James Krenov’s California Dream

James Krenov and several students mill lumber in the backyard of the Krenovs’ home in Fort Bragg. Milling lumber from logs with the Alaskan chainsaw mill, as Robert Sperber had done with Krenov a decade earlier, became a part of the school’s curriculum and is still taught each year. Photo courtesy of the Krenov family.

The following is excerpted from “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney.

After these experiences at the other schools, it seems [James] Krenov’s relocation to California remained his central focus. When Krenov returned to Mendocino in 1980 for his longest engagement yet, he brought Britta, having already considered the area as a possible place to resettle and start a new life. The couple stayed in a renovated water tower in Mendocino, and used their time in the area to look for a new home. They found it just north of Fort Bragg on Forest Lane. Tina remembers her mother being thrilled at the palm tree in the front yard, an enticing embodiment of the exotic locale, far away from her native Sweden where she had lived up to that point. The Krenovs were also taken with the coastal environment – Krenov had always lived in cities and towns with an active maritime culture, and the presence of working boats in the Noyo harbor was a comfortable familiarity. During their first visits, the Krenovs began a practice of walking along the steep headlands along the coast, one they continued on a daily basis for the next 30 years.

Creighton Hoke, after returning to Richmond, Va., to pack up his tools and quit his cabinetmaking job, had moved back to Mendocino in hopes of attending the school that fall. He arrived just a few weeks after attending the workshop and was dismayed to find what he perceived to be little progress in the establishment of the school. Initially, Hoke took on a foreman position at Brian Lee’s millwork shop, hoping to use the skills he had developed as the lead in a cabinet shop in Richmond. This employment quickly fell through – Hoke was living on Lee’s land, in a tree house that had been built by Crispin Hollinshead on the rural property a few years earlier. And the workshop was, in his recollection, literally knee deep in shavings from the machines. Hoke left his position in Lee’s shop, and was looking for another opportunity, still driven by the hope that in a year’s time, he might be enrolled in the still-unrealized woodworking school under Krenov.

Under Lee’s organization and efforts, several craftspeople from the workshops and the community gathered to make a formal pitch to the College of the Redwoods administration in the fall of 1980. The administration was, by all accounts, enthusiastic about the proposition. The establishment of a woodworking school meant a boost in income for the community college system, which was paid based on student hours; a six-day intensive over nine months constituted a sizable number of credit hours. With Krenov at the helm, it would also bring national exposure to the otherwise locally focused school system. The pitch that the group made also noted that the program would be exceptionally rewarding for the local community’s craftspeople, as well. For that community, tying the program to the community college network would also drastically reduce the tuition for students – for California residents, the program would only cost $100 for the nine months.

A plan of the school, redrawn by David Welter in 1997. Image courtesy of the Krenov School.

After this proposal to the board in Fort Bragg, a second meeting was held on the main campus of the College of the Redwoods, 150 miles north in Eureka. At this second meeting, Hoke and Hollinshead, who had been central in the initial meetings, were joined by Bob Winn and Judy Brooks, members of the College of the Redwoods staff in Fort Bragg who had been on the board that heard their initial proposal. Winn and Brooks were early champions of the proposed program and central members of the community in Fort Bragg.

“The fact is that many of us were disconnected from the larger community, and had no real profile among our neighbors aside from breaking down in our pickup trucks downtown,” Hoke remembers. Winn, Michael Burns’s close friend, was an English and history teacher at the Fort Bragg campus and a persuasive voice from the school system and community in support of the school, a role he continued to play in subsequent years. Brooks, who would become a trustee in the College of the Redwoods school system, also lent her voice in support of the program, and developed a strong relationship with the woodworking program. Both advocated for the promise of the woodworking program, and all were excited to find that the administration at the college was already on board with the plan.

After this positive meeting with the administration in Eureka, the program was approved, and a part-time position to prepare and execute the plans for the school was created. Where Brian Lee had been instrumental in bringing the group together and providing the enthusiasm for the organization, the Guild took a back seat to some of the newcomers, especially Hoke and Burns, who were more driven in their specific hopes of working with Krenov. Lee would continue on as a driving force among the Guild and woodworking community, but a falling out with Krenov and disagreements with some of the newcomers led him to pull away from the school.

“Almost everyone – maybe everyone, in fact – would have gone right on doing whatever it was they were already doing, had it not been for the original, organizing energy of Brian Lee,” Hoke remembers. “There wouldn’t have been a Guild, or the workshops with Krenov. No ad in Fine Woodworking for me to see and respond to.”

