See it made

Between Florence and Gold Beach, nine myrtlewood factories create their own products.

Story by Laurel Gerkman

MYRTLEWOOD TREES DOT the landscape in only three southwestern Oregon counties. This often multi-trunked, 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.

As far back as the late 1800s, a cottage industry of handcrafted gifts began along the South Coast. These items gained a reputation
as treasured souvenirs due to the myrtlewood’s unique features and limited availability.

Nowadays, dozens of imaginative artisans continue to produce a range of items, from bowls to intricate trinket boxes to lamp-size lighthouses. To fully appreciate the complexities of both the wood and workmanship, take a factory tour. The tours are entertaining, educational, and free.

1 Lakeshore Myrtlewood

Five miles south of Florence is the buttercup yellow sign of 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.

Myrtlewood Factory
Michael Merica turning a myrtlewood bowl.

“Lakeshore Myrtlewood has a 50-year reputation for quality merchandise,” says Dave. “And it’s our desire to carry on that tradition.”

Dave has designed a unique and exquisite line of myrtlewood lighthouses com-plete with a beacon that appears to be rotating—no two are alike. I find him at his workbench inserting tiny electronics into a tower with the skill of a surgeon. To date, he has sold more than 2400. (541-997-8563; www.lakeshoremyrtlewood.com)

2 The Myrtlewood gallery

Kiln at Zumwalt’s. In Reedsport, The Myrtlewood Gallery’s whimsical collection takes me by surprise. More than 80 Northwest fine art woodworkers are represented here. It’s a jaw-dropping display of extraordinary masterpieces born frommyrtlewood and other unusual trees such as madrone,cascara, and monkey-puzzle. These are the creations of visionary artists.

The Mast family is in their twenty-second year of operation.

“We’re definitely a mom-and-pop shop,” says Sharon. “I’m the business component, and my husband, Gareth, is our wood expert and compulsive wood collector. Both our sons, Jon and Jason, are talented artists.”
Gareth points through a door at several carvings of adorable bear cubs—outfitted with safely glasses and hardhats—that hold the interpretive signs for the self-guided myrtlewood factory tour.

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 block of wood changes into an elegant vase before our eyes.
(877-MYRTLE3; www.myrtlewoodgallery.com)

3 Myrtlewood Factory Showroom, Inc

The Myrtlewood Factory Showroom, Inc. is 20 minutes past Reedsport at the corner of Hauser Depot Road. At one time, the factory site dominated 17 acres as the oldest, largest myrtlewood manufacturer in the world. In 1982, the company coined its popular logo “The Real Oregon Gift,” and it stuck.

Today, it’s a smaller operation, but six woodworkers stay busy in this barn-sized myrtlewood factory. The gift shop dis-plays a wide variety of finished products. There is also a large “Hobby Room” with raw wood and unfinished turned pieces for do-it-yourselfers.

“Our myrtlewood specialties are cutting boards, wine bottle holders, and quilt and entertainment racks. We use local artisans for other items such as hand-made clocks,” says manager Pam Tonnemacher. “Tours will soon include a video illustrating various steps in production. A museum is also in the works, where 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.”

In response to the increasing popularity of the neighboring Oregon Dunes National Recreation area, John Byrne, present owner, added RV parking, ATV rentals, and an off-road accessories shop. (541-756-2220; www.realoregongift.com)

4 Oregon Connection/The House of Myrtlewood

After passing through Coos Bay, I take a right on South First Street to Oregon Connection/The House of Myrtlewood, which has been in business since 1929. Upon entering, I am welcomed with 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.

The nonprofit organization offers their own hand-woven, loomed rugs and greeting cards in the expansive myrtlewood gift shop, as well as trademark patented “Wooden Touch Putters.”

“The myrtlewood putter is hand-crafted to assure proper balance. Its design evolved through use by hundreds of golfers,” explains LouAnn Dewater, manager. “It’s believed the wooden putter provides a touch that is vital to accurate placement.”

While sipping my brew, I watch a 10-minute video track the myrtlewood through various stages of production. I then follow yellow arrows through the factory. Wood chips fly. Saws buzz. Pulleys whir and vibrate. Wheels whine. It’s an up-close and personal perspective. (800-255-5318/541-267-7804; www.oregonconnection.com)

5 Woods of the West

In Laurel Grove, south of Bandon, the Woods of the West western motif and wagon wheels capture my attention. Inside, a plethora of wooden items, including myrtlewood, are manufactured for more than 100 different retail stores. Owner Tom Olive was a heavy equipment operator in Grants Pass before starting his Myrtlewood earrings  from Woods of the West. 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. 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. “We produce 30,000 pairs of myrtlewood earrings and necklaces annually.”

