Pittsford’s Joe Gagnon leaves Selectboard but plans to stay involved


JOE GAGNON STANDS among the hundreds of logs stacked up at Gagnon Lumber in Pittsford, a business he founded in 1958 on land that had been in his family for generations. At 86, Mr. Gagnon did not seek re-election to the Pittsford Selectboard. Photo by Steven Jupiter

PITTSFORD—Joe Gagnon’s scarred face and wiry frame tell a tale of a man who’s labored hard his entire life.  Now 87, he’s still working in the lumber yard that bears his name on land that his French-Canadian grandfather bought back in 1880.  

And after 20 years on Pittsford’s Selectboard, he’s stepping down but not bowing out.

“I hate to quit, but I’ve come upon some health issues,” he said in his office recently.  “I have to devote a little more time to that.”

As Joe slows down a bit to focus on his health, his son Ken, in his mid-60s, has taken on increasingly more responsibility for the family sawmill, situated on 170 acres between Routes 3 and 7 in Pittsford.  Regardless of any limitations his body may be facing, Joe still does what he can, such as making deliveries, to keep the mill going.  

“If I hated what I was doing, I would’ve quit a long time ago,” he laughed.

Joe grew up on the farm that would eventually become Gagnon Lumber, attending a one-room schoolhouse in Florence before moving on to Pittsford High School.  But his entrepreneurial spirit refused to sit still and at 14, after only two weeks in high school, he started hitching rides to the Goodnow Orchard in Brandon, where he made $70-$75 per week picking apples, a considerable amount of money in the 1950s (and roughly equivalent to $850 today).

“I’m not sorry I left school,” Joe said.  “I missed out on some of the social stuff, but kids today don’t know a real day’s work. I wish kids today had to go through what I went through for a couple months. All my children have had to hold a wrench for me at one time or another.”

When he turned 16, Joe got his driver’s license and bought a chainsaw for $365 (approximately $4,000 today), a huge investment for someone his age. 

“Not everyone had chainsaws back then,” he explained.  A neighbor was doing some logging and it looked like a good way to make some money.  After a few years cutting wood for other people, Joe decided to give it a go on his own.  His father had been renting out the family farm and took the property back when the tenant left.  

“I plowed everything I made back into this business.  Maybe I could’ve done more at the beginning if I’d taken out a loan, but I never felt good about borrowing money,” Joe recalled.  Watching his father once lose a herd of cattle to foreclosure soured him on loans for good. Frugality is a trait he carried into his work on the Selectboard.  Even at his last Town Meeting as a Selectboard member on Monday, he spoke up against what he saw as an excessive appropriations request from the Maclure Library.

“I’ve got a reputation as an ‘old Scrooge,’” he laughed.  “A penny pincher.  I was in the minority on a lot of issues.”

He had four children with his first wife, Betty: Ken (66), Joe, Jr. (64), Sharon (61), and Kathy, who passed away 10 years ago while living in Maine.  Neither Joe, Jr. nor Sharon is involved in the family lumber yard, though they both live nearby.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the business when Ken retires,” he said with some regret.  “It’s a nice dream to have it continue in the family, but it’s not likely to happen.”

The lumber business itself has changed a lot over the years.  It’s getting harder and harder to get quality logs, Joe says. A colleague, A. Johnson in Bristol, recently closed its mill for good.  Joe likens the plight of Vermont logging to that of Vermont dairy. But, with 6 employees plus Ken and his wife, Gagnon Lumber is still cutting 2,000,000 board feet per year, a number which seems enormous but which Joe insists is still on the modest side.

“There are fewer and fewer mills that offer a range of products,” he said.  “Not a lot of mills that will do custom lengths.”

The yard itself is filled with piles of logs, grouped by species: pine, spruce, oak, maple., even locust (notable for its resistance to rot).  Not a few local houses were built with wood that Gagnon milled.  And he donated “every last stick of wood” used to build the pavilion at the Pittsford Rec Center.

Again, the conversation turned toward Joe’s decision not to seek re-election to the Selectboard.  

“We’ve got a good board right now,” he said.  “We don’t always agree, but we can talk about things.”

Joe is still passionate about certain things: keeping Pittsford’s taxes as low as possible, for example.  It’s for that reason that he opposed the 1% Local Option Tax that Pittsford residents rejected at the ballot box on Tuesday.  

“We’re taxed enough,” he insisted.

And he’s very proud of the work he did to get the town to capitalize on the lumber on its lands.  The town has had two profitable lumber sales under his guidance and implemented a long-term management plan.

His frugality often saved the town money, as when he’d insist on getting competing quotes on projects.  The town saved $3,500 on an improvement project on West Creek Road because of his insistence on “shopping around,” he said.

As for Pittsford’s future, he hopes the town will be able to attract businesses and not just promote itself as a bedroom community for Rutland or a recreational destination.

“It’s a big problem.  Not easy to solve.”

As the conversation began to wrap up, Joe revealed how he lost his right eye.  

He was out harvesting wood with his son and was using a chainsaw on a fallen log.  The blade kicked back, right into his face.  He was able to get to his son, who drove him to the hospital.  The doctors weren’t able to save his eye and it now seems symbolic of the sacrifices he’s made for the business he built and loves.  

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