It’s chilly on this early December morning as John Ed Anthony carries another piece of wood to throw onto the fire.
I’m at Anthony’s Shortleaf Farm, a gorgeous spread between Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine on Arkansas Highway 290.
On Feb. 10, the University of Arkansas’ Sam Walton College of Business will induct Anthony into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.
Also being inducted are Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman Jr., CJRW chairman emeritus Wayne Cranford and former Wal-Mart president Jack Shewmaker.
John Ed long has been one of my favorite Arkansas business leaders, dating back to my days as a young sportswriter when his Loblolly Stable was among the top thoroughbred racing and breeding operations in America.
On this morning, though, we spend more time talking about the timber industry and his family’s long, colorful history in that business. Having grown up in the pine woods of south Arkansas, it’s an area that interests me.
“Most people only ask me about racing, and that’s just a small part of who I am,” John Ed says.
Any discussion of what’s now Anthony Timberlands Inc. must start at Bearden in Ouachita County, a town that had a population of only 966 people in the 2010 census (down from a high of 1,300 in the 1950 census).
Bearden was founded as a railroad stop along what would become the Cotton Belt Railway Line. The city limits were set in 1882 by the Southwest Improvement Association, an agency of the Railway Land Office. Bearden was named for Judge John T. Bearden, a lawyer for the association.
Surrounded by virgin forests, Bearden soon began to prosper. In 1885, the Cotton Belt Lumber Co. picked Bearden as the site of a large lumber mill.
“Lumber was the driving force of Bearden’s economy,” according to a history of the town posted on the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Four large lumber mills — the Cotton Belt mill, the Freeman-Smith Lumber Co., the Eagle Lumber Co. and the Stout Lumber Co. — operated within six miles of the town from 1885 to 1930. At one point, the mills employed and supported more than 2,000 area men and their families. Most of the mill workers were farmers or sons of farmers. They would work the mills by day and the fields before and after work.
“While the success was long lasting, Bearden, like many communities in the early 1900s, experienced the results of unsound lumber practices. Many acres were cut and not replanted correctly or at all, resulting in a shift in milling. Even so, the town continued to prosper, but with fewer mills. The first mill to leave was in 1923.”
Enter Garland Anthony, who would become a legendary figure in the forestry industry known simply as Mr. Garland.
Mr. Garland and an uncle built a sawmill in 1907. By 1910, the uncle had turned the operation over to Mr. Garland, declaring that he was heading back to the farm to raise cotton.
Mr. Garland was John Ed’s grandfather, by the way.
Mr. Garland’s grandfather, Addison Anthony, had come to south Arkansas in the 1840s from Virginia. Garland Anthony was born in 1884 and grew up near Bearden, where his family farmed and raised livestock.
Noting Mr. Garland’s sawmill, George Balogh goes on to write for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “Other members of the family, along with outside partners, started similar operations in southern Arkansas, eastern Texas and northern Louisiana. Between 1910 and 1930, Garland and his brothers Frank, William and Oliver formed Anthony Brothers Lumber and built their first permanent mill in Hopeville (Calhoun County), accumulating 2,000 acres of cut-over timberland in the process.
“The brothers built their mills in areas that large companies had harvested and left behind. They discovered that a cut-over pine forest in southern Arkansas could renew itself in 20 to 30 years and could become self-sustaining if properly managed. The company became a leader in the techniques of selective harvesting — giving smaller trees time to mature so the forest could be harvested repeatedly over the long term.”
The big companies that had cut the virgin forests moved to the West Coast once they had finished their work in Arkansas.
John Ed says of Mr. Garland’s efforts to capitalize on what they left behind: “He would cut the second-growth forests and say, ‘Leave those little trees.’ In a sense, it was the beginning of modern forestry.”
Through multiple partnerships, the Anthony family operated between 20 and 30 mills in the 1930s.
John Ed began the first grade in Bearden in 1945. By Christmas that year, he had moved with his parents to Woodville, a town deep in the piney woods of southeast Texas.
John Ed’s parents divorced in 1951. His father moved back to Arkansas. John Ed remained in Woodville through high school with his mother.
He had never set foot in Fayetteville until his first day at the University of Arkansas, where he majored in business. A month before he graduated from college in 1961, John Ed received word that his father had died at age 48 of a massive heart attack.
