Owens Bros. Lumber Was 'Where Your Home Begins'

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"Where Your Home Begins" was the motto of the Owens Bros. Lumber business. They cut the timber in the forest and turned it into building material for residents and miners of the Rim Country -- and for throughout the state.

Owens Bros. Lumber might also make a claim on the motto "Where Modern Payson Began."

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The size of the timber cut for the Owens Bros. Lumber company can be judged by their diameter compared to the height of Keith Owens. The Rim Country had healthy trees in the heyday of sawmills.

The sawmill, operated by the Owens Bros. Lumber, employed just about everyone in town in one way or another. If a man didn't work at the mill or for one of the company's other businesses, the payroll generated was a factor in his wages or the success of his own business.

"Our biggest payroll of nearly $500,000 was in 1956," Ella Lee Owens said.

But there were times when things were tight and merchants complained about how slow mill workers paid, but the company never missed a payroll, Owens said. To show how much the business contributed to the community's economy, the mill paid its workers in silver dollar bills, three different times.

"The merchants complained because they would have to pay the shipping fees for sending the silver dollars to the Valley to the bank," she said. It was because of the mill that Valley National Bank came to the community.

"It was the paycheck," said Pat Cline.

Owens shared the history of Owens Bros. Lumber for this special publication marking the 125th Anniversary of Payson. The photo on the cover was loaned by Owens, showing the community as it looked in 1952.

The Owens brothers, Keith and Kerm, had been in the Payson area for a while. According to "Rim Country Illustrated" by the Northern Gila County Historical Society, they had a mill at their home in 1937.

When the war came, Keith went to work for the defense industry, but wanted to get back into the lumber business.

"Henry Haught had a sawmill (where Tonto Village is), but Keith heard he was going to stop. Keith got the permit. He put in a permanent mill at (the) Diamond Point Summer Homes (site)," Owens said.

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Little remained of the Owens Bros. Lumber mill at its Diamond Point Summer Homes site, after a fire destroyed it. The company had already started moving into Payson at the time of the fire.

They built cabins where the workers and their families could live for no charge. They also had a cook shack at the site.

The mill went into operation in 1942. Owens and her sister-in-law did the cooking and Owens took care of the books, as well. They had to haul water into the mill camp for five years before they could drill a well.

"We had saved $1,000 for it, so we told Raymond Cline to drill up to $1,000. -- It cost $3 per foot to drill a well. -- He drilled $997 worth before striking water," Owens said.

Keith bought Kerm out in 1947, Owens said, but Kerm continued working for the company.

"He was the millwright. He was an absolute genius with mechanics and everything he did," Owens said of her brother-in-law.

Keith Owens also knew a thing or two about mechanics, and between them, the brothers secured several patents.

The Diamond Point mill burned down in 1951, but by then, they had started moving the operation into Payson on West Main, between what is now Peggy's Fashions and the Baptist Church. It was no small operation. In addition to the signature teepee-shaped burner, there was a planing mill, a log pond and more. The Owens also had a gas station at the mill, a hardware store with the state's longest pegboard display and a sporting goods store. It was also where the Civil Air Patrol radio was located.

The mill had the first push-button operation in the state and was kept so clean the workers could smoke without worrying about a fire starting.

By the mid-1950s, the mill employed more than 60 people and had a payroll of about $500,000.

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The Owens Bros. Lumber operation employed more than 60 people at its busiest time and had a payroll of about $500,000 in the mid-1950s.

"It was the payroll," Pat Cline said.

The family also donated materials and labor for a number of projects in the community. The lumber used in the original Payson Hospital came from them, some of the lumber for the Baptist Church on Main Street was donated, the road to the airport was partially built by them, the land east of the rock school building was cleared by them, as was the road to, and the field at Tontozona, Owens said.

Keith Owens was accidentally electrocuted on the site and died in 1957. His widow took over the business.

"I tried to operate it for a couple of years. We didn't have any timber (permits), so I was scrounging. It was nip and tuck for two years," Owens said.

The problem was the Forest Service didn't get the timber sales ready.

"In 1958, the Forest Service had a sale ready. Whiting and Kutch (the forerunners of Kaibab Industries) were interested in the mill. We both bid and I got it. I then sold to them."

Owens and her son live on Granite Dells Road, and son, Errol, who grew up working in the mill, has the family's old home on Miller. A feature both homes have in common is beautiful knotty pine paneling -- a fitting tribute to the family's lumber industry heritage.

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