The J.B. Barnes Lumber Company traces its roots to 1922 when what was then known as Crozet Lumber Company was opened by John L. Barnes on the 20-acre parcel (then 33 acres) at the head of The Square. The company first specialized in walnut logs for veneer and prospered over the nearly 90 years of its existence, priding itself, for example, on supplying material for the construction of PT boats during World War II.
At the moment the housing economy collapsed in late 2008, the yard was employing 52 people and the high quality Appalachian hardwoods it cures were being snapped up for cabinets, flooring and furniture.
Today the company employs 24, according to Carroll Conley, who started out with the firm as a truck driver and is now its owner. The yard and sheds that were once full of stacked lumber now hold small inventories of mainly poplar and some oak. Conley put the vacant acres on the east side of the yard up for sale once the recession had taken hold and last December announced that the whole property was on the market. He said he’s had inquiries but no serious talks.
Meanwhile, business, while still precarious, seems to have found its bottom—the Chinese export market has grown recently—and the yard carries on at less than ideal capacity. No work is done in the yard on Mondays.
Conley faults banks. “The banks are so tight on money we don’t have any working capital,” he said. In May, he had about 200,000 board feet (a board foot is a North American measurement of lumber one foot wide, one foot long and one inch thick before planing), he said. “I should have a million. All these empty bays should be full.” Conley said he could rehire 20 men if banks would back him in buying more green lumber. He said he recently had to turn down $500,000 in sales because he could not get green lumber for his dry kilns.
Ordinarily the yard would buy green lumber from sawmills in Appalachia, with money borrowed from banks, cure it and grade it, and plane it if a customer wanted it that way, ship it out and pay off the loan. J.B. Barnes’ niche in the process that transforms a tree into another creation is the curing stage. It is a wholesale, not a retail yard, though Conley said he has sold some lumber to Blue Ridge Builders Supply if they need what he’s got. Loggers sell to green lumber mills, they sell to yards like J.B. Barnes, and Barnes sells to factories and workshops. Most of the mills Conley buys from are in western Virginia and West Virginia, within 150 miles of Crozet, which he said is well situated for the hardwood lumber business. “Appalachian hardwoods are best in the world,” he said emphatically. “Our reputation is so good that other mills [who buy from him] will just take our lumber straight to their customer,” he said proudly.
J.B. Barnes is also a for-hire trucking company and when one of his four Kenworth trucks is coming back from hauling a load any where within a 1,000 mile radius of Crozet, Conley diligently tries to find freight to carry on the way home. Loads that day were headed to Ohio, Detroit and New England, with their home base “Crozet, Va.” emblazoned on their doors.
“People don’t know what goes on here,” Conley lamented. The oldest of his nine kilns date to the 1930s and are set up to be loaded from a track system. The more recent ones, now computer controlled, are filled using fork lifts. The yard has six of those.
Green wood in the kilns is dried by raising its temperature to 180 degrees and its moisture content, starting around 44 percent, is eventually reduced to 6 percent. A stack of poplar should take around six or seven days to cure, whereas white or red oak might require 28 or 30 days in a kiln. “You have to dry oak a lot slower. You don’t want to bust it,” Conley explained. He recently had five kilns in operation. “They are just like the radiators in your house, but a whole lot bigger,” he explained. Moisture vents out the top of the kilns and on cold days from most spots in Crozet you can see cloudy plumes of moisture drift above the yard and float away on the wind.
The steam to keep the kiln temperature up is created by burning sawdust in a furnace the size of a delivery van. The furnace requires about 8 tons of sawdust a day. It’s fed automatically by augers. Conley buys his sawdust from yards that mill logs. For years, most of his sawdust has been delivered from a mill in Clifton Forge. Because the curing process requires steady control of temperatures, a diesel back-up system exists in case the sawdust furnace should fail. In the past, all nine kilns, with a total capacity of 450,000 board feet, were in continuous operation.
Once lumber is cured, the yard can plane it or shape it into moldings, which some of Conley’s competitors can’t do. The planing and milling operations produce earsplitting noise and workers wear special protection for the hearing. The planer can smooth about 200 board feet a minute on both sides. In the profiling operation, as the molding maker is called, the company can make about 75 different shapes in wood and can even make its own knives to make unique shapes. The setup can produce millwork at a rate of 122 feet per minute. “It used to run eight hours a day. Now we might run it eight hours in a month,” Conley said.
Sawdust from those operations is passed through a tower (the big blue one with the initials JJB on the side) containing filters and loaded automatically into trailers. Those are hauled to turkey farms around Harrisonburg where the sawdust is used as litter. “They can’t get enough,” Conley said. “They haul it from all over the state.”
The whole operation is clever about exploiting it materials. “We reuse and recycle everything,” said Conley with satisfaction. In the workers’ break room, one end of a machine shop, sits an old woodstove that is stoked with wood scraps on winter days to heat the unadorned space.
With the reduction in the workforce, Conley stresses that everyone be able to do as many things as possible. His son R. C. Conley and Will Schmertzler once were totally occupied with making sales. Now they also grade lumber—inspect it for knots and defects and sort it for sawing—drive forklifts and whatever else needs to be done. “Around here, anybody does whatever is needed to be done any day. If man tells me something ain’t his job,” said Conley, “he’s in trouble.” Conley himself does the truck dispatching and hunts for return loads. Bubba Baber, who Conley considers virtually irreplaceable, is ordinarily the maintenance supervisor, but recently he ran the kilns while the kiln operator was on his honeymoon. The two jobs in the yard that will determine its profitability are the skill of the graders and the kiln operators, Conley said. Conley, long a strong supporter of the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department, allows Baber and Schmertzler (the first a chief, the other a captain with the CVFD) to respond to calls during work hours.
“I’ve got good people, but we are just surviving,” Conley said. That day three containers were being loaded with poplar for shipment to China. “The Chinese love popular. You can stain it to look like anything and it’s easy to work with.” Europeans, particular the Italians, are also buying hardwood, he said. But while those sales help carry the yard through, they don’t make up for the demand that the American market normally generates.
After one has seen the sophisticated electrical systems needed to power kilns and milling operations and the steam system that supplies the kilns, it’s hard to imagine that the lumberyard could move anywhere without incredible expense and effort. Nearly ninety years of investment and use adds up to a lot gravity. But Conley said that the buildings now west of the kilns—the office and some storage buildings—could be taken down and rebuilt east of them, if a buyer was interested in acreage facing The Square. The axis he described is roughly in line with High Street, which now touches the yard’s south boundary not far from Tabor Street. If The Square were to become one side of a block, connected to new Main Street by Oak Street, the area he described (with High Street extended north to be the new block’s eastern side) would be about its same size. Thus downtown could have two regular city blocks east of Crozet Avenue. And the lumber company, shifted onto vacant land, would stay a part of Crozet’s backbone.