Nameless Towns

[ Regional/Texas ]

Nameless Towns

Texas Sawmill Communities, 1880-1942

By Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad

Drawing on oral history, company records, and other archival sources, Sitton and Conrad recreate the lifeways of the east Texas sawmill communities.

1998

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Paperback

6 1/16 x 9 1/4 | 271 pp. | 60 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-77726-2

Sawmill communities were once the thriving centers of East Texas life. Many sprang up almost overnight in a pine forest clearing, and many disappeared just as quickly after the company "cut out" its last trees. But during their heyday, these company towns made Texas the nation's third-largest lumber producer and created a colorful way of life that lingers in the memories of the remaining former residents and their children and grandchildren.

Drawing on oral history, company records, and other archival sources, Sitton and Conrad recreate the lifeways of the sawmill communities. They describe the companies that ran the mills and the different kinds of jobs involved in logging and milling. They depict the usually rough-hewn towns, with their central mill, unpainted houses, company store, and schools, churches, and community centers. And they characterize the lives of the people, from the hard, awesomely dangerous mill work to the dances, picnics, and other recreations that offered welcome diversions.

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. Introduction
  • Chapter Two. Panoramas
  • Chapter Three. Feudal Towns
  • Chapter Four. The Cornbread Whistle
  • Chapter Five. Dancing on the Millpond
  • Chapter Six. Cut and Get Out
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

During October of 1899, R. M. Keith, a land agent for the Central Coal and Coke Company of Kansas City, Missouri, arrived at the backwoods community of Ratcliff, Texas, in eastern Houston County, and began to buy tens of thousands of acres of virgin pine timber. The community had been established ten years before by J. H. Ratcliff, who built a small sawmill and opened up a post office at the site. Word of the rich Yankee stranger spread quickly among the hardscrabble farmers and free-range stockmen of the vicinity, and many rushed to strike deals with Keith, selling "stumpage," the right to cut all marketable timber on their properties. Many local people still regarded their pine forests as an impediment to agriculture, more a curse than a blessing, and happily sold them to the outsider for less than two dollars an acre.

Throughout 1900, Keith quietly went about his business of buying 120,000 acres of land and stumpage, but then on January 10, 1901, he purchased Ratcliff's "peckerwood" sawmill, and things began to move swiftly. Immediately, the mill started cutting lumber with which to build a big mill and sawmill town. By June of 1902, a 486-foot sawmill, a 450-foot planer mill, a commissary store, company offices, and hundreds of employee houses had been constructed, and three screaming band saws powered by a mighty Corliss steam engine swung into action, converting local sawtimber to yellow-pine lumber at the rate of 300,000 board feet each eleven-hour work day. Mill hands loaded the lumber on boxcars and shipped it to the main line at Lufkin on the new company railroad, the Eastern Texas. Conductors on the main line coming into Lufkin, exaggerating only slightly, now encouraged passengers to take a side trip to Ratcliff on the Eastern Texas Railroad to see "the largest sawmill in the world." The owners organized their new enterprise as the Texas and Louisiana Lumber Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Central Coal and Coke Company, but everyone called the mill the "4-C."

By summer of 1902, Houston County farmers looked out with wonder and disquiet at a lumber boomtown suddenly arrived in their midst. Every evening at dusk, at the flip of a company switch, steam-powered generators instantly illuminated every structure in the new "company town," from the company offices to the employees' smallest shotgun house, creating an island of bright electric light in a dark sea of "coal-oil" countryside. Yankee engineers and mill managers, imported black mill hands, and exotic Italian yard workers that locals called "Dagos" now walked the dusty streets of a transformed Ratcliff, conversing in alien accents and foreign tongues. By 1910, the 4-C's Ratcliff had a thousand-man work force in woods and mill, a total population approaching ten thousand, a telephone company, a newspaper, several cafes and stores, and a variety of saloons and other businesses. Harvey Steed, one-time owner of a Ratcliff store, recalled that during the boom years Ratcliff grew so crowded on Saturdays that "you couldn't hardly squeeze your way down the sidewalk."

