Bob Drake is proof that it’s never too late to switch things up: after a career in geophysics, Drake decided to take up milling.
Nearly 30 years later, he doesn’t seem to be looking back.
Drake owns Drake Wood Milling, a custom milling and woodworking business located in the Mammoth Industrial Park, and has been producing flooring, siding, tables, mantles, countertops and more since 1995.
He was born in Claremont, the son of a city councilmember and the chairwoman of the local school board. Drake comes from an academic family: One grandfather, Robert Bernard, played a role in founding the Claremont Colleges consortium and later served as managing director and then president of the consortium; Drake’s step-grandfather, Max Mason, was a mathematician and at one time served as the president of the University of Chicago.
Even before he ever got started in woodworking and milling, Drake enjoyed building and working with his hands. After a middle school teacher ignited his passion for science, Drake built a home science lab in his parent’s garage, pouring cement, laying the plumbing, installing benches and equipment all on his own.
“My parents were fine with that,” he said.
Drake’s ties to Mammoth run deep: his grandfather and great-uncle had lived in Bishop in the 1920’s and each bought two acres of land next to the Valentine Reserve, eventually building fishing cabins on their respective properties. When Drake moved to town in 1992, he moved into his grandfather’s cabin.
He first began coming to the Eastern Sierra in the early 1950s, spending two weeks at the cabins during the summer. At the time, he said, US 395 turned into a dirt road just north of Independence. In order to get Mammoth, Drake said his family would leave at 4 a.m. to avoid the heat. Halfway up the Sherwin grade, the radiator in the family car would boil over, signaling lunchtime until it had cooled off. If everything went well, they would make it to their cabin by 4 or 5 p.m.
After graduating high school Drake attended Pomona College for his undergraduate degree, starting out as a chemistry major before switching to geology.
“I like to be outdoors,” Drake said, “and I decided geology was a nice blend of being outdoors and chemistry.”
Drake graduated in 1965, by which point, he said, “I was sick of school.” So he got a job working for the United States Geological Survey mapping oil shale on the northern slopes of Alaska for 8 weeks.
After wrapping up in Alaska, “I had no plans,” he said. His grandfather started setting up interviews for graduate school, something Drake wasn’t completely sold on.
“The Vietnam War was kind of cooking [at that point],” Drake said, “So staying in school a good option.”
So Drake went back to school, completing a masters thesis at UC Riverside in 1967 that focused on measuring the gravity field through the Eisenhower Tunnel and over Loveland Pass in Colorado.
After the thesis, Drake got married and moved to Switzerland to start a Ph.D in geophysics at the University of Neuchatel. Drake learned French in order to attend (the university is French-speaking) and spent time putting 18,000 miles on a VW camper while driving all over Europe.
But home was calling, and Drake applied to graduate schools in California after a year in Switzerland, ultimately enrolling at Berkeley in the fall of 1968 with the intention of working on the Franciscan Formation along the California Coastal Ranges.
That plan never materialized in full: an advisor who was working in Chile asked him if he wanted to do his thesis there, and although “I didn’t know where it was on the map,” Drake said, he headed to South America in 1970 to work in southern Chile.
Drake hit a few snags in the southern hemisphere: his advisor took a position in the administration at Berkeley and the rocks he was working with yielded little in the way of useful information. A new advisor, Garniss Curtis, was a pioneer in potassium argon dating techniques, and “personality-wise, he became my father,” Drake said.
A common taste in music bonded the two and when Curtis introduced Drake to his lab. “It turns out the the experience with my chemistry lab in the backyard … gave me exactly the skills I needed for the potassium argon lab”, Drake said.
Now that he was able to put a date on the rocks he was working with in Chile, Drake made progress in his thesis that would “contribute to the fundamental understanding of the Andes [mountain range].”
When Curtis retired, Drake took over his lab, running the operation for 16 years, and Curtis’s connections to research in eastern Africa on hominid fossils and skulls. Drake spent a total of four years working in east Africa, working with 1.5 to 2 million year old fossils.
He eventually linked up with Mary Leakey, known for her fossil and hominid work at Olduvai Gorge; with Leakey, he worked on the the Laetoli Footprints site in Tanzania, a site that dates back nearly 3.7 million years and displays the earliest known examples of bipedalism in hominids.
Drake’s work in dating early human existence eventually took him to sites in Israel, Iran, and Jordan with the Institute of Human Origins.
The development of dating technology and the transition to computers spelled the beginning of the end. Drake, self-identified as a “hands-on” worker, said that once the work became largely computerized, “the young guys were leaving me in the dust. I was feeling alienated, like I was no longer useful.”
With the writing on the wall, Drake packed up shop and left Berkeley for Mammoth Lakes in 1992, where he “floundered around” until his brother happened to mention Wood-Mizers during a conversation. Drake, thinking milling might be a job he’d enjoy, looked into the machines.
Taking out a $20,000 loan from his mother, Drake bought a Wood-Mizer, and the geologist morphed into a woodworker. Drake said the time he spent building, designing, and working with his hands as a kid “was real natural to me … I just found my niche. It seemed like a natural thing to do and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Examples of Drake’s work are visible around town: the reception counter at Sierra Nevada Resort, the main countertop at Stellar Brew, the tabletops at Puerto Vallarta (formerly Base Camp Cafe), the bar and tables at John’s Pizza and Gomez’s are all examples of his mill work, not to mention the 100+ houses in town that Drake has done the flooring work for.
Drake works exclusively with local wood purchased from his Industrial Park neighbor, GC Forest Products and sells his products to local vendors. Larger pieces like mantles are sold to local companies unfinished while flooring/siding is sanded and finished by Drake but installed by other companies. Custom pieces (i.e. tables) are Drake’s, start to finish.
The pandemic proved to be an unexpected boon for Drake. “It was one of my busiest [times],” he said, “People weren’t traveling and wanted to redo their interiors.”
While other businesses have their own mills, none are doing the custom work Drake does. He’s had help in the past on larger projects, but Drake Wood Milling is entirely a one-man show; there’s no apprentice or full-time assistant cleaning or doing touch-up work.
At 78 years old, Drake gives no indication of slowing down or hanging up his tools.
“I’ll be doing this as long as I can,” Drake said, adding with a chuckle, “Retiring is when you die.”