Branching out: Friends stick with what they know best to grow Buffalo Coulee sawmill business
CUMMINGS, N.D.—Matt Weaver fired up a small propane heater, but it did little to warm the inside of the wide-open Quonset as he and business partner Jared Johnson heaved the last of their hefty wood goods into the trailer.
It was not a good day for outdoor chores, but the longtime certified arborists and seedling sawyers had work to do. As the new owners of Buffalo Coulee Wood Products, the pair needed to haul a load of live-edge wood and 100-year-old barn posts to the Alerus Center for a three-day Grand Forks Men's Show.
Though they officially started their business in November, they learned early it pays to be prepared.
After they borrowed a friend's truck and 28-foot-trailer to haul home their first load of logs from a Kansas supplier, they said 75 percent of the wood sold within just four weeks.
"Jared put in a post on Facebook, and it blew me away how much interest there was," Weaver said.
"It's the live-edge slabs," Johnson added. "They've been popular for hundreds of years but, for some reason, with the whole rustic, natural look, it's the biggest thing going right now."
The men say they constantly hear customers talk about ideas they spotted on Pinterest, and they agree social media is doing a lot to drive the market.
For them, though, Pinterest has nothing to do with their passion for the natural beauty and grain in wood. They carry 20 different species, including everything from walnut, red cedar, cypress and sycamore to oak, hackberry and osage orange.
With Ronnie Milsap belting out "Smoky Mountain Rain" from a nearby portable speaker, Johnson picked up a board and admired the unique striations created by the boring ambrosia beetle.
"That's the coolest thing about sawing. You never know what's going to be in there," he said.
"It's like Christmas morning," Weaver added. "You pick up a log, and you think it's going to be worthless, but you open it up and it's just beautiful. You never know what kind of colors you're going to get inside. That one box (elder) over there had purple in it."
Stacks of live-edge wood—with the bark and natural shape of the tree still intact—are piled on planks everywhere. Two large pieces of book-match cypress stood against one wall, and two more giant slab oak pieces covered the floor nearby. Made into a table, a single slab might seat 18 for Thanksgiving dinner, plus negate the need for "the kids table."
Johnson waved his hand and laughed: "Those stupid oak ones over there are 1,000 pounds apiece."
Then pausing for effect, Weaver added: "That we had to have."
The slabs can be especially beautiful and valuable.
"With rough lumber, they oftentimes will grade it for imperfections, but with the slab, it's all or nothing," Johnson said. "You get the whole deal—imperfections, knots, bug holes and rot—so it adds character to the whole piece."
And it's that character most people want.
"The other thing is it's always going to be one of a kind," Weaver said.
Built to last
Many of Buffalo Coulee's customers are hobbyists who buy the wood to create built-to-last tables, bar tops, mantels and shelving.
And still others are attracted to it just for the pure appeal as conversation pieces. A table off to one side of the building holds an assortment of oddities—twisted branches, gnarled elm burls and platter cuts.
"People just go crazy for this stuff," Johnson said.
Clearly, the arborists do, too. They say they both grew up loving the outdoors and riding 4-wheelers through the trees. Johnson later earned degrees in greenhouse management and horticulture. Weaver earned his degree in wildlife management.
So, it's no wonder when it came time to give their business a name, they would settle on something planted in nature.
"We couldn't really think of anything at first, but then Matt said the Buffalo Coulee runs north of his house," Johnson said.
Buffalo Coulee Wood Products. That had to be it. It says it all. It's fitting for its sense of home and land. And it's reflective of history and the heart.
"My grandma was from Abilene, Kan., and they would have the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo every year," Johnson recalled. "When we were kids, my grandma made us pearl button cowboy shirts every year, and we'd go to Vanderbilts to get our new cowboy boots for the rodeo.
"We're both really into the Old West, so the whole buffalo thing is something we appreciated all of our lives."
On the grow
So far, Weaver and Johnson said their business is off to a great start. They have a smaller, portable sawmill, but the super sawmill they ordered online stands outside. It's supposed to be portable, too, but that's only if you have a crane to move it.
Both men said they are longing for warmer weather when they can do more custom work and spend more time at the mill.
"In the summer, I can come out after work and saw for hours," Weaver said. "Living out here (in North Dakota), trees are a rare commodity, so when you have them, you have to enjoy them."
The partners both work regular full-time jobs but say they easily average another 12 hours apiece each week at the shop at Weaver's home in rural Cummings. Johnson lives in Grand Forks.
They usually hold "open house" Saturdays at the sawmill and take appointments by request. People interested in learning more can call (218) 791-1927.