Local people once had ordered their daily lives to the casual rhythms of season and sun and had worked from "can see to can't," but now mill whistles blew reveille in the dark and regulated lives by the clock. In 1901, the manager at a new mill town had directed his Houston agents to purchase the most basic operating gear for the heavy-industry workplace, newly arrived in the East Texas backwoods. "You had better buy them a large steam whistle with a 2" outlet," he wrote, "something that will wake the natives up and get them to the mill in time to start up and also a suitable clock for the mill."

By the turn of the century, many "natives" in the Texas pineywoods counties already had learned to live with the sound of clock-driven mill whistles ringing in their ears. C. B. Spivey of Cherokee County recalled that around 1905 he could stand on his front porch in the morning and hear, from near and far, the wake-up whistles of twenty sawmills. By 1905, lumbering and sawmilling had become the state's most important industry, and two years later over six hundred Texas mills sawed an alltime high of 2.25 billion board feet of pine lumber that made Texas the nation's third-largest lumber producer. The period from 1907 to 1916 was the "golden decade" of Texas lumbering, with production averaging over 1.75 billion board feet a year. During this boom era, timber was king, and sawmill companies could do little wrong. Many Texans agreed with the Jasper Newsboy, which editorialized in 1911, "in Texas a smokestack is as sacred as a church steeple."

Between 1880 and 1890, the first generation of rural East Texans made the decision to leave the farm for company employments in lumber camp and sawmill town, and many of them soon got "pine resin in their blood," as one man told, and they stayed—along with their children and in-laws and grandchildren—until the companies "cut out and got out" and the timber boom busted. Vivian Warner's report of how her father left the farm to go to work for Southern Pine Lumber Company at Diboll was told in one version or another by thousands of families. Warner recalled: "My father left home when he was 14 years old. He was plowing one day, and when he plowed to the end of the row, he laid his plow over, unhitched the mule, and said, 'I plowed my last row.'" Then, he took a job in the Southern Pine woods crew, remaining in company employment the rest of his working life.

Why he remained was a question that Warner's father sometimes asked himself, and many other mill employees doubtless did the same. Working and living conditions in the sawmill towns were less than perfect. While generally sympathetic to the bonanza-era companies, lumber-industry historians Robert Maxwell and Robert Baker nonetheless observed of the early Texas sawmill:

It devoured the men, father and son; it ate up the forest; it transformed the countryside into a desert of sawdust dunes; it destroyed the tranquillity of rural life; and finally, more often than not, it destroyed itself—by fire. Sawmill work offered long hours, low pay, little chance of advancement, an uncertain future, and, by the law of averages, a good chance of at least one serious injury.

In truth, although it may have been more interesting than following a plow, timber-industry work was risky. Lumbering was the most dangerous industrial operation at the beginning of the twentieth century, seven times the national average, and sawmilling ranked third, immediately after coal mining. For example, during 1925 alone, 582 of the Kirby Lumber Company's total 4,762-person work force suffered a significant injury, and at one Kirby mill town 26.3 percent of the workers sustained injury. As Brown Wiggins of Hardin County grimly observed, "everything that could happen to a man happened to us." Summing up a lifetime spent in mill towns and logging camps, Wiggins seemed a little uncertain about why he had laid down the plow or had never returned to it. A half century of working for the big companies had left him with mixed feelings.

I spent most of my life in the woods, working in sawmills, around the edge of the Thicket. Most of the mills were small, but I liked to work in the bigger ones, those that ran about a hundred thousand feet per day. There were about fifty houses, the white people would be on one side of the mill and the Negro quarters on the other. They just stuck the houses here, there, and yonder, no order to it, and it didn't look too good, but we made lots of lumber. They gobbled up most of the finest timber in our country, and the sawmills didn't make too much out of it, and we didn't do too well either.

