History in the Making: Tom Shafer
BY KATY KELLEHER | PHOTOGRAPHY NICOLE WOLF
Maine Heritage Timber’s Tom Shafer dredges a northern lake for lost logs, and turns the waterlogged trunks into beautiful home furnishings
Centuries ago, Maine’s northern forests were even more wild and rugged than they are now, with old-growth woods still blanketing much of the state. Now, the natural landscape has changed dramatically. “King’s pines” are now a rarity, protected by law, and ancient spruces, pines, and firs have been replaced by younger trees seeking their own sun. Yet, even though the mighty timbers have fallen, they are not forgotten—nor are they truly lost. In fact, some of these very same trees that welcomed intrepid settlers and loggers in the 1700s can now be found in grimy piles on the floor of Maine Heritage Timber’s Millinocket headquarters. They have been cut to a standard length of four feet, but this is the only uniform thing about them. Under my hand, the waterlogged wood is springy and moist, and each piece has its own pattern of disfigurement— gauges, splinters, and knots. They bear little resemblance to the majestic green spires that populate the nearby Baxter State Park.
Inside Tom Shafer’s warehouse, this is what I see: dirty, wet, decaying logs, dredged from the bottom of the lake. But he sees opportunity, profit, and the raw materials for some beautiful home goods.
Maine Heritage Timber’s wood all comes from one place: the bottom of Quakish Lake. Sitting in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, Shafer’s business is located (in his terms) “244 miles from nowhere.” Despite the changes these woods have been through, it’s still beautiful up here. Shafer, a former specialist on the New York Stock Exchange, repeatedly calls his new life “phenomenal” and praises the isolation and natural beauty of his new home. But he doesn’t waste too much breath on platitudes or compliments. In conversation, as in life, Shafer quickly gets down to business. “Maine has this great natural resource. And it’s these working, living, and rejuvenating woods.” He adds, with a tone of pride, “And we don’t cut a single piece of wood out of them.”
Instead, Maine Heritage Timber reclaims wood that has been sitting in the mud and muck of Quakish Lake for upwards of 300 years. Shafer and his team of 13 employees use special equipment to harvest the lost timbers, which then must go through a cleaning process to loosen any rocks that have wedged their way into the pulpy wood. Designing this cleaning process—and figuring out how to bring the logs to the surface—took over three years of hard work and several million dollars.
The story of Maine Heritage Timber began in 2009, when Steve Sanders (now Shafer’s business partner) came to him with an idea. At the time, Shafer was living in an old rustic camp on an island in northern Maine. “I had been trading stocks on the floor of the Stock Exchange for 20 years,” Shafer recalls. “But technology put us out of business. I quit because I was just so disgusted with the whole thing. I wanted to go into manufacturing, for rather romantic reasons.” He was sick of dealing with theoretical money and other intangibles. But before he could embark on a new business plan, Shafer needed to clear his head. So he headed up to camp.
The camp on Lower Togue Pond has been in his family since 1908. For all his New York mannerisms—Shafer talks quite quickly and sometimes brusquely, with no hint of a Maine accent—his family has deep roots here (his great grandfather worked in the Millinocket mills years before Shafer fled to the family camp). The three months Shafer spent there would change his life. “It was tremendously cathartic. It was my time to get over myself,” he says. It was also where he met Sanders. “He had an incredible business idea,” Shafer remembers. “He just needed the money to get it going.” Shafer knew how to make money and find investors— especially for an idea so unique and a product so marketable.
The two men have spent the past six years perfecting their process, turning the hidden, waterlogged resource into something useful—beautiful, even. After lying for years under the water, the wood is no weaker than wood you might find in your local lumberyard. When it has finished drying out, it functions the same as freshly cut logs, although it looks quite different. The effects of being underwater are highly visible in each swirl of the grain. It glows with a soft patina and boasts a depth of color that would be difficult to fake. This covetable wood is now available as several different products, including stylish “rough contemporary” wall panels and flooring— examples can be seen at Bard Coffee in Portland and Rudy’s of the Cape in Cape Elizabeth—as well as a DIY-friendly line of wall decals called TimberChic. These thin panels of wood provide the look of the waterlogged lumber at a lower price point and can be easily installed by the average homeowner. Maine Heritage Timber also makes small wooden house goods, such as cutting boards and breakfast trays, and custom furniture. Shafer has a hand in designing the pieces, but he admits that he’s no carpenter. “I’m extremely proud of my coworkers here,” he says. “They exemplify what I think of as the Maine work ethic. I’m so proud of what these guys have done. I would be lost without their ingenuity.”
The fruits of their labor are visible at the Maine Heritage Timber workshop, where employees are encouraged to experiment with new designs whenever business is slow. Looking at the finished products, it becomes immediately clear why this wet wood is so valuable. Once it has been dried, sanded, and finished, the wood’s many flaws become something else entirely. Knots and holes form swirling patterns, and on some pieces, inert bacteria in the wood react with air, creating stormy blue-gray tones. There are rich caramel browns and ivory-pale panels speckled with brown knots so dark they appear almost black. “You’re seeing what time and nature gives you,” Shafer says. “There’s no rhyme or reason to most of it. You can’t pick and choose, and you don’t know what you’ll find when you pull the wood out. You have to wait and see.”
That’s part of the magic. Each piece of wood in the workshop tells a story—it reveals the history of a tree, in rings and knots, and the history of a submerged timber in patterns of decomposition. Shafer feels that the timbers are a part of Millinocket’s history, just like the mills and the mountains. “In this area, everybody’s uncle, father, brother, even some women, they all cut wood for a living,” says Shafer. “The wood we’re taking out of the lake is everyone’s heritage—every Mainer, at least.” Instead of letting it slowly melt away underwater, Shafer is working to retrieve this piece of our past and put it back into the homes and lives of Maine’s present-day residents. “What we have here is truly unique,” he says, gesturing out toward the lake with its wealth of wood just waiting to be discovered. “We’re all so fortunate. I’m fortunate. I’m just so lucky to be here, now.”