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Two Harbors business reaches milestone

Two Harbors Machine Shop has manufactured SerCo "knuckleboom" loaders like this one for 40 years. The loaders are used heavily by the logging and mining industries in northern Minnesota as well as cities and municipalities around the U.S. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)

Two Harbors Machine Shop (THMS) will reach a milestone next week when it rolls its 10,000th SerCo "knuckleboom" loader off the assembly line.

Around 2 p.m. last week at THMS, there is a crowd of men standing around a recently machined part for one of the SerCo "knuckleboom" loaders manufactured there. A man is kneeling and inspecting the part to make sure it's ready to move on to the next phase of the assembly process. He runs his finger around the smoothly machined steel and decides it's ready to go. Employees taking a quick break to check out a small problem or provide quick quality inspection isn't unusual at many companies. What makes this scene unique is the man dusting off the knees of his pants and picking up his cup of coffee is Dave Coolidge, owner of THMS.

"He's really hands on," THMS sales manager Dale Williamson said. "He's just that type of owner."

Coolidge graduated from Two Harbors High School in the early 1960s and founded THMS in 1968 and for around nine years, the company did contract work, machining parts for whatever job they could get. In 1977, Harry Searson approached Coolidge about making replacement parts for the loaders he was selling. It wasn't long before the pair started kicking around the idea of building their own loaders and that idea became SerCo, a combination of Searson and Coolidge's names, and started building knuckleboom loaders with its Model 8000. Since that day, THMS has built almost 20 different models and the loaders can be found all over the U.S. and Canada as well as Mexico, Chile and even Russia.

Recently, the plant rolled its 10,000th loader off the assembly line, a milestone that seemed impossible 40 years ago. The loaders cost between $30,000 and $300,000 each and are widely used in northern Minnesota's logging and railroad industries. In fact, most people, whether they know it or not, have seen SerCo loaders on the back of logging trucks driving down Highway 61 on the way to paper mills in Duluth and Cloquet.

Knuckleboom loaders feature a hydraulically-operated loading boom. The mechanical action of the boom imitates the movement of a human arm with a pin-joint at the elbow, which makes them ideal for logging operations as well as other applications.

With more than 100 employees at the Two Harbors plant, THMS brings in a minimum of $7 million each year to the local economy. Since THMS builds each loader to order, each of those 10,000 machines was sold before they rolled off the line. The highly skilled trade jobs offered by the company are some of the most in demand jobs in Minnesota today and there is a developing shortage of workers for these positions. Complicating matters for THMS is the demand at taconite mines and processing plants for similarly skilled tradesmen.

"That's a lot of machines, especially from a small company like this," Williamson said. "It's a lot of people and the economic impact for this area is pretty big, as well."

The loaders are completely manufactured in Two Harbors, from the time the steel parts are formed, through the welding and assembly process all the way to the painting process. The plant has a large room in the back for the individual parts go through a shock blasting process to prepare them for primer and the signature black or orange paint.

SerCo loaders aren't just for the logging industry, however. Cities and municipalities have used them for storm cleanup and in their solid waste departments and there is a market for the loaders in the same taconite mines THMS competes with for those skilled trades.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb has been a reporter for the Pine Journal since October 2018. He previously worked as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle from 2015-2018. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. 

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