Overseas Hardwoods Company, Mobile AL, is celebrating its 50th anniversary in April. But the family who owns OHC started the Old Mobile River Sawmill Company 100 years ago this month. Because hardwood logs do not float, they needed help from “gunboats” to provide the needed buoyancy. The gunboats were designed after the pontoon boats that ferried artillery across rivers during the Civil War.

One hundred years running, Overseas Hardwoods Co has sawed a secure niche as a force in flooring

May 5, 2017
Family-owned company has been sawing for a century, producing truck body and trailer flooring since the early years of trucks and trailers

As the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association gathers to celebrate 75 years of serving the industry, Overseas Hardwoods Company knows how it feels. The family who owns OHC did the same thing 25 years ago.

T Lee Robinson’s family has been sawing logs and milling lumber since his father and uncle, Lee and Edward Robinson, started Old Mobile River Sawmill Company in 1917.

The family-owned sawmill company began by sawing local timber for a wide range of applications. One of those early niches was flooring for a new mode of transportation that was destined to replace horse-drawn wagons.

“We began making trailer flooring not long after we started,” says T Lee Robinson, chairman of OHC. “Fruehauf and Dorsey were two of our best customers. We began supplying them with oak flooring in the mid-1920s.”

The Old Mobile River Sawmill Company built a rail spur and bought this locomotive to get lumber to the mainline for delivery to markets to the north.

One of the ironies about supplying flooring for the trucking industry is that the logs used in making flooring were so difficult to ship. One popular way to get logs to the mill was to float them down a river. That may work in the spruce and fir forests of Washington and Oregon, but the hardwoods that grow in South Alabama do not float. To provide enough buoyancy to float the logs, loggers would use two pontoons tied together with 6” x 6” timbers. They are called gunboats in Alabama, a reference to the method used to ferry artillery across rivers during the Civil War.

To reduce freight costs, the Old Mobile River Sawmill Company bought a locomotive and built an eight-mile-long rail spur to move railroad cars of lumber products to the mainline carrying products north from Mobile.

With the passage of time, demand for paper began to dominate the timber industry in the South. The prime hardwood logs required to produce the high-performance lumber products that the company’s specialized markets needed were becoming increasingly expensive and more difficult to acquire. As early as the 1940s, T Lee Robinson began searching elsewhere for hardwoods, including overseas.

Estate issues following the death of Edward Robinson led the family to sell the sawmill to Scott Paper Company in 1963. T Lee Robinson Sr, a son of company founder Lee Robinson, remained with the sawmill for a few years, but he kept thinking about the clear hardwoods that he had seen during his international travels. In 1967, he left Scott Paper and formed Overseas Hardwoods Company.

Some of the milestones OHC has seen in its 50-year history:

• Establishing Apitong as the preferred flooring for platform trailers in late 1960s.

• Building one of America’s largest custom kiln drying and lumber processing mills. The kilns burn sawdust generated by the milling process. Heat from the sawdust fuels a boiler which not only produces heat for the kiln but also generates electricity.

• Adapting a patented finger joint production method to provide joints strong enough by machine stress rating every lineal foot to assure flooring exceeds TTMA’s recommended load ratings.

• Expanding its product line to include laminated and component parts for truck body manufacturers, sub-floor stringers for refrigerated trailers and many other wooden component parts for all types of trailers specializing in platform trailers.

• Provide the preferred flooring for US military trailer use.

• A 2014 merger with Angelina Hardwood Sales Company (founded 1935 began supplying products to transportation industry in mid to late 40’s). Both families have competed for three generations.

Overseas Hardwoods Company’s Stockton, AL plant located on the Tensaw River

The company is now in its third generation. “With my son Lee, Jr at the helm, I’m proud to have five children work here, and they are a lot smarter than I am,” T Lee Robinson Sr says. “They include lawyers and MBAs, and all of them are looking for ways to do things better than I ever did. I think we are in a great position as we start our next 100 years.”  ♦