IIn a small northwestern California town boxed in by the world’s largest towering redwoods lies a historic port that is the envy of other towns across North America. Old Town Eureka has more than 150 impeccably restored late 19th- and early 20th-century commercial buildings and Victorian homes. It is a remarkable 350-acre national historic district that extends three blocks deep for a full mile along the coast of Humboldt Bay.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the demand for redwood lumber spiraled and things looked bleak. Hotels were condemned and the entire precinct was eyed for urban redevelopment. There was even talk of putting a freeway through the heart of the district.
It never happened.
The success of the preservation arts in Eureka is virtually synonymous with the presence of Eric Hollenbeck. The self-made man personified, Hollenbeck, 66, dropped out of school and went to work as a logger at the age of 16.
In a remarkable example of community, his auto shop teacher took an interest in him. The shop teacher worked with his English teacher and his boss to help him graduate and land a job.
ERIC: He worked it out with the English teacher that I could write poetry instead of essays. I got an A in shop, and a C in English. On every poem I ever wrote I got the exact same grade. I got an A for artistic content and an F for spelling and punctuation, averaging to a C.
The teachers were telling me I was stupid, but they were making $2.15/hour and I was making $2.70/hour—so I quit school. I couldn’t read, but I could do math!
To better understand his approach to work, it is important to know that Eric’s millworks is one of only eight working architectural job shops in the United States. He produces custom-made wooden house fittings — windows, doors, cabinetry, decorative items, wrought ironwork and more — on hand-operated antique machinery, none newer than 1948, some dating all the way back to 1866.
CHRISTINE: Tell me how you create situations for your own learning.
ERIC: By biting more off the apple than you can chew. I came back from Vietnam on a Friday and went to work on a Monday. We didn’t know the consequences of shell shock and all that back then. After a few years I didn’t get along well there, so I went to the bank and asked for a $300 loan to start my own logging company.
The banker laughed so loud the whole bank turned and looked at me. He said the smartest thing anyone’s ever said to me. He said, “Eric, I’m going to give you the money, and you’ll be back for more. Eventually, I will cut you off. At some point I want you to know, you will pay for an education—one way or another.” I didn’t know what he meant then, but I do now, and he was right!
After struggling to log and build small storage buildings, Eric worked on a big renovation in town lasting about three years. Here again, he benefited from others’ beliefs in his ability.
ERIC: He thought I could do anything. Monday mornings, he’d fly in and we’d have coffee together and he’d draw on napkins what I needed to do that week and by god, I got it done! I didn’t know how to lathe wood or operate a table saw. I had no idea in the world how to do any of it, but I got everything done because he believed in me.
And Blue Ox in architectural millwork was born. By taking on more than he thought he could, he acquired the tools and skills he has today.
ERIC: When someone asks you to step up to the plate and you are a combat veteran, you step up. Surrender is not an option.
Eric is engaging, philosophical, and passionate. His reflections contain the wisdom of experience. His stories are rich and full of wonderful anecdotes. My job, however, is to connect what he is saying to how craftsmen learn.
Check out this interview by Breakwater Studios, meet Eric Hollenbeck.
This post is part of a series #LookToCraftsmen set for publication in 2019.