The mills from Hurdle are rugged, yet easy to work on.
TOONE, Tennessee – Hooper Sawmill LLC produces hardwood lumber, crossties and cants (4×6, 4×4). The business dates to 1970, when it was started by Malcolm Hooper, the father of the current owner, Tony Hooper.
Malcolm sawed long before starting the mill – in total, for many more than 50 years. And many of the years, he sawed with Tony and his other three sons, Gerald, Larry and Donald.
“My dad has eight siblings, four boys and four girls” said Mandy Crowley, Tony’s daughter. “The [sons] are all in the lumber business in some shape or form.”
Mandy and her two sisters, Natalie Sowder and Toni Hill, along with Mandy’s husband, Richard Crowley, work on the administrative side of the business at Hooper Sawmill. Blake Sowder, Natalie’s husband, is the yard foreman at the company.
Hooper Sawmill is very much a family enterprise. “We are a family owned and operated business,” said Tony. “We like to hire local employees and sell local. We support our community in every way possible.”
Indeed, Hooper Sawmill has 49 employees. It also has a clear purpose. “We try to keep our customers happy and loaded with wood,” said Tony.
At the core of the production at Hooper Sawmill are four sawmills from Hurdle Machine Works, Inc. in Moscow, Tenn. Hooper purchased its first Hurdle mill in the late 1970s, said Tony. It purchased its newest Hurdle mill, a Hurdle HeavyWeight Sawmill, in August 2014.
“One mill is a three-head block and vertical edger, so we may saw longer logs and can grade saw with the vertical edger,” said Tony. “The remaining mills are two-head blocks.”
Three of the mills have the new computer setworks from Hurdle. In addition to Hurdle Cam mechanical setworks, which offer four sets, Hurdle offers Hurdle Nano electronic setworks with six sets.
Since its inception in 1969, Hurdle has sold more than 450 mills. In fact, it is closing in on 475, said Jeff Hurdle, vice president at Hurdle Machine Works and son of the company founder and president, E.J. Hurdle, Jr. Jeff’s brother, John Hurdle, is also a vice president at the company.
There is a long-standing mutual admiration and respect between the teams Hooper Sawmill and Hurdle Machine Works. Tony said that his father, Malcolm, got the Hooper business going with equipment from Hurdle. Two of Tony’s sisters, Sandy and Charlotte, as well as a couple of nephews, also own Hurdle sawmills.
“All Malcolm did” in terms of equipment was rely on Hurdle, said Tony. “He went from groundhog to automatic. He went with a portable automatic so he could pull to woods.”
Working alongside his father, Tony came to value the Hurdle machines. “They make a great product,” he said of Hurdle Machine Works.
“E.J. is a great friend and business associate,” said Tony. “Hurdle knows their mills and they are personal with their customers.”
Tony has no reservations about stating affinity for Hurdle mills. “They are the best,” he said. “And easy to work on.”
There are two great bonuses in the relationship with Hurdle, said Tony. They are “close by.” And “we are familiar with them.”
Should assistance be needed, it is easy to get. “They are like family,” said Tony. “Someone is always willing and available to come out and help us any time we have questions or issues. They are always available to help.”
The species that go into the Hooper products are red and white oak, gum, poplar, hickory and cypress. Each Hurdle mill saws approximately 120,000 board feet per week.
Helping sawmills boost their production totals is one goal of Hurdle Machine Works, said Jeff. “We have a simple, proven platform for adding about 20,000 feet a day to any size sawmill.”
The Hurdle circle mill package includes a log turner, log deck, cab, husk, setworks, carriage and choice of options. For instance, a mill owner may select a 40-ft. or a 48-ft. platform, as well as options in knee and dog openings.
Hooper Sawmill purchases logs. It also cuts its own timber fielding a crew that uses a John Deere tree cutter as a feller buncher.
