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Still sawing logs at Exley Lumber Co.
J.W. “Bill” Exley III, J. W. Exley Jr. and Donald C. Exley - photo by Photo submitted

Tradition is still alive at Exley Lumber Company in Clyo, which is the oldest operating sawmill in Effingham County. I believe that Exley Lumber is also the oldest private business in the county under the same family’s ownership.

The company began with J. W. “Jimmy” Exley Sr. who logged with mules during the 1930s and began to saw special orders about 1938. He would rent a sawmill owned by the county in the vicinity of the present Effingham Hospital to cut lumber for his customers.

In August 1940, a big hurricane blew down huge tracts of timber and Jimmy and Jessie Groover, who partnered with him for several years, were hired by Benjamin Lester Morgan, who lived north of Springfield. They set up a temporary small “coffee pot” sawmill behind the present home of Wanda and Lester H. “Buzzie” Morgan Jr. They logged and sawed the felled trees for a good length of time. My grandfather, Leon Exley, was employed by them for a short time at that location to scale (measure) logs. The mule teams were an integral part of the operation using timber carts.  

The Groovers set up a stationary sawmill at Deep Branch, on Highway 119 North, south of Clyo. When Jessie Groover contracted tuberculosis and had to go away for treatment, their partnership dissolved. Jimmy continued logging and partnered with his brother Guy Exley. They ran a mobile mill for several years. Around the early to mid 1940s, Jimmy “got a tractor which replaced six mules,” according to J. W. Jr. By the mid 1940s, Jimmy partnered with his brother-in-law Howard Wilson. They purchased a new sawmill and set it up further back from the road at the same location at Deep Branch.  

In 1949, when J. W. Exley Jr. graduated from high school, his dad and Uncle Howard sold one-third interest in the business to him. In 1952, Howard left the business to drill wells with his brother-in-law, Lawton Lancaster.  Later on, however, Howard returned for some time as sawyer and ran the mill.

Jimmy and son J. W. operated the business from 1952 until Jimmy retired in 1962. He retired to spend time with his wife Ruby Wilson Exley and to enjoy gardening, fishing, raising cattle and his grandchildren. He died just one month before celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary.  

Exley Lumber was relocated to a new location north of Clyo just off Highway 119 on Reidsville Road near the railroad allowing access for shipping. J. W. Exley Jr. ran the company with sons J. W. “Bill” Exley III joining the business in 1972-73 and Donald C. “Don” Exley in 1983-84.

J. W. Jr. retired at age 65 and ownership of the mill came into Bill and Don’s hands.  Don handles sales and the mill operation and Bill handles procurement. Bill’s wife, Sue Nease Exley, has been the office manager for more than 30 years and keeps the mill running smoothly tending payroll, log settlements and general operations.

The average number of employees on payroll at Exley Lumber is 22. The company sawyer and mill foreman is Lester Garvin Jr., an employee of 30-plus employees. The mill has low employment turnover, probably because they treat their employees like family.  

Exley Lumber Company buys tracts of timber.  Eighty percent of their wood purchased used to be pine with some hardwood.  Now it is about 98 percent pine. They produce specialty wood products for structural, industrial and appearance grade applications. The Exleys keep the wood desired for lumber and sell what is not usable for their mill.

Their customers include wood preserving companies (treaters) and wholesale lumber brokers. Exley Lumber’s products include decking and timbers for Great Southern (Yella Wood). Visit their Web site at

The company takes pride in its Christian values, quality and high standards. This all goes back to Exley Lumber Company’s founder Jimmy Exley, who was known for “his high moral standards, his integrity and his tender heart” according to a short biography written by his daughters Brenda Exley Nease and Wanita “Deetie” Exley Rahn. Jimmy and wife Ruby also had a daughter Willie Marion Exley Hodges, who is deceased.

Bill and Don have children and time will tell if the fourth generation has saw dust in their blood or the desire to continue this great tradition.

This article was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society, Inc. If you have questions, comments or photos to share contact her at 754-6681 or email: