At first blush, it's hard to make the connection when Larry and Mark Cochran say they might never have learned to make handcrafted woodwork if they first hadn't learned to milk cows.
But listen for a while to the two brothers, founding partners of Cochran's Lumber and Millwork in Bluemont, and it becomes clear: Growing up on their father's dairy farm taught them the value of hard work, tenacity and pride in one's craft, almost everything they needed to launch their business, now 11 years old.
"When you grow up on a farm, you don't have time to think about whether you can do it," said Larry Cochran, 31. "You just do it and you don't ask questions."
That homespun attitude has produced some fancy results. The handmade doors, mantles, window frames and trim from their little mountain mill usually end up in a $500,000 custom home or restoration. They did the woodwork for the nationally known gardens at Oatlands Plantation, the Loudoun Commonwealth Attorney's Office and the Airlie Foundation in Warrenton. Southern Living magazine has featured their work on its pages. And last month, one of their bathrooms won an award from the National Association of Homebuilders.
They're proud that they can compete on a national scale. But the Cochrans, and partner James Hunter Kelly, are still self-described Bluemont farm boys, products of the tiny community in which they still live and that has shaped most of their lives.
Even the mill itself, two buildings and a lumber yard on Snickersville Pike, is rich in tradition. Now abuzz with the sounds of heavy machinery, it was once filled with music and chatter.
In the late 1950s, it was the original Bluemont Community Center, with a dance hall on top and a barbershop, ice-cream parlor and post office on the bottom. Later, it became kind of a museum for Charles O'Brien, a former resident who loved to collect old machinery.
O'Brien filled the building with lathes, jigsaws and water-powered belts and pulleys, apparently "just for fun," said Mark Cochran, 28. "You could not even walk through the upstairs."
But if O'Brien ever had a plan for his collection, he never carried it out. He sold the whole lot and moved from the state. The building and tools were purchased by developer Bruce Brownell, who donated some of the tools to the Smithsonian Institution and resold everything else to the Cochrans.
Later, Brownell, who also grew up on a Bluemont dairy farm, was the first builder to hire Cochran's for a job.
The first year was nearly the last year for the brothers. Larry Cochran thought that persuading Mark, then 18, to give up his dream of a music career for the lumber business would be his biggest challenge. He was wrong.
No sooner would the young brothers pay off one bill than two more would arrive.
"We would work from 90-day note to 90-day note," Mark Cochran said.
Things started to turn around a bit when Kelly, their childhood friend, agreed to become a partner on the first day of 1981.
Kelly admits he was hesitant: "I didn't know the first thing about woodworking."
That didn't matter, the Cochrans said. They needed financial help and managerial help, and he provided both.
"Mark and I are similar. We're both artistic," said Larry Cochran, who designs each piece the company makes and once considered becoming an artist. "Hunter is more businesslike, a real driving force. When Hunter got here, if an employee was supposed to get in at 8 a.m., they were here at 8 a.m., not two minutes after."
In return, the Cochrans taught Kelly about woodworking the same way they learned -- reading countless books on the subject and practicing for hours on end. Now they share an almost obsessive love for their craft, and for wood itself.
For example, piles of old pine lumber from rotting buildings at Baltimore's Inner Harbor and Fells Point communities might be junk to most people. To the Cochrans and Kelly, they were a potential masterpiece.
They arranged for shipment after shipment of the wood, which dates to the 1850s. After resawing, planing and oiling, a beautiful grain emerged. They have used it for hardwood floors, cabinets and doors in some of the metropolitan area's most expensive homes.
Cochran's, which gets most of its lumber from a sawmill near Charlottesville, now has 12 employees and about 13,000 square feet of space. It is prohibited from further expansion because of its location in residential Bluemont, which is no small source of irritation to the partners.
But in deference to the community, they also impose restrictions on themselves. The county permits them to operate six days a week, but they are open only five. Residents shouldn't have to hear the noise of a lumber mill on Saturdays, they say.
There is another reason as well, the same reason that they rarely advertise and have never employed a full-time salesperson.
"We're as busy as we need to be," said Mark Cochran. "We just can't handle much more business."