OUT OF THE WOODS: Lamar & Felicia Dewberry Carve Life, Career Out Of Clay County
The woods were his playground, his hunting ground, his investment and his retirement.Of course, the same could be said of just about anyone growing up in Clay County, where there are so many trees it’s almost impossible to see the Talladega National Forest.But for Lamar Dewberry, a Lineville High School ag teacher, the woods also were his classroom.”I was raised in the woods. That’s all I knew,” said Lamar, who along with his wife Felicia, recently scored a rare double victory when they received the Alabama Tree Farmer Award from the Alabama Forestry Association and the Helene Mosley Memorial TREASURE Forest Award from the Alabama TREASURE Forest Landowners Association. Both awards seek to recognize excellence in forestry management that emphasizes environmental stewardship, education, use of resources and sustainability.”When we were growing up, we were always out in the woods building tree houses, or some kind of hut. That’s what we had to play with, and that’s what I knew about. When me and my brothers would get off the school bus, the first thing we’d do was get our guns and head to the woods. Whatever season was in, that’s what we were doing. And then, during the summertime, before they built the lake down here, we used to fish, float and wade in the river.”So, Lamar figured, if he grew up that way, his students probably did, too. After all, 82 percent of Clay County is forest.”My students couldn’t compete with north and south Alabama in crop production proficiency awards,” Lamar said. “But an area where we could compete was forest management and wildlife management because that’s important in our area. I knew where these kids were coming from. I tried to use what they knew the best, what they felt comfortable with. So I tried to promote what my kids had. And my students really did well in those areas.”So well, in fact, that Lineville High School had the national winner in forest management three years in a row. Four of his students became ag teachers, three became foresters, and eight earned degrees in horticulture before Lamar retired from teaching in 2003. “I guess they listened a little more than I thought they did,” he said. “It’s kind of scary when you realize what kind of influence you have on a kid.”His retirement came 20 years after the Dewberrys decided to purchase a 32-acre tract of low-value, unevenly-aged pine and hardwood mix as an investment.”At that time, you could buy land at a cheaper price, plant it in pines and in 20 years, it would be supplemental income for retirement,” said Lamar. “That’s the main reason we started buying property — for an investment for when we retire. We bought it, and started managing it the way we wanted it managed. A lot of it needed a lot of work. We had to go in, and we harvested some of the low-value timber, and some we harvested to help pay for it.”Felicia even got in on the act, helping Lamar in his first foray into pulp wooding.”I did a little bit,” she said modestly. “I pulled the cable, and got the pile of logs connected, and he’d pull ’em to the truck. I don’t know what you call it, but I was a person out in the woods. He did the hard work — he cut ’em down and made sure they got on the truck right. But we had some experiences.”Felicia still bears a scar from one of those misadventures. “A log caught me,” she said with a laugh. “It was no big deal. It makes us appreciate what we have now. When I look back, I can see those were fun times. Our kids were out there with us a lot of times, playing in the woods, climbing a tree, finding a shady spot and having them a little clubhouse.”The tract also became a training ground for Lamar’s students who would often visit the property for lessons in map reading, compass reading, pacing, timber cruising and tree identification.”We practiced at least once a week while preparing for the national contest. And I learned along with them at the same time,” said Lamar. “That’s one thing I’ve learned in the TREASURE Forest program — you’re supposed to practice what you preach, and that’s what I try to do. I practice what I teach.”Steve Guy, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Forestry Division, said the Dewberrys stand for what good forestry is all about. “In a county that’s almost all trees, their property stands out as some of the best-managed,” he said. “They have passed along their knowledge to scores of kids who will continue to benefit Alabama’s forest lands.”Lamar also learned that the goals of forestry can change. “We wanted to produce as much as we could off of that first tract,” said Lamar. “Over time, our goals have changed a little bit — we’re not worrying as much about producing as much as we can; we’ve swung more toward recreation I guess.”One reason for that is Atlanta real estate prices. The same year the Dewberrys bought their first tract, Alabama Power completed R.L. Harris Reservoir, known locally as Lake Harris or Lake Wedowee. The 10,660-acre lake quickly became a draw to Atlanta investors seeking a place to build lake homes.Seeing the opportunity there, Felicia earned her real estate license in 1997. Last year, she and Lamar opened their own real estate business, Mountain Streams Realty (www.mountainstreamsrealty.com).”They were selling land over there for $10,000 to $30,000 an acre, and they’d come over here, and what we thought was outrageous was cheap to them,” said Lamar. “That’s one thing we’ve seen here in the real estate business — used to be when you’d buy property, you’d look at the value of the timber on the land. Now, you hardly ever look at that because most of the people buying land want the trees on the property. They don’t even consider the value of the timber. They look at aesthetics, how good it looks.”The Dewberrys can easily understand why. Among the 740 mostly wooded acres they now own is a patch of land that sits high up on a ridge that offers a breathtaking view of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. It is there they plan to build a lodge large enough to sleep 16.
The Dewberrys may consider renting it at times to church groups, but it will be a lodge intended primarily for family use. And although he does manage his property for deer and turkey, he’s not planning on opening it up as a hunting operation anytime soon.”Because of family hunting on it, we never will do hunting for profit off of the land,” Lamar said. “We have talked about doing bird-watching trails on the property, but the hunting, we’ve just got too many family members involved in it.”So, for Lamar Dewberry, the woods have gone full circle, and he again sees them as his playground. “We are privileged and blessed by being able to own the property we own and being able to manage it for a time,” he said recently. “One day it’ll be someone else’s. God just let us own it for a little while, and we’ll try to do the best we can with it while it’s ours. That’s the way we look at it as we manage it and use it, and hope that when we get through with it, it’ll be in better shape than it was when we got it.”