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By Dave Taylor
Success of Maxwell Brothers Lumber and Paul Maxwell, the last remaining founding partner, follows theme of triumph over tragedy, with Maxwell himself having overcome a nearly fatal saw accident. The company took advantage of downtime during the pandemic to complete major upgrades inside the mill.
The sawmill, at 4564 US Highway 60 W in Lewisport, began operations at the location in 1986 with just one building, a de-barking machine, a chipper and a circle saw.
“I think our first building was 40 by 80,” said Paul Maxwell, who opened the sawmill with his brothers Joe and Tom. “But we’ve got about 26,000 square feet under roof now.”
The brothers opened the sawmill as a continuation of the longtime family business, after their dad and granddad bought their first mobile mill in 1946. In 1986 the mill began with seven employees, but they currently have 24.
Tom and Joe retired several years ago, but now Paul is joined by newer partners, his son Nathan and his son-in-law Brandon Tuell, and the trio recently completed a major equipment upgrade inside, which was partly made possible due to the nationwide pandemic that slowed down the entire nation’s economy.
“Because of the paper mill shutting down due to COVID and not being able to sell their product, it shut us down,” Maxwell said.
Since they were going to be down anyway, they decided to take what was originally just a plan to upgrade the de-barking machine and make far broader upgrades.
“We just decided to go ahead and do the full upgrade at the time,” he said.
Since the economy was slowed down, the construction company they chose was free, as was the electrical company.
“So it gave them something to do and it worked out for us,” he said.
The upgrades start at the beginning of the sawmill with the de-barker, but run nearly throughout the entire process of turning trees into chips, sawdust, large wood cants and boards, to improve efficiency and safety, and to reduce downtime.
“Out of a log it’s up to us to get the most out of every log that we can get,” he said.
The upgrades have shown immediate improvements in the product.
“The difference in the de-barker has been tremendous,” he said.
Where they once pulled 1.25 loads of bark per day from trees, now those loads are down to 4/10 of a load, meaning more material left on the log and entering the sawmill, where it’s much more valuable than chipped bark.
Maxwell Brothers intakes trees from all over the area, including into southern Indiana, and although they’ll use anything that grows in the area, save for cedar and soft woods, their main species are red oak and poplar.
Wood from the mill goes on to furniture factories, flooring companies, pallet producers, and other end users that turn it into various products, including at least one who turns it into trim for buildings in Europe. “We cut a special product for a company that goes to several countries over there,” Maxwell said. “What it’s for is it goes in some of the castles, the big hotels that they’re building and all that kind of stuff.”
The company has grown and the pandemic downtime has been good for the mill, but Maxwell himself was changed, and arguably improved, by a nearly fatal accident there 33 years ago.
It was June 23, 1987, and a young Maxwell was working the circle saw and was having a rough day.
“I was frustrated, I was having saw troubles,” he said. “I got out in too big a hurry out of the cab and didn’t take the proper safety precautions I should’ve taken, that I normally do.”
The carrier on the saw, that didn’t normally move, did that day, and if not for a yell from a worker nearby that alerted him in time to turn a little bit, he would’ve been killed. Still, he was very, very injured.
“I lost my left arm about six inches below my elbow, cut my right hand completely off other than one piece of skin that held,” he said. “Cut me from the top of my head to the tip of my chin, I lost one piece of bone out of my jaw.”
“There was a tooth mark that was 1/16 of an inch away from my jugular vein, so 1/16 and it would’ve been over,” he said.
He was flown to Louisville and underwent a roughly 22-hour surgery where they put his right hand back together, albeit minus about half an inch of it.
“I was in the hospital for 10 days. When I came home from the hospital I had to stop here because I had to know whether it was going to bother me or not,” he said.
His wife Becky took care of him and changed his bandages, but Maxwell looks back on the accident as a reminder that God was with him.
“Between her and the Lord, that’s what carried me,” he said. “It was one of those things sometimes you have to be knocked down to look up and realize who’s in control, and for me that happened.”
He came back to work, albeit moving slower and still recovering, and it wasn’t until early 1988 that he ran that saw again.
But his passion for the family business never wavered, and he kept going, growing the business and using the story of his accident to reach other people.
“I was never somebody to be out in front of people,” he said. “So the Lord took this and he changed all that.
“Since my accident, in the fall of ‘88 I rededicated my life and I’ve been in way over 100 churches giving my testimony and singing since then,” he said.
That’s something he doesn’t believe would’ve ever happened if not for the accident, which has produced an outcome he’s thankful for even though he would rather have come to this new place a different way.
“I do whatever I want to do, I’m fine with it, but would I be better with two hands? Yes,” he said. “I’ve been this way for longer than I had two hands now, so this is kind of a way of life for me.”
But, he said, “if I had to go back to that day and it never happened but you told me that I had to give up the relationship I’ve got with Christ now… then I wouldn’t back up, I’d stay where I’m at, because he’s carried me through so much.”
“We take life for granted and we think we’ve always got tomorrow but we don’t have,” he said. “Every day is a gift from God.”