Hoke took the part-time job with the college to set up the program, eager to find meaningful employment after his mismatch with Lee’s commercial business, and moved into an office at the Fort Bragg campus of the College of the Redwoods. A small piece of property was purchased at the eastern edge of town, behind the local school district’s bus barn, and construction of the facilities was underway by the end of 1980. During the next several months, Hoke worked with the school’s construction supervisors to design the school’s workshop, a daunting task that included everything from ordering materials, specifying the layout of the windows for the best natural light and ordering the machinery.

One of dozens of pages of invoices, requests and budgets that Creighton Hoke composed for the opening of the school in 1980. Image courtesy of the Krenov School.

Gary Church, a member of the Guild, was contracted to build the tool cabinets, made in the same manner as Krenov’s own tool cabinet in the workshop in Bromma. One of Krenov’s students from his first stint at RIT, Hunter Kariher, was contracted to build the 22 workbenches; it’s interesting to note that Kariher also built the workbenches for Wendell Castle’s workshop school a few years earlier. The benches were built in the same European style that Krenov himself used and were shipped from Kariher’s Rochester workshop to Fort Bragg that summer.

By his own account, Hoke was driven by the dream of attending the school, but the task laid before him was far from simple. Krenov, over the phone, was a demanding presence, and threatened Hoke that he may not make the planned resettlement if the school wasn’t properly equipped. Krenov’s demands were informed by the ill-fated arrangements he had encountered at his prior engagements with RIT and BU, where he had found the facilities inadequate or the demands on him as a teacher either unfair or ill-informed. His exacting requirements were likely motivated by a hope that this last engagement would be a good fit.

That Christmas, Hoke and Burns worked together to lay out the building plan on graph paper on the kitchen table of Burns’s family’s home. Burns, whose experience in the trades and homebuilding, complemented Hoke’s now-nuanced understanding of Krenov’s expectations, and in the course of a day, the layout was finalized. Hoke worked closely with Larry Kavanaugh, the school’s director, to put these plans into place, and the two of them ordered the machinery and supplies for the program, specifying everything from window shades to lumber racks to the particular style of fluted dowel Krenov preferred. Kavanaugh, who became a close friend and advocate of Krenov’s in subsequent years, worked closely with Hoke through the process, and the purchase lists for equipment and materials show that the school was sparing little expense in equipping the workshop.

Hoke was also tasked with outlining a curriculum for the program – while the basic understanding among those involved was to simply follow Krenov’s lead, the administration required a detailed plan for the 1,728 credit hours that constituted the nine-month program. Here again, Hoke interpolated from Krenov’s books, and consulted with their author over the phone form a structured plan for the year.

One of the last, if not the last, photos of Krenov in his basement shop in Bromma. Two of his cabinets are visible on his bench in the background of the photo, and his “Writing Table of Italian Walnut” is in the foreground. The photo illustrates Krenov’s preferred surface treatment for such a piece; the luster of the waxed tabletop illustrates his preference for satin surfaces. Many of the wall cabinets he made earlier in the 1970s and late 1960s were left completely untreated. Photo by Rolf Salomonsson.

This process was a daunting one for Hoke, and over the course of the year a tradition developed that continued into the school’s weekly rituals. Michael Burns, who was helping Hoke develop the program and work with Krenov to build out the home he had bought the prior summer, arrived at his office to pull him away for therapeutic drinks outside a local liquor store. The beverage of choice was Carlsberg Elephants, a malt-liquor from the Danish brewery, and the “Elephants” meetings continued as a ritual on Friday evenings. The meetings began as a small group of the school’s community, who circled up their cars outside the Sprouse-Reitz variety store downtown. In later years, the meetings moved to the “North O’ Town” industrial park, where a small satellite shop was set up by the school’s faculty and students, and by the late 1980s, it finally relocated to the school, becoming a weekly get-together for the students and the extended community of alumni, supporters and family members growing in the area. After its informal beginnings in the parking lot, Krenov began attending the gatherings with Britta, and it was especially Britta’s constant presence that students remember. During the next several decades, Britta would only miss a handful of “Elephants.”

The following is excerpted from “James Krenov: Leave Fingerprints,” by Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney. After these experiences at the other schools, it seems [James] Krenov’s relocation to California remained his central focus. When Krenov returned to Mendocino in 1980 for his longest engagement yet, he brought Britta, having already considered the area as a possible place…Read MoreJames Krenov: Leave Fingerprints, UncategorizedLost Art PressRead More

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