LOUISVILLE, Ga. — When the Ogeechee River is low, dropping away from its root-studded banks, Taylor Allen takes his family treasure hunting.
Hidden in the swamps, below tea-colored water, scouring sand and decaying muck are riches most people take for granted. Some are honey gold, run through with seams of olive green or auburn. Others are darker, with veins of gray and purple and a tight grain of dark lines tracing generations.
Most people never see the intricate beauty trapped inside the hidden behemoths just below the surface. It takes someone willing to wade chest deep in muddy water, dive down in the dark and then sweat and strain to bring them up. It takes people who can see with their fingers, imagine with their guts and risk their backs to turn 200-plus year old logs into works of art.
It takes someone like Taylor Allen.
It all started with plans for a house built almost entirely out of wood. A welder and pipefitter by trade, Allen said he has been in construction most of his life.
“I refused to let somebody else build my family’s house,” Allen said. “We wanted something different.”
For the staircase leading to the master bedroom he started looking for someone selling Georgia sinker cypress. These are boards cut from lumber reclaimed from river bottoms. Cypress, desired for its tight grain, is one of the few woods that can resist water.
Many of the logs Allen finds were originally felled over 100 years ago, long before modern heavy equipment was introduced. Lumbermen stood in swamps and swung hand-forged axes. They used the river itself to float these logs to lumber mills downstream. Some of the huge old-growth logs got tangled in oxbows and sank.
Once mired in the banks or bed of the river, the insides of the logs were protected from the oxygen needed for decay, so the cores of those logs can still be milled today. The wood is highly prized by fine woodworkers for its unique colors and grains.
While several states including Florida and Louisiana have allowed the recovery of these sunken logs for several years and the practice has been featured on reality television, it has been illegal in Georgia until recently.
Conservationists have fought the practice, arguing that when the logs are pulled, they stir up sediment that accumulated when pollution controls were less stringent. They envision a demand for the wood that would end in heavy equipment eroding riverbanks and stirring up a witch’s brew of toxins that would threaten wildlife.
According to Allen, the laws regarding this practice in Georgia are some of the toughest in the country.
“It has to be done right,” Allen said. “You can’t go down there and kill the river, you have to pull your logs and be careful what you’re doing. You have to respect the river.”
Allen explained that he cannot use heavy equipment like end-loading bulldozers to excavate the logs from the river bottom. Instead he wades out in the water himself, runs his hands along the log, often swimming down to probe into mud with his fingers to find room for his chains. He then uses a winch secured to a standing tree or cypress knee and with the strength in his shoulders and arms feeds ropes through the winch to pull the logs free and get them up onto the bank.
“There’s nothing I do to the bank that a big old gator doesn’t do,” Allen said. “After the first rain, you’d never know I had ever been there.”
Allen says if he did not have the background in construction he does, he would never consider taking the risk of such a dangerous job.
“Just being on that river can get bad that quick,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Storms come up. You never know when the top of a dead tree is going to break out. I’ve seen it all on that river. I’ve been on it for 20 something years. You have to be ready for it.”
When a log pulls free of the mud it creates a vortex, Allen said, that can pull a man down and pin him there. In addition to the moving water, thousands of pounds of slippery tree trunk and buzzing chainsaws, there is the wildlife with which to contend.
“There was this one time I was in the water re-rigging this log and turned around and there was a moccasin right there wadded up, aiming at my head,” Allen said. “He was ready. I kind of backed off and he went under water. That was too close.”
There was another time he says he stepped over a log and his foot came down on an alligator’s tail.
“It took off like a submarine,” he said, later adding, “No matter how much you get out of a board, you earned every dang penny. It’s more work than most people want to put in. You definitely have to love it.”
The Southern Sawmill, the Allen family’s new business based out of Louisville and less than a mile from the Ogeechee River itself, deals mostly in specialty woods like sinker cypress, reclaimed barn wood, cedar, cypress, black walnut and blue-stained ponderosa pine he has shipped in from Wyoming.
“Our biggest thing is bringing back the past,” he said. “I’m trying to sell one-of-a-kind pieces, something you can pass on in the family, a custom cut log mantle piece or a table top, a good family heirloom.”
Where most heart-pine found on the market today is reclaimed from old homes, barns and other structures, Allen also has boards freshly cut from ancient pine logs he has found in the river.
Allen and his wife and business partner, Stephanie, have done all of their pulling on private land within about 10 driving miles of their current showroom.
As much as the beauty of the wood itself, Allen says it’s the history in them that keeps drawing him back to the river’s edge.
“To think that I’m the first person to lay hands on this log in maybe 200 years,” Allen said pointing to a four and a half foot axe cut. “That’s history right there. To think about the kind of man it took to stand in the swamp for who knows how long, swinging an axe to bring this big tree down and then for him to lose it. What kind of man did it take to do that?”
Stephanie says it’s the same kind of hard-headed and determined individual who thinks he can slog in there now, pull one out and make something of it.
“It’s an unbelievable amount of work that leaves you absolutely exhausted,” Allen said. “But then, when you get one on the saw mill and cut it open, there’s this feeling, it’s like hitting the jackpot. It’s like finding a treasure chest full of gold.”