By Jack Petree and Chase Warner, Wood-Mizer Contributing Authors
Rescuing historically significant wood and seeing unwanted “waste” wood turned into true works of art are both passions of Florida sawyer and artisan Robert “Bob” Hughes. According to Bob, his Wood-Mizer LT40 Hydraulic portable sawmill plays an integral role to satisfy his endless drive to resurrect the past, one tree at a time.
After working at Florida Power & Light for 27 years, Bob retired and decided to fully pursue his woodworking passion. Bob bought his first portable sawmill in 1997 and started his own sawmill business and woodworking shop, The Ole General Store, in Geneva, Florida along with his son Tim. The family-owned “wood-rescue” business specializes in reclaimed wood and custom milling of rescued Florida hardwoods, but the business has grown over the years to also offer lumber sales, kiln drying, slab wood cutting, river-recovered wood, exotic lumber and more. In recent times, Bob has raced the trash truck to recover hurricane destroyed Cuban Mahogany, rescue African Mahogany from the burn pile, uncover long sunken river logs, and more. However, Bob’s rescue of a lifetime has been the recovery of heritage wood after the destruction of one of the world’s oldest and largest living trees.
When “The Senator Tree” began its life near what is now Longwood, Florida about 3,500 years ago, King Tut was 50 years away from occupying the Egyptian throne! Throughout its storied history, the large cypress has been admired by people from all walks of life. By the turn of the 21st Century the majestic old giant had become recognized as the world’s fifth longest living tree and had been a local landmark for hundreds of years because of its massive size. All that history could have ended when a woman lit a fire inside the tree.
The Senator’s hollow trunk acted like a chimney and in a few short hours, the tree’s long and historic life ended in a blaze of destruction. In another sense however, The Senator lives on because the people of Seminole County and dozens of artisans like Bob Hughes refused to allow it to die. “I contacted Seminole County after the fire and helped them realize that something more could be done with the tree’s future, something other than the landfill,” Bob comments. “Our business is built around rescuing trees, saving what is left of them and turning them into something. Saving The [Senator] promised to be, and was, the most wonderful woodworking project I have ever been part of.”
The Ole General Store, with their well-known community reputation and experience milling recovered wood, was one of only three companies chosen to rescue and commemorate The Senator Tree’s remains. In cooperation with Seminole County officials, Bob acquired half of the wood remaining after The Senator burned for use in creating works of art memorializing the majestic old tree. “My Wood- Mizer’s precision clamping and thin kerf capabilities made our task with the ancient tree possible,” Bob continues. “This wood was too precious to lose to a big kerf. The Wood-Mizer’s thin kerf and excellent clamping capabilities allowed for very precise cuts.” Ultimately, 100 pieces were created for Seminole County from that material that included tables, guitars, picture frames, commemorative pieces and more. “We worked with a total of 13 artists plus my son Tim and myself,” Bob says. “Tim and I turned in 82 pieces of Senator art. Friends and fellow artisans created the rest.” The rescued pieces of The Senator Bob had to work with were natural with bark on one side and burned on other. The largest pieces were 8” to 10” thick 48” wide and 10’ in lengths. “For all the pieces of art, we went with the natural shapes of the wood,” Robert explains. “In some cases we needed to mill up to three edges for some of our tables and picture frames.”
With an expertise on the sawmill along with his creative and resourceful woodworking skills, Bob was able to save another piece of history. “How can I ever, in my lifetime, be able to top this project?” said Bob. “The Senator Tree was a very special tree for Seminole County. 3,500 years is a lot of history to lose. Today, in part because of my Wood-Mizer, The Senator lives on through art.”
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