In Wiggins's father's boyhood, twenty years before the great 4-C mill came to Ratcliff, a bird's-eye view of southeastern Texas would have revealed a vast, almost unbroken forest, cleared for cotton, corn, and sugarcane fields at scattered sites along alluvial valleys and around Nacogdoches, Newton, Jasper, Livingston, and other small communities of a few hundred souls. An ancient hardwood forest of oaks, gums, and cypresses dominated the river valleys of the Sabine, Angelina, Neches, and Trinity rivers and their many tributaries. Moisture-loving loblolly pine thrived on slightly higher ground along the bottoms, and the sandy uplands grew mixed groves of loblolly, shortleaf pine, and various hardwoods. The great East Texas forest was thinner and more open to the north and west, where small prairies occasionally broke its expanse, especially in the "Redlands" around Nacogdoches. East and south of Nacogdoches toward the Sabine, rainfall increased, the forest grew thicker and more luxuriant, and the "openings" gradually disappeared. Sweeping across the Sabine into southeastern Texas and reaching beyond the Trinity River was the westernmost wedge of a huge, 230,000-square-mile Southern forest of longleaf pine, Pinus palustris, the most valuable of all Southern pine species. Periodic fires set by man and lightning swept through the thin grasses and leaf debris under the longleafs, killing other species but leaving the fire-resistant pines unharmed. The result was a vast forest of open parklike stands, where travel was easy and a person could see a long way. The reddish brown longleaf trunks were huge, often exceeding three feet in diameter and soaring fifty feet to the first limb. In 1992, 103-year-old Walter Cole of Jasper County recalled the ancient longleaf forest from his boyhood.

It'll never come back like it was when I's a boy. When I was a boy I could ride a horse a hundred miles cross country through Louisiana and Texas in virgin timber, pine timber. And it was longstraw, we called it longhaired pine—longleaf pine. It was two-thirds heart, fine timber, wasn't a limb on it for fifty feet. You could see a deer a half mile across the pineywoods. I've cut a-many a one. I've sawed trees I had to ring saw; I'd walk around em to saw em down—saw em all around and wedge em over. And when they hit the ground, you'd hear em three, four mile.

Several generations of Southerners gradually had spread across the longleaf "pine barrens" from Virginia, through Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, until they reached the end of the great forest west of the Trinity River. By 1870, the scattered settlers of southeastern Texas had become accustomed to the great Southern forest and practiced a form of agriculture and a method of stock raising well adapted to the big woods. Nearly all were "backwoodsmen," skilled in techniques for pioneering the forested environment. Folklorist William A. Owens, who interviewed the children and grandchildren of the southeastern Texas settlers, described a typical arrival of the Southern backwoodsmen.

Camping out under trees while they worked, they built log houses, covered them with hand-split boards, and chinked and daubed them with red clay. They built stick-and-daub chimneys. Fireplaces were for heat and cooking, and for light at night, the only light except for the red, smoky glare of a lightwood knot. They cleared only as much land as they could work with one horse hooked to a Georgia stock or Kelly turning plow, enough land for a little cotton, a little corn-for a patch of sweet potatoes and blackeyed peas. Their cattle grazed on the open range. So did the razorback hogs. There was elbowroom to spare. They had no wish to obliterate the wilderness.

Southeastern Texas backwoodsmen were cotton entrepreneurs, as well, especially before the Civil War, and where soil and circumstances encouraged this they raised a good bit of the white staple. Even the longleaf counties of Newton, Jasper, and Sabine produced two thousand to eight thousand bales a year during the decade of the 1850s, this at a time when the biggest Texas cotton counties produced over twenty thousand bales.

The sandy pine uplands, the so-called pine barrens, proved poor cotton soil, however, and many southeastern Texans depended more on running "rooter hogs and woods cattle" on the surrounding free range than they did on farming cotton and corn. Southern woods-adapted stockraising practices were at least two centuries old by 1870. Most stockmen ran both cattle and hogs on the open range, letting them go semiferal and fend for themselves most of the year, locating, penning, and butchering them as needed. Periodically, the stockmen gathered some up and drove them to market—often eastward through the longleaf to the plantations of Louisiana or even to New Orleans. People worked hogs and cattle with dogs in much the same way and even seemed to think about them much the same; even the adjectives used to describe stock seemed interchangeable—"rooter hogs and woods cattle," "woods hogs and rooter cattle." These forest-adapted hogs and cattle wandered into the pine uplands in spring and summer, then moved into creek and river bottoms in the winter—the cattle feeding on switch cane and the hogs on acorns. In the lean days of midsummer, hogs ate almost everything, including last year's soured acorns, berries, grass, earthworms, carrion, freshwater mussels on creek sandbars, and river fish trapped in drying pools. Meanwhile, cattle foraged for sparse grass on the pine hills under the virgin longleafs.

