THE HISTORY OF BENNETT LUMBER
Family Owned and operated for over 80 years.
James Bennett started Bennett Lumber in the 1930’s in Edwardsville in
Cleburne County. The first sawmill used oxen to pull the wood. “When he first started, he began cutting rough green cross ties and they were loading them right on the side of the main line. They would come in there at night and spot 2-3 rail cars that were next to a hill. They would put some poles down, and they would roll those cross ties over by hand,” said Bennett. In 1947, J.W. Bennett stepped down and handed over the company to his son J.O. Bennett. J.O. took the company a step further by adding a dry kiln and a planer mill.
The third James Bennett graduated from Oxford High School in 1967, where he was a member of the football team that won the County Championship. After graduation, Bennett headed to Jacksonville State University and graduated in 1971 with a degree in Management Economics. He returned to Piedmont that year, and has been working at the Piedmont sawmill ever since. “I was helping my dad in the office and working on the yard. Back then, they were cutting railroad materials.
Since 1983 James W. Bennett has been holding the reins of the company. Bennett Lumber Company has made many enhancements to diversify the company, with the changing market. James added another planer, and a Re-Man plant. He said, “we started pre-cutting parts that were low grade and some furniture parts. I added more equipment, built a 40,000 square foot building, and eventually it evolved into a full blown reman plant. We were making deck components, banister spindles and step stringers, handrails and that type of thing.”
Right about the time the reman plant was really starting to pick up business, a fire destroyed the entire building. Fortunately, the company had a planer mill that could be converted into a reman plant and some work could continue. However, the building that burned housed all the equipment used in the reman plant, so the company suffered some major set backs. Lee said, “ I was in my junior year at Jacksonville. I had to drop a bunch of classes. It was terrible. Just for the record, college professors don’t care if your business burns down.” Two people were eventually charged and convicted of arson.
The company pivoted and found another way to make money despite the burned down reman plant. “I went to Lowe’s. I saw this substrate that they made for a threshold. They had aluminum over the bottom of the threshold of the door. I was looking at it and that substrate was made of southern yellow pine. They were molding it. I started calling people and hunting businesses,” Bennett said. Those companies gave Bennett a chance to compete for their business and the company continued to diversify.
“It’s hard to get in when you are cold calling people. So in the meantime, I got my pilot’s license and bought a multi-engine airplane and a I helicopter. I would just get in sometimes and just go out and call five or six people and then come back in the afternoon. I built business up like that,” he said. They also looked for ways to cut costs. Bennett got a gas bill from the City of Piedmont for $30,000. In order to avoid future bills of that magnitude, he added an additional kiln and wood fire boiler to burn shavings, they eventually did away with the gas dry kiln all together.
Lee Howard is the future of Bennett Lumber, but don’t think you’re getting rid of James anytime soon. “My retirement plan is simple: I’m gonna be hauled off by the rescue squad off this yard. Lee’s carrying a lot, well most of the load now and I’m lucky to have him really. I see so many of these family businesses go into the next generation and a lot of them don’t make it to the third or fourth generation. The siblings just don’t have the interest, and they don’t have the commitment to hang in there and make things work. I’m glad that Lee is here to carry on, and he’s got the connections and he’s willing to be here. He doesn’t work Saturdays like I used to though,” said Bennett. Whether Lee works weekends or not it is exciting to see Bennett Lumber carrying on as a family business for a fourth generation.