Honest Abe Log Homes is celebrating 40 years in business in 2019. Honest Abe’s first president discusses the company’s early days in operation.
By Claudia Johnson, Honest Abe Log Homes
Rick Denton had no plans to come back home – not for good anyway. He’d earned his degree in Civil Engineering from Tennessee Tech, married his high school sweetheart, landing a lucrative job in Chattanooga and completed his family with three kids.
He liked his church, his house and his job. No way was he returning to rural Clay County when all he’d wanted to do was get off the farm.
Then he ran into Doug Smith at a high school reunion in 1978 they attended with their wives, Wanda Beasley Denton and Janie Pennington Smith, who had graduated from Celia High School together 10 years earlier. While the ladies visited with old friends, Doug, a mechanical engineer and fellow Tech graduate who was six years older than Rick, talked about how he’d given up engineering to start a business in Moss. Doug thought there was a place for Rick in the company, especially a new one that manufactured log homes, but Rick was not so sure. Rick’s parents had sacrificed to put him through college with no debt, and the plan was he’d make a life far from Pine Hill.
“My family operated a small farm for a meager living,” Rick recalled. “Cash money was scarce. Nothing about this way of life appealed to me.”
By 1979 changes were underway at Combustion Engineering where Rick, 31 at the time, had worked since 1970 following a two-year stint in the Army. Nuclear power, which had seemed so promising, quickly became a pariah with the accident at Three Mile Island making international headlines, and Rick became unsure the nuclear industry was right for him. Further, he and Wanda were thinking more about the challenges of raising their children – all under age 10 – in a city, and to his surprise, Wanda actually wanted to live on a farm.
“We began praying about it,” Rick said. “We began earnestly seeking the Lord’s will for our lives. The strong negative feelings I had against Clay County as a young schoolboy had softened over the years. We talked about and considered the many advantages and disadvantages of such a move. Finally, we were given a sense of peace about it.”
Rick called Doug, and the job was still open. It would mean a pay cut and leaving behind numerous benefits, including three weeks paid vacation, 10 holidays, paid employee health insurance, life insurance and a profit sharing pension plan in which Rick was already vested.
“I left all this to go work for Doug at his sawmill,” Rick said. “I remember telling mom and dad. They thought I had lost my mind. I told all my friends at work, church and the community, and they had similar reactions. I eventually stopped telling where I was going to work and just said to pursue other opportunities.”
Rick was hired as a Research Engineer on Aug. 9, 1979, to develop a log home product, and he plunged into the task despite knowing nothing about log homes and working in primitive office conditions that often included cleaning off mouse droppings before sitting down at his desk each morning.
“Looking back now at the timeline, it seems almost miraculous that we completed our first model home and had an open house celebration on March 28, 1980,” Rick said. “In seven months we had somehow managed to design, manufacture and build our first log home product.”
The company had 12 original plans and a construction guide, marketing materials and a growing list of potential customers, but it needed a name.
“Doug wanted a name associated with Abraham Lincoln since he had lived in a log home,” Rick recalled. “Our answer came to us in an ad for a trucking company in a trade magazine that featured a drawing of Abraham Lincoln holding an adze, standing with his foot resting on a log. His completed log home was in the background, and the text ended with the words, ‘Honest Abe.’ That resonated with us, and we chose that as our name.”
The company flourished, and Rick remembers how in the beginning the orders doubled yearly: 13 the first, then 26, 52 and 108.
Rick is proud to have been a part of a company that in four decades has gone from an idea in one man’s mind to having manufactured more than 6,000 log home packages finished into beautiful and creative homes across the world.
“Doug Smith was a one-of-a-kind man,” Rick said. “No one could be like him and do things like him. Honest Abe always echoed him. Today the company is in good hands, with a culture that’s solid and a reflection of the Smith family. They have figured out how they want to do business since he died in 2011, and it is different from Doug’s way, as we’d expect. It’s their way.”
Rick took early retirement in 2007. He wanted to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren. He had large projects planned at his church and in the community. At 59 ½ years old he felt he was young enough to take time for himself after almost three decades spent developing and directing Honest Abe, and he is doing just that.
“Isn’t life interesting, how the many opportunities and choices that come our way lead us in directions we never expected? Good and bad,” Rick mused. “For me, they turned out exceptionally good.”