Upland Chronicles: Hard-working M.B. McMahan built a timber empire

Mar. 29, 2014 @ 11:43 PM

On May 15, 1916, M.B. McMahan II entered into a small planing mill business, in partnership with Cleo Burchfiel. Business was extremely slow at first, but that simple sawmill would grow into one of the most successful lumber businesses in Sevier County.

Known all of his life as Johnny Mac, Miles Brazelton McMahan ll was born Aug. 28, 1894. He was one of six children of M.B. McMahan Sr. and Mary Kate Chandler McMahan. His father was a successful Sevierville attorney who served as mayor of Sevierville from 1908 to 1909. His siblings were Stanley, Rose (Emert), Lillie, Lela (Love) and David. He and his siblings grew up in a house located at the corner of Main Street and Parkway. The property is now part of Sevier County Bank’s parking lot.

He married Zella M. Blalock on May 8, 1917, and the couple had three sons: Miles Brazelton III, James Chandler and David, who died in infancy.

After attending Murphy College and graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee in 1915, the ambitious young scholar entered the lumber business.

Cleo Burchfiel owned a small planing mill near the intersection of Park Road and Old Newport Highway. McMahan purchased half interest in the planing mill for $2,000, and half of the inventory for $700. The business manufactured screen doors, ice boxes and chicken coops. When Murphy College decided to build an addition on the rear of its building, the fledgling planing mill received the contract, and the enterprise took off.

They paid fifty cents for 1,000 feet of logs, paid $3.50 for sawing 1,000 feet, and then paid 50 cents to stock 1,000 feet of lumber to dry. Using mostly pine lumber, they made numerous items used in home construction such as door sashes, door frames and flooring.

They processed millions of feet of lumber with no tractors or trucks. Two workers stacked the lumber by hand so that it could dry before hauling to the mill in wagons. Their highest paid employee was the foreman, who received $1.75 per day for a 10-hour shift.

Stacking was done at the cost of 50 cents per thousand. When the lumber had dried in the woods where it was cut, independent lumbermen paid a sum of three dollars for a teamster to haul the material to the mill.

In 1918, McMahan traded his interest in the lumber business for the Burchfiel interest in the planing mill.

The following year, McMahan went into business with A.J. King Sr., who owned a planing mill near the old railroad depot on the eastern end of Bruce Street. Together they purchased a lot from J.B. Waters Sr. on the north side of old Sevier County High School property. McMahan and King began buying lots of timberland and built a new modern planing mill, giving them advantage over other mill operators who continued old methods.

The new partners devised a car and track system, which resulted in a much faster rate of production. The mill also contained a maximum boiler, and railroad tracks were extended by the plant.

They contracted big projects, including the three-story Sevier County High School on High Street, built next to the mill. In 1920, the bottom fell out of the timber industry, and providing lumber for the school was all that kept them afloat.

In 1924 McMahan and King decided to divide the business. King took the planing mill, and McMahan took 700 acres of timber land in Walden’s Creek, which was purchased by the two men earlier. Since the mill was worth more than the timber, King gave McMahan $1,500 to settle the difference.  

In partnership with his brother, David, they established McMahan Forest Industries Inc., and in 1928 purchased a small sawmill operation from Otha Blalock which they expanded on the Walden’s Creek property. The business was thereafter known as Johnny Mac’s Sawmill. The sawmill was situated at the junction of two streams. The surrounding woods were filled with an abundance of top quality timber. There was a large pond used for washing the logs and a modern bandsaw which had the advantage of recovering more of the log than the old circular saw.

After the lean years of the Great Depression, McMahan’s business began to recover. The New Deal’s CCC project in the national park provided a needed market for lumber, as did a boom in other building. Following the end of World War II, his sons M. B. III and Chandler joined him in the business.  

The business continued to prosper. It would be impossible to estimate how well the venture would have fared had it not been for the extraordinary ability that McMahan had as an inventor. He invented several useful machines including, the McMahan lumber straightener, a combined automatic joiner and straight line rip saw; and the two-way thicknessing planer and matcher, which revolutionized what had been a difficult and tedious job. He also invented McMahan’s Sectional-Flexible Feed Roll.

The sawmill was in operated until 1970, when they sold it along with the adjoining timberland to Charlie Blalock. But M. B. II remained active in family business. until he retired in 1976.

M.B. McMahan II was a college graduate, a knowledgeable timberland speculator and a gifted inventor. Throughout his life, he remained a hard-working, straightforward man. He died June 26, 1985, at age 90. He is buried in Shiloh Cemetery.

Carroll McMahan is special projects facilitator for the Sevierville Chamber of Commerce and serves as Sevier County historian.

The Upland Chronicles series celebrates the heritage and past of Sevier County. If you have suggestions for future topics contact Carroll McMahan at 453-6411 or cmcmahan@scoc.org.