Logger Of The Year? Yep.

mhbAs Ralph Morgan puts it, “I’d rather have friends than money anytime.”

Luckily, Morgan has both, although he’s not the type to talk much about the latter. Morgan has made innumerable friends after 40-plus years logging and doing other business in a two-county area of eastern Mississippi. And a good many of those friends are business contacts.

Maybe Morgan puts so much stock in maintaining good friends because most people who work with him become his friends. After living and maintaining three businesses in the same county for decades, Morgan is good at keeping those friends. Networking works in the woods, too.

As with almost any successful logger, much more figured in his success: a dedicated wife/business partner who is constantly involved, day-in, day-out; decades of grueling days followed by late nights in the shop or on the phone; the skilled performance of veteran sawhands, equipment operators and truck drivers; plus a little luck on occasion.

Morgan has been making his own luck for over 40 years now. He was born, reared and has lived his entire 56 years in Lauderdale, Miss., a hamlet just northeast of Meridian, near the Alabama line. Morgan began logging at age 13, after his father suffered a stroke. He was hauling timber at 13 and buying it at 15.

“I started the business,” Morgan said. “The first tract I bought for $600, which I borrowed from Mr. Harold Baumgardner.”

Morgan grew up on a farm, where his dad mostly traded livestock and allowed timber harvesting. As a youth, Morgan was fascinated as he watched loggers harvest the hardwood and pine. He told his father that, in farming, there was just too much time between paychecks.

He started skidding timber with a mule and skid poles and later rejoiced when he got a Logger’s Dream. He bought his first skidder, a Franklin, in 1965. Now Morgan owns five Franklin 170 skidders, the oldest less than three years on the job. He owns three Caterpillar tractors (two D5s, one D4), a Prentice 210 loader, one Barko 250 loader, a Barko 775 feller-buncher equipped with Koehring disc head, several Stihl and Husqvarna power saws and a fleet of 13 Mack trucks, all equipped with trailers made in Morgan’s shop.

Morgan employs 23 loggers and truckers. He runs two regular crews and keeps a third on standby. His sawhands wear hardhats, chaps and steel-toe boots. Daily safety briefings are a staple at Ralph Morgan Logging Inc. These meetings, along with the vigilance and professionalism of his employees, allow Morgan to pay the lowest workers’ comp rates. In all his years in the woods, the worst accident to befall one of his men was a broken leg, about 15 years ago.

Considering Morgan’s background, his longevity in timber harvesting, his safety record and his success, it was no surprise that Morgan was recently selected Mississippi Forestry Assn. Logger of the Year. The American Pulpwood Assn. reinforced this accolade by tapping Morgan the 1990 South Central Region Outstanding Logger of the Year.

Morgan and his wife Elizabeth also own and manage a corner market and gas station that includes a laundromat and a car wash. Morgan, along with partner James Harper, own Harper & Morgan Rodeo Co., one of the nation’s largest (see related story).

Morgan owns about 2500 acres of land, much of which is grazing territory for his and his son’s 400 cattle and 150 horses. He also buys land, harvests the timber, then resells the land. Most of the timber he cuts is from privately owned land. Over the years, many local landowners either have met Morgan personally or have heard about his good reputation. He has often returned many times to log again, every year or every several years.

Because Morgan is meticulous about leaving clearcut sites in the best possible condition, he is often favored by landowners over other loggers who aren’t as tidy. Morgan even said the key to his success is finding tracts he can log in wet weather.

“If you ask them (landowners) who’s the best you can depend on when it’s wet and gets tough, they’d say me, I’m sure,” Morgan suggested.

And just as he’s maintained the working friendships with many landowners, Morgan has kept up good relations with the companies that buy his timber.

Morgan truckers haul pine and hardwood to James River Paper Co.’s chipping mill in Meridian. Pine logs go to Shuqualak Lumber Co. in Shuqualak, Miss., and to Hankin Equipment and Coastal Lumber in Meridian. Grade hardwood is sold to Linden Lumber Co., Linden, Ala.; soft hardwood to A. R. Taylor Co. in Demopolis, Ala.; hardwood logs to Prince Lumber in Shuqualak and pulpwood to Scott Paper in Shuqualak and Boligy, Ala.

Morgan’s operation usually consists of two crews; one exclusively clearcutting and one generally thinning. When Forest Industries visited, both crews were working clearcuts. The first crew visited is headed up by Dennis Sollie, a 17-year veteran with Ralph Morgan Logging. He supervises his crew of 10 men and also manages the entire logging operation when Morgan is on the rodeo circuit.

“He’s a real good man,” said Morgan of Sollie. “He’s been with me for 17 years and can fix anything. A man told me that if Dennis can’t fix it, then throw it away. That’s about right. All my key men do a real good job and I’m real pleased with what they do.”

