Frerichs Sawmill of Coker Creek

Written By Marvin Harper

In an industry that has left many others wondering just what happened, Frerichs Sawmill has defied the odds.

In 1953, Wayford Frerichs bought a portable sawmill and went to work making usable lumber out of trees harvested in the woods of southern Monroe County.  As his son Terry explains, his dad had been a timber cutter by trade and just plain liked working around wood.  And more importantly, Wayford Frerichs (pronounced Frays) didn’t care for the farming life he was born into.

Twenty-five years after Wayford’s death, Terry and his brother Rodney still operate the mill bearing the family name, but it hasn’t always been easy.  “Twenty years ago, we probably had 10 mills within an area of 50 miles, and up until last year, it was down to three mills,” said Terry. “There are very few mills left now.” The downturn in the housing industry and the decreased demand for wood during the housing crisis 10 years ago certainly played a role, but the Frerichs brothers have been able to rise above the hardships every step of the way.

When the home market turned sour between 2000 and 2005, they switched gears from selling logs for log home kits to selling direct. They also eventually began selling their own complete log home packages, which contained all the wood components needed to construct a log home, from floor to rooftop. The buyer would provide windows, doors and everything else needed to complete the home.

 “At our peak, we were running about 80 homes a year and delivering them to three states around the Southeast,” says Terry.

When hard times hit again three years later with the full-blown collapse of the housing market, there was a glut of log homes on the market with no one buying. Frerichs Sawmill went from selling eighty homes a year to five.

True to form, the brothers adapted. Their new customer base became professional home builders and do-it-yourselfers.   And while log home packages continue to be an important part of the business, the function of a traditional sawmill goes on. The mill still turns out cut lumber for standard home construction as well as a variety of specialty wood products.

The sawmill has also adapted by entering into the hardwood market, selling three different grades of oak, pine (specifically white pine), yellow pine, cherry, hickory and walnut. They even sell poplar, largely to export companies.

 “Nothing is wasted,” Terry points out.  “Almost 99 percent of the wood is used for something.”  The “residue”, or leftovers, from the actual milling process include vast piles of mulch sold to the gardening and landscape industries, sawdust sold for use in chicken houses and wood shavings sold to stable owners.  “I’m still trying to find a way to sell the dust,” says Terry with a grin.

The chipper turns otherwise unusable pieces of wood into 2-inch blocks that can be burned as fuel.  Some of the chips are sold to a nearby paper mill, while Maryville College uses the chips to power their boilers to heat the buildings. The college burns up to a tractor trailer load a day from the Frerichs mill during the winter.

While a large inventory of logs and some inventive ways to sell them off put the Frerichs family in the log home business, the brothers were busy doing other things with the mill and their personal lives to ensure their father’s dream would live on. Terry married his wife, Gayle, who now serves as office manager and bookkeeper, working in an office appropriately housed in a cabin at the mill. Their daughter, Holly, is a college Junior.

Rodney, 64, and his wife, Cathy, now have three children, eight grandchildren and two great grand-children.  One son and a grandson currently work at the mill.      

Frerichs has always been a family affair. Terry and Rodney worked at the mill as teenagers while attending schools in Coker Creek and Tellico Plains.

“Rod and I had always worked at the mill, and when my dad passed away, we of course just continued on,” explains Terry. 

The business has grown to 12 employees now and includes 15 pieces of heavy diesel equipment and eight trucks.  Rodney heads a three-man crew of loggers in the field, while Terry handles the day-to-day operations at the 100-acre mill site off Hwy. 68 in Coker Creek.

And the mill has drawn the interest of both the University of Tennessee and Hiwassee College. Both schools send students and teachers to the mill each summer, where Terry hosts tours as part of their continuing education programs.

Terry and Rodney are both passionate about the business. “I’m one of those people who don’t mind getting up to go to work,” says Terry.  “I enjoy doing this because we take a raw product, and we make something out of it. And it’s a renewable product.” And of the business, Rodney simply says, “I love it.” And with a grin, he adds, “I’ve been doing it for 46 years, so I have to like it.” And just like his dad, he says, “I love being in the woods.”

And when asked what his father Wayford would think of what he and Terry have done with the family business, Rodney replies, “He would be real proud of both us boys. I think he would be smiling down from Heaven seeing all we’ve accomplished,” he said.  “I’m very thankful.”

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