April 2011

Sawmill in the Backyard

The Sacramento Mountains, tucked in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, hold some of the loveliest mountain vistas in the state. The communities of Cloudcroft and Ruidoso are meccas for thousands each summer fleeing from the heat in the surrounding areas, including many from Texas. There is little sign of timbering unless you travel the back roads, where huge trucks, piles of logs and colored tags catch the eye.

Logging in the Sacramento Mountains began before the Civil War, when cattlemen migrated from Texas to the open grasslands of southeastern New Mexico. The need for lumber for building homes and to supply the potash mines at Carlsbad soon led to timbering in the Sacramentos. Though a hard life, it seemed vastly superior to the vagaries of raising cattle.

In 1897, the El Paso and Northeastern Railroad, a new railroad running north from El Paso, hungered for immense amounts of timber for railroad ties and trestle timbers. Another new railroad, the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railroad was organized to run from Alamogordo to Cloudcroft, and the Alamogordo Lumber Company promised to operate a lumber industry in the Sacramentos.

By 1899, the Alamogordo Lumber Company had established a new sawmill on the west side of the railroad yards in Alamogordo. The Alamogordo and Sacramento laid its rails on the way up the mountain, using ties supplied by the new timber industry.

Early logging used hand saws to fell trees, and horses and mules to haul timbers to the railroad and thence to the mill in Alamogordo.

Hardy sawyers, Willie and Hervel Guiliams, the Winters’, Homer Sessions, John Mershon, and others all operated sawmills and planers in the Sacramentos from 1920 until World War II. Later, Charlie Denton operated the Valley Lumber Company in Mayhill during the 1970s while Bob Melton’s sawmill operated way up the Aqua Chiquita.

About 1920, a family known as the Dees was running cattle in the Pie Town area. Settlers there needed lumber to build homes. Eventually, Roe Dees decided logging was a better way to make a living than raising cattle. To haul his logs he used a buckboard wagon, drawn by a 1935 DS35 International truck.

Roe’s son, Frank, eventually moved the sawmill to the Black Range, 65 miles west of Truth or Consequences in the Gila Forest. His son, Frank, Jr., joined him in the business.

Frank, Jr., first located the Dees Sawmill in Cloudcroft about 1946, to saw the-by-then outdated railroad trestle timbers into lumber, again for the potash mines in Carlsbad. Potash is mined from underground salt deposits which contain a mixture of potassium chloride, langbeinite, sodium chloride, and other impurities. Potassium compounds are used in fertilizer, for bleaching textiles, making glass and in making soap. The mines at Carlsbad are located 800 to 1,500 feet below the surface.

The Great Depression hit the logging industry in the area in 1930, and in 1939 Breece Lumber Company sold its logging railroad for scrap. By 1947, trucking had proved more economical than shipping logs by rail, and most of the old trestles were abandoned, the rails sold for scrap.

When a fire burned the Dees’ mill in the Gila National Forest to the ground in the early 1940s, the whole family moved to Alamogordo, eventually reopening their sawmill in Laborcita Canyon. Power lines were under construction from La Luz to Bent at that time, and the Dees helped clear timber for the path.

In 1949, the Dees opened a sawmill in Spud Patch Canyon between James Canyon and Silver Springs. The U.S. Forest Service, under pressure from environmentalists, soon closed access to logging and sawmills in all national forests, and the Dees sawmill was moved to its present location at 2567 U.S. Highway 82, east of Cloudcroft.

Bill Dees bought the sawmill from his father, Frank Dees, Sr., in 1953 and has since automated the operation. While his father hired 14 men, Bill functions efficiently with one or two helpers. He sells lumber to different locations, including truckloads for the potash mines at Carlsbad.

Bill and Pauline Dees have lived with Dees Sawmill in their backyard since they were married in 1956. Their children all grew up in the Sacramento Mountains. Bill says since he bought the sawmill in 1953 he has seen numerous sawmills come and go, perhaps as many as 50 over the years.

Bill’s oldest son, Joel Lynn, has helped his father in the mill but currently planes house logs. Bill says his grandson, Joshua, is also a good hand who knows all the sawmill operations. Operating a sawmill is a hard business and though Dees Sawmill produces 500,000 board feet (bf) each year, current availability of logs makes the future unpredictable. (A board foot is basically a piece of lumber 1 foot wide, 1 foot long, and 1 inch thick–though is often applied in intricate formulas). Joel Lynn could be the fourth generation of Dees to run the mill and one of the grandsons, Joshua, might even be a fifth generation.

The other sizeable sawmill remaining in the Sacramentos is Chippeway Lumber located 10 miles west of Weed. In 1952, Phil Fuller bought the mill from the Ellison family and has worked the mill since. Chippeway trucks logs to its sawmill, and sells lumber to local markets including wholesale lumber to Roswell. Fuller buys logs from private lands and produces 600,000 bf in a typical year. His sawmill hires 8 to 10 people, and Fuller, who is currently dealing with health issues, says his longtime foreman will take over mill operations.

Forest Service regulations prompted by environmentalists, concerns for endangered species, and forest grazing permits have affected logging for years with various environmental groups pushing to protect endangered plant and animal species and concerns for water.

Bill Dees complies with New Mexico laws affecting private property over 25 acres or more. Regarding the current Forest Service plan to allow loggers to harvest only small trees, Dees believes in leaving some small trees, which are considered “trash,” to grow into large trees creating a balanced forest environment.

According to the Associated Press in February 2011, the U.S. Forest Service announced it is revising its planning rules to take more control over national forests and find more common ground between industry and conservation groups.

Meanwhile the Dees and Fuller sawmills continue in a pattern and profession that has been a good way of life for generations of loggers living and working in the Sacramentos


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