History Lesson: E. Renfro & Sons, Cle Elum, Washington

Article by Darin Burt

Brothers Dwight and Kenny Renfro are proud to state that their family has been logging and hauling logs for more than 100 years. They’re not bragging. To them, being part of the timber industry is just what life is about.

“The history means a lot to us. It makes me proud that we’ve been in this industry for so many years,” says Dwight, who with his brother and partner carries on the family name as E. Renfro & Sons. The brothers each have their own truck and they haul logs out of Cle Elum, Washington just east of Snoqualmie Pass.

The Renfro boys pull out boxes of old photos that they treasure as record of the family history. They can name any truck or piece of equipment they see and can even tell you when and where the photo was taken. They’ve dated their family’s start in the local timber industry back to the turn of the century when their great-grandfather Walter Swan was logging in the Upper Kittitas, working with M.C. Miller Lumber Company in Cle Elum. Grandpa Elmer Renfro Elmer bought his first logging truck - a 1939 Ford- in 1939, and actually logged and trucked up until the middle 1960s. Elmer had a fleet of logging trucks under the moniker E.E. Renfro & Sons.

Like Dwight and Kenny, their dad Eldon grew up in the business, and was hauling logs on his own since the mid-1960s. Eldon passed away in 1990 at the young age of 48, and out of respect for their dad, the boys have kept the “E. Renfro & Sons” name of the door of the their trucks.

“When I was a young teenager, I had two uncles, Claude Renfro and Dexter Cook, who had log trucks, dad had log trucks and my grandpa had log trucks. We grew up as log truckers, and when I was old enough to hold a wrench I was working with my grandpa and my dad, getting the experience that you can’t buy,” Dwight says. “It’s stuff that I still think about to this day. It’s given us an advantage over the years of being able to do a good job and remain in demand.”

Kenny too, can recall as little kid riding in the truck with his dad. “I spent a lot of time curled up in the seat sleeping,” he says with a laugh. “I jut grew up around log hauling and never decided to do anything different.”

“Nowadays when we roam around the state we run across people who come up to us and ask, ‘Are you a Renfro? I hauled logs with Eldon, is that your dad.’”

Back in the late 1990s, Dwight and Kenny were doing well with carrying on the family tradition. They had three log trucks and a full-time lowbed. Dwight was the “go anywhere, move anything” lowbed operator, and Kenny was heading up the log haulers. But times change, and so does the nature of the work.

A combination of a dip in the log market, a number of the logging contractors, for whom Renfro moved equipment, retiring and shutting their operation down, and then a number of the local mills ceasing operation meant less lowbed work and hauling logs longer distances. Dwight and Kenny switched gears, first hauling export containers and then dump trucking to support a surge in homebuilding and construction. Logging was still active, and so the Renfos equipped their trucks so that they could easily switch from logging gear to a hydraulically-operated dump box in a matter of a couple of hours.

Hauling rock was steady work and good pay, but as luck would have it, that market eventually took a dive as well. About the time, ironically, logging started picking back up and they were about to jump back into hauling logs full-time.

“Here we are, four years later, full-time logging and loving it,” Dwight says. “Logging in the woods is our home. It’s a family tradition. I love hauling out of the woods and I missed it when I was dump trucking and out on the road.”

“When we were working really busily with the dump trucks, we did really good. The outfit we were working for gave us top pay by the hour and it was a seven-to-five job. It was easy, breezy,” Dwight adds.

E. Renfro & Sons now hauls logs almost exclusively for Wyss Logging, based out of Yakima, Washington, a contactor for whom they’ve worked on and off over the last 20 years. Wyss has built up their operation to the point where they can be logging as many as five sides and needing more than a dozen hired trucks in addition to their own fleet.

“Around 2009, we were doing whatever it took to stay busy. To pay the bills, we hauled some chips and scrap. In the early part of 2010, we got a call from Jeff Wyss needing trucks and we were like, “We’re available!” Dwight says. “There are a lot of loggers around, but Wyss is one of the best around here. They’ve got solid work, they keep you busy and they pay us a decent fuel surcharge . . .life is good for us right now.”

Dwight, 49, and Kenny, 41, used to be the young guys on the block, but now they’re in the middle of the pack when compared to other log tuckers. With longevity being the company crest, the guys figure they’ve still got a ways to go.

“Kenny and I have talked in the past that if fuel prices ever get to six dollars a gallon and work shuts down, we may have to go to work (as hired drivers) for somebody and park our trucks.”

Right now, they’re happy just hauling logs together and don’t plan on too many changes. “This is the way it is and this is the way it’s going to stay,” Kenny states.

The Renfros have been “Cat men” since the early 1970s. When Elmer Renfro was logging in the 1940’s he aspired to have Cat equipment because that was the best you could get. He bought his first D7 right after World War II - it was painted camouflage colors, and he claimed it was the best Cat machine he ever owned. He always wanted to have a truck with a Cat engine for the same reasons.

Kenworth has been the truck of choice over the years for similar reasons. Today, Dwight drives a 2006 T800 and Kenny operates a 2005 W900L. Nothing wrong with Peterbilt, Dwight says, “but I’m a Caterpillar, Kenworth, Ford guy. I’ve got buddies who are ‘Peterbilt, Cummins, Chevy guys’ . . . a lot of the time, it really is about what your dad had.”

Kenny remarks he’s run into other trucks on occasion who comment that he and his brother “really know how to dress up a truck,” but while they’re nice trucks, there’s really nothing overly fancy; just a few extra pieces of chrome and a few extra lights. That and trying to keep them polished and shiny during the spring and summer.

Having been around trucks and equipment most of their lives, Dwight and Kenny have a definite advantage when it comes to keeping up on maintenance and repairs. “We could probably rebuild anything from the front to the back of a truck,” Dwight says, “but sometimes it’s just easier, with like a transmission, to just pull it out and trade it in for a new one and put it back in. A lot of times with the computer stuff you don’t have any choice other than to take it to the dealer.”

Still, looking down at the odometer of Dwight’s 2006 T800, it only shows a little more than 200 thousand miles. It’s just out of the five-year warranty, but he still prefers to have work done at the dealership. “We try to do as much as we can ourselves,” he says, “but we like getting work done at Kenworth Northwest and NC Equipment.”

Keeping the trucks running properly means standard preventative maintenance and fluid changes. Engine oil intervals are ever 10 thousand miles, and gearboxes are ever 75 to 100 thousand miles. With a three-bay heated shop, they prefer to do the fluid changes themselves, as well change tires, change filters, and most little things that they can. “Over the years, combining tools from dad and grandpa, we’ve got everything we need,” Dwight says. “There are wrenches in the shop that are twice as old as me.”

Dwight is the Kittitas County chairman of the Washington Trucking Association’s Log Trucker’s Conference. He’s happy to share his experience and knowledge with the younger generation, but he’s not one to push it on them.

“I remember when I was 22 years old and had an old guy tell me stuff - some of it I took to heart and some of it I felt like the guy was just trying to boss me around. A lot of times, around a tough job - for example the other day when we had snow on the job, one of the guys in front of me was having a little meltdown about going up the hill and was concerned about how much chains to put on. I told him not to be ashamed of putting on as much chains as you need to feel comfortable - don’t be a hero and over-drive yourself.”

The road to success as a log hauler, Dwight says, is no different than being successful as a fisherman or any other profession. “It’s being willing to go out and do the job and do it the best you can. I don’t claim to be the best businessman; I just know how to haul logs.”

“It’s nothing unusual,” Kenny adds, “Just show up and do what your supposed to do . . .I guess, if anything that’s what we’ve learned -from our family history.”