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Cross Section of an Alabama Mainstay

Variety, craftsmanship and straight-up utility characterize Alabama’s largest natural resource-based industry—a welter of enterprises that turns out sycamore church pews, red oak coffins, longleaf pine poles, hand-carved toys and butterflies.

Bruce Johnson examines workmanship on a church pew at Dumas Manufacturing in Grove Hill.

Bruce Johnson examines workmanship on a church pew at Dumas Manufacturing in Grove Hill.

Photos by Dennis Holt and Steve Gates

From church pews to utility poles to executive toys, Alabama’s wood and wood products industries are hanging on during a tough economy. It’s a natural for the state that ranks second in the nation for commercial forestlands, with 23 million acres.

The forest industry is the state’s largest manufacturing industry, ranks fourth for exports at $1.16 billion in 2010 and is a consistent source of investment, according to statistics compiled by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. Pulp and paper, lumber and wood, furniture and fixtures represent the lion’s share of the multi-billion dollar industry.

Dumas Manufacturing, in Grove Hill, has been part of the mix since it was founded by Ivy Clay Dumas in 1928, says Bruce Johnson, now general manager for the 45-employee firm that makes church fixtures from pulpits and communion tables to pews, tithe boxes, wall crosses and baptismal fonts, as well as courthouse benches and more.

The company’s pews accommodate church-goers and court personnel from Alaska to Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, even the show crowds at the Grand Ole Opry—a project they won because of their age and experience and which Johnson describes as a tribute “to our continued commitment to quality and customer service.”

Dumas crafts benches from southern red oak and sycamore—red oak from Linden Lumber Co. just 50 miles from Grove Hill and sycamore from swamps and river flats throughout the Southeast. 

 Ralph Hardwick works with hand tools to create Toys for CEO.

It’s tough these days, Johnson says. First, churches don’t have the money they once did, because banks don’t want to loan them money and church members are out of work. Moreover, every job prospect attracts more competition than ever before—some using the internet in lieu of face-to-face sales calls. But the firm has responded by adding a line of outdoor benches to its array of fine indoor seating, and just finished a 1,200-linear-foot project for the open-air Church in the Pines on Lake Martin.

Dumas isn’t alone in using creativity to weather the economic storm.

T.R. Miller Mill Co., in Brewton, for example, is one of the state’s major players in the wood products industry. The company employs 200 workers and generates $55 million a year in sales of lumber, wood specialty products and utility poles. Established in 1872, the company sawmill is one of the largest in the United States. Its products are made from quality Southern pine, primarily grown in Alabama.

While construction materials account for about 60 percent of T.R. Miller’s production, its treated utility pole production is significant, says Danny White, president and chief executive officer of the company. The company is one of the top 10 largest producers of poles in the country, some of which it exports. 

Ralph Hardwick works at his home in Hoover and at the Alabama Woodworkers Guild workshop in Maylene.

Because its product lines are so tied to new home construction, even utility pole production, the company continues to work to weather the lackluster construction market. “We’ve been here since 1872, so this is not our first economic downturn. We’re in the right place with the right people, so we believe a bright future is ahead of us,” White says.

Alabama wood is such a versatile resource that little has to go to waste. Cherokee Wood Products, in Piedmont, takes oversize pulpwood not suitable for the production of toilet tissue and uses it to make shavings for barns and poultry houses.

The company was established in 2009 in association with sister company Cherokee Timber Co., a wood broker that buys from small Alabama and Georgia wood producers and sells to manufacturers of wood products from paper to furniture. “We’ve got 27 employees and wanted to create a business to keep them working during down times. It’s worked out pretty well for us the last few years,” says Lavonda Burns, vice president of the company, which also operates a wood yard.

Caskets, custom furniture, kitty litter and biofuel also play a role in Alabama’s wood products business line.

But wood products are definitely not all work. They’re also likely to end up in toys or fanciful arts and crafts.

Sometimes the products bridge the work-play gap.

Ralph Hardwick, of Hoover, creates Toys for CEOs—vintage cars, airplanes and such destined for the director’s desk.

“Wood is attractive and durable, as well as renewable. It’s a great material to work with,” says Hardwick. He and other members of the Alabama Woodworkers Guild, who have a workshop in Maylene, also create toys to donate to patients of the Children’s Hospital. “Those children may be in the hospital for months in some cases, so the toys help keep them entertained,” Hardwick says. 

Some of the toys crafted by Hardwick and others at the Alabama Woodworkers Guild are given to patients at Children’s Hospital.

The retiree first began making wooden toys for his son 20 years ago, but then his son grew up. Now Hardwick sells his handiwork at PrimeTime Treasures in Homewood, a nonprofit consignment shop run by the Assistance League of Birmingham. He uses walnut, maple and ash wood from Alabama, sometimes in combination with more exotic woods from as far as Africa. “At least 90 percent of the wood I use is from Alabama,” he says.

PrimeTime showcases many other types of wood products made by Alabama senior artisans, including outdoor and indoor furniture, fine art quality inlaid wood bowls and boxes, crosses and novelties.

Nico Giampietro, of Nico’s Custom Woodwork in Selma, uses wood from Alabama and across the world to build custom cabinets and furnishings. “Alabama has some beautiful woods, including red and white oak, as well as walnut, poplar and ash,” he says. “Oak is one of my favorite woods, because it’s strong and lasts for a long time.”

Born in Italy, Giampietro began working with wood as a young boy and established himself as an expert craftsman over time. Later he worked in Germany enhancing his woodworking knowledge while there. He moved to the United States in 1984 to help out his sister and ended up staying and establishing a woodworking studio in Selma. “We’re a small operation, and most of our customers come from word of mouth,” he says.

In addition to his fine cabinetry and furniture, Giampietro also is known for the large wooden swallowtail butterflies he created to enhance Selma’s image as the Butterfly Capital of Alabama. Nico’s studio built 47 six-foot butterflies in 2008 that were painted by various local artists and placed around town. More recently, the Huntsville Botanical Garden commissioned him to create 35 butterflies for the gardens.

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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