Hodge-Hunt Manufacturing & Hunt Lumber Co. Story (1938-1972)

(The complete history will be published in an upcoming historical volume by Nicholas Ducote, to be published in 2015.)


1938 – 1963

The second generation of Hunt lumber interests in North Louisiana was led by Alex T. Hunt, Sr.  Alex Sr. served as president or vice-president of four different lumber companies: the Hodge-Hunt Manufacturing Co., Hunt Lumber Co., Hunt & Sons Lumber Co., and the Louisiana Plywood Co. In 1938, Alex Sr. partnered with his long-time friend Edwin Hodge and their fathers, John S. Hunt and Otis E. Hodge, financed a sawmill in Ruston as the Hodge-Hunt Manufacturing Corporation.  Alex Hunt and Edwin Hodge operated the Ruston sawmill for at least a decade. In 1949, Alex. T., Sr. and Robert L Fitts, president and owner of Southern Advance Bag and Paper mill in Hodge, La, incorporated the Hunt Lumber Company in a 50-50 partnership.  Starting in the mid-1950s, Alex Sr.’s sons – Davis, Alex Jr., and Thomas – started working with him in the family lumber business.  As Alex Sr.’s sons graduated college (and in the case of Alex, Jr. and Davis, served in the Korean War), they started working for their father at the Hunt Lumber Company.[i]  In 1954-‘56, Hunt Lumber built a sawmill in Danville and purchased a sawmill in Zwolle.  In 1958, a new company, Hunt and Sons Lumber incorporated and built a mill north of Dodson.  Hunt and Sons Lumber merged into Hunt Lumber after three years.  In 1962-’63, Hunt Lumber purchased mills in Chatham from Zachry and Reed Lumber Company and another in Columbia from Nathan Roberts.


In 1965, the Hunt lumber interests began a new 50-50 partnership with Continental Can, this time for the construction and operation of a plywood plant as the Louisiana Plywood Corporation (“Louisiana Plywood”).  In 1966, Louisiana Plywood opened the third southern pine plywood plant in Louisiana, located next to Hunt Lumber’s sawmill north of Dodson. After one year, Continental Can sold their share in Louisiana Plywood to Willamette Industries, of Portland, Oregon, which began the Hunts’ profitable relationship with Willamette. In 1966, Hunt Lumber expanded its capacity one final time by leasing a round log band and gang mill from Rogers and Evans in Converse. In 1970, they partnered with Willamette and Woodward-Walker Lumber Co in the operation of a particleboard plant in Simsboro. In 1972, the Hunts sold their interests to Willamette and signed a five year non-compete agreement. Alex, Sr. retired after the sale, while Alex Jr. and Davis went to work for Willamette (although Davis remained there for around one year).

The evolution of Hunt Lumber’s business model over the company’s life-span reflects the forest products industry’s growing emphasis on mechanization and efficiency. In the late-1920s, the expansion of the pulp and paper industry coupled with the practice of clear cutting increased the value of timber across the United States. Timber’s increased value made wide-spreading planting and tree-farming profitable and Louisiana was an early leader in these efforts.  Throughout the twentieth century, market forces forced lumber manufacturers to innovate and increase their efficiency, or face failure.  By the 1930s, lumber firms could no longer indiscriminately cut timber with little concern for efficiency.  Labor costs also increased following the imposition of minimum wage laws in the 1930s and an increase that followed World War II.  After the Second World War and into the late-1950s, costs for both labor and raw materials increased rapidly and successful lumber companies adapted.  Some companies invested in new technology, others innovated the manufacturing process, or increased their production efficiency – the most successful, like the Hunts did all three.  Rather than owning a sprawling timber empire – like the over 75,000 acres, linked by railroads, owned by Hodge-Hunt or the Davis Brothers – Hunt Lumber acquired much of their timber from the Kisatchie National Forest, or paper companies, and they always owned less than 20,000 acres of timberland.  Hunt Lumber’s mill at Danville used a railroad (the North Louisiana and Gulf) to transport lumber and the other mills relied on eighteen-wheeled trucks and highways. Hunt Lumber led a cohort of small, family-owned sawmills in a period (1950-1970) dominated by vertically-integrated forest product conglomerates, like Boise-Cascade, Georgia-Pacific, Louisiana-Pacific, etc.

Hunt Lumber built its business on patterned lumber (flooring, siding, etc.) that they manufactured along strict specification provided by the customers.  They specialized in manufacturing straight grain lumber, which was used for box car lining, gymnasium floors, and bowling alleys.  A.M.F and Brunswick in Michigan “wanted southern pine with the highest density straight grain [because] that would hold the [bowling] balls straight.”[ii]  Each January, the Hunts traveled to Chicago to meet with officials of the Santa Fe, Rock Island, and Illinois Central railroads and discuss the railroads buying for the year and any changes to specifications.  They also produced custom length large-dimension lumber, usually twenty-four to twenty-eight feet long, for use in the construction of railroad bridges. All the mills produced finished lumber, except Converse, which processed its lumber at Zwolle, and Chatham, which processed theirs at Dodson.  At Zwolle, they produced roof decking, fences, ladders, bleacher seats, and wall paneling. [iii]  Of the sawmills, Ruston (1938-’51), Chatham (1962-’71), Columbia (1963-’73), and Converse (1966-’68) manufactured only southern pine and Danville (1954-’73), Zwolle (1955-’73), and Dodson (1958-’73), manufactured both hardwoods and softwood (southern pine).

In the mid-1960s, the Hunt lumber interests peaked in productivity, Hunt Lumber shifted from patterned to dimension lumber, and Louisiana Plywood opened for operation. The Hunt lumber and plywood ventures employed 700 people at five sawmills, a plywood plant, and headquarters in Ruston.  The sawmills cut 136 million board feet of lumber and the Louisiana Plywood plant produced 120 million square feet of pine plywood (a 3/8 inch basis).  In 1966, Hunt Lumber converted the Danville sawmill facility into a stud mill, which manufactured the studs from cores produced by Willamette’s plywood plants. Hunt Lumber also shifted most of their production at the other sawmills to two inch dimension lumber.  Rather than custom-producing along consumers’ specifications , the specifications for dimension lumber were standardized across the entire industry, which “dramatically upped [Hunt Lumber’s] production and recovery.”

The Hunt’s innovations, efficiency, and knowledge of North Louisiana’s forests attracted a valuable business partner from the West Coast, Willamette.  The relationship began when Continental Can sold its share in Louisiana Plywood to Willamette Industries, Inc. in 1966.  In practical terms, the partnership obligated the Hunts to procure and transport the timber while Willamette operated the mill.[iv]  In 1970, the Hunts entered into a new partnership with Woodward-Walker and Willamette on a particle-board plant in Simsboro, called Duraflake South.  Woodward-Walker and Hunt Lumber provided their waste products, primarily wood chips, for the production of particleboard in exchange for a 9.5 percent share in the company each.  After seven years of productive partnership with the Hunts, Willamette took control of their lumber interests after a stock trade worth several million dollars. The story of Alex Hunt Sr.’s career, and of Hunt Lumber Company, started with some help from his father.