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'Where I Want To Be': Reflecting On 45 Years At The Sawmill

A woman stands next to a carved lumberjack.
Erica Heilman
Colleen Goodridge began Goodridge Lumber with her husband 45 years ago when they dragged a $500 run-down saw over Albany Mountain, on a wagon with flat tires, in mud season.

Goodridge Lumber is a family-run sawmill located in Albany, Vermont, in the heart of the Northeast Kingdom. In the last 25 years, nearly 150 of the state's sawmills have gone out of business according to the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

But Goodridge Lumber, which specializes in locally harvested white cedar, is still going strong. Erica Heilman stopped by to talk with owner Colleen Goodridge. 

It started with a $500 run-down saw that Colleen and her husband, Donley, dragged over Albany Mountain, on a wagon with two flat tires, in mud season. And 45 years later, Colleen Goodridge is still running Goodridge Lumber, along with her three sons, Doug, Mark and Brian. I sat with Colleen in her office near a big woodstove, with about 16 pairs of work boots lined up on the hearth. She talked about what she loves about this life as well as her fears for the future of the forest industry in Vermont.  

"We are a special kind of breed, those of us that work the forest. We like a hard day's work and go to bed. We don't go to meetings very much and we don't toot our horn too much about what we do." — Colleen Goodridge, Goodridge Lumber owner

Colleen: “We are a special kind of breed, those of us that work the forest. We like a hard day’s work and go to bed. We don’t go to meetings very much and we don’t toot our horn too much about what we do. And that may have backfired on us, because while people are moving away to more urban areas and we’re doing our thing, there has become a disconnect of, when I see that big log truck going down the road, that does not mean the landscape has been raped.

Colleen continued: “And I think we have to do a better job helping people understand, this landowner has a forest management plan, it was ready for harvest, they’re going to take that load of logs and it’s going to help sustain that family, along with the others that have taken part in the harvest. And to realize all the values that all of us, wherever we live in Vermont, experience: the clean water, the clean air, our maple syrup industry, our Christmas tree business. Recreation is another big thing. Forest management and recreation go hand in hand. We talk about deer hunting, wildlife habitat — if there isn’t food for the wildlife, they’re going to be gone. So we just need to make sure that people know that even though the silent people have been quietly doing their work, they are needed. 

A lumber yard.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Colleen Goodridge thinks foresters could do a better job educating the public about their role in maintaining Vermont's natural resources.

Colleen continued: “We have experienced generations of our families in this line of work. We don’t use the crosscut saw anymore, and the team of horses. But you still have that desire to go out, see a nice cut, maybe go back in 15 years and do it again. There have been decades and generations of families committed to working the land, and unless they are accepted, appreciated, valued and supported, they will not exist.”

On the sawmill floor, the grind of the saw is deafening. Colleen shouts over it all her praises for what she calls a “nice board.”

Colleen: “This is what money can’t buy, is to look at a nice board like this.” 

Colleen continued: “We saw year round. As you’ll notice, it’s quite an open building. We will saw down to 20 below zero. Everybody moves just a little faster and puts a few more clothes on.”

Me: “What are you most afraid of?”  

"I wish that we had more sawmills in Vermont. And providing a market that was close to the source." — Colleen Goodridge, Goodridge Lumber owner

Colleen: “I wish that we had more sawmills in Vermont. And providing a market that was close to the source. That’s another thing: we talk about emissions and climate change and everything else. If we can have our markets closer, we can be more efficient in our trucking and transporting. I think there’s only been two mills permitted since 1974 that I know of. That might not be absolute.”

Me: “Why — why — have we lost all our mills?” 

Colleen: “Well, I can tell you that Act 250, which was in 1970, that was enacted to protect the environment and promote economic prosperity. I think we needed to do a better job protecting our environment. I think we’re working well on that. But I think that in the forestry business, I see that we have been hampered by regulation. “ 

Me: “Is this an uphill climb everyday, doing what you do?” 

Colleen: “I am more concerned as we go forward in our 46th year ... the loggers that I see that are retiring or downsizing, the truckers that I see that are retiring. The landowners that I’m seeing that are having to make choices about their land against their heart because of economic challenges. The students come here, especially the high school students looking for careers, and a part of me is saying, ‘Am I encouraging them to get into a business where they can’t make a living?’ I’m really torn there.”  

When the saw is off at Goodridge Lumber, it’s quiet, quiet enough to hear the crickets chirping all around us.

A lumber yard.
Credit Erica Heilman / VPR
Harvesting trees is like any other agriculture according to Colleen Goodridge, in that it brings you close to nature.

Colleen: “Farming, whatever you’re farming, whether it’s hay, whether it’s trees, you’re very connected to nature and to the landscape. From seeing the first tree bud in the spring, and the different greens on the hillside, to now we’re seeing a change in the seasons and the colors, we know what’s coming up, we’ve got shorter days.”

Colleen continued:  “I always told the boys when it’s my time, I’m going to go sit on the log pile up in back in peace and quiet and go to my next place. That’s where I want to be.” 

Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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