Blending art, business and respect for the planet

CHADWICK – When a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Yes it does, and it sounds like opportunity knocking.

Just ask a rural Chadwick couple who found a silver lining in the storm clouds that opened the door to what would grow to become a successful lumber business, and an extension of their belief that giving back to the planet should come naturally.

The husband-and-wife team behind Johnson Creek Hardwoods, Michael and Patricia Johnson, bring artistic sensibilities to their lumber business.

Michael is a fine art landscape photographer who admires the likes of Ansel Adams and other artists, and Patricia writes about their family and gardens.

Many of their customers are fellow artists, too, who use the lumber the Johnsons supply to create their own works of art.

“One of the most fascinating things is all the fantastic woodworkers we’ve met,” Patricia said.

Visitors to the Johnsons’ home at 6480 Daggert Road west of Chadwick may find themselves greeted by Roxie, the family’s dog.

Inside, the home features photographs by Michael and other artists, as well as a coffee table made by a customer, and other items made from wood processed at the mill.

Michael, 70, grew up about 40 miles northwest of Chicago, and followed his interest in art to Shimer College decades ago when it was still at the Mount Carroll campus.

“My aesthetic is more 17th-century Dutch and Flemish,” Michael said.

He found that the Driftless Area of the upper Midwest fits his aesthetic.

The region, located in parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, including Carroll County, escaped glaciers’ flattening effects during the Ice Age and features steep, forested ridges and deep river valleys.

In 1973, he bought 40 acres of timber on Daggert Road and started building a house there. A short time later, he met Patricia and they married in 1974.

The couple developed a deep interest in stewardship of the natural world, and began planting trees and studying sustainable forestry.

They started their lumber business in 1996, after a storm snapped off 50 to 60 trees.

“We could either call loggers or do it ourselves,” Michael said of the cleanup.

The Johnsons built a kiln and a small mill, and their lumber business grew from there. Today, they have about 24 types of trees on 70 acres, with about 16 to 20 types for sale.

Michael said they’ve planted about 30,000 to 40,000 trees since they moved in, though none of them are available yet for harvesting.

“We don’t know what will be valuable in 80 years. Our first thing is stewardship, with the second being diversity,” Michael said.

The Johnsons have planted a wide variety of tree species, among them Southern trees such as tulip poplar, Shumard oak, Kentucky coffee trees, and some sycamores.

Of the trees the Johnsons do harvest, they currently have a large amount of ash due to the number of trees killed by the emerald ash borer.

They also have cherry, white oak, walnut and other species.

The Johnsons divide their labor. Michael works in the forest, runs the mill, and manages the equipment, while Patricia works with the customers and manages the office.

Michael said his experience in the lumber business comes from reading, making mistakes, and reading more.

Johnson Creek Hardwoods keeps a selection of boards, bookmatched tops (sawing the wood so two pieces match, like an open book), and live edge lumber (in which the rough edge of the lumber, sometimes bark and all, is kept) on hand.

The Johnsons will open by appointment for customers to view their stock. They also process yard and town trees for customers.

According to their website, the Johnsons try to match the species and kind of wood they harvest for specific needs. They trim knots, splits and other flaws from butt logs, or logs from the tree’s base, and trim sapwood from cherry and walnut to get at least one clear heartwood side from the logs.

Part of the Johnsons’ secret is air drying logs, down to between 20 to 25% equalized moisture content. The wood is then kiln dries to between 6 and 8%.

The wild weather of the last couple years hasn’t been lost on Michael.

“This has been the wettest 18 months I’ve ever lived through. The main challenge with the moisture is getting out into the timber and working. Also, usually you have storms that break the trees off. Lately, they’ve been coming out of the ground by the roots because the ground is just kind of like soup,” he said.

Once the wood is dried, the Johnsons surface it with a 24-inch planer to a uniform thickness and smoothness. They also trim the ends to eliminate splits before it’s placed in the boardroom for sale.

One feature that sets Johnson Creek Hardwoods apart is that they don’t sell overseas, ship wood, or deliver wood. Customers have to come get their wood and choose it themselves, and often travel long distances. Michael said they get customers from Peoria, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin.

When they’re not busy with lumber, the Johnsons grow vegetables and flowers, manage an heirloom apple orchard, and help their son and daughter-in-law, Ben Johnson and Molly McDonough, with their restaurant, Molly’s Kitchen & Bar in Mount Carroll.

“I also own the building where Molly’s is located, and run a couple of bed and breakfast rooms, called The Inn at Molly’s,” Michael said.

Johnson Creek Hardwoods is open by appointment. Call 815-684-5411, email patiandmichael@gmail.com or go to johnsoncreekhardwoods.com to make an appointment or for more information.