Lumber mill ceases production, focuses on river fight

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 18, 2008

NATCHEZ — The sawmill at J.M. Jones Lumber Company has grown quiet.

For the past week the mill house, normally filled with workers, has been filled only with silence.

Workers at the mill have stopped cutting lumber and started an all-out effort to keep the Mississippi from destroying their livelihood.

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Harold Jones’ father, Lee, owns the mill and it’s been in their family since 1911.

“I’m apprehensive,” Jones said standing on top of a visqueen covered levee.

The mill, at the bottom of Government Fleet Road, actually sits below the water level of the river.

“It’s like a big bowl,” he said. And that bowl is protected by a levee that’s showing signs of fatigue.

“That’s part of the problem right there,” Jones said pointing a large saturated patch of ground at the foot of one section of the levee.

The water has started to seep under the levee.

Jones said the mill was shut down earlier in the week because he suspects the massive vibration it generates is only worsening the seepage under the levee system.

Jones’ father said the after the flood of 1997 the levee that protects the mill was raised.

But while Jones said he’s fairly sure the levee has the height to weather the crest, projected at 57 feet by Monday, he’s not sure if the levee can withstand the pressure generated by the river.

To reinforce the levee, Jones said 60 percent of his 100-man workforce has started working fulltime on the levee.

At the rear end of the mill a dozen men fill bag after bag with dirt and load it into a pickup that goes directly to the levee where the sandbags are put in place or stacked for storage.

Jones and his crew has massed stashes of sandbags around the levee that can be thrown on a leaky spot in a moment’s notice.

As the men filled sandbags by hand; a backhoe loaded dirt into sacks the size of compact cars also to bolster the levee.

Jones said the company is currently using five bulldozers and one backhoe full-time to reinforce the levee.

Over 8,000 yards of dirt has been used so far.

The only mill related activity going on at the mill is the drying and grading of lumber.

But Jones said that activity can only last for so long before the company runs out of cut lumber to dry and sort.

“This is hurting us,” he said.

Jones estimated the company has already spent $100,000 in dirt, fuel and equipment already.

“We didn’t budget for this,” he said. “It all comes out of the bottom line.”

As the bottom line continues to suffer, its not yet clear if the hours of toil the mill crew has put in will even pay off.

Jones said if the river’s projected crest is raised much higher they’ll have to start moving everything out of the bowl of a work site.

Mountains of uncut logs and all the company’s equipment would need to be moved.

“That’s not going to be cheap,” he said.

The company, if their levee is breeched, stands to lose over 2 million board feet of lumber.

To help out, Adams County has donated five dump trucks to help the company haul dirt to fortify the levee.

Supervisor S.E “Spanky” Felter said he was pleased the county was able to help.

“A lot of men work down there,” he said. “We want to do what we can to help them out.”

Helping the effort on Thursday was John Young, a mill worker for 22 years.

Young said not since 1997 has the mill been in such danger.

“I’d rather be in the mill,” he said.

And while the jobs and future of the mill are uncertain, Jones is all too aware of the damage is having in the area.

He said the levee could likely withstand a 60-foot crest.

“But if that happens there’s going to be bigger problems than just J.M. Lumber Company.”