Portrait of a Forest

Tom Lathrop: Flooring for 20,000 Houses

“How come you sawmill people are always crotchety?”

Tom Lathrop, a fifth-generation lumberman along with his brother Jim, has a quick response. “In the flooring business, you have a thousand pieces of machinery that can break at any minute. Monday morning, someone doesn’t come in because they have ‘issues.’ You’re playing catch up the rest of the week. Then it’s raining and you can’t deliver. You have a million factors to make your day miserable. And you wonder why we are crotchety?” Over the past 25 years, Tom Lathrop has produced flooring for over 20,000 houses. Flooring, that by all accounts, is the gold standard for hardwood floors. And he is not always crotchety. “Oh gosh! Today was a great day. We put out a lot of flooring.”

I’ve Tried to Do it Well

"Unless you really know the lumber business through and through, I’d advise you not to go into the flooring business. The learning curve is too expensive. If you do, you have to like what you do. You’re like farmers or bakers. They rarely get rich. They do it because it’s labor of love and a love of hard work. I never went to college and this is all I know how to do. But I’ve really thought about it and I’ve tried to do it well. I love what I do and I’m going to miss it. It’s all I have ever known."

Sawing an Unknown

"Anyone can run a machine. But can you take the best face off that board at the right thickness? That separates the men from the boys. You’re cutting into something you can’t see. You’re looking for clues like grain and a big, dark heart that means the tree has been struggling. Some people never develop the sense that you’re not just sawing the outside of the log. You’re sawing what you believe is behind it. You’re sawing an unknown. I still get fooled and I’ve sawn millions of board feet."

Detail photos from left to right, above: Exclusively Vermont uses only Vermont timber grown almost entirely within a 40-mile range of the mill; near right, Sam Hutchinson has sawn lumber for Tom Lathrop for years and instinctively understands how to slice the beams that Tom sends him; near left, computers can maximize yields but don’t detect defects like knots and lack the human eye to highlight the grain and character of each board; far left, Lathrop’s stocks 200 varieties of flooring in 15-plus wood species.

Barry Burnham: I'll Stick with Diversification

Barry Burnham began helping his father in his home construction business during high school and joined him upon graduation in the early 1980s.Several years later, he set up his own shop to concentrate on cabinetry and fine furniture during slow spells. And in the late 1990s, he added a portable saw mill to cut timber for others and his own projects. Burnham only partly jokes that he has passed 50 and is still trying to figure out how to make a living in housing’s boom-bust cycles. “Whatever it is, it has always been about wood and where I can best spend my time. There have been times when the mill is real busy and building isn’t. Other times it has been just the opposite. “I’m still trying to figure out the best mix. For now, I’ll stick with diversification,” says Barry. Detail photos from right to left: The cut list is a sawyer’s blue print, left, in this case beams for a small sheep barn; center, good boards start with a level setup, a sharp blade, and a blade square to the cutting bed, and the fence square with the blade. Small errors quickly compound during the dozen-plus slices of a 20” log. 

It’s Just Cool

The building trades are really iffy today. There are so many builders. It’s a saturated market so you have to be diversified to weather the ups and downs. That’s why I like running the mill. It’s easy. You take this raw material and turn it into valuable lumber. It’s just cool. But I don’t think there is enough demand year round to making a living at it. 

The Lathrops: Six Generations

When Jim Lathrop took over the family business in 1994, he placed portraits of the four genera-tions that preceded him on the office wall (see detail photos, right). Noah (1848-1931) buys spruce-thick land in Bristol Notch in 1880, builds a water-powered mill, works the woods with oxen, and creates a very profitable niche by selling beams, framing, and fixtures for turnkey barns. William (1877-1958) a genius at setting up mills and then, restless, selling them and moving on to start another. Clarence (1899-1980) a part-time farmer with a portable sawmill. Like William he had a tinkerer’s knack and like Noah the entrepreneurial bent to expand the business. Claire (1922-1999) buys the portable mill from his father in 1944 for $3,500 and later begins sawing year round. With the help of his father, he builds a permanent mill in Bristol and expands it to be one of the largest mills in the state. Jim (1948-) takes over the business using his engineering background to create a state-of-the-art mill. After a fire in 2003, he transitions from saw logs to a chipping operation that is now the largest in the state. Jason (1972-) and Justin (1974-) who took over in 2014 are not yet on the wall. Jim’s advice, “Always have a Plan B.” Detail photos from left to right: Shot of Clarence, sawing in the mill behind his farm, 1940, Aerial shot of mill in 1987, Jim Lathrop portrait, Justin and Jason, Three sequence shot: A high-volume chipping operation is capital intensive, requiring grapple skidders, slashers, chippers and a fleet of trailer trucks. Photos of Lathrop generations courtesy of Tom Lathrop. 

You Have to Get Bigger

What it comes down to is in logging, just like dairy farming, you have to get bigger and mechanize in order to survive. There will always be a place for a guy who can cut 5-10-15 trees and do jobs that are too small to justify the expense of moving a lot of big equipment. But those little guys don’t cut enough to keep big mills going. 

