Gebhardt's Post Plant & Sawmill - TimberRoots - By Jason Todhunter
When a wheat farmer from Scobey buys 3000 acres of timber ground east of Roundup in Parrot Cr, that wheat farmer quickly turns into a logger/sawmill guy. That was the case for John Gebhardt when he made the move in 1950. He and his wife Margret would start their family here. The place was perfect for a hardworking self-reliant people. It had timber, a sawmill, a coal mine and water…. what more do you need? Well, you need a crew to work it! Their first son Kelly was born not long after the move. The Gebhardt’s built and added onto the ranch, eventually building a 4000-sf ranch house to keep their 9 children under cover. The additions were completed by logging and milling the lumber on their sawmill. This mill Kelly remembers had a 49” headblock; “bigger than anything you need in Roundup” he chuckles when telling me. The Gebhardts earned extra money by cutting mine braces for the many area coal mines. They also ran cows and other farm critters but with 90% of the ranch being timbered, wood products were always an important part of their income.
Kelly, being the oldest boy, learned the wood products trade at an early age. He took a liking to this trade and started skidding logs with a Case VAC tractor by age 6, limbing with an axe. Early on they bought a Maul chainsaw… “all you did was crank on that miserable son-of-a-gun” Kelly tells me. Kelly prides himself with only ruining two pair of boots while limbing with an axe! When Kelly was around 12 he bought his first log trucks; a Ford and White. The White was turned into a log trailer and pulled by the Ford. At this time there were 5 decent size sawmills in Roundup alone; this number would go as high as 8 before dropping off in the 70s and 80s. The Gebhardt family would unfortunately lose their sawmill to a fire during this period.
Kelly continued logging through high school, improving his equipment as money would allow. In his sophomore year he bought a newer Dodge truck that could haul both hay and logs. When he was a senior in high school, he got his first diesel log truck and by this time was skidding with a cat 22 instead of a farm tractor. After graduating from high school Kelly enrolled in college in Havre graduating with a degree in diesel mechanics. John only had an 8th grade education, and he wanted better for his children; all of Kelly’s siblings would earn college degrees. This is a bit unusual now, almost unheard of during this time frame.
In 1969, while Kelly was still in college John saw a need for small wood utilization and purchased some property on the west side of Roundup and a post peeler and treat plant. John thought it would be good for the ranching community and give the loggers a home for the small wood which just went into the brush pile back then. John leased a portion of the land to another sawmill owner who moved a mill onsite and started producing. Things went well until the sawmill owner died unexpectedly in 1975. He unfortunately owed John for rent and power and Kelly for logs. John and Kelly looked at the inventory of logs, and made a deal with the widow to buy the sawmill and run the inventory out in the hopes of getting some of their money back. Kelly jokes “We are getting closer to that goal every year!!”
This short venture continued and not only were they running the sawmill but the post plant was also doing very well. They had procured a market for short treated telephone poles which had better margins than posts. Their first year of running both sides, Gebhardt’s Post Plant and Sawmill cranked out 220k posts and short poles and dimension lumber from the sawmill side as well. With this venture underway and 8 employees to keep lined out Kelly spent all his time in the sawmill now. His younger brother Monte would also work for many years at the family mill. They would go as high as 40 employees running two shifts during the heyday. When this took place, John stepped back and went back to running the ranch. Margret did the books for both the mill and the ranch.
Kelly married his wife, Darleen, in 1977 and they have three kids Brian, and twins; Derin and Donna. Brian is a graduate of West Point, and Harvard, and is a business manager. Brian also served our country as a captain in the US Army and is a combat veteran from Iraq. Thank you for your service Brian! Both Derin and Donna are college graduates as well; Donna is currently a nurse at the Mayo Clinic and Derin is working with Gebhardt’ Post Plant and Sawmill. He and Kelly have a coal marketing/delivery business as well. Brian and Derin have given Kelly and Darleen three grandkids; two boys and a girl. You can tell in a short time this tight knit family would drop anything for each other.
Kelly knew how to make a chainsaw and axe cut (at least boots!) but had some early struggles with the sawmill blades. Millwrights back then would not share information; “they kept it tight because it was way easier to be a millwright than pulling green chain!” he tells me. Kelly then went to Acme Saw Works in Spokane to learn how to hammer and file saws. They were very helpful and he learned a lot from them. He then found all the books he could on saw maintenance and started the journey to become a saw filer/millwright. Once Kelly learned this trade, he has broken the mold of not teaching anyone and will help and or teach anyone how to make a sawmill blade cut straight. Spending time with him you can see he is as much at home in the filing room as he is running the head rig. He takes pride in being able to make a saw that someone has thrown away cut straight. He has taught folks from all over the US the saw hammering trade, including a couple of guys recently from New Mexico.
We talk about timber as a renewable resource, the Gebhardt’s have lived it. The original ranch has been logged many times and there is still as much or more timber on the place as when John bought it 70 years ago. He remembers thinning a patch of timber for small mine props then 20 years later took logs out of the same patch for an order of 12x12s…. funny how well a managed forest can grow trees! I asked Kelly what was the most memorable event that happened to him while he was logging. He said when he ran out of gas in his saw while falling what turned out to be a bee tree near the Musselshell river. “I can’t swim but I was more than happy that day to run into the river and give it a try!” Gebhardt’s still log the occasional patch of timber and have the equipment to run one mech side.
Kelly’s grandpa served in the House of Representatives in the Montana legislature; Kelly would follow this lead and serve as the Musselshell County Commissioner from 1990-2002. In 2003 he won Senate District 23 and served until he was termed out in 2011. While, he was in Helena, he was a great advocate for this profession we call logging…. damn the term limits! His knowledge and soft-spoken ways of getting things done were sorely missed when he left.
Kelly served 40 years on the Roundup Volunteer Fire Dept. serving as chief a portion of this time. Derin is following in his dad’s footsteps and is currently an active member of the Roundup Volunteer Fire Dept. With his extra time, Kelly also got a pilot’s license in 1980…he was recently honored by the Roundup fire dept for 40 years of service and also how many times he used his own planes and time and fuel to spot or manage fires in the area. In the early 90’s he became a flight instructor and 2006 got his A&P mechanic qualifications. When he isn’t sawing or filing you can find him doing an annual inspection or engine rebuild at the Roundup Airport.
Since John Gebhardt’s venture in 1969 you have been able to buy a locally grown and manufactured post or board on the west end of Roundup, MT. Gebhardt’s Post Plant and Sawmill has been a constant employer, supplier and important part of a community for over 40 years. When you go into the mill office you get a warm greeting and can buy your lumber and the screws or spikes to put it up. Hanging on the wall are thankyous from local youth fairs thanking the Gebhardt family for the purchase of their hog or steer as well as advertisements by locals trying to buy or sell something. Businesses like this truly are the heart and soul of our great country providing not only goods and services but giving back to their communities who have supported them. In today’s non-personal box store Amazon world, it is so refreshing to see businesses like this still running. I watch as Gage, the fourth generation, pals around with Grandpa at the sawmill and think that the Gebhardt timber roots thankfully are continuing to spread.