Root System

Feature story for MBQ magazine

June 2013

Root System

The Memphis-based Hardwood Lumber Association carries on a century-old tradition of grading lumber.

In the beginning, there were the sawmills with enormous circular saws doing the work of hundreds of men. Whole trees went in one end and even, uniform lumber was ejected from the other. It was the turn of the twentieth century with improving technology, and people were developing new methods of smart work in an age-old industry defined by hard work.

The National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA) was founded in 1898 to provide the establishment, education, and enforcement of the hardwood lumber grading rules. Today, the NHLA represents “more than 1,200 companies and one million hardwood families that produce, use, and sell North American hardwood lumber, or provide equipment, supplies, or services to the hardwood industry at all career stages,” according to its website.

Memphis has been home to the headquarters of the NHLA since it moved here from Chicago in 1980. To drive the highways of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi around Memphis, and in passing acre after acre of the straight yet soft pine trees that abound, one may not realize that this area is considered the hardwood capital of the world. In fact, says Mark Barford, executive director of the NHLA and a trained forester, “most of Tennessee is forested, 60 to 70 percent is forest. Out of that, of course, there is a fair amount of pine, but there’s a lot of hardwood — it’s predominantly hardwood throughout Tennessee.”

Memphis in particular, at one time, was home to a number of different hardwood sawmills, distributors, buyers, consumers, and shippers, all concentrated due to the logistical advantage of the Mississippi River, numerous railroads, and highways. Anderson-Tully, the largest hardwood manufacturer in the United States, was once based out of Memphis. Due to downsizing and mergers over the years, the group now works more from its Vicksburg, Mississippi, headquarters. While most of the industry’s production has moved to the east and north and states such as Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, Memphis is still considered its nexus.

The NHLA HQ moved from Chicago three decades ago for the lower overhead of a smaller city and because this was already the home of its training school. Established in 1948 through the help of the Lumbermens Club of Memphis, one of the strongest and largest membership associations in the country at the time, the NHLA Inspector Training School has seen more than 7,000 graduates since its founding.

“Over time, when that school kept growing and getting bigger, it just made sense to put both the offices and the school together, so they put them together in Memphis,” Barford says.

The Inspector Training School is a showplace where each room is themed with a different species of hardwood. Located on 10 acres at the Whitten Road exit of I-40, it also has lumber storage and dry kilns. First built in what was then the country, Barford says, there were no places for visiting students to stay. “The only place really for people to stay was in the local houses, so we used to go out and around and bang on people’s doors and say, ‘Hey, would you have a room you could possibly rent?’” Now, they’re put up in extended-stay hotels and there is an active discussion regarding the addition of dormitories to the school for students who travel from all over the world to learn how to grade lumber . . . (read more)