Saturday, March 20, 2010

Closing of Cowls Sawmill

Year-end catch-up:

It is with mixed feelings that one read of the closing of the Cowls sawmill. Shortly after our 250th anniversary year comes to an end, the town will lose an enterprise that had been here for 268 years:

W.D. Cowls, the 12th oldest family business in the U.S., will close its venerable but unprofitable sawmill next month to focus on timberland management and its retail store.

The sawmill is a niche business specializing in timber framing and its customers are mostly nonlocal post-and-beam builders seeking custom lumber, said president Cinda Jones. But those builders have been hurt by the recession, and alternative materials that require less maintenance have become more popular, she said.

Demand for the sawmill's products has been cut in half each of the last two years, she said. Gross sales have dipped to less than 10 percent of the company's total.

"This is not the closing of a business. It's an evolution of a business," she said.

Jones and her brother Evan, who manages the retail operation, Cowls Building Supply, are the ninth generation of the family to be involved in the business, which started in 1741. Their grandfather moved the milling operations to the family farm in North Amherst in the 1940s when electricity made it possible, she said.

Although the sawmill's profitability has been shaky for 30 years, it was always a source of pride to the family, she said. Paul Jones, their father, listed his occupation as "lumber manufacturer," and although he is "heartbroken" by the closing, he knows it's necessary, Evan Jones said.

"It's very disheartening," he said. "It's hard realizing it's the end of an era. I know we're doing the right and necessary thing, but it's very hard. It's the most romantic and historical part of our business." (read the rest)

Only a few years ago, the firm and its owners were featured on a History Channel "Modern Marvels" episode devoted to lumber. I know I'll miss the sawmill, because I drive by it every day and in any case have a particular interest in forestry and the lumber business.

Yes, sad to lose it. On the other hand, it's encouraging news in that it is good to see good business sense: The mill was no longer competitive, so to attempt to run it at a loss out of nostalgia or stubbornness would have made no sense. History is littered with the names of firms, technologies, and tv shows that didn't know when to call it quits.

The mill portion of the business is closing, but the firm, as President Cinda Jones, emphasized in the article, is very much alive: continuing expansion into retail construction materials and management of its vast sustainable forest holdings. As Amherst moves toward adoption of the Master Plan and begins to pursue more systematic economic development, it's good to have before us an example of both fiscal realism and entrepreneurial adaptability.

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