Township 1 Range 8 last year. “It is a green product, a reclaimed product. We didn’t have to cut down any trees to get it, and with our modern-day connection to river drivers and river running, we felt it was an ideal match.”
West Branch Heritage wood is too pricey to make it as a commodity in the flooring or furniture markets, Sanders said. However, it is competitively priced in the specialty-wood markets. It would, if contracted by a paper mill, provide pulping wood substantially less expensive than that available from other producers, he said.
Sanders said the company, which has nine full-time employees, wants to get a full year of production and land a pulping contract before expanding its work force.