Small-time mill turns a profit for operatior

By Jack M. Willis
Journal Correspondent

Paul Churchman, a denim-clad 50-year old, ramrods a four-man operation called The Wood Shed, Inc. on a three-acre site on US 167 in Grant Parish, just south of Bentley, Louisiana. He doesn't mince words when he declares the reason he went into groundhog sawmilling was because he got tired of working for "the other fellow."

Today's modern urban sprawl consists in some areas of factories, plants or mills, devoted in a big way to the assimilation, processing and manufacture of wood by-products--be it paper or building construction materials. So now it is very unusual to discover a vanishing remnant of Americana erroneously known throughout the Deep South as the "peckerwood" or "groundhog" sawmill.

The names "peckerwood" or "groundhog" basically designate the same type of sawmill--hinting that they are small, mobile fabrications and are usually set up for short durations of sawing. The word "peckerwood" is probably derived from the fact that woodpeckers basically flit from tree to tree, and the term "groundhog" alludes to the fact that when the mills moved out, they usually left a pile of sawdust behind, with neither version enjoying any degree of permanency.

Sometimes these kinds of mills were referred to as "tie and plank" mills with the earlier versions coming into existence in the late 1930's after the big timber barons had effectively "cut out". There were still small tracts of timber the big mills didn't feel were economically feasible to harvest, plus some smaller land owners who had sizeable timbered tracts from which they were ready to harvest, since the demand had risen for saw logs and lumber, especially with the onset of World War II.

These small mills basically consisted of a carriage, a circular "head" saw and possibly a trim or cut-off saw. Saw logs were hauled to the mill on old steel-wheeled Lindsay log wagons filched from corporate sawmills long shut down, or on two-ton "bob-tailed" log trucks. The logs were skidded up adjacent to the carriage with mules or an old farm tractor, and rolled into position onto the carriage manually utilizing cant hooks or peaveys. The mill was frequently powered by an old Ford flat-head engine.

But believe it or not, up-graded versions of these relics of days gone by still occasionally dot the landscape and are manhandled by hardy entrepreneurs who choose to still fight the decades-old regimen of dust, noise, fumes and inclement elements, to eke out a living, and consequently are much to be much admired.

Paul Churchman, operator of The Wood Shed, Inc., was born in Colfax in 1956, graduated from Dry Prong High School in 1974 and did like a lot of young men at the time--went off-shore. He spent over nine years in the Gulf while working up to the enviable position of derrick hand before "spooling" it up and going to work for Arkansas Power & Light, laboring in Arkansas and Missouri. Churchman's ex-father-in-law owned the sawmill which he had run only as a hobby. In 1995 he sold it to Paul, lock, stock and barrel--or in his case, a sawmill, planer and dry kiln.

Paul has since added a forklift, two sheds which furnish over 1200 square feet of cover plus another building which serves as a business office, lounge area for the employees, and warehouse spacing. He utilizes about three employees who come and go between other jobs, or laborers who drop by needing a job for a "grubstake", and then they're gone.

The only incentive Paul needed to make the plunge into being his own boss was that he heard about a four-head shaper-molder saw for sale which he bought sight unseen because he knew he could attack a saw log on four facets at the same time. It was an antiquated, resin-saturated, 1956 model, which after a six-week long vigorous cleaning and refurbishing cycle now runs like the proverbial Singer sewing machine--and he still operates the device four days a week.

Today Churchman doesn't just saw logs--but does a lot of matching of out-of-production species or types of wood products. Contractors bring in a sample of the wood product they want reproduced, specifying the amount and Paul goes to work. At times, he has to be both innovative and inventive, contriving and fabricating a special tool to render a certain end product.

One bit of machinery he's ordered, and is currently under production, is a new version of a sawmill which will handle a log 12 feet long and up to five feet in diameter, and should he want to get into cypress lumber production this will enable him to do so with a vengeance. He hopes to bring it on line in early 2007. At the present time his production is limited by his relatively small dry kiln, which never shuts down. This shortfall results in having to sub-contract some lumber drying jobs to other mills in the area with larger dry kilns.

Finally Churchman stated, "I'm not getting rich by any means, but I'm making a living. Even this small industry is governed by the same principle that regulates the larger corporate mills--that being supply and demand. Like I've said before, I like waking up every morning knowing that I'm going to be my own boss."