That's Mark Traeger's explanation for his family's success.

The Traeger family, long-time residents and business owners in this Willamette Valley town steeped in Catholic traditions and history, have turned a former Benedictine-run dairy farm into the largest manufacturer of barbecue grills west of the Mississippi River.

'In 1980, my father, brother and I were building wood pellet furnaces,' said Mark, whose father and brothers have always been tinkerers.

The story goes that in 1980, a local farmer walked into the offices of then-Traeger Heating. Carrying a tin bucket full of wood pellets, the farmer asked Joe Traeger if he could develop a way of burning the wood pellets to create heat.

Well, necessity is the mother of invention.

Within a couple of months, the elder Traeger had developed the first wood pellet furnace and eventually sold his invention to Oregon-based Earth Stoves, which was later bought out by Lennox.

In 1982, the Traeger family approached Mount Angel Abbey about purchasing the abbey's dairy farm, which had sat empty since 1964, except for one priest, Father Dominic Broxmeyer, who maintained an office in one of the outbuildings on the site.

After talks with Abbot Bonaventure, the site was sold to the Traegers, who now run a barbecue assembly line out of the old barn and feed houses. Staff offices are located in old cattle stalls. Their warehouse is an old barn, and the repair shop is in the old silo.

Father Dominic remained in his office even after the property was sold. He died in 2001.

'Father Dominic was part of the operation,' said Mark. 'We got along really well, and he was tickled to death that the farm was being used again.'

Family history

Fredric John Traeger and his family immigrated to the United States from Germany, settling in South Dakota in the early 20th century.

As the Traegers settled in their new homeland, they tried their hand at farming, blacksmithing and operating a tavern. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Traeger family moved to Mount Angel.

In 1939, Joe Traeger Sr. and his brother Tony opened a business called Traeger Brothers, a combination blacksmithñmetal-fab shop, trailer building facility and cabinet-making operation.

The brothers worked hard, and along with their perspiration came inspiration in the form of new inventions, including the 'stake setter,' 'pole bean stringer,' and 'screw-in-the-ground-anchor.' The two brothers died in 1953 and 1954.

In 1959, Joe Traeger Jr. began working with his uncle's heating business based in Mount Angel. Three years later, he took over the business, supporting a family of nine children. Sons Randy, Mark, and eventually Brian joined their father in this growing enterprise.

In 1978, Joe Jr. developed the Elf Wood Furnace, and the following year, he incorporated as EWF Corporation and began production of wood-fired furnaces. The Elf line would grow to a dozen different models.

In 1980, the Traegers licensed their wood stoves to Earth Stoves Northwest in Tualatin, but continued their HVAC business under the name Traeger Heating.

Birth of the barbecue

In 1985, the Traeger children were enjoying a Fourth of July barbecue in their father's backyard, hoping for some of Papa Joe's grilled chicken.

Stepping into the house for a few minutes, Joe Sr. returned to his deck and discovered his gas grill engulfed in flames. Frustrated, he kicked the grill and ruined chicken off the deck.

The next morning Joe walked into his business determined to build a better barbecue - one using wood pellets.

The first Traeger Wood Pellet grill rolled off the assembly line in 1988. That same year, the Traegers sold their HVAC business and licensed their central heating and boiler business to Even Temp Company in Nebraska.

Today Traeger Industries continues to refine and manufacture wood pellet barbecues, grills, and smokers.

The company sells six models of barbecue grills fueled entirely by wood pellets.

The company sells the wood pellet fuel, accessories, spices, barbecue sauces, meat rubs, aprons, T-shirts - if it's barbecue, it's at Traeger.

The company has 10 distributors of its products and its grills, which are showcased in 350 dealers nationally. They mostly sell to smaller dealers, refusing to do business with big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe's.

'Most of our grills are sold by word of mouth,' said Mark, who along with brothers Randy and Brian are actively involved in day-to-day operations of the business. Their sales have jumped 40 percent in the last four years.

Their biggest markets are in the Midwest - mainly Kansas, Iowa and Oklahoma. They also sell internationally in Canada, Germany and Japan.

Word of mouth may be a big reason for increased sales, but media exposure hasn't hurt any.

Six months ago, the Food Channel featured 25 episodes with a segment about Traeger Industries. Every Saturday afternoon from noon to 1 p.m., 750 KXL Radio airs Cooking Outdoors with Mr. Barbecue, hosted by Bruce Bjorkman, marketing director at Traeger Industries.

A former candy sales manager, Bjorkman enjoys working for a family-oriented company that brings culinary joy into people's lives.

'Imagine having your weekend passion become your full-time job,' said Bjorkman. 'This is a great place to work, the Traegers are great to work for, and we really produce a quality product made right here in the good old US of A.'

The company just signed a contract to build a private-label smoker for the Smith & Wesson company and plan do some branding on other grills.

Traeger builds one model out of its line of six every week. Last year they sold more than 12,000 barbecues. Next year they hope to sell 15ñ16,000.

The company produces a newsletter sent to customers that features pictures of customers and staff using their grills and lists of the latest accessories.

'There's no lighter fluid needed; it's safer than gas because there are no worries of an explosive element,' said Bjorkman. 'And safer than charcoal, because there is no huge fuel mass left over after you're done.'

For the town of Mount Angel's Oktoberfest, the company lent 12 of its small and custom-oversized barbecues to six different charitable organizations.

Some of its big commercial barbecue units have been sold to places such as Oaks Park and Busch Gardens in Florida.

The Traeger family now holds 52 patents on stoves, burners, barbecues and other items, Mark says.

Mark, who graduated from Willamette University in Salem, says classmates of his are scattered all over the country and world, working in strange cities and far from family.

Mark works in the town where he grew up, where he's been a football coach for the last 25 years both at Kennedy High School and now as the defensive coordinator at Silverton High.

'We have been totally blessed to be able to live and have a business in Mount Angel,' said Mark.

For more information on Traeger Grills, call the company at (800) 872-3437, or visit online.