"Good range" in this Southern stock tradition could be an entirely wooded environment, and how much land a family owned made little difference; the Southern stockman's landholding was his home base, only. Solomon Alexander Wright's family settled during the 1830s in what would become Jasper and Newton counties, and after Grandfather Wright died around the time of the Civil War his labor of land on the Sabine went to Solomon's father. Solomon wrote of his 180-acre homeplace between Nichol's Creek on the north and Big Cypress Bayou and Boggy Branch on the South: "It was the most ideal location for a ranch imaginable. It was a wilderness country even after my time. Our rangenot all owned, but what we had use of-comprised about 80,000 acres, the west half slightly-rolling, longleaf pine woods, the east half marshes, alternating with strips of level pine woods and numerous small swamps."

Solomon Wright viewed the land from the perspective of a typical Southern stockman, and his "ideal ranch" was all big woods. The Wrights's small landholding mattered little, since everything was open range, and the only fences were "fence-them-out" fences around rare cultivated fields. Every family had the customary right to range their stock on the lands of everybody else, and this tradition would continue for a century. So, why own more land than you needed? Basic to the way of life of many East Texans in 1870 was the Southern custom of the "free range" or "open range," which gave every family a variety of usufruct rights on other families' land. Besides the right to range stock, people could trespass, hunt, fish, rob bee trees, gather hickory nuts, build stock pens, and—when the time was right to encourage grass growth under the pines—set the woods on fire.

As historian Thomas Clark noted, Southern backwoodsmen of the nineteenth century often lived subsistence-farming and hunting-and-gathering lifestyles, employing knowledge and techniques learned from the southeastern Indians, but they also tried to make money. They had no wish to "obliterate the wilderness" in their economic exploitation of it, as William Owens noted, but—lost in the great forest—this scarcely seemed possible. As they had farther east and in earlier generations, in East Texas Southern backwoodsmen girdled trees to clear "new ground" for cotton, trapped furbearers, shot deer for their skins, killed wild cattle for their hides and tallow, and nibbled away at the awesome forest resources, transporting these wilderness products by water to Harrisburg and Houston on Buffalo Bayou, Beaumont on the Neches, and Orange on the Sabine. Beginning during the 1840s, fine bottomland white oaks were laboriously axed, sawed, and split for barrel staves and hoop poles, and riverside cypresses were felled and rived for shingles; these products then were floated downriver beside bales of cotton on flatboats, keelboats, and steamboats. Soon after the founding of Beaumont and Orange, parttime loggers and raftsmen began floating cypress logs directly to the new shingle mills and (by the 1850s) small steam sawmills operating in these towns. Many of the cypress-shingle logs and whiteoak-stave trees had "free range" origins like the pineywoods hogs and cattle. Log raftsman Louis Bingham explained: "A lot of people in the olden days, they cut them old cypress, they just run em out of there and carried em to the mill. They didn't belong to nobody—belonged to them, if they got em."

Before the Civil War, most up-country sawmills were small, water-powered, sash-saw affairs that combined the slow production of lumber with ginning cotton and grinding corn. In such a mill, a sash-saw blade fixed within an upright wooden frame was moved up and down by a crank attached to a large, over-shot water wheel. The log moved against the saw, which cut only on the downstroke, either pushed by hand (often on a wagon) or drawn by a paul-and-ratchet gear worked off the water wheel. A water-powered sash saw cut no more than two or three thousand board feet a day and went so slowly that the sawyer could read the Bible while he operated it.

Gradually, primitive steam engines (some salvaged from wrecked steamboats) began to replace water power on the sash-saw rigs, lumber production went up, and Bible reading in the mill ceased. Few such sawmills operated before the Civil War in the East Texas up-country, but even before Texas won its independence from Mexico, certain operations on the edge of the coastal plain presaged the big mills and mill towns to come. The cutting, transport, and sawing of timber required a considerable work force, even for a small mill, and that work force had to be housed and provided for. William Zuber visited the Harris brothers' operation at the head of navigation on Buffalo Bayou in 1831 and offered this description.

The Harrises had built a sawmill and grist mill, combined as one. It was propelled by steam and drove two saws, which worked perpendicularly, like whipsaws worked by hand. This was the first steam mill I ever saw-the first built west of the Sabine River, and, in 1831, the only one in Texas. Most of the land owned by the Harris brothers was a forest of noble pines growing within two hundred yards of Bray's Bayou. These were cut down for saw stocks, hauled to the bayou, floated to the mill, and sawed into lumber. The Harrises boarded their employees, the number of whom, including choppers, haulers, floaters, sawyers, and cooks, were generally twenty men.

