October 29, 2020

Sawmill business reveals ‘God’s art in wood’

MORGANTOWN, Miss. (AP) — In the middle of the woods on his parents’ property in the Morgantown community, Mark Henry sits on a stack of freshly cut oak columns for a water break.

To his right are the tools of his side hustle — a Wood-Mizer LT 40 commercial grade sawmill and the tractor he uses to move the logs to the saw and the 9-by-9-inch, 10-foot long columns aside to dry. To his left sits his son-in-law, Cameron Scott, conscripted for stacking duty while visiting from North Carolina.

Behind Henry, stacked neatly, are oak boards that will one day make up the home he and his wife plan to build in northeast Tennessee. The oak columns, however, are for someone else’s front porch.

”(The house in Tennessee) is the main reason I got the sawmill,” said Henry, owner and operator of Square Tree Milling. “Then people found out I had one.”

The 62-year-old Henry’s day job as a rotating equipment engineer — what he described as a “jazzed-up mechanic” — keeps him on the road. When he’s home in Oktibbeha County, he mostly takes the saw out to the Morgantown farm where he grew up, about three miles south of Sturgis, and cuts for himself or for clients who bring him logs for a specific project.

But it’s nothing for Henry to fold up the sawmill, hitch it to the back of his pickup and drive to Noxubee County, the Delta or Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to saw lumber for clients on site.

He and Scott have even twice hauled the equipment to jobs in North Carolina.

“All my time I’m not working, I could be doing this,” Henry said. “Only in the winter time, when it’s messy and sludgy, do I not have work.”

He’s come a long way from a few years ago when he watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos to learn the sawmilling craft. Then one day he found a dealership with the machine he wanted, at a better price than he expected, and snapped it up.

“On the way home I called my wife and told her, ‘I bought a sawmill,’” he recalled, laughing. “You know how men do things.”

The logs he cuts are all species — pine, oak, cedar, maple, walnut (Henry notes “we’re really good with walnut”). Sometimes clients are building or remodeling houses. Other times, they are building furniture or other specialty items.

For Henry, per his business slogan, “Revealing God’s art in wood,” it’s as much about the beauty of the boards as it is their assigned function. Wood from dead or dying trees tends to have the prettiest grain, he said, and the longer they sit before cutting, “it makes them even more beautiful.”

“What people call junk logs, that’s where the beauty is,” Henry said. “You never know what’s inside. God puts it there and we reveal it.”

Aged oak is Henry’s favorite.

“The colors,” he said, “it’s just like a rainbow inside.”

Scott jokes that by virtue of marrying Henry’s younger daughter, Shelli, he’s “got no choice” but to help his father-in-law when he can. Really, though, he doesn’t mind.

His grandfather, Scott said, went out west with the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. He still remembers hearing his grandfather’s stories about logging massive fir trees in Oregon, and he enjoys getting a small taste of what that was like.

“The Lord really blessed me with this family,” Scott said of the Henrys. “I wish I could work with Mark more often. Every time I do, I learn something new.”

Scott keeps with him a trinket of his time at the sawmill, a tissue box he made from a bit of ambrosia maple he and Henry cut in North Carolina. A hurricane had blown the trees down, and the marble-like wood grain caught Scott’s eye.

Meanwhile, a fungus is taking some of the oaks on the Henry property in Morgantown, making them prime candidates for Mark to not only cut boards for his house but also leave his signature on the family farm.

“There’s an old barn here that it took three generations of the Henry family to build,” he said. “Now, I’ll be restoring it.”

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