By Rick Miller

One of Cattaraugus County’s oldest businesses received word this month it would receive a $500,000 grant to help it become more efficient and more competitive.

Fitzpatrick & Weller of Ellicottville, founded in 1895, had been planning to make renovations including the replacement of some of the companies wood kilns, president Greg Fitzpatrick said in an interview last week.

The company, which consists of a kiln drying and parts business, as well as a separate processing facility, has 98 employees. That’s down steeply from those who worked here in the 1970s and 1980s when the region’s furniture manufacturing was still strong. Most of that is gone now. Now, half the kiln dried wood at Fitzpatrick & Weller goes to China.

“We’re planning to do quite a renovation and upgrading,” Fitzpatrick said. “The governor said he wants to help manufacturing so we applied for the CFA grant. We don’t know much about the details yet. That will be explained in a meeting with Empire State Development officials in Buffalo next month.”

The estimated $5 million project would be done in three phases over thee to five years. It would include the demolition of some of the firm’s older kilns. There are now 11 kilns that run on steam generated by a giant sawdust-fired boiler. Kiln temperatures up to 160 degrees drive water out of the wood.

“We’ll have fewer kilns but an increased capacity,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’d like to have 50 percent more capacity.” The new kilns will be more efficient and use less energy to get the wood’s moisture content down to 7 percent.

“This is a positive project,” said Fitzpatrick. It is designed to ensure the company will be around for decades to come.

Fitzpatrick & Weller isn’t a sawmill. It receives most of its rough-sawn green lumber from the Amish. The stacks of rough lumber are kiln dried before being custom cut and placed in inventory in a huge Mill Street warehouse.

“A fair amount will go toward demolition” of existing kilns, said Dana Fitzpatrick, chairman of the board at Fitzpatrick & Weller. “We’re keeping the business here.”

One of the company’s customers, Cutco in Olean, buys knife blocks for its high-end knife sets. However, the region’s hardwood maple, oak, cherry and ash are well-known internationally.

With the amount of hardwood resources in Western New York, Greg Fitzpatrick said the company expects to be around for a long time.

Fitzpatrick & Weller, which was previously located on Rochester Street in Salamanca until the mid-1950s, spent most of its early history providing hard maple forms for shoes called a “shoe last,” which was used by shoe companies as forms for their hand-sewn shoes. Hard maple wood was used because it was stable.

In 1965, a plastic form for shoes started taking over the shoe last business. Fitzpatrick & Weller diversified into making wooden bowling pins, then other products and services including forest management.

“Most family companies don’t survive 120 years,” Greg Fitzpatrick said. “I think we’re in the top 5 for the oldest family company in Western New York.

There are 3 million board feet of lumber, about 300 truckloads, sitting inside and outside the company’s kilns at any one time. The “market just in time” policy means when it’s ordered, it’s ready.

The kiln dried lumber is also used to make a number of value added products and parts for cabinets. The company has a large processing facility is located in the former York Merit building in the village.