Such mills remained rarities until the Civil War and were limited to the coastal counties, such as Orange and Harris. The Census of 1850 listed no sawmills, water powered or steam powered, in Tyler County and few elsewhere, and the Census of 1860 noted no Hardin County sawmills. Part of the problem was technology; sash-saw mills cut slowly, and the primitive steam engines of the time often broke down or blew up. Circular saws had reached the South, but before the Civil War they could not handle logs much larger than sixteen inches in diameter and so were entirely inadequate for the massive pine timber. As a consequence, as late as the 1850s, Texas newspaper editors constantly bemoaned the fact that—despite the state's great inland forests—most Texas construction lumber still had to be imported by sea at very high rates.

Beginning around 1875, everything began to change very quickly, as Yankee lumbermen, railroads, and improved sawmill technologies came to the pineywoods. Far to the north and east, timber companies were cutting out in the white pineries of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and the timbermen—casting about for new virgin forests to exploit—swiftly overcame their old prejudices against resin-filled Southern "yellow pine." Pennsylvania lumbermen Henry J. Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore were the first of many northerners to come south. Traveling across southeastern Texas in 1877, they surveyed with growing excitement the virgin longleaf forest, where stumpage might be had for as little as fifty cents an acre, and estimated the log-floating capacity of every stream they passed. Lutcher and Moore chose Orange on the Sabine River as the site of their first sawmill, which soon cut 80,000 to 100,000 board feet a day, roughly quadrupling the daily production of the next largest Texas mill. Other northerners quickly followed the pioneers in establishing big mills, and there were other good reasons to come south after 1876. With the repeal of the U.S. Homestead Act of 1866 at the end of Reconstruction, Southern legislatures threw open their states' public lands for unrestricted purchasing, and homegrown investors and the men Southern historian Thomas Clark called "the carpetbaggers of the woods" rushed to purchase them. Clark noted:

In most of the wooded South in 1876 it was possible for speculators and mill men to manipulate the land laws to acquire large tracts of pine and hardwood lands at ridiculously minimal cash outlay. [After the 1866 Homestead Act was repealed] to permit unrestricted cash entry, the door to the Southern timberland was thrust wide open. Land speculators of every stripe rushed into the region in search of virgin tracts of timber to lay low. After 1880, speculators and lumbermen gobbled up millions of acres of virgin timberlands at the standard century-old price of $1.25 an acre.

Profits from such land purchases could be very great, and it was not uncommon for a northern company to find that no sooner had its trusted land agent reached the Southern pineries than he had turned disloyal, buying land for himself or for some other company that had offered him a better commission. During the 1870s, investors often found that they could buy an acre of virgin pine forest carrying as much as 20,000 board feet of timber for only $1.25—timber that sold as processed lumber for $200! No wonder, then, that the speculators sometimes preceded the lumbermen, who were then obliged to buy back stumpage at inflated prices, and that by 1885, a scant nine years after the new Homestead Act of 1876, Texas had sold or given away about 32 million acres of state land, most of it heavily forested.

Texas railroads were primary recipients of the free public timberlands. The state awarded sixteen sections of land, 10,240 acres, for every mile of track constructed, and this could be track of any gauge and in any location. The first mile of Texas railroad track had been built near Houston in 1853, but the great era of state railroad construction came between 1880 and 1902, at which time the state's ten-thousand-mile rail system was virtually completed.

