- by Karen Cummings
Living and Working in Chat-ham
In the so-called immoral times of ancient Greece, philosopher Diogenes took to the streets with a lighted lantern in broad daylight to search for an honest man. In the materialistic, "Me Decade" of the 1980s, a modern-day Diogenes might be just as hard-pressed to find a contented man in these United States. Unless, of course, he took the time and traveled out to South Chatham and talked to Bill Pitman.
Happily living with his wife and oldest son, Matt, 24, in the same house in which he was born and raised, Bill runs the Wm. Pitman and Sons Lumber Co., located on the Chatham side of Hurricane Mountain Road. "We started out small," he said, then added, “and still are."
It's not as though Bill hasn't ever strayed from his own back yard to explore what else there is in the world. In 1958, before he settled down with his wife, Sunny, who, predictably, grew up next door to him, Bill traveled around the 48 states with three buddies to see what he could see. "I took some time off and went all over the country, but ended up back here," said Bill. "I looked at the rest of the United States and decided here wasn't too bad," he added. "I didn't see anything that was any better."
"Here" is a 50-acre parcel that was once part of Bill's father's dairy farm in the very small New Hampshire town of Chatham, a town that even some Mt. Washington Valley residents don't know about. It's located on a strip of land between the border with Maine and a range of mountains that separates it from North Conway and Jackson. Bill's land is now covered with buildings, housing generators, debarkers, saws and planers—a virtual heaven for someone with the fascination with machinery that Bill Pitman has.
After returning to where he started on his travels, Bill joined his father in the dairy business before working for awhile in the woods, then turned to his current occupation, running a sawmill. When asked if he missed farming, a vocation his second son Mark, 22, has taken up, Bill's answer is simple and to the point. "No."
Machinery is Bill Pitman's real love. People are fine to a certain extent, but machinery—good, quality machinery—is much more interesting. This philosophy of buying quality is brought into all parts of his life. A prime example is that the Pitmans, decidedly neither rich, flashy, nor yuppie types, are a two-Mercedes family. Bill and Sunny drive used, or, as dealers like to say "formerly owned," Mercedes-Benz cars, and they definitely don't own them for their status-symbol qualities. "They're pretty old and I didn't pay much for either of them," said Bill, "but they should last a long time. It just doesn't pay to run cheap stuff."
The Pitmans first started their sawmill operation in 1972, and despite what Bill says, it has grown, albeit not by leaps and bounds. Starting with a small mill located much further from the road, Bill "just fooled around with it" for a number of years before expanding his operation in 1979. "What it amounts to is you have to do something to make a living," said Bill, "and I happen to enjoy doing this. It's not what you would call a big money-making deal." When trying to explain what he really enjoyed about running the sawmill, Bill hesitated, then said, "Well, I don't have to drive very far to get to work."
Matt Pitman, a personable, friendly young man, is much more explicit about the enjoyment he gets from the job. "Dad likes the mechanical part and I like selling it and working with the customers," he said. "I really like doing it."
A four-man shop, Cedric Bosworth and Jeff Anderson work with Bill and Matt (and son Mark helps out when needed) Wm. Pitman and Sons is not a big operation and Bill does not foresee it getting much bigger. "One-third of our business is wholesale and the rest is retail," explained Matt, "mostly to people who live around this area and are working on their own projects."
Surprisingly, the Mt. Washington Valley building boom has not affected the Pitmans' business to any great extent. "We're just too small," explained Matt. "We can't keep up with them." Building trends have affected them, however, with the rising interest in post-and-beam houses bringing a greater demand for the Pitmans' ability to custom-cut wood. "We've sold some wood to (post-and-beam builders) Doug Poor and to Fox Maple locally," said Matt, "but our biggest customer is a post-and-beam builder from Connecticut."
Through the summer it's continually busy at the Pitman’s lumber yard. One to two “loaders” full of logs is enough to keep the operation in high gear for a day to a day and a half. “We get up around 5 and get going around 6,” said Bill, “and quit anywhere from 5 to 9 at night if we feel like it. If we don’t feel like it, we might not do anything,” he said, adding, “The only way not to do anything, though, is to leave.”
