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Firewood Is a Family Business for Maine Couple

Wife finds running Rainier Hydraulics firewood processor is easy

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 1/7/2003


JONESPORT, Maine — Can talk of wood products kindle romance? You bet.

James and Shona Monroe were married four years ago after ‘meeting’ on the Internet. When they first started exchanging e-mail, Shona lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a region known for its wood products, particularly paper. James owned a firewood business, Monroe & Sons Firewood, so many of their initial e-mails were about trees, logging and related topics.

Shona’s father worked in a paper mill in Canada, but she had no direct experience working with wood until she married James and began helping her husband in the firewood business. She runs the Monroe & Sons firewood processor, a Rainier Hydraulics Simplex 14, also known as the Chomper.

James invested in the Rainier Hydraulics firewood processor in February 2002. (He found the machine the same way he found Shona — on the Internet.) He liked the design of the Chomper firewood processor right away. The machine is "self-contained" and "so mobile" that he can take it right into the woods, although for now the couple uses it at their home under a shelter that James built. "We’re mulling over a cutting contract," said Shona, and that would mean taking the Chomper to a job site. When James moves the Chomper around his lot, he uses a Honda Foreman four-wheel ATV.

Unlike many other firewood processing machines, the Chomper cuts the log into fireplace-length pieces with a shear blade; other machines typically rely on a chain saw or perhaps a circular saw. The shear eliminates sawdust. And it ignores mud, dirt and even embedded rocks; the blade is "self-sharpening," said James.

In fact, when they talked with TimberLine, it was the "mud season" when they get plenty of rain but the temperatures are not consistently cold enough yet for the ground to freeze hard. Their supplier was delivering logs coated with mud, which reminded James and Shona of one of the reasons why they like the Chomper. The shear is virtually impervious to mud and dirt.

The Rainier Hydraulics Simplex 14 handles logs up to 14 inches in diameter, and the Monroes’ machine is powered by a 18 hp Honda engine. (Rainier Hydraulics also makes larger, more powerful models; for example, the model 16 PDA is equipped with a 80 hp John Deere engine.)

James buys mixed hardwood logs that are delivered to his property; nearly all of them are sugar maple but he also gets some beech and ash.

The Chomper does not require a log deck or handling equipment to pick up the logs and move them onto a deck. It is equipped with a hydraulic cable winch that pulls the logs — one at a time — into the machine. James and Shona work together; he chokes the logs with the cable winch, and she operates the processor. A conveyor is used to load firewood into the delivery truck.

Monroe & Sons produces about 350 cords of firewood per year, James estimated. He delivers firewood within about a 40-mile radius of Jonesport.

Shona, who was born in Scotland, is able to cut as much as five cords per day, operating the processor about seven hours. "It’s nothing at all," she said of the effort required. "I could still go out dancing at night."

The Chomper’s speed continues to impress her. "It takes some getting used to," she said. "It’s powerful. It’s very, very powerful." In fact, an accident revealed the cutting power of the Chomper: the steel tow hitch of the couple’s pick-up truck entered the machine, and the shear of the Chomper cut it cleanly in two.

The Chomper is "very simple to operate, very efficient," said James. With "normal greasing and changing of oil," it runs long, dependable hours, he added.

Retired from the U.S. Army’s Special Forces, James had experience in logging before he started his firewood business. "I grew up in an atmosphere of logging" in northeast Maine, he explained. Born in the nearby town of Sullivan, he cut pulpwood with a chain saw for a paper company, working behind a skidder.

The inspiration for the firewood business came from James’s need to heat his own home, a log cabin. "I saw the need for a firewood vendor," he said. With a splitter and a maul, he decided to have a go at cutting and splitting firewood for sale. When he sold his first load, he used the money to buy a new splitter. When he sold the second load, he bought a new chain saw. "I just kept building," he said.

His only regret was that he did not buy the Chomper sooner. "I would have done it years ago if I’d known" how much easier it was, he said. "Doing firewood is one of the toughest jobs if you are doing it by hand."

The Chomper’s shear blade actually squeezes water out of the wood. In fact, it drives out so much water that it could be collected in a cup. Shona likened it to "ringing out" the log as though it were cloth. According to James, the firewood dries 60% faster than if it were cut up with a chain saw. Some firewood is sold seasoned, and the water that is removed as the wood is cut by the Chomper helps to speed the drying process.

The small scrap pieces generated from bucking go to customers who use it for kindling. James gives away bark to neighbors who want it for mulching gardens or filling in driveways.

When James started his firewood business, his two older sons worked with him. They later began working on fishing boats. His youngest son, Michael, 17, works for James part-time.

Jonesport is a fishing village of about 1,500 residents. It is within Washington County, the northeastern-most county of Maine, or Downeast, as it also known. Washington County is a leading producer of wild blueberries, and its coast line supports lobsters and other fisheries.

Jonesport and other coastal communities also draw tourists and vacationers in the summer, and they prompted Shona to start a separate business — called the Wood Elf — a year ago. Summer neighbors wanted to buy some pieces of white birch wood to take back to New York and put alongside their fireplace. They asked Shona for help. When she realized people would pay for decorative bundles of birch, Shona started selling them, and making centerpieces and other crafts from birch. She markets the enterprise and its products through a Web site, www.birchgifts.com.

Self-described "homebodies" who like to spend the evening reading or playing on the computer, the Monroes have five cats, two dogs, a lot of chickens — Shona sells eggs, too — and four goats.

James and Shona enjoy getting away in the summer in their 12-foot slide-in camper, which they transport on the back of their Ford F-350 pick-up truck.

They have enjoyed the firewood business because they can "see what you accomplished" at the end of the day, said Shona. "It keeps us busy," she added. "We get our own firewood. We serve a need."




 






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