When business is good, we often say its booming, but in the case of Lemmons Trucking in Longview, WA, the “boom” is what made the business! Celebrating their 75th year in 2021, Lemmons Trucking has been around a long time, but things took a big turn when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980 and put this moderately-sized trucking outfit on a new and exciting path.
Today, run by Larry Lemmons (62), the trucking company is now the logistics arm of their larger business, Pacific Fibre Products, which manufacturers a variety of decorative bark and wood chips in the Pacific Northwest. Larry drove a truck in the family business for several years, and the one featured here (and on our cover and centerfold this month) was built to replicate the last truck he drove before heading into the office.
Growing up in Oklahoma, Larry’s uncle Robert Lemmons moved to the Pacific Northwest and formed Lemmons Trucking in 1946. From the very beginning, the company was focused on hauling timber and wood products. Over time, Robert built the company up to about ten trucks, but after a series of tragedies in his life, he decided to sell the trucking operation to his younger brother (Larry’s dad) John Lemmons.
Larry was born in Washington, but when he was about a year old the family moved back to where they were originally from – Enid, OK. In Oklahoma, his father John got into custom harvesting and did that for many years. When John’s brother Robert offered to sell him the trucking company in 1971, the family moved back to Washington, where they still live today.
Every Saturday, Larry and his brother would go to the yard and wash the trucks to earn a great breakfast. At the time, Larry did not know what he wanted to do with his life, but he did always enjoy the trucks. At 14 years old, he started driving trucks around the yard, and not long after that he was driving a truck full time for the company. Back then, the fleet was made up entirely of International trucks – in fact, their fleet was all Internationals from 1946 until about 2000, when they began buying Peterbilts. Things were going good until that fateful day in 1980 when the big “boom” happened – and it has been a roller coaster ride ever since.
After two months of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes, on May 18, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake occurred one mile beneath the active volcano and triggered a massive eruption at 8:32 AM. The blast, which killed at least 57 people and thousands of animals, sent smoke and steam 80,000 feet into the atmosphere, deposited ash in eleven US states and two Canadian provinces, and caused over $1 billion in damage (equivalent to $3.4 billion today). The thermal energy released during the eruption was equal to 26 megatons of TNT and was 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Before the eruption, Mount St. Helens was 9,677 feet tall. After the blast, a smoking crater almost two miles wide was left in its place, and its peak height was reduced to only 8,363 feet.
The ash fall created some temporary major problems with transportation, sewage disposal, and water treatment systems. Also, visibility was greatly decreased during the ash fall, closing many highways and roads. Interstate 90 from Seattle to Spokane was closed for a week and a half. Air travel was disrupted for almost two weeks, as several airports in Washington shut down because of ash accumulation and poor visibility. Over a thousand commercial flights were canceled following those airport closures. The fine-grained gritty ash caused substantial problems for internal combustion engines and other mechanical and electrical equipment. The ash contaminated oil systems, clogged air filters, and scratched moving surfaces. The ash also caused short circuits in electrical transformers, which in turn caused power blackouts.
The blast and subsequent landslides, ash deposits, floods, and fires left hundreds of square miles of wasteland on and around the mountain. It is estimated that about 4,000,000,000 (that’s 4 billion) board feet of timber was damaged or destroyed, mainly by the initial lateral blast. At least 25% of this damaged timber was salvaged, and the rest had to be collected, cleared of the ash, chipped (shredded), and then hauled down the mountain. This is where Lemmons Trucking and Pacific Fibre Products came into play.
One of the big timber operations near Mount St. Helens, which lost a lot of trees in the eruption, told Larry’s dad John if he bought a mobile chip trailer, they would keep it busy. So, Lemmons Trucking bought a chipper, took it up the mountain to one of the sites being cleared, and began chipping the downed trees. From there, the wood chips were hauled down the mountain in Lemmons trucks to Longview where much of it was burned as fuel in the nearby wood and paper mills. After about a year, in 1982, Larry and his dad decided it would be better to create a separate business for the wood chipping operation and Pacific Fibre Products (PFP) was born. Lemmons Trucking is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacific Fibre Products.
The company set up operations in Longview, WA and then moved to their current main facility, located on Fibre Way in Longview, a few years later. Today, PFP has three additional facilities in Oregon located in Cornelius, Molalla, and Central Point. Manufacturing wood chips and a variety of soil and bark products for the landscaping industry, PFP ships their products throughout the west by Lemmons Trucking and their fleet of 80 gondola railcars.
As the chipping company grew, John got a bit overwhelmed and asked Larry if he wanted to continue driving or come help him in the office. Larry loved trucking, but he could see the writing on the wall, so in 1983 he quit driving and went to work in the office. Working on the Pacific Fibre Products side of the operation for the first ten years, Larry eventually began overseeing both the trucking and mill aspects of the business in the early 1990s. Larry and his dad were a great team and they worked very well together, but about 15 years ago, in 2005, John decided to retire so Larry bought him out. John likes to hear what’s going on with everything and everyone, so the two still have lunch every Wednesday.
To this day, both companies, with a total of about 200 employees, remain family owned and operated. Their motto – “Nothing beats reliability in products or people” – was created by Larry’s father John several decades ago, and the company still stands behind it. That motto also extends to their commitment to safety. They are ranked as one of the top trucking companies in the nation regarding complying with Federal safety regulations, and their drivers are some of the most experienced on the road. In fact, more than half of their current drivers have been with the company for over 15 years.