You Pay Your Dues

I started like everyone else with a bulldozer and a chainsaw. That led to a newer bulldozer and a skidder and that skidder led to another skidder. And then I wound up with a log truck. One bulldozer led to three bulldozers. Two skidders led to four skidders. You pay your dues and work your way up. The only way you could start today and be a chipping operation like us is to have very deep pockets. Machinery is so expensive that if you buy top shelf, you won’t be able to make the payments. And you can’t just buy one piece because you need four or five pieces with it.

Transportation Eats Up All Your Profits

We used to have a global business with our sawmill, but it’s all local today. We cut our wood within 50 miles of Bristol and stay under 70 miles for delivery. Going east and west is very difficult because of the mountains. Transportation eats up all your profit and you have nothing left if you truck it any farther.

Tom Yager: Feeding the Beast

Foresters are the traffic cops of the woods. They evaluate wood lots for their economic potential and ecological value and develop management plans that combine sustainable cutting with habitat protection. But much of their mandate is to think generationally. How can today’s forests be improved by eliminating “weeds” and by promoting high-value species? Tom Yager, the dean of area foresters, has worked for A. Johnson in Bristol, one of the state’s largest mills, for 40-plus years. His job, very simply, is to “feed the beast”—a mill that directly employs 30-plus people and requires a constant diet of logs. The following documentation illustrates two of his jobs: laying out access roads to new wood lots, and planting pine seedlings for harvesting in 50-plus years. 

Most Don’t Read the Landscape

Most loggers think they can put in a road, but there are only a few who really know what they are doing. Most don’t read the landscape. They make the roads too steep or the turns too tight. They don’t get rid of the water the way they should. Ultimately, the old timers are the best because they have built a lot of roads and have a good feel for the machine and the earth. You need a lot of experience to be able to look at the ground, at the side of a hill, at the roots of trees, and then stick your blade in and get a feel for what you’re running over. 

The exhibit documentation illustrates two of his jobs: laying out access roads to new wood lots, above, and planting pine seedlings for harvesting in 50-plus years, below.

Tweeter Felion: The Old School

Lester Felion, known to all as “Tweeter,” is by all accounts one of the last of “the old school.” Born in Leicester, one of 11 children, Tweeter started logging after the 8th grade when his family could not afford high school tuition in neighboring Brandon. Sixty years later, he’s still at it. His crew hasn’t changed much—brother Ron for 40-plus years, son Lester Jr. for 30-plus years. Nor has his Yankee frugality—his bulldozer and skidder are well past being senior citizens of the forest. What makes Tweeter, Tweeter is his longstanding woods ethic: “Leave the woods better than you found them.”

 

“I Know What Hard Times Are” 

I was born in 1937 right after the Depression. I’m the oldest of 11 siblings, so I know what hard times are. When I started working on the cross cut with the old man, I was small and couldn’t bear on it. He’d pull that handle so hard that the blade would fly by and almost hit me in the head. And then I started with the axe, splitting wood, so my father wouldn’t have to when he got home. His axes were always sharp and if you messed up on ‘em, you’d get some good bruises to show for it. “Tweeter” Felion
 

Neg 6a Ned Tweeter 9-Edit.jpg

“The Old School Looked to the Future”

The old school looked to the future. They took out the trees that were big enough and had to come out. Then they’d go back in 20 years and do it again. So you always had regeneration. The old school knew you left it better for the next guy. There wasn’t so much of a rush then and guys still made money. “Tweeter” Felion

Steve Weber: I Like to Work

Unlike many loggers, Steve Weber does not have a family history of logging or farming. The son of a doctor, Weber grew up in sparsely forested Brooklyn. But by the time he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1962 with a degree in botany, he had a world of summer experience—cutting pulp and firewood with a French Canadian crew in Maine, clearing trees in New Hampshire for fire prevention and safety, running a choker cable in Alaskan spruce forests. Weber has a master’s degree in forestry from Yale, worked for paper companies for nearly a decade, and was the college forester at Middlebury College for 31 years. He insists that he is a forester first and an amateur logger second. Logging professionals disagree: “He is one of us.” 

Detail photos from right to left: The crew: Rick Laporte, left, on dozer; center, Steve on chain saw; right, T.J. Turner on skidder; center, know your escape route, generally a 45-degree angle from the stump; left, the longer the skid, the less the profit. An hour was the turnaround time in the distant reaches of Weber’s wood lot. 
 

Mike Quinn: I Have a Niche

Mike Quinn refers to himself as an anomaly in today’s logging world where profit can be pennies on pieces and bigger is better. Quinn, a self-described wheeler-dealer, is a throwback to the jack-of-all trades logger-farmer of the past. Winters, he cuts timber on his and others' wood lots. Sugaring time, he tends his 1,000-tap sugar bush. Summer is milling time at his backyard sawmill that was state-of-the-art 75 years ago. Summer and fall are haying time on his 200-acre East Middlebury farm. Raising heifers, 50 or so, is a year-round chore. “I’ll do anything where I can make a buck,” says Quinn of his patch-together-a-living lifestyle.

Detail photos from left to right: Winter sequence - Nineteenth century loggers cut mainly in the easier skidding months of winter. Economics today requires loggers to work in the field year round, with the exception of mud season. Sawmill sequence - Quinn’s many-hatted operation involves haying, logging, sawing, sugaring, and raising heifers all on his own land. Hemlock is a workingman’s lumber. Good enough for beams but not stable enough for higher-value cabinetry and furniture.