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See It Made
by Laurel Gerkman
Published in Oregon Coast Magazine, July 2007
Call me oblivious. Numerous times, I swept past the myrtlewood factories along Hwy 101 without accepting their posted invitation. This time, curiosity wins. I turn the wheel and stop to discover theres much more to the manufacturing of this unusual hardwood than Id ever expected.
In Oregon, often multi-trunked myrtlewood trees dot the landscape in only three southwestern counties. This slow-growing, broadleaf evergreen produces a dense, richly grained wood with sculpted patterns akin to lace, flames and tiger stripes. Its colors, influenced by minerals in the soil, are unmatched in elegance, yielding hues of blond, honey, soft gray, and every shade of brown.
In the late 1800s, a cottage industry of handcrafted gifts began along the South Coast. These items gained a reputation as treasured souvenirs because of the myrtlewoods unique features and limited availability.
Nowadays, dozens of imaginative artisans continue to produce a range of items from salt and peppershakers, trinket boxes to magnum opusgreatest achievementheirlooms. All aspects of the myrtlewood tree are utilized. To fully appreciate the complexities of both the wood and workmanship, take a factory tour: Call ahead for days and hours open. See it made.
Five miles south of Florences Siulslaw River Bridge, I spot the buttercup yellow sign at Lakeshore Myrtlewood. Dave and Denise Middleton sold their Gold Beach factory and moved here to revive this smaller shop. The determined couple brought 26 years of myrtlewood business experience with them. In 2004, after giving Lakeshore a complete face-lift, they re-opened.
Why Florence? This is a truly beautiful setting, Woahink Lake to the east and sand dunes behind us, says Dave. Lakeshore Myrtlewood has a 50-year reputation for quality merchandise, and its our desire to carry on that tradition.
Dave has designed a unique and exquisite line of myrtlewood lighthouses complete with a pulsing/rotating beacon lightno two are alike. To date, he has sold more 2400. I find him at his workbench inserting tiny electronics into a tower with the skill of a surgeon.
Folks can personalize their own by choosing a tower and burl base from my stock, Ill do the rest, says Dave. I sign, serial number, and date each one for warranty purposes. Rogue River Myrtlewood also manufactures the lighthouses by permission.
In Reedsport, The Myrtlewood Gallerys whimsical collection takes me by surprise. Over 80 Northwest fine art woodworkers are represented here. Its a jaw-dropping display of extraordinary masterpieces born from myrtlewood and other unusual trees such as madrone, cascara, and monkey-puzzle.
These are the creations of visionary artists. I pause to examine a once rotted stump now transformed into an intricate carving of life-sized tropical sea creatures and coral. The uge slabs are sanded for hours, then hand-rubbed and polished with oil, radiate with evocative configurations that resemble images sent from the Hubble telescope.
The Mast family is in their 22nd year of operation. Gareth Masts passion for wood varieties and cultivating new artists is contagious, and hes delighted to bend your ear.
Were definitely a mom-and-pop shop, says Sharon. Im the business component, and my husband, Gareth, is our wood expert and compulsive wood collector. Both our sons, Jon and Jason, are talented artists. We pride ourselves on providing one-on-one service.
I ask about the self-guided myrtlewood factory tour, and Gareth points through a door at several carvings of adorable bear cubs outfitted with safely glasses and hard hats that hold the interpretive signs. I smile at his sense of humor and step forward.
Jason is on-site. With focused ease, this quiet, shy 20-year-old demonstrates his wood turning skills on a lathe the size of a small horse. The burl shavings coil around him like snakes obeying a charmer. Onlookers remain under his spell as the maple block changes into an elegant vase before our eyes.
The Myrtlewood Factory Showroom, Inc. is 20 minutes past Reedsport at the corner of Hauser Depot Road, between mile posts 229 and 230. At one time, the factory site dominated 17 acres as the oldest, largest myrtlewood manufacturer in the world.
Through the past century, innovative expansions and the addition of its own sawmill brought an increase in production from shopping basket numbers to forklift quantities. In 1982, the company coined its popular logo The Real Oregon Gift, and it stuck.
Today, the sawmill is no longer in use. Six woodworkers stay busy in this barn-sized myrtlewood factory, and the gift shop displays a wide variety of finished product. There is also a large Hobby Room with raw wood to turned pieces (but not finished) for do-it-yourselfers.
Our myrtlewood specialties are cutting boards, wine bottle holders, quilt and entertainment racks. We use local artisans for other items such as hand-made clocks. Tours are being modified and will soon include a video illustrating various steps in production. The museum part is still in the works. We plan on displaying equipment used before 1970 and maybe as early as 1911 when the business originally operated. A guide will provide additional information regarding the history and process, says manager Pam Tonnemacher.
In response to the increasing popularity of the neighboring Dunes National Recreation area, John Byrne, present owner, added RV parking, ATV rentals, and an off-road accessories shop. According to the sign, the complex now operates under the name Myrtlewood Hauser Motorplex.
After passing through Coos Bay, I take a right on South First Street to Oregon Connection/The House of Myrtlewood, started in 1929. Upon entering, I am welcomed with their customary offer of complimentary coffee or herb tea.
In 2006, the Star of Hope purchased the business to provide an additional catalyst in support of their overall mission to serve adults with developmental disabilities. Their motto is Changing Lives, One Smile at a Time.
The nonprofit organization offers their own hand woven, loomed rugs and greeting cards in the expansive myrtlewood gift shop as well as trademark gourmet fudge and the patented Wooden Touch Putters.
