"Here's a cool thing. I just figured it out," confides Eric Hollenbeck, sitting on a worn chair next to a scavenged 1960s Double Star potbelly stove. "You know that saying, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger?' Well, what does that mean?" He coughs a deep, smoky cough and continues. "Does it make you physically tougher? Well, that could be part of it. Does it make you wiser? Well, that could be another part of it. But I think it gives you empathy and therein lies your strength." He pulls apart his pipe and scrapes it clean with a pocketknife. "It's when you can really understand somebody else because you've walked the same path.
Back in 1973, Hollenbeck bought a piece of derelict property on Humboldt Bay with a $300 bank loan and a leap of faith from the local building department. Over the years, Blue Ox Mill and Historic Park has evolved from a salvage logging company to encompass a full production millworks shop, smithy, foundry, apothecary, print shop, ceramics, stained glass and fabrics studio, working history museum, high school, veteran's program, radio station and a nonprofit organization.
One of only eight remaining Victorian mills in the country, Hollenbeck says it's the most complete job shop in the United States. While other mills have specialized, Blue Ox still does it all. Hollenbeck's high-end, historic reproductions can be found in mansions, museums and churches in every state of the union — everywhere from the White House to the Mascot Saloon in Skagway, Alaska. His list of accomplishments is 44 years long. "If you're in the business," says Hollenbeck, "you know Blue Ox."
This self-taught, multidisciplinary craftsman is a master of many trades. But at 69, Hollenbeck is at a point in life where he doesn't just want to talk about what he does. He wants to tell the story of why he does it. And it all comes down to the boots he's walked in.
A Eureka boy, Hollenbeck dropped out of school at 14 and went to work in the woods. Called up for the draft at 18, he spent seven and a half straight months on the frontlines. "I was in the heaviest combat in Vietnam at 19 years old," he says. "We were in the jungle the whole time." He pulls out a picture taken by AP photographer Art Greenspon. It's one of the most wrenching, iconic war photos of our time, "See that antenna?" Hollenbeck runs a calloused finger across the black and white image, "That's me. I was the radio man."
Discharged early because his father died, Hollenbeck was suddenly sole provider for his mom and younger brother. He says the transition was rough. Within 72 hours of being pulled out of enemy fire in the jungle, Hollenbeck found himself standing in his mother's kitchen, his interior landscape — his life — forever changed.
"I got home Saturday night and went back to work in the woods at five o'clock Monday morning for the same company I worked for before I left." He tried college, but says the chasm was too great. He had seen and done things his fellow classmates could never comprehend, and after a few years back at work, he had a meltdown.
"We didn't know anything about shellshock back then. I always thought it was just me." Now, Hollenbeck reckons the Native Americans had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) pegged. "They knew it took a year to train a villager to become a warrior," he explains. "They also knew it took a year to train a warrior to become a villager again."
In the decades since his return from Vietnam, Hollenbeck has fought to resurrect his identity. "I'm a craftsman," he attests, "But you can't never replace the soldier. It's burned in there." With this perspective, Hollenbeck started a program at Blue Ox in 2014 to help fellow veterans redefine themselves in the wake of coming home from war. Hollenbeck says returning vets have one job: to find a new identity. He aims to facilitate that process by teaching them to build something they can hold up to the world at large and say: "That's me. I did that. That's what I do."
There is parallel work afoot in the Blue Ox Community High School, an alternative school for at-risk teens Hollenbeck and his wife Viviana run in conjunction with the Humboldt County Office of Education. Hollenbeck says he is particularly well suited for working with these students. "Because I'm one of those kids that quit school. I can work with them because I understand them. I've got empathy for them." He exhales a plume of sweet tobacco smoke. "I couldn't read. That's why I left school. They kept telling me I was stupid."
Hollenbeck goes quiet, an old clock bongs heavily from somewhere in the cavernous building. He shoves a cat off his chair and chuckles, "People dump 'em off thinking they're going to go wild, and 'go wild' means waiting for Eric to open the cat food can." He puts his hands on his knees and stands up. "Lemme show you this."
Outside next to the lath house stands an enormous slice of the Fieldbrook Giant, a locally famous redwood tree. Hollenbeck has made little metal pegs and set them along the wobbly growth rings at every 25 years. He runs his hand across the wood surface, counting to himself, and holds a finger to it just a tiny fraction of the way across. "Right there. The United States of America became a country." He gestures toward the center of the massive tree, "On back a whole lot of stuff happened." It is humbling to consider all of the years that came before. "That's why you have to treat the wood with respect and make something that will last." Hollenbeck aims to instill this reverence for wood in his students and veteran apprentices. He believes that in building projects that endure, we will find sustainability.
In an effort to keep the trades alive, Hollenbeck teaches traditional skills like woodworking and blacksmithing. He says these technologies took thousands of years to develop and we need to hold on to them. "There may come a day when we want to back up off the limb we're going down." he muses.
The family of machines at Blue Ox dates from 1866 to 1948. A self-proclaimed "gyppo" (the old-school slang for independent lumberjacks), Hollenbeck has pulled most of the antique machinery out of blackberry bushes and from abandoned sawmills. "I got all the old junk nobody wants," he says with a laugh. He figures out how to fix them and builds what he needs to maintain them — hence the foundry and blacksmith shop. This fierce self-sufficiency was borne from necessity. "Growing up, we didn't have any money," Hollenbeck explains. "In the jungle, there was no help."
Hollenbeck is philosophical, funny, a great storyteller and, despite what they told him as a kid, he's smart. He's also a poet. Speaking into a cassette player, he wrestled his experiences as a young soldier into a series of poems titled Uncle Sam's Field Guide to Southeast Asia. When Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theater Company was performing at Blue Ox recently, Hollenbeck shared what he wrote with the crew. The poems travelled back to Los Angeles and are currently being used as the framework for a theatrical production. The Veterans' Monologues Project will incorporate story circles with both actors and veterans, and is set to launch in February of 2018. The show will come through Eureka on its nationwide tour.
In the end, Hollenbeck says he's not proud of what he did in Vietnam. Instead, he's proud of what he and his platoon endured. The work behind his work is coming to terms with why he made it out of Vietnam when so many others didn't. He explains, "For 44 years, I built all of this and worked seven days a week to not have to think. But it doesn't matter how far or how fast I've run; that damned shadow is right there." In teaching others who have endured a similar journey, Hollenbeck has found solace, and maybe even an answer to why he survived. In turn, the veterans and teens who work alongside him experience the power of creating something with their own two hands. In that, there is healing. For everyone.
- Photo by León Villagómez
You can visit the working museum at Blue Ox Millworks and Historic Park, and meet Eric Hollenbeck and Viviana, his wife of 40 years. The Hollenbecks welcome over 10,000 visitors to Blue Ox every year. Group and self-guided tours are available. Check their website for tour and workshop times.