Kelly Kimball has personally seen four generations of his family operating logging and lumber businesses, going back to his grandfather Brad Kimball, who operated in the Akeley area, and his father Ben, who set up shop in the Osage area.
Now two of Kelly's three adult sons, Justin and Zach, work for Kimball Logging, Inc., which Kelly started in 1978 with his brothers, Ben and Terry. His third son, Cory, works for the Department of Natural Resources forestry office in Detroit Lakes, setting up timber sales.
"He doesn't want us to buy his sales, though," Kelly said. "See, if we buy one of his sales, he can't administer it if we cut it. It's a state rule."
Kimball admitted his brothers have moved on to other things, and their sons never showed any interest in timber-related careers. Nevertheless, he said, "It kind of gets into your blood. It's just a way of life."
The way of life has apparently been in the Kimball family's blood for a long time.
"Our family came to Massachusetts in 1634," said Kimball. "In, like, 1650, we have an ancestor who bought timber there to make wagon wheels."
Birth and death records of the following generations of Kimball forebears show a track that leads north to Maine, then crosses west to Wisconsin.
"There still is a Kimball Logging out in Maine," Justin chimed in.
The next generation
The oldest of Kelly's three sons, Justin started driving his dad's logging equipment at age 12. He graduated in 2000 from Park Rapids Area High School. He worked part-time during college, then went full-time at the family business.
"I think it was something I always wanted to do," said Justin, who likes being outdoors and cutting firewood. Perhaps appropriately, he is also a firefighter with the Carsonville Fire Department.
Zach started working full-time for his father when he was about 18.
"Just always wanted to do it, I guess," he explained, though his father recalled Zach originally wanted to be a truck driver.
Asked what he has learned during nearly 15 years cutting timber, Zach said, "It's quiet out in the woods, most of the time."
The loggers said they enjoy seeing a lot of wildlife in their workplace, including timberwolves, bear, deer, rabbits, eagles and many other varieties of birds.
All three Kimball men hang their hats in the Osage area. The business is headquartered west of Park Rapids on Highway 34, one mile into Becker County.
Now married with five children, ages 2 to 13, Justin sends his four older children to Park Rapids Century School.
Zach, 33, is a father of three, the oldest of whom also goes to school in Park Rapids.
Perhaps someday, some of their kids will also catch the logging bug.
Kelly shared a theory about what makes the timber industry a noble calling.
"There are four types of industry that start the whole economic chain: forestry, mining, oil and agriculture," he said. "For sure, mining and oil aren't sustainable. Some agriculture is sustainable; some of it isn't. But for sure timber is. If it's done right, it's 100-percent sustainable. If we do it right, there's no reason 10 generations from now they shouldn't still be doing it on the same ground."
He stated these beliefs while watching Justin operate a feller/buncher, a gigantic machine that grips a thick tree with metal claws and saws through the base of its trunk. The Kimball Logging crew was harvesting mature trees, mostly hardwood, on a piece of state timberland after winning the logging rights at a timber auction.
Leaving the younger trees to mature is where the sustainability part comes in. "That," Kimball said, "and opening up for even younger trees to start growing. Some of it comes out of the root system or the stump. But until that tree is severed off, it cannot start to grow. But then, some of them will seed, too. The oaks will seed."
Other environmental benefits of clearing out the old wood, he said, includes reducing the carbon released into the atmosphere by the decay of dead trees, and making room for the type of younger growth that game animals, such as deer and grouse, prefer.
Kimball said he has been told every $1 Minnesota lumber companies spend on stumpage (the market value of standing trees) is multiplying to $41 added to the state economy. In perspective, he said, three medium-sized logging companies like Kimball Logging can bring as much money into the state's economy during a year as the recent big football game.
The wood harvested by Kimball Logging no longer goes toward making wagon wheels. It has many other uses, though.
"A lot of the hardwood goes to Amish mills anywhere from Frazee to Wadena," said Kimball. "More of the pulp will go for OSB (oriented strand board), a plywood-type product. Some of it will go for shavings, maybe to use as dry litter for turkeys."