With 35 working trucks pulling chip trailers, walking floor trailers, and dry vans, 95% of the freight Lemmons Trucking hauls is their own product. Back in the 1970s, John bought a new International that was painted two-tone green (Mint green and Forest green). He liked those colors so much, every truck since then has been ordered in these colors. Not all the trucks today have the exact same stripe scheme, but they are all painted in those same colors – and they are now all Peterbilt 379s or 389s. A typical Lemmons truck is also a daycab, has a drop axle, is powered by a C-15 Cat engine, and is nice and clean almost all the time.
The last truck Larry drove was a 1981 International Transtar 4300 with a 400 Cummins, which he really liked. Unfortunately, that truck (#25) was eventually sold, so later, when Larry decided he wanted to build one to replicate it, he had to find another one. The one they found, about eight years ago, was from a farmer in Idaho and it only had 140,000 miles on it! This 4300 is a bit rare, as it was factory-equipped with a 525-hp Cummins KTA motor, and to accommodate that big engine, this Transtar has an extended hood and is also an Eagle edition.
Having a short wheelbase when they got it but wanting to stretch it, Wes Hight, the head mechanic and rebuilder at Lemmons Trucking, found a brand-new set of aluminum frame rails they had that had never been drilled. Starting with these new rails, they completely rebuilt the 4300, which now has a 250” wheelbase, and then put air-ride under it, too. The KTA engine is hooked to a 15-speed transmission and 3.70 ratio rears, and some of the other additions include 7” pipes, a stainless deck plate, stainless half fenders on custom brackets, and, of course, that signature two-tone green paint scheme. The light brown interior of this rig was basically kept stock, which included a complete wiring diagram for the truck riveted to the outside edge of the passenger seat base.
This International is a unique truck, and it has always caught my eye, but it is not the only cool antique in Larry’s collection – far from it! With an entire warehouse filled with completely rebuilt and restored trucks (along with some that have not been restored but are still amazing and rare) and several more waiting to be done, Larry’s collection includes a 1967 Peterbilt 351 with a long butterfly hood and a factory V12 Detroit with only 200,000 original miles, a 1961 Emeryville (one of the first trucks they restored), a 1953 Peterbilt 350 “Iron Nose” with a 400-hp 3406B Cat, and a neat 1913 International Motor Wagon (this truck does not run but it is definitely an interesting piece of history).
In addition to the 1981 International 4300 Eagle featured here, Larry also has a 1980 International 4300 painted white with thin black and gold stripes. This truck, which is not an extended hood but has a cool little sleeper on it, was purchased from the estate of Dr. Forrest Bird in Sagle, ID and is called “The Bird Truck” (Dr. Bird ordered this truck brand new). This pristine truck has a 400-hp Big Cam Cummins under the hood and only 41,000 original miles! It was always kept inside and (obviously) rarely used. Larry did not do anything to this truck or the matching flatbed trailer that came with it except clean it up a little and add the Lemmons Trucking logo to the door.
To mention all of Larry’s antique show trucks would require another complete article, but I will mention a couple more – two of my favorites – his 1972 Peterbilt 359 little window, and a 1977 Peterbilt 359, which was completely rebuilt on top of a newer car-hauler chassis and has a pinstriped 3408 V8 Cat under the hood. This rig is painted in the typical Lemmons colors, but also includes the nice addition of the famous “Van Hulzen” stripe scheme outlined with silver. In addition to all his antique trucks, Larry also has an extensive and amazing collection of hot rods, muscle cars, classic cars and pickup trucks, of various makes and models, from several eras. There are even a few newer sports cars and some movie cars in there, too.
When he isn’t at the yard or in the office working hard, Larry likes to spend time with Kim, his wife of 40 years, and their two grown children. His son Ray (37) is now in charge of the day-to-day operations of the two companies and is being groomed to take over when Larry decides to retire. Larry also has a daughter who is not involved in the business. Doing a little farming on the side, Larry also raises cows and currently has about 150 of them. When possible, he likes going to the truck shows, and even has his own annual event in Longview, WA every June. For about ten years, he raced stock cars all over the Pacific Northwest in the Sportsman’s class and enjoyed it very much, but health reasons forced him to hang up his helmet and quit.
When asked what was really important to him, Larry said, “Surround yourself with good people and good things will happen.” One of these good people would certainly be Wes Hight. Larry jokes that Wes is the only guy with more seniority than him! Larry’s dad John hired Wes 43 years ago, and Wes has overseen or did most of the restores and rebuilds, along with helping to keep the working trucks rolling. These days, Wes’ son Kurtis now works at the company, too, and his job is to oversee all the maintenance on the work trucks. When asked who he would like to thank, Larry said his dad, his wife, Wes, and the entire crew at both companies.
Although the eruption of Mount St. Helens was a tragedy, it was a pivotal turning point for Lemmons Trucking. From that point forward, thanks to opportunities and great business decisions made by Larry and his father John, not only did the trucking company thrive, but an entirely new (and bigger) company was born, as well. To say business is “booming” for this operation, you would not only be describing the current situation, but also the event in 1980 that changed it all – for the better.