Also by 1902, and not coincidentally, most of the large blocks of East Texas timberland had been purchased by a relatively small number of Texas and out-of-state lumber companies. From first to last, East Texas bonanza-era lumbering and railroading went hand in hand. Backed by financier Paul Bremond, the narrow-gauge Houston, East, and West Texas Railroad built north from Houston to Shreveport from 1875 to 1886, and by the time the line reached Cleveland five sawmills with the combined capacity of 100,000 board feet a day cut timber behind its construction crews. Other lines followed, with the same effects on new sawmills and bonanza lumbering operations. The Texas and New Orleans built from Beaumont to Dallas, crossing Bremond's line at Nacogdoches. As in the cases of the HE & WT ("Hell Either Way Taken") and the T & NO ("Time No Object," or "Turnips and New Onions"), the new railroads invited witticisms with their initials, but they engaged in serious business. Every new track gobbled up vast quantities of nearby timber for ties, trestles, and fuel, opened the virgin forest along its right-of-way to swift exploitation, spawned lines of sawmill towns (and county-seat towns) as it built north, and shifted East Texas in one decade from an economy based on cotton to one based chiefly on sawtimber. Already by 1904, 62 sawmills operated along the tracks of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railroad; and by 1906, 230 sawmills with a potential annual capacity of 2.4 billion board feet cut timber along the tracks of the Santa Fe, the Houston, East, and West Texas, the Texas and New Orleans, and the International and Great Northern.

Throughout the process of opening up the great East Texas forest, railroad builders and timbermen often were closely linked and sometimes were one and the same. Such was the case with a third major railroad, the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe. In association with lumberman John Henry Kirby, the AT & SF bought Kirby's Gulf, Beaumont, and Kansas City Railroad (which went nowhere near Kansas City) and extended the line up the easternmost tier of East Texas counties to Jasper in 1902 and to San Augustine in 1903. This line played a large role in helping Kirby Lumber Company become the biggest producer of yellow-pine timber in the South. Mainly strung out along the Santa Fe, by 1907 the fourteen Kirby sawmills and sawmill towns cut a combined total of 950,000 board feet of timber every eleven-hour working day.

"Sawmilling is logging, logging is railroading," one Kirby mill superintendent liked to say; "learn logging and railroading, and the rest is easy." This was true in more than one sense. No sooner did the advancing main line spawn a new company mill town than the mill town spawned a company railroad system, eventually reaching far out into the surrounding forest and usually—even if run for only a few miles or so—organized as a commercial carrier.

By 1880, improvements in sawmill technology necessitated railway delivery systems to feed the increasingly voracious saws. Big Allis sixty-inch and seventy-two-inch circular saws were the early standard, capable of making short work of the largest logs, and during the 1880s steam logcarriage machinery appeared, along with the first single-cutting band saws, continuous blades rotating on eight- or nine-foot "dogs," or wheels. A decade later the band saws had become double-cutting, toothed on both edges, slicing a log from alternate ends on each swift to-and-fro of the steam carriage. The new saws were powered by Corliss steam engines of several hundred horsepower that turned massive flywheels of over twenty feet in diameter, which in turn ran belts to energize the saws and other mill machinery. The Sabine, Neches, and Trinity rivers, as well as lesser East Texas streams, had proved too shallow, lacking in gradient, and seasonally variable in flow to consistently supply such sawmills with floated timber, so after 1880 virtually every new operation included a tramway system to transport its timber to the mill. "Sawmilling is logging, logging is railroading," and at new mills large and small companies built tramway systems at the same time that they constructed millponds, commissary stores, employee housing, and the mills themselves.

Each sawmill town was a railroad town, as well, and Manning in the Angelina County longleaf forest typified many. The company railroad, the Shreveport, Houston, & Gulf ("Shove Hard and Grunt"), despite its official name, ran only a few miles to connect with the nearby Texas & New Orleans at Huntington. From the mill, a tramway system stretched into the company's timberland, its rails frequented by five steam locomotives and a Shay woods engine, which normally stayed in the woods with the steam skidder and steam loader. The locomotives were equipped with "cabbage-head" smokestacks—huge, round, bowl-like screens designed to prevent sparks from setting woods fires. The engines, like the rest of the woods machinery, ran on "fat pine" fuel gathered from the pine-knot debris on the floor of the longleaf forest. The resinous pine burned "hot but dirty," with many sparks, necessitating this precaution.

The Shay engine was specialized, a slow, hard-pulling, bevil-geardriven machine designed for woods work. Railroad men said that the Shays pulled five times as much, went one-fifth as fast, and made five times as much noise as regular locomotives. The various engines, and the men who ran them, were well known by inhabitants of Manning, and they easily identified the individual locomotives by sight and the operators by their peculiar "signature" whistle patterns. A former Manning resident recalled of one such engineer: "Bledsaw Duncan was the 'Casey Jones' of the SH & G Railroad. His old Number 3 engine, with him at the throttle, could bring out more logs over the steep grade from the Neches River bottom than any man alive. He had his own brass whistle that he could play a tune of pure rhythm so sorrowful that you couldn't believe it."