Indicating a pile of logs stacked near the company's loader/slasher, he added, "Most of this basswood will go to Grand Rapids, where Nelson Wood Shims is making shims out of it, sent all over the world."
Shims are used in construction to square up doorways and windows, he explained.
"This is balsam. It is used mostly for paper," said Kimball. "It goes to Grand Rapids, to Blandin Paper Company."
Among other sawmills the company sells to, Kimball said, "We send a lot of wood to Potlatch," where it is made into building lumber. "Norbord, west of Bemidji, makes OSB; they're probably our biggest customer. Then there's Sappi in Cloquet; they make paper. We also sell a lot of big pine logs to Two Inlets Mill. They make construction lumber, a lot of paneling for houses."
Between serving these clients and selling a lot of firewood, the Kimballs don't seem to have a lot of unsold wood on their hands for very long.
"Not lately, no," said Kelly.
"Everybody always wants firewood," Justin added.
About half the wood the company cuts is on state land, and half is purchased from private landowners, often to groom their property for hunting. Some of their work involves cleaning up Mother Nature's messes.
"If the wind blows it all over, they like us to clean it up," said Justin. "The last couple of years there's been a lot of wind storms. A lot of our jobs are blowdown."
"You only have so much time to get that cleaned up," Kelly agreed. "Otherwise, it gets old and the mills don't want it."
People and equipment
Besides his sons, Kimball works with a crew whose years of lumber-related experience range from a few months to several decades.
Donald Pachel, who has worked for the company 21 years and worked at the Osage sawmill before that, said he has gone through five skidders — vehicles powerful enough to drag bundles of felled trees along paths in the woods — and is now on his sixth skidder. He can still name all their makes and models.
"I've got 42,000 hours on them," he said.
Asked what has kept him on the job so long, Pachel let Kimball answer for him: "He likes seeing the sun rise in the morning."
Pachel's own answer about what he loves about his work was "That baby right there, the skidder."
Truck driver Mike Reichling hauls the logs to the sawmills and paper plants. He contracted with Kimball years ago with his own truck. After 15 years doing other things, he came back four years ago as a full-time employee.
"Great bunch of guys," he said. "I missed it. This is what I love to do."
Reichling added, "Every day is a new challenge. Kelly has me doing a lot of different things. I work on the trucks, too, and move his equipment for him. He keeps me pretty diversified, and he knows I like that."
Sam Yliniemi, who spent much of the morning rapidly shaving branches off tree trunks with a delimber, has been with the company since 1986. Tyler Henry, at the other end of the seniority list, has been logging a year and a half.
They move their equipment from one logging site to another, leaving it in the woods for the duration of each assignment. "Usually it ends up to be a week or two weeks. It isn't very long," said Kimball.
It's a collection of toys that many boys of all ages dream of operating.
"We have a dozer for building the roads and what we call landing/staging areas," said Kimball. "We have two feller/bunchers, three skidders, two delimbers, two slasher/loaders and five trucks."
Their heaviest piece of equipment, a delimber, weighs approximately 80,000 pounds. This, together with the soft soil in much of the area, keeps the company from doing much logging during the spring and summer.
This may be what Zach meant when he called logging "the only occupation that hopes for cold weather."
"Sometimes we have to do maintenance," said Kelly, "or find really sandy soil to work in. Out here, the state has rules that we can't log this in the summertime. Certain types of soil just don't hold up. If it rains, it might stay really soft for two weeks, even."
He emphasized the company's commitment to shopping locally.
"We do try to support our hometown," said Kimball. "Those four one-ton pickups (parked at the landing/staging area) were all bought in Park Rapids. We buy our fuel locally. A lot of people say, why don't we buy big bulks tanks? But that distributor stuck with us through hard times, so we stick with him."
He added, "I think that's the way it should be. If you want to make a living here, you should spend your money here, too."