News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Freres celebrates its centennial

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

Kyle Freres, left, Rob Freres, center, and Tyler Freres are part of a multigenerational family dynasty that has run an innovative forest products company in the Santiam Canyon since 1922.
Kyle Freres, left, Rob Freres, center, and Tyler Freres are part of a multigenerational family dynasty that has run an innovative forest products company in the Santiam Canyon since 1922.

How long is 100 years in Santiam Canyon time? Well, 1922 goes back farther than Highway 22, which wasn’t completed to connect with US 20 at the Santiam Summit until the 1930s. Or how about the Detroit Dam? Nope, it was dedicated in 1953.

In 1922, in the hills above the Little North Fork of the North Santiam River, T.G. Freres began a small timber cutting operation. 

Flash forward to 2022 and a third generation of Freres family members is running Freres Engineered Wood, a cutting edge Lyons-based firm that is a world leader in mass plywood panels, a major producer of plywood and veneer, the biggest employer in the Canyon with 400 employees and perhaps its largest private landowner with 17,000 acres of forest property.

“We’re here celebrating our 100th. It’s the right place and the right time,” said Kyle Freres, vice president of operations, who spoke on behalf of the firm to The Canyon Weekly. “A vast amount of work was put in by previous generations. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants that gave us the opportunity to be here today. That’s the heritage we have.”

A Freres always has been in charge of the operation, with Kyle Freres joined in the org chart by twin brother Tyler (sales) and their uncle Rob, the company president.

The firm moved into Lyons in the 1940s and has small log veneer, large log veneer, veneer drying and biopower facilities at its headquarters on 14th Street. In addition, Freres has a plywood sheathing operation in Mill City and its mass plywood panel operation on Cedar Mill Road in Lyons.

MPP revolution

Mass plywood (MPP) represents the latest innovation for Freres, which moved from traditional lumber to veneer and plywood in the 1950s. MPP has been a game-changer for Freres and the forest products industry. Consisting of Douglas-fir veneers, which are glued and pressed together, MPP yields large-format wood platforms, beams and columns that can be manufactured in thickness of up to two-feet thick. 

MPP, along with a similar technology called cross-laminated timber (CLT), is reshaping the building industry. Builders are now erecting 20-plus story wood skyscrapers, with Freres engaged in an 18-story project at a West Coast location that Freres could not discuss further.

“Our industry has always been that way,” Kyle Freres said when asked about the firm’s record of innovation. “From logs to lumber to veneer and plywood and now MPP. Each one of these developments has been undertaken in an effort to take the natural character of a tree and use it more efficiently.

“It is part of our culture. Our identity always has included a creative bent, taking chances and creating something new.”

Such as the roof of the new main terminal at Portland International Airport. Mass plywood panels from Freres will be used in the 8 acres of roof, whose 1,400 MPP sections will be positioned by the end of the year. The panels will be fabricated in Lyons and put together at the airport site, with the opening of the new facility still a year or two away.

“This is an exciting project for us,” Kyle Freres said. “Portland led the way. They are using local suppliers, they are being more sustainable, it’s a creative design and it challenged us as well to come up with prototypes.”

Projects such as the airport are showing what can be done with a renewable resource amid concerns about climate change. Nothing goes to waste these days at a Freres plant. Every piece of the 9-inch to 18-inch diameter Douglas fir trees that enter the facilities pays dividends.

“Using wood fiber more effectively always has been part of the industry,” Freres said. The company produces chips, bark dust, saw dust, hog fuel, bio char and burns enough scraps in its Evergreen BioPower Cogeneration facility to produce enough juice annually to power 5,000 homes.

“Remember in the 1970s and 1980s when all the mills had those wigwam burners?” that took care of what was left over, Freres said. “Now, that material is used to generate heat and electricity. We pay for every part of every tree to hit our log yard. We want to make better use of it.” 

The mother of all cranes 

The log yard in Lyons also has a massive new toy, a Kone crane that rises 95 feet above its custom rail line. It looks like sometime out of a Star Wars movie or perhaps an erector set creation on an unheard-of scale.

Kone is a Finnish firm, but some of the main components are built in Ukraine. The pieces shipped out of the country one week before the Russians invaded on Feb. 24, then took 6 weeks to arrive by boat in Tacoma. Dozens and dozens of truck loads were required to move the pieces to Lyons, with Freres officials deploying 3 cranes just to lift the assembled Kone into place.

“The Kone is a perfect example of the long-term investments we are making,” Freres said. “It will outlive me, and it’s going to be here for the next 50 years. That’s a big part of being in a family business.”

Freres has rebranded itself as Freres Engineered Wood, with work underway on restenciling all of the doors of the trucks. Freres said that change from Freres Lumber Co. offers the public and customers a better sense of the company’s market niche and also, hopefully, will end the calls Freres receives from those seeking 2x4s.

Employment challenge

Freres currently employs 400 people, but Kyle Freres noted the company has enough work to hire 100 more. 

“We live and work in a small rural community,” he said, “and historically a lot of our employees came from the Salem era. But these are uncertain times and it’s a very competitive market out there. We know that our people are the backbone of the operation and we need to retain the skilled people that we have.”

Freres increased wages 10% last year and 9% more this year.

“These are highly technical jobs,” said Freres, noting particularly millwright and electrician positions. “We’ll take someone out of high school and train then. We’ll send them to school. We want people to look at a job here as a career. We’ve providing family wage jobs.”

The good news with the employment issue is that “we have a lot more locals working for us now.”

Which makes sense given how intertwined are the fortunes of Freres and the greater Canyon community. The company has been a major contributor to the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund. Freres donated MPP beams and columns to the Detroit Civic Center project that replaced the one destroyed by the fires and built pumphouses for fire-affected property owners.

Freres was scarred by the fires as well, with 6,000 of its acres burned. The company salvaged what it could and has since replanted 3 million new trees. 

“Our roots run pretty deep,” Freres said. “Our company has been here since the 1940s. Much of our charitable giving is local. We want to support the community that has supported us. But we still have a lot to learn and a lot to figure out.”

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