Recalling how he got into the sawmill business, Tony said he never really thought about another path. “It’s all we ever did,” he said. It “gets in your blood.”
Hooper Sawmill is located in Toone, Tenn. Toone is part of Hardeman County. The town has a population of 364. Hardeman County is in the southwest part of the state.
The Moscow, Tenn. home to Hurdle Machine Works is just 30 miles southwest of Toone. It is part of Fayette County.
The diversity of hardwoods in western Tennessee is nurtured by a rich, alluvial soil and abundant rainfall. The region also has abundant minerals.
Hooper Sawmill supports the National Hardwood Lumber Association, said Tony. The NHLA is headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., which is about 80 miles southwest of Toone. In the context of a changing and global hardwood marketplace, NHLA endeavors to facilitate networking among members and to be an advocate for the hardwood community.
Jeff, who grew up in Hurdle Machine Works, recalls that he has virtually been with the business since he was a year old. He explained that his father, E.J., had the idea to start the company when he identified a need he knew he could fill.
“My dad had a machine shop in Holly Springs,” said Jeff. “He wasn’t making much money.” But he was learning something about the need of mill owners from one person, a mill owner, who kept coming to the machine shop for repairs.
The more that E.J. learned about mills, the more certain he was that he could design a better one. E.J. moved to Moscow, Tenn. and eventually started Hurdle Machine Works. He did not have any firsthand experience in the wood products industry. “My grandfather had done some logging,” said Jeff.
What E.J. did have is a knowledge of equipment and how to improve it. “My dad is a perfectionist,” said Jeff. “He has a gift for making machines that work really well – simpler, better, easy to work on.”
Jeff sees parallels between his father and Tony. Both men operate a family business and each man is focused on a great product.
“The Hoopers are just great people and customers,” said Jeff. “We really appreciate the opportunity to work with them.”
Jeff and his brother John have known two of the Hooper sisters for a long time. “John and I went to school with Natalie and Mandy.” And he knows the commitment all three sisters and other family members have to the business. “Their dad, Tony, has done real well.”
Being so close to the Hooper Sawmill site gives Jeff and others at Hurdle Machine Works the opportunity to visit the mill. In every one of its installations, Hurdle aims to understand mill function and what can be done better. E.J. never stops making refinements, explained Jeff.
For his part, Jeff often likens the commitment to continuous improvement at Hurdle Machine Works to something that was built into their company’s DNA. The sons have learned from their father and they have inherited his desire to making an ever-better product.
When a Hurdle HeavyWeight Sawmill heads to a customer, it has already been tested and run. Engineering, fabrication and test runs are all done at the Hurdle plant.
Across the years, Hurdle has developed other products. The products that have been introduced to the market include linear carriages, scanning systems, band resaws and band headrigs. It is the Hurdle Heavyweight circle sawmill, however, that is the specialty of the company, explained Jeff.
Thinking through new ideas and acting on some of them is all part of the day at Hurdle. Not every idea is acted on, but that’s to the good because it means that the ideas and concepts that do become part of the product line have been thoroughly evaluated for possibilities.
At Hurdle, Jeff and John subdivide their efforts to a large degree. Jeff focuses on automation and setworks. He also handles marketing.
John runs the shop, putting to use his expertise in fabrication. He is always striving to make the business more efficient, incorporating engineering concepts where relevant.
Hooper Sawmill is an important member of the Toone community. In February 2013, Memphis News Channel 3 carried a story about the damage high winds from a late January storm had done to Hooper Sawmill. The mill was forced to shut down, which in turn affected other businesses in the area. Tony was interviewed for the article and his top concern was the community, and especially his employees who would be idled for a time.
Of course, Hooper Sawmill recovered from the splintering (literally) effect of the 2013 windstorm. Even so, the company kept moving ahead, adding its newest Hurdle some 18 months later.
When Tony is not engaged in running Hooper Sawmill, he has a definite interest. That is spending “boating and river time with family,” he said.