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Piece by piece, the last of the family-owned Harwood mill was auctioned off Tuesday to pay off a $3 million debt to Wells Fargo Bank.

Two loaders are on their way to north Idaho; the mill buildings and a head rig are headed to Oregon; and the wiring will be scrapped in Oakland as the 58-year-old mill in Branscomb is irrevocably dismantled.

"I just really hate to see it," said Mendocino County Supervisor John Pinches, who led a fruitless, last-ditch effort to delay the auction for six months while attempts were made to raise money or find a buyer to keep the mill intact and in place in northern Mendocino County.

With more than 200 workers, the mill had been a major employer in Mendocino County until its closure early this year. It also was one of just a few mills left on the North Coast that processes large Douglas fir logs, Pinches said.

Pinches had been optimistic about the mill's future until Friday, when Wells Fargo officials told him the auction would begin Monday as scheduled.

"All we needed was a little time," he said. "In the old days, the bankers understood the good times and the bad times. Now it's like you miss your payment and you're toast," he said.

Wells Fargo officials declined to comment on their decision.

Harwood Products was a victim of the nationwide housing slump, which caused the price of lumber to drop to near-record lows. It shut down in January, with hopes of reopening in a few months, but the closure lasted longer than expected, creating a cash flow problem that ultimately led to bankruptcy proceedings.

In addition to Wells Fargo, the only secured creditor, the company owes more than $2 million to unsecured creditors, who are out of luck unless the auctions raise more money than Harwood Products owes the bank.

Tony Pearce of B&B Industrial in Ukiah said he is owed $10,000 he doesn't expect to see. But he holds no grudge toward the company he'd done business with for more than 40 years.

"It was the economy," said Pearce, who attended the two-day auction in Willits, where he purchased a forklift for $6,500 plus taxes and auction fees, a bargain, he said.

Everything, from chairs and file cabinets to dump trucks, conveyer belts and used tires, was on the block.

The land -- including some 100 acres, an office building that was a former schoolhouse and two houses -- was unexpectedly offered Tuesday for a minimum $1 million bid, but there were no takers.

Several people wondered aloud who would be financially responsible for ridding the property of toxic waste.

About 100 buyers from across the United States and Canada signed up to participate in the auction, said Keith Rottman of Rabin Worldwide, the auctioneers. Most attended in person, but there were a handful of online shoppers, including a man from Egypt.

Despite the number of participants, equipment was selling at a fraction of its estimated value.

"This is a bloodbath," said Bruce Burton, who owns a small mill in Willits and was just re-elected to the Willits City Council.

Some of the buyers purchased equipment they planned to use in the mills they own or represent.

Canadian Hugh Mackay's purchases included a 25-foot conveyor belt and a drop feed hog, which he expects will be employed in his lumber mill north of Vancouver in a couple of weeks.

Jeff Rutherford purchased chip bins, conveyors and a log transfer machine for his employer, Zip-O-Log of Eugene, Ore.

A majority of the equipment, however, was purchased by a Roseburg, Ore., parts broker, Winston Smith, who will resell some of the equipment for reuse and some for scrap. The split is usually 50-50, he said.

His many purchases included the mill buildings and some of the prime mill equipment.

Frank Van Vranken of North Cal Wood Products in Ukiah called Wells Fargo's decision to auction off the mill in pieces "disgusting."

He was among those who worked with Pinches to try to save the mill.

With the battle lost, he reluctantly joined others at the auction, making a $24,000 purchase of all the mill's wiring on behalf of an Oakland scrap company.

"It's done," he said of the effort to save the mill.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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