On the corner of Cedar and Broadway in Riley, a group of men crowded by Ember Woods Sawmill’s front door dressed in camouflage and Carhartt. Above, a thick, smoky mist floated from a giant silver kiln into a blue sky. The mid-morning light poured through the garage opening behind them, illuminating three stories of stacked lumber. A 101st Airborne Division banner hung nearby with a year’s worth of sawdust gathered across its surface. In the center of the group, retired First Sergeant and sawmill owner Scott Jacobs stood in his woodworker’s uniform: a red beard, dusty ball cap, flannel shirt, and work pants.
The Ember Woods Sawmill serves surrounding communities by logging, milling, and drying custom woods and creating custom woodwork, but a year ago, the mill looked nothing like it does today. “I found this place, put an offer down, and I got it. I gutted the place, took about 13 truckloads of stuff out. I’ve turned this place from a not-doing-so-well lumber yard into a functional showroom, [engraving] room, and epoxy room.
Visiting for the week from their Indiana hometown, Jacobs’ father, Mike, welcomed patrons into the office showroom like a seasoned employee. “Scott’s shown me the ropes, and I have some sanding work to do for him this week. He’s working me like a mule,” Mike laughed. He scratched his newly-grown beard. “Scott told me I have to have a beard if I want to look like a woodworker,” he chuckled. “My wife is going to hate it.”
Fluorescent lights and a wide window along the front of the building brightened the showroom. A drop tile ceiling hovered low over scuffed, brown tile floors. As patrons arrived to pick up orders or drop off lumber, a screen door slammed. Jacobs shook hands, giving each person his attention and engaging them in light-hearted conversation. The smell of wood shavings and a fresh pot of coffee hung in the air. A yellow lab puppy named Chief wandered the office, saying hello to visitors. Jacobs reminded Chief not to jump on patrons, but he did not appear to understand the command. “Chief is my mascot,” Jacobs joked.
Custom wood design samples hung high on the walls near the ceiling, while assorted sizes of furniture wood were arranged on the showroom floor, sanded smooth. Red gift bows sat in the center of each piece of wood, placed there by Mike after he arrived. A retired insurance salesman, Mike grinned as he admitted the bows are to suggest to visitors that custom woodwork makes a great gift. Off the showroom, a workroom hosted a long table displaying slabs of wood in various stages of production. The wood in this room waits for its next purpose. Depending on the order, it may become a table, a mantle, or perhaps a cutting board or serving platter.
The workroom is something of a second home to Kevin, Jacobs’ retired first sergeant, who voluntarily works on custom orders for Jacobs several days a week. In a red shirt and sunglasses perched across the rim of his dark blue ball cap, he leaned on the wall, arms crossed. “I’m bored ‘cause I’m retired,” he smirked. Because the sawmill business is still getting started, Kevin is compensated in a combination of cash and his choice of wood pieces. Jacobs said, “I tell Kevin he runs the place.” Jacobs laughed and added, “He makes all the decisions. I’m all over the map.” Then he added, in a more serious tone, “It’s good because he knows me and knows when he needs to leave me alone.”
The exchange quickly turned playful again as Jacobs and Kevin reminisced like brothers about their days in the military.
“I entered the military as an E1 in 1997,” Jacobs recalled. “[Kevin and I] deployed together in 2005 and were stationed in Mosul. When we first met, I was a SSG (staff sergeant).”
Jacobs leaned back against the counter, arms crossed with a smile on his face as he remembered one of the reasons their company congealed like they did. “Bravo Company had a unique mentality. We had a saying that started with a company in Vietnam: LUOFY. Love us or fuck you.” He laughed. “It was a stepchild-type company. This unit was told, ‘You’re off on your own. See you later.’ We adopted that acronym, and the first thing that happened in Kuwait was, they told us, ‘The plans changed. You’re on your own. See you later.’ Same thing with the next deployment. They told us, ‘We need people in Mosul. See you later.’” In the end, Scott did not mind the arrangement. “Basically you’re on your own, but people leave you alone.”
Kevin added that being on their own together forged a camaraderie not common to an aviation unit. “I always thought this was weird with us. We weren’t [a combat unit], but we developed and hardened like a combat unit. We grew like a family, like an infantry unit would. We still talk regularly.” Kevin and Jacobs took turns rattling off names and current locations of the members of their unit. Kevin started, “Josh is in Salina. Bobby is on Fort Riley.” Jacobs took over, “Sam’s in Kansas City. Judson is at Campbell. Burke’s in the Campbell area. He runs a sawmill too.” Kevin added, “We all still talk like we never left.”
Kevin bragged about the familial environment that Jacobs built. “Scott was a big part of keeping everybody together. He took what we were doing in Iraq and kept doing it here, and it kept everybody just as close.”
Jacobs’ ability to create a hardworking, yet playful family environment continues to attract prior members of the military who want a place to feel at home after leaving the Army. Nick, also a retired first sergeant, volunteers on weekends doing work for Scott. “I pay him in woodwork. He offers to come in during the week after work, but I can’t let him.” In a flannel shirt and mustache, Nick slid wood across a planer in the corner of the woodshop.
Nick is one of several volunteers with prior military service who enjoy spending time in the woodshop with Jacobs. As to why he tends to attract those with prior military experience, Jacobs explained, “the civilian world has been really tough on me. I don’t understand their mentality. They just let things go.” Despite being retired, Jacobs said working with other people who have served in the military allows him to speak the language of the Army and be understood. “It’s a community. It’s all E-8s in here.”
In 2016, after 20 years of military service, Jacobs took a risk and retired, wanting to make his own way. He credits his wife for supporting him as he made the transition into work as a civilian, giving him room to take risks he would not otherwise have been able to take. “I was able to retire because my wife is selfless and a hard worker, and I knew she would be successful [in providing for us].”
While his ultimate goal was to pursue freedom in his career, initially he worked for someone else before going out on his own. “I didn’t know what I was going to do when I decided to retire. I put a year into another person’s business, but I put all my extra time into it. I sold out of that company after a year, and I started my own business because I knew I could do it better.”
Jacobs realizes that each step of his business story built on itself, but it was not clear at first. For example, after buying a CNC engraving machine, Jacobs started making farewell gifts for his friends and colleagues from the military. “I couldn’t afford to give $100 to everyone who was retiring every month so I started making engraved plaques as farewell gifts. Then one day, I said to my wife, ‘I’m buying a mill. What do you think, honey?’ She said, ‘Go for it.’”
Jacobs is quick to speak to the challenges faced by those leaving the military.
“When you are in the military, you are led in everything you do. Some soldiers get out, and they have all these opportunities, but nobody guides them out.”
He explained how many veterans struggle to communicate how their skills and experience translate into a civilian environment.
Having found his own way, Jacobs makes it his mission to provide guidance for soldiers he knows and help connect them to a new role. “Soldiers need to find what they are good at, what experience they have. I have helped plenty of soldiers and gotten them jobs out of the Army.” Inviting retired veterans to work with him at the mill is one of the ways he serves other veterans and continues to create community.
Jacobs believes that he was able to transform a struggling lumberyard into a thriving sawmill because of his Army experience. “In the Army, we’re used to building from nothing. I put a lot of work into this place. I’m still trying to figure out how to utilize the space I have, but I think we’ve got it. Eventually, I’m going to do the floors and finish the walls in the showroom.” Jacobs nodded and then looked around as if he was taking inventory of the lumber piles and sawdust, the fluorescent lights, brown tiles, and the 101st Airborne Division banner. “I think I’m most proud of this building, building it from the ground up.”
Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and small business coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.