The Pitmans’ operation may be small, but it’s efficient. Working with pine, hemlock, and spruce, all varieties of soft woods grown within a 30-mile radius, the father and son team produce lumber from rough to finish, landscape ties, and special orders for a variety of people. “We’ve even beat up beams with an ax to make them look old for customers,” said Bill.
The raw wood is usually dropped off by local loggers who find it’s convenient to deliver close to where they have their logging operations.After being scaled for length and approximate board feet, the logs go through the “debarker,” a machine that does just that. Bark mulch, a by-product of that first step, is the one product whose demand has increased due to the development in the Valley. “We deliver to a lot of the condominiums,” said Matt.
Next, the logs are transported by one of the Pitmans’ two forklifts to the sawmill where each log is individually cut, most often with Bill at the controls. It is a learned skill to get the most out of each log, which is turned and cut, turned and cut, repeatedly, until ready to be sawn into planks, two-by-sixes, two-by-fours, or whatever. “You can’t necessarily get what you want out of every log,” said Bill. The resultant sawdust goes to local farmers for livestock bedding, and the waste pieces are hauled away by S.T. Warren to their pulp mill in Westbrook, Maine.
Undoubtedly and intentionally located off the beaten path, Wm. Pitman and Sons nevertheless does a fair amount of business. In addition to what they produce themselves, the Pitmans also keep a supply of kiln-dried lumber to satisfy the local builder. Matt does do a small amount of advertising, but admits he doesn’t know how the majority of his customers find out about the operation.
“I think it’s mostly word of mouth, or people are just driving by and stop in,” said Matt. “We’ve even had our wood used in the repair of Boston subways,” he noted, but then Diamond told them about us.”
Although busy March through December, the Pitmans seem to work at their own pace, taking things in their stride. Even their pit bull, Duchess, is easy-going, hardly raising an eyebrow when strangers pull into the yard. "She hasn't read the papers yet to find out she's supposed to be ugly." explained Bill, as he cuddled her like a baby.
Things quiet down in the winter, but the Pitmans find that the only way to really take a break from work (and the only disadvantage to this lifestyle that Bill could think of) is to go away. Still having a bit of the wanderlust, the elder Pitman usually heads north, "never south," on his few vacations, to "hopefully" avoid populated areas. Once, he nearly traveled almost to the North Pole. "We headed up to Resolute Bay in the Northwest Territory a few years ago just to see what it was like," he said. When asked what he thought of it, he shrugged and said, "Well, there's really nothing up there."
Definitely small-town and small-time and liking it, Bill Pitman is also a selectman in Chatham. "It's a case of nobody wants to do it, so somebody has to," explained the registered Republican. In this, the year before the presidential election, his position, though not powerful or prestigious by any stretch of the imagination, may be bringing Bill some attention from some of the top presidential candidates, which he looks on with a bit of amusement. "They just want somebody in every town to support them, but I don't think that what I do will have any effect," he said.
Self-admittedly apolitical—"I try to keep away from those affairs," he said—Bill has, nevertheless, run in a political race and to his chagrin, he almost won. "I ran for something a couple of years ago. It was kind of scary," he recalled. "I forget what it was for, but there was someone running from Bartlett and someone from Jackson and I felt there should be someone running from Chatham," he said.
A little research revealed that Bill was a candidate two years ago for the seat in the state House of Representatives vacated by Donalda Howard. He ran against Gene Chandler of Bartlett (who won) and Ross Heald of Jackson. "It turns out I won all the votes in Chatham, and quite a few in Bartlett and Jackson," said Bill, who vows he didn't campaign, "and it ended up I pretty near made it."
Still laughing about his close call, Bill is not overly excited by the prospects of a visit from a presidential candidate. "I tried to talk them out of it," he said, "but that didn't work." It's not that Bill and his family are not aware of all that's going on around them, they just choose not to get too concerned about things they can't change. "Growth is inevitable," said Bill.
In the meantime the Pitmans keep enjoying their everyday pleasures—two sons who work hard at occupations they like, a business of their own that brings them a living if not wealth, and an environment still untouched by the bad side of progress. Sunny helps to organize their home life and gets messages to her busy son and husband, who definitely enjoy working with each other. As Matt summed it up, "We get along pretty well. He likes the part he does, and I like the part I do."
Note: Bill Pitman passed away at age 80 on Jan. 22, 2018. His wife Sunny and his son Mark Pitman predeceased him.