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Snapshots: Tommy Lathrop

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Posted on July 24, 2009 |
By Chelsey Pletts



When Oliver Lathrop came to Vermont in the late 1700s the land was covered in heavy spruce and fir trees. His son, Jim, cut one of the first Lathrop homesteads, the Lust Farm in Lincoln, from deep mountain forest.

That’s where his son Noah was born. Years later, in the summer of 1880, Noah and a business partner purchased the former Eastman Mill in Bristol Notch at the mouth of five converging brooks. There the mill ran on waterpower and churned out lumber and wooden tubs for butter. Five years later, Noah bought up the mill and ran the operation himself until 1903, when a forest fire claimed the trees and the mill as it burned through Elephant Mountain. But it was a small hindrance for the long line of Lathrop lumbermen who spent their lives in the forests of Vermont.

Today, Tommy Lathrop — Noah’s great, great grandson— is one of those men. He owns Lathrop’s Maple Supply off Route 116 in Bristol, a mill that specializes in hardwood flooring and high-end lumber for cabinets. He has not moved more than two miles from his childhood home where he grew up in his father’s mill yard on River Street. Tommy has always had a natural love for lumber — it’s in his blood.

“My business is about going up the road here, two, three miles, buying some timber from a local farmer, trucking it back here, sawing it up, making hardwood floors out of it, shipping it back to that town or another town, somewhere around here, selling local,” said Tommy. “It’s funny because I think back to my ancestors and that’s how they did it. Horses and oxen could only go so far to bring in the round log.”

It was horses and oxen that helped rebuild Noah Lathrop’s mill after the 1903 fire, which was said to be so powerful that it baked the potatoes underground. Noah and his son Clarence renamed the business N. Lathrop and Son. The mill was now powered by steam and grew to be the largest lumber mill in Addison County, turning out dress lumber, shingles and clapboards.

When World War I rolled around, spruce timbers were harvested off of the pitch of the mountain, south of the Bristol Village, and used to build airplane propellers. At this time the U.S. government would buy a railroad boxcar full of lumber for an astonishing sum of $5,000.

Clarence and Noah usually had 15 to 20 men working for them, eight teams of horses and three yolks of oxen. Most of the logs came into the mill at full length, 40 to 50 feet, to maximize the cuts from the wood. Seven hundred thousand to one million board feet of lumber was cut annually by hand, using crosscut saws and axes.

“The market is totally different nowadays,” Tommy said. “The way timber is harvested as well as the needs for wood. Years ago the stuff they made out of wood today they make out of plastic and metal. It’s just a completely different world we live in.”

In 1924, Clarence and Noah closed their mill. Noah had grown old, and much of the timber on Elephant Mountain had been charred or cut.

Then, in the late 1920s, Clarence inherited a farm in south Bristol where Lower Notch Road meets route 116, called the Butler Farm. He was a dairy farmer, but in 1935 he set up a sawmill on the farm, selling the lumber locally. A majority of the pine went to the Thomas Box Shop in New Haven, a store that made small boxes for men’s razors and trinkets. He sold oak to the Barry Chelsea Railroad Company.

During World War II, gasoline and tire rationing took its toll on the business. Clarence moved his mill to Waltham and cut logs on site and shipped the lumber. At this time, he powered the mill with a diesel engine.

In the summer of 1944, Tommy’s father Claire bought the Waltham mill from Clarence and decided to finish harvesting the timber — Clarence went on in the ’50s and ’60s to serve several terms in the Vermont legislature as a Bristol town representative. After the timber ran out, Claire moved the mill to River Street in Bristol in the fall of 1947. Claire bought a former five-story coffin factory known as Bristol Manufacturing and set up his portable mill.

There, he cut winter timber until 1960, taking Tommy up to the 1,200 acres of land he bought from the Brown Paper Company that stretched over the mountain into the Mad River Valley. Tommy remembers watching the men log birch, the snow banks towering over his head.

During the summer of his 10th grade year at Mt. Abraham High School, Tommy was the first person to run the resaw at his father’s mill. He sawed loads of maple during the Japanese export boom in the 70s. Maple was a huge commodity in Japan then, said Tommy, because they were building bowling alleys.

When Tommy graduated from high school, he went to wood grading school and returned to Bristol to grade about 600 boards an hour for 10 years at his father’s mill until he went into business for himself.

“The most important thing I could ever remember from all of it is hanging around the old timers and listening to their stories about when they were younger and how different things were then,” said Tommy. “It just brings you to the fact that change is always happening. Change is never rapid in the lumber industry. Change is usually a gradual thing and you really have to be up with it if you want to stay competitive.”

Today, Tommy said, the quality of the logs just isn’t the same as it once was. Claire once stated that between the time he purchased the mill in the 40s and the time he retired, the diameter of the hardwood lost an average of six inches per log.

Tommy explained this is because loggers keep cutting the forest prematurely — before trees are 100 to 200 years old — and today, he said, you will not find trees much older than this.

“The oldest trees that we cut were alive during the Revolutionary War down in Bridport,” he said. “They were white oaks, and there was one of them that we counted as 270 years old. It was close enough so it could hear the cannons firing at Mount Independence from the British. This is how old these tree were.”

Between 1978 and 1980, Tommy started his own business called Lathrop’s Maple Supply. He specializes in figured maple, flooring and high-end lumber for the cabinet business. Tommy handles ash, basswood, butternut, beech, cherry, cedar, hard and soft maple, red and white oak, pine, spruce and hickory.

Tommy continues to sell his products locally — an idea, Tommy says, is not as new as everyone seems to think. And to Tommy, a handshake is still as good as a written contract.

“I’ve known nothing else but lumber mills and being around lumberyards,” Tommy said. “It’s really been a unique life in the fact that we’re so closely tied to the land. And I’d imagine that the quarry people in Barre and the farmers and timber men and lumbermen all have that similar connection to the land that other people will never know or never experience.”

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