By Claudia Johnson
It takes a special talent to stand in the forest and determine which trees will yield the greatest quantity and quality of lumber. That’s why Jr Key is…well, key, to the success of Moss Sawmills.
“If there’s any tract of timber we send Jr because he knows better than anyone how much lumber is there and what species, and we know exactly how much to offer for it,” said April Patterson, co-owner of Moss Sawmills and its companion company, GF Hardwoods. “About 99% of the time he makes us money on the tracts. He’s just the best.”
Jr brushes off the compliment.
“I’ve just been doing it a long time,” he says, modestly. “After 40 years in the log woods, you learn a whole lot.”
Actually, it’s been nearly 45 years since 18-year-old Jr began learning about wood. In 1974 he took a job at Doug Smith’s fledgling pallet company, Pallet Pro, when manufacturing was done by hand using a dozen employees, and a good week meant a 1,000 pallets heading out on the truck.
Jr remembers how in those days before sales began to boom he and his pallet coworkers may just as easily have found themselves working in the sawmill or cutting timber.
“There’s nothing more dangerous than working in the log woods,” Jr says, but he starting doing it regularly about a year into his tenure at the company. “I still do it sometimes.”
April said that the safety of an employee like Jr is too valuable to risk, so his logging time is limited. However, he does oversee the logging crews and trains others to buy lumber. After all, he is a Master Logger, a designation earned through certification classes required by Kentucky for any log purchases and in Tennessee for logging on state property.
Jr says the best lumber is 14-15” breast high, and by being selective during logging a landowner can strengthen the health and value of their woods.
“I go in and count the square footage and explain to landowners what their options are,” he said. “They decide which trees they want to cut, and we buy it like that.”
April reiterates that the stewardship practices adopted by Moss Sawmills prioritize sustainability of the woods where logs are bought. Proper spacing and thinning reduces overcrowding, diminishes fire hazards and increases the value of the remaining trees. Creating a more open stand also improves the forest habitat.
“People need to cut the logs,” Jr said, adding that some of the forests he’s bought have been logged a second time over the past four decades, and he considers it a professional success when a landowner entrusts him with repeated logging.
April calls Jr’s intuitive timber purchasing ability a talent, but Jr disagrees.
“I worked in the log woods lots of years,” Jr says. “I’ve seen logs measured on the yard and even done that myself.”
It’s estimated that Key has bought millions of feet of timber, but he’s also worked wherever he was needed within the Smith Companies. He’s driven a skidder in the log woods, worked at Honest Abe Log Homes, helped with the Smith family’s farming operations, performed maintenance and landscaping duties at Swan Ridge, a Smith Family lakeside resort that first required logging and clearing before development could begin.
“I’ve had offers to go other places, but I wouldn’t have been bettering myself, really,” Jr said about his longevity at the company. “I’m happy working here. This is like family.”