It began as a hobby for T.E. Johnson and morphed its way into a business. Now, in just a few days, it will cease to exist.
Earlier it was announced to employees and customers T.E. Johnson Lumber in Four Oaks will close its doors for good.
The announcement came from the late Mr. Johnson’s granddaughter and operations and financial manager, Heather Clifton, who has been with the company for 23 years. Ms. Clifton has overseen the sawmill for the last two years.
“This marks the end of an era,” she said. “We appreciate the dedication and friendships we have made with our customers over the years They have meant a lot to us and always will be a great part of the memories that will remain.”
For one employee, Ed Austin, it’s also a big chunk of his life that will simply end.
“This place is really going to be missed in this community,” he said. “I don’t know where there’s another sawmill anywhere around here that you can buy one piece of wood or a truckload.”
Known for its high-quality lumber and building material products, which were sold directly to the public, the company continued to serve Four Oaks and the surrounding area regardless of economic cycles by employing local individuals and supporting local community activities and charities.
Soon, the mill’s remaining inventory will be liquidated as part of the closure.
The end might be simple, but for Mr. Austin it will be anything but. He might not admit it, but when you talk to him about the impending closing, you detect a sadness in his voice.
And why not, he’s spent the majority of his working life — all the way back to when he was about 12 years old — doing what Mr. Johnson asked and, after his passing in 2014, what the family asked.
Considered A Father
Respect for Mr. Johnson still runs deep within Mr. Austin. He considers the man who ran the business from its official inception in the 1940s until his passing a father.
“Mr. Johnson was more of a daddy to me than anybody else,” he said. “There were four of us. I was the middle one, I’ve got two sisters younger than I am and a brother older than I am, so I caught all the you-know-what, being in the middle.”
His father took his own life when Mr. Austin was just 6 years old and it didn’t take long once the two united for the bond to form.
“I worked my way through high school. I was the only one out of the four that actually graduated high school,” he said. “I come over here, I was about 12, started looking after the hogs, the cows, making the feed and doing this and doing that.”
Back then Mr. Austin began his days working on the farm before heading to school.
“I’d get up and tend to the hogs and cows in the morning, then I’d carry a load of slag to Benson before I went to school,” he said. “I met one of the student teachers on the road. She was coming this way and I was going toward Benson. I got to school and she would say, ‘Didn’t I see you this morning?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes.’”
In the time before the sawmill became a full-time plant, Mr. Austin recalled how his mentor would spend almost every day at the site.
“He went off to school at Mars Hill and his daddy got sick and they sent after him and he came back and he was here ever since,” Mr. Austin said. “This thing here was more of a hobby to him. He would work hard and I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
Mr. Austin said there was hardly a day that went by that Mr. Johnson wasn’t at the sawmill.
“You could find him out here on Sunday, on Saturday and he would stay out here late,” Mr. Austin said. “Overall, he was a good man.”
Tom Johnson, son of T.E., echoed Mr. Austin’s sentiments about how much time his father spent at the mill.
Before he passed away at the age of 89, the senior Mr. Johnson had continued to serve the customers with a quick joke and answers to any questions they might present about lumber and building materials. All while remaining the face of the business.
“T.E. grew up with the work ethic of his generation and the only day that he considered a holiday was Christmas Day,” the younger Mr. Johnson said. “He could always be found at the mill.”
The elder Mr. Johnson could be seen, not only guiding young Ed in the ways of work, but Mr. Austin said he could be seen many times cheering him on while he played ball or rode in rodeos.
“If I was playing ball of a night, he’d go,” Mr. Austin said. “In ’65 I started rodeoing a little bit locally and he went to some of the rodeos I participated in. You can’t compete with the judges and the competition, so I gave it up.”
Mr. Austin began by working on the farm that once took up the majority of the property that now contains the sawmill.
And when the last board is cut he will shut down the planer that he’s been running for many years and take a couple of weeks off.
“I’ve been on this hill for 60 years, give or take,” Mr. Austin said referring to the site where most of the actual cutting takes place. “I’ve been working about 52 years, they tell me. Really and truly it hasn’t hit me.”
Then, he says he’ll probably look for a job where he can work a few days a week to stay busy.
“A buddy of mine mentioned something about going to Fort Worth after they have the sale here,” he said. “I might just take him up on it. Leave here on a Thursday and come back on a Monday. I’ve never been to Texas. I’ve been all the way to California, but I’ve never been to Texas.”
Joining Mr. Austin in longevity at the lumber company is a handful of dedicated workers who have been the heart and soul of the company.
They are the men that go unseen each day and a group of men that Ms. Clifton feels deserves recognition for their contributions.
Carl Degraffenried, who you can see tending to the logs, running a loader or a plethora of other tasks.
For 23 years Juan Garcia has been at the mill. His primary job now is filling the role of sawyer — the man who runs the big saws that cut logs into boards. He plans to take a job with another company that will see him become the yard manager.
The men who keep the logs rolling into the mill, stacking wood, cutting wood and doing just about everything imaginable in a sawmill include Javier Teniente, who has been with the company for 15 years. He is joined by other long-time employees, Juan Rosas, who’s spent a dozen years in the mill along, with Patricio Angel Ramierez and Juan Santiago.
Joining the sawmill crew in keeping the business going were longtime salesmen Ross Barefoot and John Adams along with office manager Melissa Higgins.
The sawmill could have come to a close much earlier when a fire nearly wiped out the sawmill in 1973. But thanks to the efforts of the staff on hand at the time, things got back on track.
“I think in 1973 it got burnt out, then in ’74 we worked our butts off putting up that shelter right up there,” Mr. Austin said pointing to the shed that now houses where the sawyer works. “We put it back and put all of our equipment under it and cranked it up.”
That proved to be a launching pad for the sawmill. One that catapulted the business into what it is now as it stands ready to cease operation.
“It’s going to be a difference when it actually closes,” he said. “I think they’re going to take down all the buildings.”
As for the closing of the mill, there’s still business to be tended. Ms. Clifton asks that all outstanding balances be paid in full by March 25 to help expedite the process.
She also expressed her desire to thank all of the longtime and new customers that have been a part of the T.E. Johnson Lumber Company family for the last 70 plus years.