BELFAST, Maine — Five years ago, Belfast businessman Bob MacGregor had an idea that ended up changing his life and warming the homes of hundreds of Mainers.
His idea, which became the Waldo County Woodshed, took root as he read an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News about Maine’s need, and potential, for wood banks. A wood bank is similar to a food pantry, but has a focus on distributing firewood, rather than food, to low-income and fixed-income people.
The Pine Tree State is the most heavily forested state in the nation, with 90 percent of its land covered by trees, and many of its residents rely on wood to heat their homes in the wintertime. It didn’t take long for MacGregor, 58, who has a background in lumber and forest products, to decide that the wood bank was an idea that could work in Waldo County.
“That’s all it took, the first two sentences,” he said last month. “As soon as I read it, I thought, ‘Oh yeah. I could do that.’”
It took a lot of work and help from a small army of people, but the volunteer-run, nonprofit Woodshed has grown from giving out just 20 cords of wood in its first winter to 170 cords last year. Last winter’s firewood, the equivalent of about $42,000 in assistance, helped to heat about 130 homes spread across six counties. The majority of those who received the firewood live in Waldo County.
“As soon as we put the word out, people just started calling,” MacGregor said. “It was apparent that the need was there. Every year it’s grown, and every year we’ve run out of wood. We don’t know where the need tops out.”
The Woodshed’s infrastructure has grown, too, from a single storage facility in Waldo to eight wood yards and distribution sites in Searsmont, Waldo, Monroe, Frankfort, Searsport, Belfast, Thorndike and Brooks. A ninth site, at the transfer station in the Knox County town of Warren, was stocked last week and should be open to a few clients soon.
It has been a busy season, with nearly 70 cords of wood distributed so far. And on one busy day last month, a gang of five arborists armed with saws, splitters, tractors and trucks spent hours cutting, splitting, tossing and hauling firewood. They got a lot done, MacGregor said.
“This is the type of involvement we crave and cherish,” he wrote on the organization’s Facebook page. “Unsolicited volunteers offering to give up a Saturday to help the Woodshed help others.”
Grants, donations and volunteer labor have allowed the nonprofit to increase its capacity over the years by building sheds and purchasing equipment such as wood splitters, a conveyor belt and a tractor.
But the core idea has remained the same — providing a way for people in need to come and pick up a quarter of a cord of firewood at a time. The wood is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and although recipients must sign up in advance, the woodshed relies on the honor system, not complicated documentation to demonstrate need.
“I think we do pretty well. You get a sense of their situation,” MacGregor said. “If you say you need help, here you go. You can tell by the number of times the phone rings how cold it’s going to be tonight.”
Officials at the non-profit prefer to raise money to purchase tree-length wood from loggers, but get calls from a few folks a year who want to donate their woodpile to the organization.
“If it’s three or four cords, we’ll come get it,” MacGregor said.
There have been some hiccups along the way for the Woodshed. That first winter, MacGregor went to the woodpile one cold February Monday to meet six families there.
“I had just enough wood for them. It was 10 below zero,” he recalled. “It was the coldest night of the winter.”
When they arrived, there was a grim surprise. The firewood had been stolen and he could give the needy families only an armload each.
“They were all very understanding, but they were cold,” he said.
Today, the distribution sites are less hidden away and more visible than that first one was. Most are well guarded, and MacGregor has not noticed any more firewood thefts in other years. He has found that more recipients are staying to help others after picking up their own wood, a development that makes him feel good.
“We’re always putting out calls for volunteers, and we’ve always thought our biggest potential source for help is our clientele,” he said.
Some of the stories he and others hear from their clients can be difficult to absorb, he said.
“One of the guys coming in one year was living in an unheated trailer. He’d come in and say, ‘It was 24 degrees this morning,’” MacGregor said. “It’s heart-breaking, the way some people live.”
He’s glad that the Woodshed is able to help, if only a quarter of a cord at a time. In addition to volunteering, people can help by donating wood or money. It’s worth it, MacGregor said.
“It feels good,” he said. “People ask me out there why I’m doing it. I say I might need help someday — who knows? And you can tell that people appreciate it.”
For information about the organization, visit waldocountywoodshed.org or call 338-2692.