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Bristol lumber mill hurt by changing times

KEN JOHNSON, LEFT and Bill Sayre have helped run the A. Johnson Company in Bristol for decades. The family-owned business is now entering a new chapter, after closing its lumber mill and stopping retail sales this past winter. Independent photo/Steve James

BRISTOL — For more than eight decades, the A. Johnson Company’s Bristol lumber mill rang with the sounds of logs being sawed, sorted and sold to customers. 

Things are quieter at the site off Route 116 lately, as the company permanently closed its lumber mill this past November and wrapped up retail sales the following month. The decision to do so followed a particularly difficult year for the business, and the forest products industry as a whole, in 2023. 

General Manager and co-owner Ken Johnson acknowledged that the mid-sized manufacturer of boards simply lost a “technological arms race” to bigger or more specialized lumber companies.

While the closure of the mill marks a major change for the 117-year-old A. Johnson Company, it is also the beginning of a new chapter. The company plans to repurpose its mill site and will continue managing the forestland it owns, as well as promoting sustainable forestry and the benefits of timber harvesting. 

“It’s really disappointing after 117 years, but I do believe as one door closes another door opens. It’s just hard sometimes to see what that door is,” Ken Johnson said during a recent interview. 

MILL HISTORY 

Johnson’s great-grandfather Andrew founded the A. Johnson Company in eastern New York state in 1906 with his three sons and a small, portable mill. The family business eventually moved to Pike, N.H., in 1914 before relocating to Lake Dunmore four years later. 

Ken Johnson’s grandfather Fred moved the mill to its current site in Bristol in 1937. 

“When we started in 1937, that was the year before the ’38 flood,” recalled Bill Sayre, Johnson’s business partner and the real estate and finance advisor for the company. “It washed down the river quite a few of the logs and caused some other problems here, but it was quite the introduction to Bristol.” 

Some of the original 1930s-era buildings still remain on the property. Over the years, they’ve been joined by dry kilns, green and dry lumber sorters and various other pieces of machinery now spread across the 80-acres site. 

The mill has seen a lot of other change since its move to Bristol. The company began hiring professional foresters to manage its forestland in 1944, and around that time expanded from solely working with pine. 

“When my father came from back from World War II, he started steering the company toward hardwoods,” Johnson said, adding that the company produced both pine and hardwood boards until exiting the pine business a few years ago. 

KEN JOHNSON, GENERAL manager and co-owner of the A. Johnson Company, gives a tour of the recently closed mill in Bristol. Johnson’s great-grandfather in 1906 started lumber business, which has seen both signs of growth and challenges over the decades.
Independent photo/Steve James

Before it closed the mill, the A. Johnson Company produced high quality hardwood lumber for wholesale and retail markets. The mill was one of the largest in the state, sawing around 8.5-9 million board feet annually. 

The company sold both green (freshly cut, unseasoned) and kiln-dried wood. 

“One of the reasons we survived as long as we did is that we had dry kilns, and we made a living off of the price differential between green and dry lumber,” Johnson said. “And yet, our kilns are old and not very efficient, and that was one of the things we struggled with in terms of high costs.” 

CHALLENGES FACED

The mill has weathered several other challenges over the years, notably the pressure to remain competitive as a mid-sized mill. 

“There are the little guys, who are producing strictly for the local market, and there’s people who are hybrid and in between, which is what we were, and then there’s people who are producing for the international and national-volume production line,” Johnson explained. “We talked about for years that productivity and efficiency was rising so much that there wasn’t going to be a place in the middle, and it turns out that’s true. You can either serve the local market with higher margins, or you’ve got to compete on volume.”

To stay competitive, mills need to invest in newer, more efficient equipment and technology. 

“We started spending money to try and compete on volume, and we spent nearly $3 million putting in an optimizing edger, and it was great, yield went up, and we thought ‘Boy, we’re making progress,’” Johnson said. “But (a new mill built in New Hampshire), they spent $30 million on, and we can’t come up with that kind of money.” 

Johnson noted that the Bristol company’s efforts were still successful in many ways. 

“We improved productivity. We were selling more, and we got more out of each log,” he said. “But it’s a technological arms race, and we took it as far as we could.” 

Finding raw material has also been a challenge for the company. Running the mill requires a steady stream of hardwoods, a portion of which come from land A. Johnson Co. owns and manages. 

The majority of its supply comes from other wood lots. The company would often contract with logging crews and purchase logs from crews working their own lands. 

“We’re close to Canada so there’s a lot of pressure from the Canadian markets in terms of they buy logs from here,” Johnson said. “Quite a bit (of timber) goes north. A fair amount of logs get stuffed in cans and sent to Asia, and the rest of it stays local.” 

The company has also wrestled with increasing opposition to timber harvesting on national forest lands and some private land, Sayre said. 

