All about those family trees
Cutting an elm log at the mill. Photo courtesy Adam Miller
What’s in a name? Just ask Adam Miller. He can tell you quite a story about his “family trees.”
Since childhood, Miller has always liked working with wood. In middle school, he inadvertently ratcheted that early interest a notch higher when his teacher asked if he knew the meaning of his last name. He didn’t, so she explained that the German surname refers to a lumber mill worker. From then on, young Adam felt destined.
The Denver native, born in 1986, moved with his family to Fort Collins in 1992. After graduating from Windsor High School, he went to work doing grounds maintenance for the Town of Windsor. Then began the pursuit of his likely genetic heritage.
A brief but happy stint of nine months at Alpine Cabinet Co. in Timnath abruptly ended when a co-worker’s misstep caused an accident that left Miller with a hernia.
Post his surgery and recovery, he worked for Kincaid Tree Surgery (a rather medically coincidental employer name). Miller is grateful that he was mentored there by a group of “old school guys,” especially Bill Rumley, his pruning trainer. Thorough and intense as was that tutoring, he admits to still having remained somewhat naive about all his new trade entailed.
In 2008, Miller hired on with Foothills Tree Experts (FTE). Owner Kevin Walker had moved west from New York to start the company from scratch, recalled Miller. Now, 12-plus years later, he remains a devoted employee while simultaneously seeking to “create my own domain.” That personal place in the tree world is aptly named “Mountain Millers.”
One reason that Miller added to his work load (currently 40 hours per week at FTE and an average of 20 per week at Mountain Millers) is to more fully provide for his family. Wife Amanda works at Poudre Valley Hospital, but the addition of three little ones necessitated yet more income.
The Miller family tree’s newest branches are 5-year-old Cora; her 2-year-old sister, Emerson; and baby brother Otto, 10-months-old.
Besides financial, Miller’s decision to start his own business was also emotional.
“People sometimes cried when we (at FTE) took down their 40-year-old tree,” he said. His sympathy occasionally brought his own tears because of their heartbroken reactions. Certainly, he thought, there must be a better end for such noble but irreversibly damaged or dying leafy giants than taking a one-way trip to the landfill, or ending up as piles of sawdust. A light switched on and brightly shined on the destiny he’d perceived years earlier.
He envisioned older growth trees becoming usable items for their owners. Maybe family trees could become family heirlooms. That beloved 40-foot-tree example above could be transformed into a bench, a table or chairs. It could thereby accompany its lifelong human devotee on a move just across town or cross-country.
Miller’s woodworking skills produce dining and coffee tables, benches, and live-edge shelving. For other items requested by tree owners, he depends on a small network of craftsmen. His “main guy” is Sean Smeltzer of Pierce, Colo. (handily, just five miles from Miller in Ault).
The two originally met about 14 years ago when Smeltzer, seeking wood for his then-hobby, contacted Miller. They’ve now been working together for the past year.
Smeltzer owns S and K Custom Designs, named for himself and wife Katie. Included in S and K’s fanciful creations for Mountain Millers clients are cutting boards, custom signage and more, Smeltzer often employing a multi-tipped wood burner for lettering and images.
It’s a sad scene: A tree that’s spent its long life reaching for the sky unceremoniously crashes to the ground. Leaves that for decades gently rustled in warm breezes, barren branches that fought off winter’s icy winds, all lay silent as a lifeless pile of rubble. Unfettered laughter from children that once confidently swung from its sturdy limbs has aged into adult stoicism or, perhaps, curse words at the brutal sight. Their tree is dead. However… it might not be gone.
Mountain Millers “sprouted” in November 2019 with the purchase of a portable mill. Miller noted it was nearly new, having only 20 hours on it at the time. The 12-foot long trailer carries a 24-inch band saw run by a Kohler engine.
Tree removal begins with the sometimes-perilous job of felling. Miller advised that tree work ranks very high among the most dangerous jobs because of falls, power lines, and other related hazards. He declared how phenomenal it is to have Kevin Walker, who’s dedicated to safety first, as a mentor.
Miller then loads up the felled tree. Depending on intended application, he might use the portable mill to cut the wood into boards, which are banded and stacked to prevent warping. For woodworking purposes, they must cure out to between 5 and 12 percent humidity. This goal is periodically checked by use of a humidity tester until boards reach the correct level. Then comes the transformation into art.
Miller first planes and sands a board to the preferred thickness for a project. Let’s say a kitchen countertop. To avoid any chance of toxicity, he utilizes an epoxy resin that’s food-safe, non-yellowing and UV light resistant to produce a smooth, blemish-free finish.
Most customers choose a natural look. But Miller can burn pine with a torch, sanding off the charcoal, to darken the piece. Lacquer enhances natural finishes. Beeswax is a good and proper sealant for items not intended for food use.
But regardless a downed tree’s ultimate fate, what about the base it leaves behind? Miller owns a stump grinder with a 20-inch, tooth-bearing wheel that can remove all traces of even gigantic cottonwoods.
The wheel is attached to a four-cylinder engine. Spinning at a high rate of speed, it cuts with the grain of the stump. The supporting trailer hydraulically drops it as low as 3 feet into the ground, depending on tree size, to gouge the stump completely out.
Okay, now there’s a prominent hole to contend with. What next? The alternative to merely filling it in is re-planting. Miller noted that a new tree can immediately be dropped right in, but only if the old and new species are compatible. A deciduous (leaf-bearing) tree won’t do well in a hole with a high concentration of nitrogen left, for example, by a non-deciduous such as a pine.
Miller gets great satisfaction from sharing in owners’ total joy when they first see the finished product/products ordered from the remains of their beloved “family” tree.
Not all toppled trees are pre-scheduled for felling. The March 14 blizzard that recently ravaged Colorado’s Front Range brought down monumental numbers of twigs, branches, limbs and entire trees.
At FTE, Miller put in 11-12 hours daily in its aftermath to repair storm damage and/or remove hazardous, dangling limbs. He estimated this involved roughly15 trees per day, from “sunup to sundown.”
Always looking for further adaptations to his creativity, Miller mentioned antlers. Before picking became commercialized for dog toys and other products, he took his nieces and nephews (now his kids, too) into the mountains to show them what animals must go through just to survive a winter. He’s always been enthralled with nature, Miller said.
He began collecting antlers when he was about 20, but gave most of them away to friends. Once he gifted a single moose paddle to a deceased friend’s mother, keeping the paddle’s mate for himself as a remembrance. Other times antlers go to friends who are moving away.
Miller has found upwards of 30 complete pairs over the years, from pronghorn antelope to moose. He currently has just two pairs of moose paddles.
But he foresees the possibility of combining antlers with his woodworking projects someday. Wife Amanda’s aunt and uncle, Brian Billow and Michele Scrivner, are Denver-based oil/acrylic artists. He’d like to implement their talents as well. But his primary passion is wood. After all, his surname is Miller, not Antler.
“I’ve always felt destined to work with wood because of my last name,” declared Miller. “I’m comfortable in my own skin just being up in a tree, and now milling the wood myself.
For more information about Mountain Millers and their diverse tree services, contact Adam Miller online at email@example.com or call him at (970) 518-2572.
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Of the approximately 2,270 acres that burned in the April 1, 2021, Medora, N.D., fire, rancher Doug Tescher said all but about 100 acres were U.S. Forest Service land that he utilizes for summer grazing.