Norman Dudley

Sawmill vet recalls era's golden age

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To area newcomers, Payson's days as a sawmill town may seem so long ago and far away that there couldn't possibly be a living, breathing veteran of the era who's not yet of retirement age.

Well, both assumptions are wrong. Kaibab Forest Products, which for many years stood smack dab on the site where folks now queue up for movies at the Sawmill Theatres, didn't permanently unplug its buzz saws until 1993.

And Norman Dudley, who spent 33 of his 61 years toiling as the operation's manager, still lives and works in Payson although the sawdust has cleared from his lungs.

Today, he's a self-described "gas guy" for Energy West, handling service turn-ons and turn-offs. But his heart is still very much in sawmilling.

"If you gotta have a job, you can't do better than that," Dudley says with a grin. "I love sawmilling. I like making lumber and lots of it. Heck, I tried to talk Gordon Whiting (vice president of Kaibab Industries, Inc., which still owns the property) into taking that picture show out and putting in another sawmill, but he just said he didn't want to."

Sawmilling wasn't just a job to Dudley. It was his life starting right after his graduation from Payson High School.

"My uncle Kerm and his brother Keith built that mill, and Kerm put me to work there as soon as I could," he recalls. "Back then, timber was easy to come by, and measurements really didn't matter. A two-by-four could measure anywhere from two-and-a-quarter by four-and-a-half. But by the time we shut down the sawmill, we were using dial indicators to measure our lumber which would make correct cuts within thousandths of an inch.

"We were able to salvage everything from the log. There were other mills here in Arizona I won't name names and it embarrassed me to watch how they butchered their lumber. I hated to watch that."

Sawmilling was hard work, Dudley says, but not too hard.

"If it was, I wouldn't have been there, because I'm not that hard of a worker. But we produced anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 board foot a day, which is probably equal to a couple of houses. That's a lot of lumber for a small mill."

Like many similar operations across the country, Kaibab closed down for what Dudley calls "one pretty basic reason." Not much timber could be legally cut in the wake of laws created by environmentalist groups.

"The environmentalists said we were stripping the forest and to a certain degree, they were right. Some mills were doing that. But we only worked eight or nine hours a day. We didn't try to overproduce, we didn't butcher the lumber. We just tried to produce what I call perfect lumber.

"To this day, I agree with the environmentalists on a number of issues, but certainly not all. Like when they said we couldn't cut down trees because spotted owls were nesting in them. Well, I've lived up here since 1953 and I've never seen a spotted owl. And I've looked for them!"

Born in Visalia, Calif., where he stayed "just long enough to be born," Dudley grew up mostly in Tempe and partly in a half-dozen other Arizona towns as his father landed different jobs as a mechanic and road construction worker.

Eventually, Dudley and his family found themselves in Payson, and the transient period of his life came to a happy end.

"Before we moved to Payson, we used to visit here quite often. I had aunts and uncles here, and finally, they just couldn't get us to leave. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and we'd been living in Globe, where I had 50 or 60 kids in my class. Here there were four!

"Heck, there were probably 300 people in the whole town, and you knew every one of them," Dudley remembers. "My wife could always tell who was driving into town just by the sound of their car."

All that has changed, of course. But this longtime local doesn't mind.

"You gotta grow," he says. "If you don't grow, you're nothin'."

During all of that evolution, Dudley married his wife, Alta, and produced two children: son Tim, now 37, and daughter Nicole, 31. He plans to retire next year, maybe take a trip to Alaska with Alta. But he's not planning to move out of Payson.

"The only way I could get my wife out of here would be in a coffin," he says with a grin that indicates he feels precisely the same way.

The only thing that could make life in Payson better, he says, is if the town somehow returned to the golden era of sawmills and making perfect lumber.

If one were opened today, Dudley is asked, would he apply for a job?

"Not until tomorrow morning," he says.

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