Norman Floyd McGowin Jr. saw the momentous political, social, economic and technological changes of the 20th century through the lens of the W.T. Smith Lumber Co., which dominated the small town of Chapman in Butler County, south Alabama. The company was run by McGowin’s family, and Chapman was a company town whose residents, for better or worse, had their fortunes tied to the lumber mill and its many moving parts.
McGowin tells his story in a memoir, “The Forest and the Trees, ” posthumously published by Montgomery-based New South Books.
In June 1950, McGowin found himself coming off an “inauspicious” freshman year at Yale, where he discovered the overpowering temptations of wine, women and song. An interest in the Marine Corps, however, gets him refocused and he soon finds himself at Parris Island for officer training. Of his drill instructors, McGowin writes, “I can remember no case when they talked about their own combat experiences or glorified war in any way — practical advice like how to beat up soldiers or steal equipment from the Army was another story.”
McGowin ends up learning the just-invented air traffic control trade, guiding military planes in and out of a base in South Korea just after the peace accord is put in place.
He arrives back in Alabama in 1955 to the discovery that the International Woodworkers of America, CIO, have organized the mill and called a “vicious” strike. The union, McGowin claims, used every means — legal and illegal, including dynamite — to negotiate. The strike is resolved a year later, and McGowin declares victory for the mill, which he says fought off the challenge with honor.
Through the following years the mill fights off a sale, pioneers aerial forestry mapping and makes peace with larger market forces. The lumberman chose this observation from Mark Twain for the start of his epilogue: “Never underestimate the number of people who would love to see you fail.”
Text by Dave Helms