By request, the Woods of the West crew will do laser engraving and special order key rings while you watch. (541-347-9915; www.woodsofthewest.com)

6 Zumwalt’s Myrtlewood

A half-mile farther south is Zumwalt’s Myrtlewood, which began in 1946 with Al Zumwalt—a man of Swiss German heritage. Dave and Kathy Takahashi purchased the business in 2002, leaving their life as resort owners in California.

“We’d once taken a trip to Bandon and thought it would be great to live here on the coast, and now here we are,” says Kathy.

Dave gives me the “nickel tour” and points out that myrtlewood is easier to work with when green and pieces dry faster after being roughed out.

“Our most popular selling items are definitely bowls,” says Kathy. “And Dave’s specialty is a bowl-board.”

“The bowl-board came from watching my vegetarian son make a salad. He’s messy,” says Dave. “It’s 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.” (541-347-3054; www.zumwaltsmyrtlewood.com)

amazing facts

On May 10, 1869, at a ceremony joining the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, Governor Stanford of California tapped the golden spike into a polished myrtlewood tie.

On May 10, 1869, at a ceremony joining the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railways, Governor Stanford of California tapped the golden spike into a polished myrtle-wood tie.

• During the Great Depression, North Bend issued myrtlewood script, after the only bank in town failed. These coins ranged from 50 cents to $10.

For years, the Chase Manhattan Bank displayed a complete set of these coins, which punctuated a unique occasion in United States economic history.

• The myrtlewood tree grows slowly. It takes 100 to 150 years to grow a 14-to-16-inch diameter log.

• Myrtlewood’s harder than oak, black walnut, or hardrock maple.

7 A&T Myrtlewood

The A&T of A&T Myrtlewood in Sixes stands for Austins and Todds. They’ve been partners in various endeavors for more than 40 years and—against all odds—remain 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, ol’country-cabin-style store and hear a loud buzzer. Soon enough, John Austin responds and saunters in to assist me. Myrna arrives tugging on a leash. In tow comes Cody, a German shepherd pup.

In addition to carving myrtle and other hardwoods, the Austins craft antlers, emu and ostrich 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,” says Myrna. “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.”

Myrna, a skilled painter, loves to design John’s myrtlewood plaques and cribbage boards with her animal images. She’ll even customize a piece with a pet’s portrait. (541-348-2586; www.aandtmyrtlewood.com)

8 The Wooden Nickel

Approaching Port Orford, there’s no missing the bold gray, yellow, and red sign on The Wooden Nickel, which has been in business since 1971. Several years ago, Milton Reeves became the owner after moving here from Las Vegas.

The Nickel distinguishes itself as the only manufacturer of myrtlewood religious ware with a product line that includes exquisite chalices, offering plates, communion trays, and more.

“The religious items account for one-third of our sales,” says Vickie Eichelberger in the gift shop. “The other two-thirds include bowls, trinket boxes, bud vases, kitchen ware, and clocks. We also do free-form cutting boards.”

Rita Hunt, in the factory next door, guides me to the lacquer room, where orderly rows of upside-down myrtlewood goblets and crosses hang, glistening from a recent coating. The room seems to emit an ethereal glow. (866-377-5201; www.oregonmyrtlewood.com)

9 Rogue River Myrtlewood Factory & Gift Shop

Myrna Austin painting animal images on a myrtlewood cribbage board.My last stop is the Rogue River Myrtlewood Factory & Gift Shop, easily spotted in Gold Beach on the ocean side of Hwy 101. Mike and Caryn Merica purchased the business in 2004. Mike left his 15-year career with the U.S. Army to raise his family in a small-town atmosphere. For Caryn, it’s a return to her roots.

“I enjoy learning about and building the myrtlewood business, and I especially like the wood-turning,” says Dave. “We put a lot of energy into manufacturing bowls, cutting boards, and kitchen tools. Customers can watch us in action through the gift shop’s factory viewing window, or call ahead, and we’ll give a more in-depth tour.”

He adds, “Rogue River Myrtlewood continues to make traditional favorites, and in 2008, the businesses celebrates its 60th year.” (541-247-2332; www.oregoncoastproducts.com)

Oregon Coast July/August 2007

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