Sollie for many years did all the mechanical work for the outfit – including heavy engine overhauls. With the growth of the company, he was needed in the woods. He still does a lot of mechanic work, but the heavy jobs are farmed out to Tri-State Mack or Waters International in Meridian or other equipment dealers. Equipment operators are responsible for daily equipment maintenance.

Sollie is also the man who conducts the morning safety briefings. But soon, Mack Mott, a longtime forest industry figure who recently retired, will return to work for Morgan. He will plan and conduct safety seminars and make the briefings during lunch to save valuable harvesting time that is taken up each morning.

Sollie’s crew was clearing various hardwoods from a tract of marginal timber during a visit. His men were outfitted in protective clothing despite unseasonably warm November temperatures. Sollie took time to describe the daily safety ritual.

“We go over the same things just about every day,” he said. “Basic things like saw safety, chain brake check, watching out for the next man falling in the same area. We caution the skidder operator to watch for sawmen in the woods and to be careful driving onto the ramp.”

He described a careless error the week before when a sawhand laid down his power saw in order to help out at the deck. Before he got back to the saw, a skidder had run over it. Luckily, instead of a crushed $800 saw, the skidder left a slightly damaged crank cover. But the briefings are meant to prevent such slip-ups.

Sollie’s crew operates the Barko 775. Before Morgan bought it 18 months ago, he was averaging about 90 loads of timber a week. With the addition of the mechanized tree cutter, he’s averaging 119 loads.

Delimbing on Sollie’s crew is done with Stihl 44 power saws.

Morgan’s second crew was supervised by Red Burton, a 10-year veteran of Ralph Morgan Logging. He also operates the Prentice 210 loader. Morgan called Burton “one of my best men ever.” Burton’s crew hand falls when it’s thinning, using Husqvarna 288 saws. Sollie expressed interest in a new Huskie as well, the 272. According to Sollie, the 272 is a cross between the 266 design and the 288 power and is a lighter weight than the 288.

Sollie, Burton and other veterans like Kenny Reed, who works the third crew on small tracts, have worked for Morgan for many years.

“I’ve never had a good man work for me, then leave,” Morgan said. He pays high wages and time and a half for overtime to his good men.

Morgan maintains his equipment meticulously and he maintains his business friendships with equal care. Morgan also finds time to serve as a director of both the Mississippi Forestry Assn. and the Mississippi Loggers Assn., as well as keeping active in civic affairs.

Ralph Morgan: Logger of the Year doubles as Rodeo Cowboy

Meet Ralph Morgan, Logger of the Year. Shake hands with Ralph Morgan, Rodeo Cowboy. Yes, they are the same man.

No, Morgan no longer rides the bucking steers and horses, nor ropes calves competitively nor wrestlers livestock for trophies. Now he “cowboys” from the front office, as co-owner of Harper & Morgan Rodeo Co. Actually Morgan doesn’t work much in any office and never has. But he and partner James Harper of Lake Charles, La., run one of the largest and most successful rodeo companies in the United States.

Harper & Morgan operates about 20 rodeos a year in the spring and fall. Their 1990 schedule opened in Lafayette, La., and ended in Kansas City, Mo., with stops in between from Lufkin, Texas, to Palestine, Ill. Morgan’s outfit supplies livestock for the shows and arranges for cowboys as well as handling everything from tickets to concessions.

Morgan keeps the livestock at his property in Lauderdale, Miss. The stock includes 150 bucking horses, 80 bulls, 50 steers and 50 to 60 roping calves.

Like his history in logging, Morgan’s rodeo experience goes back to his youth. While struggling to make a go at logging and help support his family, Morgan took up rodeo. He eventually met James Harper through rodeo and they roped calves and bulldogged steers for years together on the circuit.

Meanwhile, Morgan stages his first rodeo in Lauderdale, on the property of a logging associate. Morgan presented several rodeos there and later, at his own arena on his property.

“I finally built rodeo arena at my house and had several small rodeos,” said Morgan, adjusting the angle of his wide-brimmed cowboy hat to deflect the noonday sun. “But I put on my first paid rodeo at Butler, Ala.”

Eight years ago, he and Haper bought out the well known Steiner Rodeo Co., headed by Tommy Steiner of Austin, Texas.

“When we bought them, they had about 30 rodeos and we had about five or six good rodeos,” Morgan recollected. “After that year, we kind of weeded out some of the rodeos, down to about 20. We have put on about 20 rodeos (annually) for the last seven years.”

While Morgan has become a well-known and respected member in his community through his 40-year logging career, he has made friends through the rodeo enterprise, too. For seven straight years, Morgan has given the Bluegrass Jamboree free use of his arena. The jamboree raises money for cancer research.

Commemorative plaques, trophies and favorite saddles adorn the den and back porch of Morgan’s home. Those mementos, like the praises he has won for his logging outfit, symbolize Morgan’s legacy: success.

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