The myrtlewood putter is handcrafted to assure proper balance. Its design evolved through use by hundreds of golfers. The Cocobolo, a rare hardwood from Costa Rica, is added to give the striking surface the density desired for long-term use. Its believed the wooden putter provides a touch that is vital to accurate placement, explains LouAnn Dewater, manager. The old-fashioned fudge is made right here in many classic flavors, including our own cranberry walnut and vanilla-caramel-nut.
While sipping my cup of robust brew, I watch the narrative 10-minute video. Clips track the myrtlewood through various stages of production sawmill, straight-line ripsaw and chop-saw cuts before being roughed out on lathes and sent to the kilns. I then follow yellow arrows through the factory tour. Wood chips fly. Saws buzz. Pulleys whir and vibrate. Wheels whine. Its an up-close and personal perspective.
In Laurel Grove, the Woods of the West western motif and wagon wheels capture my attention. Inside, a plethora of wooden items, including myrtlewood, are manufactured for over 100 different retail stores. Owner, Tom Olive, a 62 gentle giant, was a heavy equipment operator in Grants Pass before starting his wood products business in 1987. He moved to Bandon four years ago.
When I arrive, the crew is bustling to complete a series of orders made from Alaska birch for stores in our northern-most state. Tom escorts me into the factory and towards his laser machine a sophisticated piece of $40,000 computerized, machinery that burns complex designs into wood.
We produce about 500 items in all and most of our business is wholesale, says Tom. and are the only manufacturer of myrtlewood jewelry, producing 30,000 pairs of earrings and necklaces annually.
By request, the Woods of the West crew will do laser engraving and special order key rings while you watch. Tours take approximately twenty minutes.
A half mile farther south, on the west side, Zumwalts Myrtlewood began with Al Zumwalt, a man of Swiss German heritage, in 1946. Dave and Kathy Takahashi purchased it in 2002, leaving their life as resort owners in the Sierras.
We had taken a trip to Bandon and thought it would be great to live here on the coast, and now here we are, says Kathy. Our most popular selling item is definitely bowls, and Daves specialty item is a bowl-board.
The bowl-board came from watching my vegetarian son make a salad. Hes messy, says Dave Its a round cutting board made to fit over a bowl. It has a hole cut in the top, so you can chop vegetables and push them down inside. The bowl board is also popular with anyone who has limited counter space. Motorhome owners love em.
Dave gives me the so-called nickel tour and provides brief explanations of many terms and processes such as: coring, nesting bowls, and the importance of kiln drying. He points out that myrtlewood is around 75 percent water and will not float when first cut. Its easier to work with when green, and pieces dry faster after being roughed out.
The A&T of A&T Myrtlewood, in Sixes, stands for Austins and Todds. Theyve been partners in various endeavors for more than 30 years and against the oddsremain lifelong friends. Loyd and Sandie Todd manage the business end of things allowing John and Myrna Austin the time to stretch their artistic side.
I step inside the rustic, olcountry-cabin-style store to hear a loud buzzer. Soon enough, John Austin responds and saunters in to assist me. He appears the huggable grandpa-type, soft-spoken with walking cane, thick handlebar moustache, and a stained, weathered vest.
Myrna arrives tugging on a leash. In tow comes Cody, a floppy-eared German Shepard pup with lanky legs and paws the size of ping-pong paddles.
Mixed media is an understatement here. In addition to carving myrtle and other hardwoods, the Austins craft antlers, Emu eggs, pinecones and pine needles into all sorts of one-of-a-kind creations.
All of us are good at taking care of customers and giving mini-tours. We do have a workshop to show off, not because of it being spotless and magazine perfect, but to show the wide assortment of projects in progress, says Myrna.
John writes too. Hes self-published several heart-warming books about growing up on a ranch in Idaho. Myrna is a skilled painter and loves to design Johns myrtlewood plaques and cribbage boards with her animal images. Shell even customize a piece with your pets portrait.
John and I have entered our carvings in many shows and have taken many ribbons, says Myrna. Weve never gone home without one.
Approaching Port Orford, theres no missing the bold gray, yellow and red sign on The Wooden Nickel building, in business since 1971. Several years ago, Milton Reeves bought the Nickel and moved from Las Vegas to claim the Oregon coast as his full-time home.
The Wooden Nickel distinguishes itself as the only manufacturer of myrtlewood religious ware that includes various designs of exquisite chalices, offering plates, communion trays and more. Shipments are sent all over the United States and Canada.
The religious items account for one-third of our sales, says clerk Vickie Eichelberger.
The factory is next door, and employee Rita Hunt guides me to the lacquer room. Within, orderly rows of upside-down myrtlewood goblets and crosses hang, glistening from a recent coating. The room seems to emit an ethereal glow.
My last stop is The Rogue River Myrtlewood Shop, easily spotted in Gold Beach on the ocean side of Hwy 101. Mike and Caryn Mercia purchased the business in 2004. Mike left his 15-year career with the United States Army to stay at home and raise his young family in a small-town atmosphere. For Caryn, its a return to her roots.
I enjoy learning about and building the myrtlewood business, says Mike. I especially like the wood-turning. We put a lot of energy into manufacturing bowls, cutting boards and other kitchen tools. Customers can watch us in action through the gift shops factory viewing window, or call us ahead, and well give you a more in-depth tour.
The South Coast myrtlewood factory tours are entertaining, educational and a real eye opener. Best of all, theyre FREE. Take the time and see it made for yourself.