For many, one of the immediate attractions of a rural area is the sense of community. This can be felt and seen when tragedy strikes, but it also occurs when good people try to do good things. In fact, when a good idea gets legs and starts to take shape, it is amazing how a community rallies around it.
Tom Wender, Iron Mountain native, retired building trades teacher and football coach with 28 years of experience, checked out a nonprofit woodworking facility while on vacation in Leadville, Colorado. He turned to his wife, Jen, and told her, “If the Pine Creek Schoolhouse ever goes up for sale, this is what I’m going to do.”
As fate would have it, the 1940s one-room schoolhouse came up for sale in 2020, and Tom and Jen made their move to purchase the building. The old school was renamed Pine Creek Woodworking, and a nonprofit was formed. The purpose of Pine Creek Woodworking is to assist anyone in the Dickinson area in gaining woodworking skills and knowledge.
What happened next speaks to the heart of what being a Yooper means. Wender and a group of volunteers – with an average age of 72 – went to work renovating the 1,200-square-foot schoolhouse. “We basically gutted the entire inside, as there was no insulation in the walls,” Wender said.
Logs donated by Minnerick Logging were milled by hand. Connor Sports donated the hardwood flooring. M.J. Electric donated all the electrical material and labor, and local computer-aided design (CAD) students at Kingsford High School designed the handicap ramp. This project took shape with zero cost in labor. Businesses, friends, and community members donated time, treasures and talents because they saw the opportunity and knew Wender’s resolve would make it successful. It doesn’t get more Yooper than that.
Pine Creek Woodworking officially opened its doors in January and boasts 50 members. The members include couples, farmers, machinists, retired doctors, high school students, veterans and senior citizens.
Membership costs $200 and requires a safety assessment and tour of the facility before an electronic key is issued.
For members, the nonprofit provides the chance to use more than $80,000 in top-of-the-line equipment.
“Retirees and the vets, we’ll take anyone in our huddle, if you have a heartbeat and want to learn, we’ll take you,” Wender shared. “We have folks from all walks of life.”
Recent projects include making 250 cribbage boards for a local golf outing, as well as 30 Adirondack chairs. The latter resulted in a $9,000 kickback donation from the maker’s sales and his employer’s match.
The school has assembled some of the area's foremost instructors, including retired teachers with decades of experience. The non-profit will ramp up offerings in the fall with classes on skills like programming, computer numerical control (CNC), woodturning, basic cabinetry, and charcuterie board making. Classes are free for members, and non-members pay a fee at the door.
One of many cribbage boards made for a golf outing.
In a community that is home to a strong economy of manufacturing and construction, with increasing employment opportunities in building trades, CAD work and CNC knowledge, Pine Creek Woodworking meets a need outside of lifelong learning.
The Dickinson Area Economic Development Alliance works closely with area industries and schools to raise awareness and promote skilled trades career paths. While only two local high schools – out of eight in the region – offer a woodshop elective on campus, the Dickinson-Iron ISD Career and Technical Education Center offers a building trades curriculum.
Pine Creek Woodworking creates a unique opportunity for people to develop skills as the demand for talent continues to grow. In an effort to support this community need, Wender and fellow board members have been meeting with local manufacturers to see where Pine Creek Woodworking can help close the talent gap.
In addition to supporting local workforce development efforts, the school has proven to be a draw for many others. From the casual do-it-yourselfer (DIY) to experienced retirees looking to create custom build-outs, there are many benefits of making and working with your hands. In fact, one member is a local counselor who takes clients to Pine Creek Woodworking to support mental health.
While scientific studies explicitly focusing on woodworking and mental health may be limited, research in related areas, such as art therapy and craft-based activities, suggests that engaging in creative pursuits can positively affect mental health.
Woodworking, with its combination of creativity, skill development, and hands-on engagement, is likely to provide similar benefits. Engaging in hands-on work often requires focus and concentration, which can help shift your attention away from negative thoughts and worries. It allows you to be fully present in the task at hand, promoting mindfulness and reducing stress.
Additionally, creating something tangible through woodworking or other manual trades can also provide a sense of accomplishment. Seeing a project take shape and completing it successfully can boost self-esteem and confidence, enhancing overall well-being. Plus, participating in woodworking classes, joining maker communities, or collaborating on projects can foster a sense of belonging and support.
Pine Creek Woodworking serves as a catalyst for personal growth and community development by providing a continuous learning environment for its members, Wender says. The school enables individuals to expand their woodworking knowledge and skills, fostering a lifelong passion for the craft.
For those who are interested but don’t have the income to afford a membership, the school is offering scholarships to cover the cost.
The Pine Creek Woodworking School benefits create a thriving community that not only enhances the well-being of its members but also adds to the cultural fabric and economic vitality of the broader community.
For information on Pine Creek Woodworking, visit www.pinecreekww.com/
Gina Wollner brings 15 years of marketing experience in industries ranging from manufacturing and AEC to higher education and non-profit work. Her most recent role was Dean of Bay College West Campus where she worked to provide training and support to meet community needs. During this season of life, Gina primarily serves as the CEO of her home and three beautiful children. However, she continues to take on part-time consulting work based on where she can add value without taking away from family time.