Collaborative Craftsman: Nate Holyoke
Nate Holyoke builds high-end homes, and a name for himself.
Nate Holyoke Builders is headquartered in Bucksport, near Dedham, on land that has belonged to Holyoke’s family for generations. Down the road from the offices, wood shop, and timber-frame shop is the house where Holyoke grew up, where one of his brothers now lives. Northeast along Route 46 is his aunt’s house, which he is currently renovating, and a stone’s throw from this dwelling is the one he shares with his wife, Olivia Holyoke, and their three ponies—a newly built timber frame perched on the side of a hill overlooking the blue-green swells of Hancock County. His other two brothers also live nearby, as well as his grandfather Pete Holyoke and his great-uncle Owen “Bud” Young and other relations I lose track of on the story-filled drive through his home land (because “town” would be an overstatement) last May.
En route to Mount Desert Island, Holyoke and I pull up to Uncle Bud’s house and find the 86-year-old tending to his tractor. “We’re getting interviewed,” Holyoke calls out to Bud through the open window of his truck. Bud sets down funnel and fluid and makes his way over to us. “They’re doing a profile on us,” Holyoke repeats. I can’t help but notice and enjoy his use of the plural; any story about Nate Holyoke must be, in a way, a story about his people.
Bud kindly shakes my hand, but it is clear he has more important things to worry about than a magazine profile. “Getting ready to cut some firewood,” Bud tells us. “Didn’t do it earlier, there was too much snow. Everybody else has got theirs done.” As we pull away, Holyoke informs me that Bud lost a thumb chopping wood a few years ago. As if that would stop him. Holyoke grew up admiring hardworking, self-sufficient Maine men like Bud and Pete, who co-owned a foundation company for years. As a boy, he watched them make something out of nothing over and over again.
Holyoke can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a builder. And running his own business? “Well,” he tells me offhandedly, “it’s sort of a family tradition.” There are photographs of Holyoke at age six building treehouses. He remembers pounding 100 nails into a railroad tie to learn how to keep from bending a nail.
“We were outside constantly,” Holyoke tells me about growing up in Bucksport with three older brothers. “And if there was someone on the Big Wheel going down over the hill first it was going to be me. Or my brothers would take the training wheels off the bike the second I got it and push me over the hill. You really didn’t have a whole lot of options but to make something work.” We laugh that this trial-by-error upbringing might have something to do with his entrepreneurial inclinations.
In his early teens, Holyoke started working for a company out of Bangor. He’d get out of Brewer High School early and spend his afternoons remodeling fixer-uppers. There were no plans—it was more or less up to him and his colleague to remodel the homes as they saw fit, and he learned a lot working on such varied and challenging projects. After that, Holyoke worked as a subcontractor building high-end homes on nearby Mount Desert Island. In 2004, 20 years old with several years’ worth of experience under his tool belt, he started his own business. Holyoke gathered a small but talented crew of people who, like himself, were all about creativity and craftsmanship.
For a little while, it was touch and go for the team. Then, Nate Holyoke Builders got a subcontracting job on a dynamic home building project that allowed them to showcase what they could do. This project represents a turning point in his career. The crew, led by Holyoke, became known for its breadth and depth of skill and ingenuity. Important Maine architects and builders were impressed with their work, and the jobs started coming in.
And not just any jobs. Holyoke learned in these budding years that there were people willing to pay for quality; as a result, over the years he has collaborated with many artistically oriented, creative-minded homeowners on custom homes ranging from contemporary to classic shingle-style, from several hundred square feet to several thousand. Regardless of size or style, Holyoke is all about integrity and will—for the fun of it—pounce on any opportunity to be creative, often designing and building custom furniture for clients or collaborating with landscape architects like Todd Richardson, who shares his interest in utilizing natural materials in surprising ways.
At 31, Holyoke employs a team of about 40 and heads one of the most highly regarded building companies in the state. Portland-based architect Will Winkelman, who has worked with confidently soft-spoken Holyoke for over a decade, confirms my impression of Holyoke as a man who makes the most of every situation he finds himself in, who chooses to see the best in those around him. This is apparent to me in the way he talks about his coworkers and his management style. Introducing me to everyone in his office, in the wood shop, in the panel shop in Trenton, and those we come across at the various job sites we visit, Holyoke speaks with knowledge, admiration, and specificity about what each person brings to the team. From the beginning, he was set on hiring “the best”—a strategy that panned out well for the young entrepreneur in the end.
“Being open to these guys’ ideas—letting them run with them—and surrounding myself with people this talented has been amazing,” Holyoke tells me. “We’ve got to make money and feed people, but to me it’s always been important that we’re doing things we all believe in. I don’t want to be the richest guy. I want to be the guy who’s building the best quality houses.”
“I can find no better builder or better person to work with,” Winkelman told me recently. “Nate’s cup is more than half full, for sure, and it shows in his way of proactively offering solutions whenever he encounters a problem. This is the sign of a truly collaborative builder.” Winkelman added, “His love of craft gets him—gets us—into all sorts of very good trouble.”
This “trouble” comes in the form of bright ideas that are not easy to pull off—because where’s the fun in that? The results are beautiful and original, like the custom-built spiral staircase he shows me a picture of on his iPhone, made of hand-picked materials from the woods surrounding his office, the same land Holyoke built treehouses on as a boy. Both literally and figuratively, Holyoke is hardly removed from the Maine-born-and-bred baby brother hammering nails into a railroad tie. He still enjoys building more than anything. His family lives nearby, and this proximity is important to him. It helps him stay who he is, and to remember what matters. “Bigger isn’t always better,” Holyoke says during our drive from Mount Desert Island back to Bucksport. “It can be easy to forget that, and it’s important not to.”