Passing down legacy of timber, memories
Burns Forest Products in Jonesboro was synonymous with the affable, white-haired LSU-loving forester who made his name in the piney woods of north Louisiana. Joe Burns was the owner that managed timber for landowners and served as a wood dealer for the industrial companies in his area from 1962 until his death last November.
Four daughters had been preparing for this transition time and yet people are never prepared to replace a founder, builder and motivator that made everything work.
“Dad always wanted to leave the Tree Farm for the next generation,” said daughter Mary Helen Burns, a CPA who lives in Baton Rouge. But no one was ready to run the business. “We decided to protect the assets and look for someone to work with us.”
With the help of a financial consultant and forester John Russo, who worked with their father, they began the process. They interviewed four different groups after each entity had filled out an extensive questionnaire.
“We were very interested in who we would be working with, where their current lands were, how much land they already managed and how much attention they could pay to our land,” said Burns. “We took one whole day interviewing them. We were very impressed with all four groups and I think any of the four would have done a good job.”
They decided on Ewing Timber to manage their 14,000 acres of land, timber and minerals. They closed the wood dealer part of the operation but Ewing also took over those logging companies interested in joining with them and a few of the office employees.
“We settled on Ewing,” she said, “because their other holdings are in the same areas and they ran a similar business but also — and I don’t want to minimize this — it would be something Dad would have wanted.”
The Burns and Ewing families go way back. Joe Burns and L.C. “Lew” Ewing were ready to get life and business started when the World War II soldiers headed home to Louisiana. They both fulfilled those dreams making Burns Forest Products and Ewing Timber Co. successful forestry businesses headquartered in Jonesboro amidst some of the finest timber in north Louisiana.
They were both civic and industry leaders and their families considered each other friends. So more than 70 years later it is somewhat fitting that after the death of Joe Burns, third generation Brandon Ewing looks after their forestland located in small tracts primarily in Winn, Jackson, Bienville, Lincoln and Webster parishes.
“The two of them were different, but they were both driven,” said Brandon Ewing. “They both had the same ideas, values and morals.”
Joe Burns liked to remind people that he was born in the little town of Shongaloo before he moved to Jonesboro. Lew Ewing came from Chatham. They were both active in the Methodist Church, the Lions Club, Chamber of Commerce and the Louisiana Forestry Association (LFA).
Lew worked in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp supervised by the Soil Conservation Corps in 1939 and purchased the land homesteaded by his great-grandfather. When he returned home from the Air Force he finished his business degree at LSU and became active in the land and timber business. In 1948 he organized a crew to do timber stand improvement for others on a cost basis and was the first to use the Reuel Little tree injector in north Louisiana.
He worked with landowners to mark and cut trees, kill brush, hand plant loblolly pine seedlings, paint boundary lines and provide advice to landowners to attain a high standard of management. Ewing, like Joe Burns, enrolled his forestland into the American Tree Farm program.
He was also involved in the industrial side of forestry. In the late 1940s he was buying pulpwood and shipping it by railcar from Chatham to the Brown Paper Co. in West Monroe. As the paper mills grew, Ewing switched to shortwood haulers, sending the same product to more markets. When longwood hauling became the norm the total supply he was selling more than doubled.
Joe Burns returned from the Army and received his forestry degree from LSU in 1947 and his Master’s degree the following year. He first worked for the Extension Service and then went on to the Tremont Lumber Co. in Joyce. He was chief forester for 12 years for the company until he left to found Burns Forest Products.
Buck Atkins was in charge of procurement at the Hodge paper mill and he suggested that the two wood dealers split up their territories — Ewing would take the area north of the mill and Burns would be south of the mill.
“They would travel to LFA meetings together and to the annual meeting with their wives,” said Brandon. “They also made it to a lot of LSU events together.”
When Lew’s son Randy took over in 1966, they continued the friendship.
“My Dad actually worked longer with Joe than my grandfather did,” said Brandon.
Joe was making his mark in other ways in the forest community. He was president of the Louisiana Forestry Foundation, founded in 1967, to provide scholarships to forestry students at LSU, Louisiana Tech University and now Southern University and the community technical colleges. He remained in that position until the endowment reached more than a million dollars.
When workmen’s comp rates got out of control, he also was instrumental in forming the Louisiana Workers’ Compensation Corp. (LWCC), a private nonprofit insurance that helped the system when it was on the verge of collapse in 1992.
Randy Ewing also was involved in much more than forestry. He was elected to the state Legislature in 1988 and served as president of the Senate from 1996-2000. In 2003 he ran an unsuccessful race for governor.
“Helen Burns (Joe’s wife) was probably my dad’s biggest cheerleader in north Louisiana,” said Brandon. “The years from 1996 to 2000 were the most time Dad and I spent working together in the business.”
Brandon, who has a finance degree from Louisiana Tech, bought the business from his father and Pete Thiels in 2003.
“We have been in the management of timber as much as the timber business from day one,” he said.
When the transaction with the Burns family was completed, he was satisfied that his company could manage the family acreage in the way the founder would have wanted.
“It was very rewarding to me with so much history between the families,” Brandon said from the office now located in Ruston. “It takes a lot more management today. In this business you don’t hit home runs. If you want to get rich quick, you better find something else. But it does educate a lot of young people, it provides for a lot of families, and it just helps people get a leg up.”
The future, said Ewing, is growing the fiber that the market wants. That means shorter cycles with more time spent on managing the land, executing the proper planting and growing the fiber as fast as you can. In the heart of his timber basket, he said, you either grow trees or you grow chickens.
“We are good for growing trees!”
Mary Helen Burns said her family also is looking to the future.
“My advice to others is to think of the generations to come,” she said. “We want to get these grandchildren involved.”
Burns said they will go out and look at the land with the younger generation and look to the Ewing Timber foresters to educate them on their legacy.
“We view this as a long-term relationship,” she said. “It’s a new phase of our relationship with the Ewing family.”
Her nephews already have taken one step into the woods with the transformation of the old Burns forestry office into their hunting camp as a place to gather. Every fall they hunted all over Jackson and Bienville parishes with “Papa Joe.” Now they can continue the family hunts.
Joe’s daughters — Beverly, Sharon, Mary Helen and Melinda — remember him working hard, but they also recall the devotion to his late wife, Helen, in her last years. They look back on him making time to go to almost every LSU home game, pick blueberries, play tennis, water ski and find a good tree to cut and decorate at Christmas.
“It is important to take the steps to keep a family business together,” said Mary Helen Burns. “If you can get good advice and can all agree on some basic principles, you can pass wealth on from one generation to the next. But it doesn’t just happen. You have to be vigilant and diligent.
“My dad and mom started with nothing. This is a way to acknowledge what they have done.”
(Janet Tompkins is the former editor of Forests & People magazine. She worked with the Louisiana Forestry Association for 22 years.)