Success rarely seems swift to those who toil and struggle to follow through on a vision and a dream to make it a reality. For Steve and Renee Patten, owning and operating Pine Tree Lumber in Lempster, N.H., has been a labor of love.
The first sawmill was installed on the property by owner Ernie Johnson in the 1950s. Ernie operated the mill mainly as a hobby, sawing wood for his own use and for friends and neighbors in the area. In 1978, Doug Fournier purchased the mill and operated it for 19 years before closing and selling off all of the equipment. But less than two years later he regretted that decision and bought all “new” equipment from all over New England to rebuild the mill, which is the structure that still stands today. Steve likes to call it a “state of the art 1979 sawmill. It’s not very efficient, but it works.”
Steve Patten worked for more than 23 years as a logger before he found himself working part time for NHTOA during a difficult time for former program director Eric Johnson. Steve also worked at the sawmill for Doug Fournier during this time. When Doug passed away unexpectedly on May 16, 2016, Steve went to the mill the next morning to see what he could do to help. He advised Doug’s wife not to sell the mill immediately as Doug had indicated she should do. Steve then spent the next 18 months operating the mill, paying down the debt, and seeking a buyer. He developed a strong attachment to the mill and to the outstanding crew who stood by him and the operation during this time.
One day, during a casual conversation about the mill, a longtime friend of Steve’s from high school asked, “Why don’t you buy it?” Steve and Renee just looked at each other. After tossing the idea around, they “couldn’t come up with a reason not to try it.” Renee says that Steve knows the ins and outs of the forest industry, from logging to NHTOA. “He knows a lot of people, understands everything, and is good at it. It’d be a shame for this mill to disappear from Lempster, Sullivan County, and the forest products industry, as so many other local sawmills have and not to have these guys working.”
In the 1970s and early 1980s, the 26 miles between Newport and Keene used to be known as “sawmill alley,” with 10 mills in operation along the way. Pine Tree Lumber is the only one left.
Steve and Renee closed on the mill in June 2018. They have 50-60 suppliers, each delivering one to two loads per week from smaller, generally non-mechanized operations within a 15-mile radius of the mill. Steve says, “They seem to like what we’re doing. They can bring mixed loads, and we have a use for all of it.” Those uses include grade hardwood lumber, pallet grade, crane mats, railroad ties, custom work, and “other special projects as they come along.” There are also many niche products such as mixed, dense hardwood like beech and birch for repairing and constructing 8x8x4 cranberry baskets for Ocean Spray, and hemlock “mushroom boards” which utilize low-quality hemlock. The hemlock boards may have defects and cracks, but they provide a good medium for cultivating mushrooms on elevated floors covered in compost. The boards are replaced with each crop rotation. As Renee says, “We try to find a use for every part of the tree.” Steve and Renee enjoy this diversity in the market and feel it strongly contributes to the success of the mill. “We sell products around the world and around town,” Steve says with a smile. “We try to keep everybody happy.”
With their daughter Morgan living and attending college in Cape Cod, Mass., Renee has the time and desire to be involved as much as possible. She enjoys getting to know suppliers and customers, keeping things organized, monitoring finances, and recording the numbers when Steve is scaling wood.
Steve is proud to point out that Pine Tree Lumber is the largest year-round employer in Lempster, with a total nine employees. While the sawmill has been in operation on and off for more than 60 years, it has seen its greatest and swiftest success under the guidance of this year’s Outstanding Forest Industry Award winners, Steve and Renee Patten. Pine Tree Lumber lives up to their slogan, “The little sawmill that can.”