At age 22, John Ed leased a house in Bearden and took his wife and one-month-old son Steven there to join forces with 77-year-old Mr. Garland.
In 1966, John Ed oversaw the replacement of the family mill at Bearden with a concrete-and-steel facility. When he approached his partners in the early 1970s with expansion plans, they declined. John Ed moved forward by himself, forming Anthony Timberlands Inc. He quickly acquired the Hot Spring County Lumber Co. at Malvern and its holdings.
George Balogh picks it up from there: “Within two years, ATI acquired the Hollicer-Jones Lumber Co. in Benton along with its land holdings. In the 1980s, Frizzell Lumber Co. in Gurdon and International Paper’s mill in Beirne were acquired by ATI. Bearden Lumber Co. remained in family ownership under ATI management until fully acquired by ATI in 2006. The headquarters were always in Bearden, less than three miles from Garland Anthony’s original mill.
“John Ed Anthony focused on quality and modernization to build mills that provide a variety of products for both domestic and overseas customers. During these years, timberland acquisition continued, with acreage owned by ATI and other family partnerships growing from 70,000 acres in 1961 to 180,000 acres owned and 30,000 outside acres managed by 2006
“Sister companies Anthony Hardwood Composites in Sheridan, Anthony Wood Treating in Hope and Anthony-Higgs Lumber Co. in Gurdon were formed as private entities under ATI’s management umbrella. Anthony Hardwood Composites is a laminating facility that utilizes low-grade kiln-dried hardwood lumber to make engineered industrial matting for the support of heavy equipment where ground conditions are soft. … Anthony Wood Treating, built in 1987, produces treated wood for outdoor applications like decking, landscape timbers and fencing. …
“The Benton mill was consolidated into the Malvern plant in 1980 and production expanded. The Frizzell mill was consolidated into the modernized and expanded Beirne mill with Frizzell converted to Anthony-Higgs Lumber, a hardwood concentration facility.
“The Bearden and Malvern mills produce pine framing lumber, timbers and decking. The Beirne mill produces hardwood lumber products, primarily oak, with timber from the bottomlands of the Ouachita, Saline and Little rivers and area creeks. Associated with the Beirne mill are log-storage facilities in East Camden and Rockport as well as drying facilities at Fordyce.
“ATI’s timberland management team is headquartered in Bearden. Its staff of about 10 graduate foresters advises timberland owners, without cost, to promote multiple-use concepts to optimize land use. The company’s pine and treated wood sales office is in Arkadelphia. In normal operation, ATI has about 750 direct employees working in the mills and offices. Contractors who service the mills total about 400 — 250 in logging, 100 in trucking and 50 in security.”
John Ed’s son Steven has been the ATI president since 2004.
With significant declines in the housing market, the timber industry has suffered in recent years.
“I wish I could be optimistic about the future, but I can’t be,” John Ed says as he throws another log on the fire. “It has been a bloodbath the past five years or so.”
He notes the mills that have closed across south Arkansas — Georgia-Pacific mills at El Dorado and Fordyce, Weyerhaeuser operations at Mountain Pine, a Potlatch mill at Prescott, a Bean Lumber Co. mill at Glenwood, the Georgia-Pacific plywood operation at Crossett, the reduction of Potlatch operations at Warren from three shifts to just one.
“That’s hundreds of millions of board feet production we’ve lost,” he says. “We now have a huge inventory of uncut timber. Trees that were planted in the 1980s and the 1990s are cutting size, but there’s no demand for them. I don’t see it turning around anytime soon.”
Certainly John Ed has done his part to promote the industry and promote Arkansas through the decades. That’s why he’s being inducted into the Business Hall of Fame.
His grandson Addison makes the seventh generation of Anthony family members working in the forests of south Arkansas. The family tradition continues.
ALWAYS LOVE REX’S COLUMNS…A SOUTHERN ARKANSAS GUY, ARKADELPHIA WHERE I WENT TO HSTC…PROVIDED, ALONG WITH HIS DAD AND THAT GENERATION..SO MUCH SUBJECT MATTER TO WRITE ABOUT. KEEP IT GOING REX..