Eric Hollenbeck: A Modern Day Pioneer Reviving Craftsmanship

Levi Strauss & Co.
August 25, 2014

This is part of an ongoing series designed to feature people who are changing the world in their Levi’s®. Our Modern Day Pioneers are impacting everything from culture to social issues to the environment, and they’re challenging the status quo in a unique way. We hope these stories will inspire and empower you to live your life to its fullest in Levi’s. Have someone we should consider? Email us! Follow the Modern Day Pioneers series here.

It’s easy to get trapped in the mind-set that innovation and positive change must be synonymous with high-tech—especially when your home base is located in a technology hub like San Francisco.

But then you meet someone like Eric Hollenbeck and quickly are reminded that sometimes all it takes to make a difference is a simple idea, a strong work ethic, and a healthy respect for the value of some good, old-fashioned elbow grease.

Fortunately for the students he mentors, Eric has all of these qualities in spades. He’s a true Modern Day Pioneer in practically every sense of the phrase. He makes beautiful things with his hands, using the tools of previous generations (the newest tool in his shop is from 1948). Perhaps more importantly, he ‘s teaching high school students and returning veterans how to do the same. And he’s doing so at a time in their lives when having a mentor and a champion can make all the difference. Oh, and, of course, he’s doing it all in his Levi’s!

The Birth of Blue Ox School
In the beginning—years before Blue Ox Community High School had an official name or enrollment forms, neighborhood kids would come to Eric’s mill and watch him work.

“One day I told them, ‘Look, if you come down after 5 p.m. we can make something together,’ and that’s what we did,” Eric said.

Eric  pouring aluminum in the foundry.
Then, 15 years ago, a teacher from a court-ordered school in Humboldt County asked Eric and his wife Viviana if they would be interested in starting a community school program. And so the Blue Ox School was born, as a partnership with the Humboldt County Office of Education. Today, approximately 20 students per year attend the school, working in Eric’s mill two or three days per week and in a classroom the other days. Students make their own products, which are sold in Blue Ox Millworks’ gift store, and they get to keep the proceeds.

Paying Back by Changing Futures
The Blue Ox School is Eric’s way of “paying back” a special teacher who helped him graduate high school, despite his academic struggles.

“I was one of these kids,” said Eric. “Because I had a hard time with spelling and reading, I was constantly made to feel stupid by the system. So, I started working in the woods at sixteen.”

Eric’s auto shop teacher arranged for him to spend three hours a day in the shop, and one hour in English class, where he would write poetry each week, in lieu of the standard essay requirement.

“I got the same grade on every poem I wrote: an A over an F. An ‘A’ for content and creative thought and an ‘F’ for spelling and grammar…which averages out to a C! It was this way that the auto shop teacher got me to graduate.”

Teaching Trade Skills, Job Skills and Self Esteem
Eric whole-heartedly believes in the importance of skilled trades and the values they instill, but he’s disappointed to see a decline in these types of training programs across the country.

“Someone has to build the looms that weave the denim for our Levi’s, and someone else has to keep the looms running, the factories running and transport the finished Levi’s to the store for us. Each one of these are skilled trades that aren’t supported in most schools,” Eric said.

He’s trying to change the status quo by giving students a place to learn hands-on skills that can be transferred to many trades. He says they learn critical job skills along the way too, like the importance of quality, problem solving and critical thinking, as well as how to take direction from a boss and collaborate with co-workers.

#1 Eric Milling Log

“What the young need to succeed is a work ethic and enough self-esteem to know they can learn and excel in whatever field they enter. You see, if you give a child a positive feeling of self worth, you have just given them everything, and the world becomes their oyster.”

Blue Ox School’s success has created a new opportunity for Eric to give back to a group that’s near and dear to his heart: returning veterans. As a frontline combat veteran himself, Eric understands all too well the challenges of assimilating back into civilian life. To help create better opportunities for veterans, Blue Ox recently teamed up with a local community college to offer a returning veteran program.

A Modern Day Pioneer, Living in Levi’s
Eric has played many roles in his life: student, woodsman, soldier, husband, father, teacher, mentor, and his Levi’s 501® jeans have been there through them all. He says he’s worn them his whole life.

During his school years, 501s  were simply a must, he said. “No one who had any style sense would be caught in anything else.” They also were the only choice when he went to work in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. They were the only jeans that could stand up to the rigors of the work.  “The uniform of the men was a hickory shirt, work boots and 501s in the summer, with the addition of a fleece-lined Levi’s jacket in the winter.”

Given all he’s seen and done, it’s not surprising that Eric has a memorable Levi’s story. In 1992, he was asked to testify in front of the president, vice president and five Secretaries from the Department of the Interior at the Forest Summit in Portland, Oregon.

Forty people testified at the summit. Eric was the only one who didn’t wear a suit and tie. Instead he opted for a brand new pair of 501s, a freshly ironed hickory shirt and freshly oiled work boots.

“I may not have worn a suit, but I was also the only one that did not read from prepared notes.”

Nearly a year later, Eric received a call from the White House with an invitation to be honored during the president’s Earth Day speech. He agreed to attend, inquiring about what he should wear to the event.

#7 Clinton Earth Day #2

“Without a moment’s hesitation the guy said, ‘Exactly what you wore for the Forest Summit. Don’t change a thing!’ So me and my 501s, hickory shirt and work boots went to Washington!”

The Return of Craftsmanship
Like the custom millwork Eric creates in his shop, the legacy he hopes to leave on the world is all about craftsmanship.

“I would like to be known as a guy that helped bring the worldwide rebirth of craftsmanship. Being a craftsman is an honorable and noble way to spend the rest of your life. That’s what I would like to be remembered for.”

To learn more about Eric and the Blue Ox School, watch “The Ox,” a 10-minute short film produced by Ben Proudfoot at Breakwater Studios. Hint: You’ll want to grab a box of tissues before you hit play.

The Ox from Ben Proudfoot on Vimeo.