As one of the owners of the T&S Sawmill in Clarendon, Arkansas, John Taylor has experienced the deaths of family members, two fires that destroyed the mill, rising gasoline prices, White River flooding that decimated acres of timber and of course, the COVID pandemic.
But like the oak, ash, pecan and other hardwoods his company harvests, the sawmill has remained resilient and is a Monroe County business landmark.
“It was a whirlwind,” Taylor said of the seeming endless hardships for the past two decades at the mill. “I had to grow up fast.”
Timber has been part of Taylor’s life since he was a child. Taylor, 44, was born in Memphis but moved to Dardanelle in Arkansas. He attended school in nearby Russellville, graduating in 1996.
The elder Taylor began his career in timber in 1947, stacking and learning to grade wood products at a mill in Bruce, Mississippi.
He then started Southern Squares Co. in North Little Rock in 1971, earning the nickname “The King of Squares.”
Ralph Taylor was called the “best salesman I had ever been around” in a 2018 article about the Clarendon mill in National Hardwood Magazine.
John, who went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, moved southeast to Clarendon after he graduated in 2000 and began working full time at the mill.
Then the hardships came.
In 2002, the mill burned. They rebuilt it, but just before it reopened, it burned again. Rather than closing, though, the Taylors opted to expand and upgrade the facility.
Taylor said at the time, he was the only member of the Taylor family working there. His father, Phil Taylor, would work in Memphis and return to Clarendon to check on the business on weekends. Eventually, he moved to Clarendon to work there full time.
“It was an interesting time,” John Taylor said. “I learned a lot in a quick amount of time.”
But then, the stretch of bad luck really hit.
Ralph Taylor died in 2013. Then, Phil Taylor passed away in 2015 and John’s brother, Adam Taylor, died a year later at the age of 41.
“He was my best friend,” John said of his brother. “Those deaths were completely devastating. We were going so well.”
In 2016, historic flooding occurred along the White River and much of the timberland T&S Sawmill relied on was submerged under the murky flood waters. The flooding had long-term effects: In addition to limiting access, the flooding pushed tons of sediment downstream, causing worse flooding later. The river channel was “clogged” with silt, and runoff from rainstorms couldn’t flow as easily.
It’s something that still irks Monroe County Judge Larry Taylor, who blames the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failing to dredge the river bottom to help channel water out quickly.
“There’s not been any dredging on the White River since 2006,” Judge Taylor said. “The maintenance on the White has been minimal.”
The county judge compared the river to having two 16-ounce cups. One cup is empty. The other is full of rocks.
“If you pour water into the cups, the one with the rocks will run over,” he explained. “It’s the same with the river.”
The silt and standing water has also damaged trees. Even if the river does go down, Taylor said, some of the dead timber is useless.
One of his major customers is Ashley Furniture. The furniture company buys gum, maple and elm from T&S Sawmill for its upholstered furniture products.
“They may want 16 loads from us,” Taylor said. “We may get six loads from our mill, another five from someone else and the other five from another mill.
“My granddad began brokering lumber,” he said. “He brokered from sawmills all over Arkansas.”
John Taylor has kept up with changes in the sawmill industry. The business is no longer simple board cutting like Grandpa’s old Virginia mill featured on the television show, The Waltons. Instead, workers now use a 3-D scanner to determine how much wood they can get from a log.
They cut about 100,000 board feet a day, Taylor said, from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., four days a week. Fridays, the mill closes for maintenance, then begins cutting again on Mondays.
T&S Sawmill averages over 25 million board feet a year.
Despite the hard work and the trials he’s faced over the past two decades, Taylor said he’s also seen interesting things in the timberlands.
He once discovered a huge fossilized tooth. He sent a picture of it to an archeologist at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville who determined it was from an oversized, 5-foot-tall prehistoric beaver that roamed the land and feasted on trees.
“There’s plenty of timber coming back to cut,” Taylor said.
T&S Sawmill, with its 50 employees, is one of the largest hardwood mills in the area, and it’s the largest employer in Monroe County.
“The mill brings in a lot for the community,” County Judge Taylor said. “They’ve been a great asset to us and they’ve drawn a lot of positive attention here.”
“If I play my cards right, I think we’ll be okay,” John said. “We’ve got it pretty dialed in now on how to do this.”