“That’s our resource base,” he said. “If we don’t have a resource base, it doesn’t matter how good our machinery or people are.” 

Johnson and Sayre said they are committed to promoting the value of forest products and the benefits of sustainable timberland management, but acknowledge they face challenges in doing so. 

“We feel like we’re losing the battle with people who say, ‘Timber harvesting is bad,’” Johnson said. 

Some years have proven to be particularly difficult for A. Johnson Company. 

Johnson said the mill’s most challenging year came during the 2008 housing bubble. During that economic crisis, the company closed one of its two mills, reduced its production by about 50% and cut its staff of around 60 in half. 

“We downsized dramatically, by 50%, and losing good people is painful at any time and even more when the company is in crisis,” Johnson recalled. “We had to sell land to cope with the losses and that is also painful. Parting with land that we have managed for many years, under duress, is frustrating and left us less durable in the long run.”

This past year was another devastating one for the company, with difficult business conditions beginning in November 2022 and ultimately resulting in the closure of the mill. Lumber prices plummeted and abnormally wet conditions this past summer significantly limited the ability to harvest timber sustainably, leaving the mill with no raw material for production. 

‘A GREAT RUN’ 

Goodbyes are seldom easy, and Sayre and Johnson are candid about how this one has been particularly painful. 

“You don’t stay in a business for 117 years and not develop some close attachments,” Sayre said.

“And some close relationships,” Johnson added. 

Those relationships have been a highlight of running the family business for Johnson. 

“By far the most enjoyable part of running a company is the people we get to work with, some for many years,” he said. “There is nothing more rewarding on the job than good, close working relationships with people we like and respect, that we learn as much from as they learn from us.”

In closing the mill and retail sales, A. Johnson Company downsized its staff from 46 to six employees. Johnson said the state of Vermont helped the company’s former employees find new jobs when the mill closed. 

There are other aspects of the company’s history that stick out to Johnson. He noted that the A. Johnson team prioritized safety and that “efforts towards a safety conscious workforce remains one of the most important things we have done here.”

“For the mill, we started pushing safety more seriously perhaps 20 years ago. My brother David was the first one to take on responsibility for safety and we all started pushing much harder over the next few years,” he said. “It takes time to build a safety culture and I feel we were successful at that. Most of the credit goes to the employees for their embracing of safe work practices and the lockout/tagout process as the basis for workplace safety in our heavy manufacturing environment.” 

A. JOHNSON COMPANY General Manager Ken Johnson points out some of the saws formerly used by the lumber business. The company closed its mill this past November, following challenging business conditions in 2023.
Independent photo/Steve James

Johnson and Sayre have stories to tell about each part of the mill, and they shared many of them with this reporter during a tour this past Thursday. 

“We had a great run,” Johnson said, a sentiment repeated by both partners that afternoon.  

NEXT CHAPTER 

With the mill now closed, the company is focused on paying off the debt left after a challenging 2023. The team is working to sell its machinery and is exploring ways to repurpose the various buildings on the property, such as starting a storage business for boats, campers and other large items. 

“If we have nothing else, we have buildings, so we’re going to figure out what to do with space,” Johnson said. “We need to generate a source of revenue because in about a week all of the lumber will be sold and we’ve got zero income, except for a few log sales. We’re trying to figure out how to monetize this site.” 

One of the buildings on the property is already back in use. The former truck fleet shop has become home to the new McNally Truck & Auto Service, run by A. Johnson Company’s longtime fleet manager Loran McNally. 

“It’s going to continue to live a life as a maintenance shop, which gives me a little bit of satisfaction because this started as a maintenance shop in the 1930s,” Johnson said of the building. 

The company’s lumber yard is also being leased by Allard Lumber Company of Brattleboro. 

“They’re buying logs and will bring them wherever they find the best market,” Johnson explained. 

Moving forward, the company will continue managing the forestland it owns. Johnson and Sayre noted they also hope to continue educating people on the benefits of the timberland management and sustainable forestry. 

“We believe that one of the reasons that the biology and biodiversity (on A. Johnson land) is as robust as it is, is because of the way we’ve managed it,” Sayre said. “When you harvest, you create young forests and young forests provide shelter and food for many of the animals.” 

While the number of lumber mills in the state has declined over the years, Sayre and Johnson do not believe that will mean the end of the forest products industry. 

“Most everybody continues to value, and appreciate, and use wood and paper products,” Sayre said. “They’re part of our lives in ways we don’t even understand.” 

Looking ahead, the future of the forest products industry is something Johnson remains optimistic about. 

“I feel the forest products industry will remain strong, just with fewer mills,” he said. “There is a bright future in mass timber and overall for the fantastic renewable resource that forest products represents.”

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