An Interview with Gray Skipper of Scotch

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Scotch’s T. H. O’Melia, Sr. examines pine saplings.

Q: Tell us a little about the history of Scotch Lumber Company, if you would.

The mill was started in 1888 by Marcus B. Behrman & Joseph Zimmerman as the Virgin Pine Lumber Company at a rail crossing known as Wades Station. In 1892 the mill changed hands as was renamed Scotch Lumber Company. Once again, in 1896 the mill changed hands to two gentlemen from New York State. Mr. Hannon, one of the investors, changed the name of the town to Fulton in honor of his hometown of Fulton, New York.

My Great Great Grandfather Mr. W. D. Harrigan, Sr. of Rhinelander, Wisconsin and two other investors from Wisconsin heard about the forests in the south. So they got on the railroad and came down, and the railroad runs right through Fulton. The areas in Wisconsin were running out of timber.

They got off here in Fulton in 1902, and on March 5th of 1902 ended up buying Scotch Lumber Company.

My great-grandfather’s last name was Harrigan. He had no Scottish heritage, but they kept the name Scotch for the mill.

Mr. W. D. “Will” Harrigan had a son and a daughter. His wife was Helen Gray “Nell” Harrigan. Mr. Will passed away in 1919, which left Mrs. Nell trying to run a staff full of men at a time when that was uncommon. So, she called home to her brothers, John and Jim Gray to help her run the business.

Mrs. Harrigan maintained a strong model of discipline. She once caught her brother smoking for a second time, and sent him back north.

There was the great flood in 1928 and the sawmill burned in 1930. The company was able to keep most workers by operating the planer mill and shipping the finished inventory on hand. Times got very hard because of the “Great Depression” and about that time the US Forest Service was buying tracts of timberland in order to create the National Forest System. Scotch had approx. 100,000 acres going east and west from Fulton. They offered Mrs. Nell a little over a dollar an acre. She considered it, but soon thereafter the check came in from the insurance, and she felt like she shouldn’t sell for less than $2 an acre.

They rebuilt the sawmill in 1938 or ‘39. In 1943 Mrs. ”Nell” Harrrigan died and her son, W. D. “Bill” Harrigan took over as President of Scotch Lumber Company. Mr. Billy, as he was known, was extremely smart, had a big personality, and by all measures was a very successful businessman. By this time, he and his sister, who is my grandmother late Virginia Harrigan O’Melia, owned the majority of stock in Scotch Lumber Company.

In the early 60’s, Mr. Billy Harrigan became interested in this new thing called plywood. Going around to lumber conventions, he met some of the lumbermen and plywood men of the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Swindell, of Williamette Industries, from Oregon said “send some logs out here, and we will see if they will work for plywood.”

So, they cut some logs and put them on the railroad, and sent them from Fulton to Willamette’s plant in Oregon. They peeled them and the glue people worked with them, and they got it to work. In 1964, they created Scotch Plywood Company, and started building a plywood mill, north of the mill site. Scotch produced the first southern yellow pine plywood east of the Mississippi river. The mill was rated to produce approx.. 36,000,000 square feet a year.

The plywood business grew, and we grew along with it. Once the market accepted it, it took off like wildfire. We’re on track to be about a 400,000,000 square foot mill, and we are in our 50th year of operations.

Q: How did the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) come about, in 1952? Whose idea was it?

After the Great Depression, people were living off the land, and there was an Act passed by the U.S. Congress called the Pittman-Robinson Wildlife Management Act. It taxes the sale of shells, and other things related to wildlife, and doles it out to the states for wildlife management.

That’s how the bigger timberland owners in Alabama were approached by the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources. The Conservation Department told landowners, “We have some money, but not enough to lease your land, but we can manage it for the betterment of all the wildlife for hunting.”

From Scotch’s standpoint, we knew that for those who lived around the land, that was a main part of their life: hunting and fishing. So it seemed to make perfect sense. Let the people who know something about wildlife manage it for the benefit of all the citizens around there. You’d be giving back, and helping the whole county, and the surrounding landowners.

Several families participated. The Boykin Family, the Kaul Family, Coosa River Newsprint, Alabama Power Company, and International Paper all participated in the early stages of establishment of the various WMA’s in the state.

A newspaper at the time, said “Conservation officials herald the program as a means of keeping certain hunting areas open to the general public in the face of the tendency of landowners to post their land and allow hunting by only personal acquaintances” You were moving into an era of hunting clubs, and out of the era of free range, where people let their cattle go anywhere. It was starting to be fenced in and posted.

The paper said, “Under the provisions of the Pittman-Robinson Act, not only will it eventually furnish good hunting on the designated areas, but the overflow of game is expected to furnish good hunting on the contiguous area.”

They were very successful. In the late 60s through the early 80s, they actually caught white tailed deer, and wild turkeys and sold them to other states to offset areas of lower density, to help offset their cost. They took them to Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee. And at no cost, they did it for other areas in Alabama.

It officially began in 1952, but they had to wait five years for the game to multiply enough to permit hunting, which began in 1957.

Q: What are your memories growing up about the WMA?

My earliest memories are there were too many deer out there; they were eating the pine seedlings we planted. The seedlings were fertilized, so they had salty tips that the deer liked to eat, and there were too many deer, but they caught them resettled them to areas where the population was too low. And, it was a popular area with a lot of hunters.

Most people thought it did well. From our standpoint, we were privileged to have a sizeable number of acres, and this allowed more people to go hunting at a very inexpensive price. When it started, it was $3 per year for residents of Alabama, and $15 for non-residents.

Q: How many people have hunted the land in the nearly 60 years?

Thousands. You can look on aldeer.com and see dog hunts that include 600 hunters in a single weekend. So, easily it would be in the thousands, perhaps even the tens of thousands.

Q: When did you realize that encroaching regulations by the Federal government might spell the end to the WMA?

About two years ago, we were hearing about the multi-listing settlement (under which a large number of species were expected to be added to the Threatened or Endangered List under the Endangered Species Act). The lawsuit was settled in 2011.

One of the species listed was the Black Pinesnake, and in the second meeting, they said it could be found in the Scotch WMA. At first, they indicated they were not likely to designate any critical habitat in Alabama, but rather on Federal land in Mississippi.

There had been a possible sighting in 1994 and another in 1995, for what was believed to be a Black Pinesnake. In 2014, they went back to sightings that were 20 years old, even though a single snake lives only about 11 years in the wild.

All it takes is for someone to think they see it and report it to your state’s agency. You don’t have to be a herpetologist. Or have a photograph. That becomes the “best available science.”

The two sightings were three and half miles apart. From their studies of the New Jersey Pinesnake, the snake needs at least 5,200 acres. So, based on these two sightings and the satellite imagery, topography and soil, they decided they might make the two sightings into a 32,000-acre critical habitat.

The snake has been listed as Threatened, but the critical habitat areas are not under such a stringent time schedule, so they have not yet designated critical habitat, but that’s where it seems to be headed.

And, of course, the Black Pinesnake is just one of 200 species that are being considered for listing in Alabama, arising from that one lawsuit.

Q: Is it true that if it did not threaten your business, you would have continued to allow your land to be in the WMA?

Yes. Absolutely. If this Federal issue didn’t make it untenable, we would have gladly continued to let the land be in the WMA and hunted.