SWEET HOME — It wasn’t that long ago that nearly every piece of lumber needed to construct a house was manufactured in or near Sweet Home, including cedar shingles, plywood, particle board and dimensional lumber.
But over the past 25 years, the number of mills and wood products jobs in the community of 9,000 has dwindled. There have been far more newspaper stories about mill closures than openings.
That is, until two weeks ago, when Scott and Valerie McCool and their son, Mike, opened McCool Millworks at the former Overhead Door company site on Highway 20 in the heart of town.
The 16-year-old business, which crafts custom wood moldings, moved from Goshen and expects to employ up to 25 people within a year.
“My great-great-great-grandfather handmade custom moldings,” Scott McCool said. “I’ve been involved in this type of work all of my life.”
The elder McCool, 64, said he moved around a bit growing up, but considers Prineville his hometown.
“We followed the work and we ended up in Lakeview, Oregon and Northern California,” he said. “My dad started Eagle Moulding Company in Yuba City. My brother, Kevin, runs it today.”
Scott McCool enrolled at Oregon State after graduating from Placer High School in Auburn, California, and spent a couple years there before enlisting in the Air Force.
He spent a dozen or so years in the family business in Yuba City before returning to Prineville to work for another molding company.
“Then, I had a unique opportunity to work in China, to set up a molding company and mill,” he said. “We were there from 1997 to about 2000. It was a great experience, a completely different culture.”
He was accustomed to living in small Oregon and California towns. But in China he lived and worked in a seaport city of more than 3 million residents.
McCool said he helped train about 600 people to work at the business.
Upon returning to the U.S., he worked in a wood products sales position in Seattle and quickly learned he is more comfortable making sawdust than making sales calls.
“That’s when we moved to the Eugene area to help close down a bankrupt molding company called Cascade Pacific,” he said.
While doing that, the family set up a small hobby milling business at their home.
“We were in Goshen, south of Eugene and it just took off,” McCool said. “We went from making a pickup load of stuff to employing up to 16 people before the recession hit.”
Over time the company expanded its product lines to include custom flooring and paneling. Much of their handiwork can be found in airports.
“We are definitely a niche company,” McCool said. “All of our products are custom. Our clients send raw wood products to us and we make whatever they need from it.”
According to McCool, the company can handle moldings up to eight inches wide and four inches thick.
“We only use solid wood materials and we can make virtually anything our clients need,” he said.
He also said the company moved from Goshen because a new owner purchased their leased factory space, and rent was going to increase markedly.
While visiting family in the Foster area, the McCools noticed the 5-acre former Smurfit and Overhead Door complex was empty and for sale.
“I plan to retire in a few years, so we wanted to find a place to stay after retirement,” he said. “This is a beautiful area. I envision being able to put my boat in the river someday after I retire and do some fishing.”
Mike McCool said the family is “in it for the long haul.”
Although operational, the McCools say they have a lot of work to do before they’re fully up and running, including adding more millwork lines.
The new complex offers more than 81,000 square feet of work space, including ample storage areas.
“We want to take our time and do things right,” Scott McCool said. “There’s no sense getting in a hurry and then having to move everything in a year.”
He said the company wants to be good neighbors and in addition to installing equipment from its Goshen facility, has added another $160,000 in air handling equipment.
The McCools have a three-year plan to develop the plant.
“We wanted to get open and get some cash flow going,” Scott said. “Our clients have been very supportive and understanding. Basically, we’ve been offline for nearly two months.”
The McCools hope to employ about 16 people by summer and up to 25 people by next year. Wages start at about $11.50 per hour and go up to as much as $20 per hour.
“You wouldn’t think that moving 45 miles up the road would be a big issue, but it’s been a challenge,” Scott McCool said. “We had to do a lot of work to get the building functional. We had to install a new water main and there were major electrical issues and roofing problems.”
He also said the city of Sweet Home and Linn County have been excellent to work with and extremely supportive.
“Norm’s Electric from Brownsville has been great to work with,” he said. “Mike and I have been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week. We were just talking that it’s about time to take a little break.”
The company works primarily with six to eight major clients and the average order is about 50,000 to 60,000 linear feet of custom materials.
“We will run anything from 50 pieces to up to 200,000 linear feet,” Scott said.
Like other businesses, he added, the company “had to get really lean and mean during the recession, but fortunately we came out of it intact. Several other companies we know of didn’t make it.”
He said several of the company’s employees have been with him for six years or more. They are currently commuting from their homes in the Eugene/Goshen area.
“We live in Eugene, but we are planning to relocate here,” Scott McCool said. “We like the country life. We would like to find a place on the river.”
Mike McCool and his wife Colette have lived in Albany for four years. He said Sweet Home offered the family business “labor, land and capital.”
“We wanted to move out of Lane County. It’s not business-friendly at all,” Scott McCool said.
Although McCool Millworks products aren’t meant for local commercial sales, the elder McCool said the company wants to become involved in the community.
“We hosted a small, open-house like event before we started moving things into the buildings and we have already joined the chamber of commerce,” he said.
McCool said one of his clients is currently repurposing old wooden beams from an historic bridge to remodel portions of the Sacramento International Airport.
“Our customers are great, they often send us photos of the products we made for them after they have been installed,” he said. “We really enjoy seeing that.”
This past week, McCool Millworks employees were turning stacks of Alaskan yellow cedar into custom floor deckings. The most common wood species are Douglas fir, pine, hemlock western and red cedar.
“These will end up in the San Francisco Bay area,” McCool said. “It is used for decking on outside porches because it withstands the weather well.”
McCool said once the plant is fully operational, his crew will be working on as many as three to four orders at a time.
McCool said taking a “rough piece of lumber and turning it into a quality, high-end finished product,” is extremely gratifying.
“We take great pride in what we do,” McCool said. “We know our products are used for finish work in everything from historic houses to office complexes.”
The company is taking advantage of the community Enterprise Zone program, which provides tax exemptions for up to three years.