DIBOLL — The tight knit community of Mill 77 — the Georgia-Pacific Diboll Lumber Plant — is celebrating 125 years of operation this year.

Throughout the facility there are many team members who are second-, third- and fourth-generation workers with GP and they have created an atmosphere that encourages hard work, growth and family.

“It’s a family atmosphere now and it always has been,” Matt Amason, a fourth-generation employee, said. “And I guarantee you that when Mill 77, that name is put out there in the industry, people recognize it. It’s a recognizable brand.”

Amason has worked for Georgia-Pacific for 36, nearly 37 years. While he is now the dry end superintendent at the Diboll Plant, this is not his first, and may not be his last, position in the company.

“Wow, that’s what I say when I realize it’s been that long,” he said.

“He started when he was five,” a friend said while passing.

Amason said he works closely with friends from elementary school, junior high and high school. They get together and all know each other’s families, he said.

“There is a tight knit community within these gates here,” he said. “There are guys I’ve worked with for over 30 years. I know them, their kids — I’ve watched their kids play ball.”

He recognizes the integral part that GP plays in people’s lives. He laughed about the fact that many people used to have to come to the mill to pay their electricity bill because that’s where the electricity was generated in town.

He said that Diboll’s growth was in part borne from the expansion of GP and the funding the company put into the area.

GP CEO Christian Fischer spoke about a mutual cycle between the city and the company on his tour through the Diboll facility in mid-November. He said the company is, and has been, dedicated to Diboll’s growth because that enables the company to grow as well.

“It’s a neat place,” Amason said. “It’s different.”

“I think it’s safe to say that Diboll is one of the winners, I mean there are hundreds of thousands of little sawmill towns that didn’t make it,” Michael Watson, the Mill 77 safety manager, said. “They never made it to the big show. … but to be a top quartile mill in North America, for your lumber to be known all over the south, to have customers requesting your product specifically, (it’s something).”

Amason followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. His predecessors worked at the Pineland Plant, which is as old as the Diboll facility.

“I was born over in Pineland and the sawmill over there started about the same time as this one did,” he said. “My great-grandfather worked there, my grandfather did, and my father worked there for a short time and then ended up at the particle board plant, which is also owned by GP.”

Amason started at the Diboll facility mowing grass in the summer of 1982, the year before he graduated from high school. He started working for GP full-time in 1983.

“I started out mowing the grass and now I’m a superintendent,” he said. “It’s been an interesting trip.

He said even after 36 years, every day is an adventure.

“The sawmill humbles you,” he said. “After being here 36 years I’ve had to call my boss and say: ‘You’re not going to believe this, because I’ve never seen it.’”

He started in 1983 doing utility clean-up, he’d drag around a wheelbarrow and some tools and shovel saw dust. He then went to work at a local retail store selling lumber and building products.

“I came back over the mill over here in the mid to late eighties,” he said. “I started grading lumber, graded lumber for a while and then I worked in a quality control role for a while and then I moved into operating a machine.”

He can remember grading lumber by hand where they stood in a line as the lumber passed the five graders on his shift. They would flip the lumber over and look for any defects and mark it with a crayon, which determined its price.

“We now use computers, cameras, lasers and optimizers to grade lumber,” he said. “Now we only have one grader on each shift. So you can see the transformation of technology and the accuracy of it now.”

He can still look at a knot and put it in the right grade, but the technology can get within thousandths of an inch to determine the right grade.

“Everything that was once done by hand is now done by machines,” he said. “We’re even transforming into robotics in some of the mills. We’re not even there quite yet, here, at this facility, but other facilities are using robots.”

The rest of his career was spent operating a planter machine in the mill, which lasted for about 13 years. He then moved into a supervisor role for four or five years and has since been a superintendent.

“I came from the floor up,” he said.

His love for the job also comes from a strong belief that those in upper management are genuinely good people, he said. They’re personable, they’re nice and they legitimately treat their employees with respect, he said.

“That’s probably my favorite part of working for this company,” he said. “I’ve never met anyone in upper management that’s made me feel insignificant ... they treat people with the utmost respect and humility.”

He believes that this is the reason the four generations of his family have stayed with GP — even though there were different owners, there was an attitude of respect that has lasted.

“They’re very cognizant of the area and what other industries are paying and they want to be competitive,” he said.

They also offer a lot of room for advancement and are happy to train people through apprenticeships, he said.

Jess Huff’s email address is jess.huff@lufkindailynews.com.

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