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BTB 33: Sand Hill Logging and Timber

What a top notch crew and good maintenance will do…
The Sand Hill crew. (L-R) Pete Frickling, Leroy Ruth, Alvin Dobson, Willie Walls, Lil Daddy, Charles Ruth and Carl Duncan.

The Sand Hill crew. (L-R) Pete Frickling, Leroy Ruth, Alvin Dobson, Willie Walls, Lil Daddy, Charles Ruth and Carl Duncan.

The crew members of Sand Hill Logging and Timber are a particular bunch when it comes to their equipment. Tigercat’s district manager for the Carolinas, Kevin Wright, relates to me that “one of the skidder operators, Charles Ruth, parked his machine to let me install a new MDM program. After installing the program I did a quick test drive and parked it in a different spot. He asked if I had a problem with where he parked the machine. I told him no, and he then asked why I drove it.”

It is this protective attitude and high regard for the machinery that apparently prompted Sand Hill Logging and Timber owner, Alvin Dobson to once remark, “They aren’t my machines, I just make the payments.”

Dobson’s harvesting company, based in Savannah, Georgia, logs for the Elliott Sawmilling Company in Estill, South Carolina and works primarily in large pine saw timber up to 30 inch diameter. He got his start in the industry in 1979 after working a stint selling logging supplies and as a sub-dealer for the now defunct Franklin Equipment Company. Coincidently, his initial partner in the start-up logging operation was Miles Elliott, now the co-owner of Elliott Sawmilling, along with brothers Dickie and Robert Elliott. This is a company that Alvin speaks highly of.

The 718E fells some large timber.

The 718E fells some large timber.

Alvin recalls that in 1984, two guys in sunglasses, all dressed in black, pulled up to his job in a black Lincoln. The two young men turned out to be Johnny Boyd (now district manager for Tigercat and based in Alabama) and Gerry Mallory, another industry veteran whose company represents Hultdins and Indexator in North America and like Tigercat is based in Brantford, Ontario.

Dobson ended up purchasing a Koehring 625 track feller buncher from Boyd, who was fresh out of Auburn University’s forestry engineering program, and Mallory. (Johnny claims they rented the Lincoln because it was only nine dollars more and besides, he had never rented a car before.) And so began a relationship between Alvin, Johnny, Koehring and eventually Tigercat that has endured for over 30 years.

Alvin’s relationship with Tigercat began in 1996 when he purchased a 720 feller buncher. “Johnny Boyd talked me into that one,” says Alvin. “He put the hammer on me.” Then in 1997, Alvin had a look at fellow harvesting professional, Frampton Ferguson’s new Tigercat 230 loader. “Although I was a Prentice man at the time, I said ‘I’ve got to have that loader.’ It was so smooth it was like sitting in my living room,” recalls Alvin.

Alvin bought one soon after and the serial number plate on the machine read 107 – the seventh loader ever produced by Tigercat. The loader is still on Alvin’s job and has produced for over 30,000 hours. Alvin currently operates a single crew. “I used to have three crews running me. Now I run one crew,” he quips. The all-Tigercat line-up consists of a 718E feller buncher fitted with a 5600 series bunching saw with 8,500 hours on the clock, a new 620D dual arch skidder, a 10,000 hour 620C skidder, a later model 230B loader and the number seven 230 loader. With this set-up, the crack operators log 100 loads per week, although without quotas, Dobson is pretty confident they could do 150 loads.

Tigercat 718E Feller buncher felling a tree in thick brushForeman Pete Frickling has been with Sand Hill for eight years. He says that operator Leroy ‘Rabbit’ Ruth is the best buncher operator he has ever seen and it shows. Alvin purchased the 718E when the company did quite a bit more thinning work than now. With narrow offset 24.5×32 tires and the 5600 saw, it is specified as the perfect thinning machine – very narrow with a head suited to accumulating nine stems at a time – not plowing through beautiful 50 to 60 year old saw timber. Twelve 60 ft (18 m) logs make a 30 ton load – by my rough calculations, I’m guessing these 80 ft (25 m) trees weigh well over three tons (1 ton equals 0.9 metric tonne). Regardless, Leroy can put down the wood, although he says that with a 724E with bigger tires and a 5702 single post saw he could really perform due to the better suited saw head, quicker saw recovery and wider machine stance.

Although many operating in similar conditions might opt for a 234 or even 250 series loader, the operators, Alexander ‘Lil Daddy’ Ling and Willie Walls, handle sorting, merchandising and loading the big timber without issue. The 230 and 230B have been solid and reliable performers. Elliott takes super pulp, chip ’n saw and saw logs up to 32 in (800 mm) diameter. The skidder operators are Charles Ruth and Carl Duncan. The 10,000 hour 620C looks practically new. The exterior decals are completely intact and the paint is hardly marked. In fact, all of the machines look for the most part the same as they did when they were new. Charles and Alexander have been with Alvin for 30 and 31 years respectively. “The crew are like family to me,” says Alvin. “They have worked together for so long, they trust each other and work well together.”

Pete is meticulous about maintenance and as a trained mechanic heads up and performs maintenance on all machines. The sensitivity of the operators to the performance of the machine also ensures they remain in top condition. The cab interiors are spotlessly clean. Great operators and meticulous attention to maintenance are key to Sand Hill’s success. Regarding his philosophy on aged machinery, Alvin says, “I don’t understand why someone would buy a tractor that they can only keep for three or four years just to save $18,000 up front.”

“I’ve seen a lot of coming and going over the last 34 years,” he continues, “Salesmen, equipment dealers and manufacturers. But out of all of it, thank God that Tigercat came along. It has made things a lot easier. We used to have to run around all weekend, fixing machines to get ready for the next week. We don’t have to do that anymore.”

Alvin sums up his formula for success: “To be a logger these days, you better have a damn good wife.” He describes lamenting and stressing over quotas, bad weather and fuel prices and asserts that not just anyone can put up with that. He continues, “A damn good crew is just as important and to be hooked up with someone that can keep you in good wood is important too – Elliott has been great to work with.”

A Tigercat skidder pulls massive trees in it's grapple.

620C and 620D skidders stand behind the 718E.