Batesburg-Leesville firewood dealer's product is 'seasoned to perfection, just like a good Kentucky bourbon'
When the weather cools, Marshall Swanson likes to curl up by his wood-burning fireplace in Columbia with a good book and a bowl of popcorn.
Tadgh Weed stocks up on wood by the pickup load to stave off the winter wind whipping his waterfront home at Lake Murray.
They both get their wood from the same place - and so do thousands of others in South Carolina, whether they realize it or not.
Gabby's Firewood, just outside Batesburg-Leesville, is one of a handful of operations that provides shrink-wrapped bundles of wood found at grocery and convenience stores throughout the state. The bundles provide the bulk of Gabby's business, but connoisseurs of firewood (and good deals) prefer to stop by the wood splitting plant and load their own.
Gabby's offers "primo split oak, hickory and ash hardwood that is aged and seasoned to perfection, just like a good Kentucky bourbon," said Swanson, who times his annual drive to Gabby's to enjoy the fall colors on the rural highways.
Weed's endorsement is worthy of an advertising slogan for owner David Strother: "They're fair in price and always nice," Weed said.
Hundreds of South Carolinians supplement their income by cutting and splitting firewood. From November through February, they park pickups full on the side of busy roads, ready to deliver to your home. It's South Carolina's underappreciated cash crop.
Gabby's takes the business a notch or two higher. The operation employs eight people and supplies businesses throughout South Carolina and over the borders into North Carolina and Georgia. The small bundles go to stores and campgrounds. Restaurants order larger loads of flavor-enhancing hickory. And anyone can stop by the splitting plant and load up their own truck or trunk and pay by the pound.
Twenty-one years after starting the business, Strother still seems bemused that his effort to earn a little spending money while in college has turned into a livelihood. It began when a power line right-of-way was cleared through property owned by a relative, who allowed Strother to cut the downed trees and sell the wood.
"I was selling it by the pickup load, and I went by a Food Lion and saw them selling those little bundles," Strother said. "I asked them if I could sell them some wood. They gave me an order for 31 tractor-trailer loads. And I only had two chain saws."
He managed to fill that order, and a business was born. (The name Gabby's comes from a nickname a childhood friend gave Strother when he first grew a beard.)
"I remember thinking, I can't believe this big company is such a fool that they think people will buy these little bundles for $3," Strother recalls thinking more than two decades ago. "Now it's $5 a bundle."
Strother buys his raw material from timber harvesters, who dump tree trunks at the back of the business property. A grabber crane picks up the trunks and places them on a machine that cuts them into even-length pieces with a chain saw blade then pushes the pieces through an eight-slice splitter.
With the splitting machine, one person can do the work of about 20 people using standard chain saws and power splitters, Strother said.
The resulting slices slide up a conveyor belt into a truck, are driven to another part of the compound and are split one more time to create the perfectly sized logs for small fireplaces or wood stoves.
Most of the wood then is placed on pallets under a roof for six months to cure. "The more cured it is, the easier it is to burn," Strother said.
Once cured, pieces of the wood are placed by hand into shrink-wrap on another conveyor belt. The bundles pass through a heater, which binds the shrink-wrap into a handy carrying case. Pallets full of shrink-wrapped bundles are then loaded into trucks.
Strother, 54, negotiates the deals with stores and still does some of the delivery work.
"If it's warm out, nobody talks to you," he said. "If it's cold, they wonder why you didn't have it for them yesterday."
People willing to load their own wood have to first drive their vehicle onto a scale behind the trailer that serves as the company office on Church Road. Once the vehicle's weight is registered, the driver can pull up to one of the racks of wood - either cured for 5 cents a pound, green for 3 cents a pound or 2 cents a pound for odd-sized pieces.
On a recent Friday, Weed went for the green wood because he already had enough wood at his house to get through the early winter. He could save money and let the wood cure on his property. He spent about 20 minutes cramming wood in every inch of his pickup's bed while his young son Corey watched from the cab.
When he was done, Weed pulled back on the scale one more time, then he and Corey went inside to pay. The bill came to $46.20.
"Can't beat that for a pickup load," Weed said as he handed over three $20 bills.
And after Virginia Strother, David's mother, counted out the change, she pulled open a desk drawer full candy bars and made sure Corey got a couple for himself and one for his dad.
Fair in price and always nice, just like Weed said.
Don't go green: Freshly cut wood is full of moisture and doesn't burn well. It needs to dry outside for several months, preferably under cover.
Species matters: Oak, ash and hickory are best. Poplar, elm and gum don't burn as well. And avoid pine, which is filled with resin that creates dangerous creosote buildup in chimneys.
What's a cord? It's a volume measure for firewood - generally 4 feet wide by 4 feet high by 8 feet long.
Be safe: Fire officials recommend cleaning chimneys annually if you use wood to heat your house. Place a mesh screen in front of open fireplaces and make sure smoke alarms are working.
Gabby's Firewood: If you are willing to load your own truck, you can pick up wood at Gabby's 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 a.m.-noon Saturdays November through February. It's at 147 Church Road, Batesburg-Leesville. Head northwest from Batesburg-Leesville on U.S. 178 and turn left on Church Road after about 2.5 miles.