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Woodwork: J.W. Jones finds niche in changing industry

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Robert Pippen Jr. speaks to the Northeast Family Research Society about J.W. Jones Co., and the sawmill industry during a presentation at Museum of the Albemarle last Sunday.

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By Reggie Ponder
Staff Writer

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Elizabeth City’s J.W. Jones Lumber Co. has weathered enormous economic and technological changes in the industry over the past half-century and remained in business as once-thriving competitors have closed their doors.

Sawmills and the lumber industry in northeastern North Carolina were the topic of a presentation Sunday at Museum of the Albemarle to the Northeast Family Research Society. Robert Pippen Jr., a retired vice president of J.W. Jones Lumber Co., gave the presentation with morale support and additional historical detail from J.W. Jones Jr.

Jones owns and operates J.W. Jones Lumber Co. Inc., in Elizabeth City and Mackeys Ferry Sawmill Inc. in Roper.

Pippen explained that his presentation was based on things he had observed and experienced over the past 50 years.

Growing up around logging and lumber with a father who was a logger, Pippen became interested in wood products at an early age, and after graduating from high school and completing two years at College of The Albemarle he went to N.C. State University to study forestry.

Pippen graduated from N.C. State in 1971 and became a registered forester in North Carolina. He returned to Elizabeth City and worked initially for the Chesapeake Company.

One afternoon Pippen was at Jones Lumber Co. and the owner told him he was interested in buying Williams Lumber Co. in Mackeys Ferry — if Pippen would run the operation, Pippen recalled. In 1987 Jones bought Williams Lumber Co. and Pippen went to work for Jones.

In 2014 Pippen retired from working full-time at Jones Lumber Co. but still works there part-time. He said he enjoyed his 28 years at Jones Lumber Co. and continues to enjoy his part-time work there.

Pippen noted that at one time there were numerous sawmills in Weeksville. “Of course they’re all long gone,” he said.

There were a number of large sawmills and chip mills in Elizabeth City when he was starting out, Pippen said, including Chesson Lumber Co. and John Wood Foreman’s Elizabeth City Veneer Co.

Carolina Excelsior Co. was located on U.S. Highway 17 South in Elizabeth City and produced excelsior — wood shavings used as packing material in shipping containers, he said.

Of the several sawmills that once operated in the Morgans Corner area, only J.W. Jones Lumber Co. is still in operation, Pippen said.

There were sawmills, chip mills and wood yards throughout northeastern North Carolina 40-50 years ago 

“We’ve had just numerous, numerous, numerous sawmills,” Pippen said.

The area also had a large contingent of loggers. Just a few decades ago there were 20-25 loggers within a 30-mile radius of Elizabeth City, and most farmers also did some logging, Pippen said.

Today, J.W. Jones Lumber Co. is the only independently owned pine sawmill east of I-95 in North Carolina, according to Pippen.

As part of his presentation to the group, Pippen displayed a slide of logs being pulled by teams of oxen, which was a common practice before the industry became more mechanized.

And logs used to be loaded by hand, he said. “It was a dangerous job,” Pippen said.

Pippen showed a slide of an early chainsaw, which took two people to operate but was a “Cadillac” for people used to sawing logs with a hand saw.

J.W. Jones Co. has survived in a changing industry by focusing on niche markets and specialty products, Pippen said.

He distributed among the group samples of flooring and stair steps that are cut by J.W. Jones. “We sell tractor-trailer loads of this,” Pippen said.

Pippen said the company has developed a base of customers who depend on the products it supplies.

Perhaps surprisingly, North Carolina is growing more timber than it was 25 years ago — even accounting for substantial development that has taken acreage out of production, according to Pippen.

“Timber is still growing,” Pippen said. “We’re growing more than we’re cutting.”

Timber is now treated like a crop and managed accordingly, he said.

Pippen said J.W. Jones Co., takes a lot of care in the drying and machining of its lumber. The company is always striving to improve, he added.

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