The big steam locomotives of the logging-bonanza era fascinated many, and railroad jargon permeated mill-town language. "The steam engine was the most majestic, throbbing, fascinating, and inefficient machine ever conceived by mortal man," one former sawmill machinist wrote. And most male Manningites would have understood every word of this engineer's official court deposition of a tram engine's too-speedy approach to the railyard, emergency braking, derailment, and wreck: "I seen her coming through the cut, and she was working steam and putting up a feather. Hogger cut her off at the limit board, and she come in greasing at about 25. When she passed the target, the ponies split the switch and took down the siding. The hogger bigholed her, but she jumped the rabbit and took to the country."

Sawmill-railroad empires had a long reach, involving many people who never drew a formal company paycheck. Along the edge of the nearby Neches bottoms, clans of backwoodsmen, like the numerous Havards, still lived a pioneer lifestyle of free-range stockraising, cotton farming, gardening, hunting, and fishing during the heyday of Manning, but even these free spirits served the SH & G as tie choppers and pine-knot gatherers. Young Charlie Havard added these activities to the others in his complicated subsistence round of farming, syrup making, trapping, hunting, fishing, and running hogs and cattle in the Neches bottoms. Carter-Kelly Lumber Company bought hewn ties at ten to twenty cents each, and fat pine by the cord, the latter stacked beside the tramways in easy reach of train-crew firemen. Tramway requirements were prodigious—an average of 2,640 ties per mile of track constructed and 140 cords of fuel wood per mile of track a year.

As Manning grew, it also became a marketplace for products from the surrounding countryside, and Charlie Havard and other country people went into town to peddle vegetables, fresh beef, dairy products, and other goods to the company commissary or door-to-door. Charlie and his brother also found a lively market for river fish and skinned-out possum and coon carcasses left over from their trapping operations, though their African American customers insisted that the Havards leave at least one foot on each carcass so they could tell for certain what the creature had been in life.

Manning had its origins around 1903, when Texas sawmill man W. T. Carter joined forces with emigree Yankee lumberman G. A. Kelly to form the Carter-Kelly Lumber Company, bought stumpage in southern Angelina County, and set about building a typical sawmill town. The location had everything they needed—tens of thousands of acres of virgin longleaf at a good price, a creek big enough to dam for a millpond, and an easy access to the main-line railroad at Huntington. In a sequence repeated at many other places, the company first built the millpond, then a small mill to cut lumber for the big mill and mill town, then the black commissary and "quarters" (which temporarily served and housed the white construction workers while the remainder of the construction work was being completed), then the mill and railroad, then the white commissary and housing. Sometime during 1907, the steam carriage in the main mill rushed the first big longleaf log into the screaming band saw, and the Carter-Kelly Lumber Company went into full operation.

The several-hundred-man work force that came to the new town of Manning was drawn partly from the farmers and stockmen of the surrounding countryside but mostly from other mill towns. By 1907 many sawmill people had been in lumber work for a generation or more and had adopted it as a way of life. The larger mills like Manning, which cut at 100,000 board feet a day at its peak, often were much the same, offering similar wages, opportunities, conveniences in town, and dangers on the job. Except for the top echelon of company employees—the sawyers, saw filers, foreman, and managers—who received high wages to discourage their migration to other Texas mill towns or the mills of the Pacific Northwest, sawmill wages were low, often under two dollars a day, so it made little difference at which mill town one made one's daily wage. Many sawmill families shifted often from mill to mill and town to town, so much so that one company foreman remarked that he had "three sets of workmen; one at work, one going, one coming." Typical of many, young Guy Croom of Angelina County grew up in several mill towns, and by the time he left home in 1916 at age twenty-three he had lived in fourteen different houses. Self-taught engineer Claude Barr Kennedy, skilled boiler man and mechanical jack-of-all-trades, became even more of a sawmill gypsy. Kennedy's family for a third of a century lived in so many different mill towns that they could not remember them all, rarely staying anywhere more than a year. A touchy, argumentative man much better at repairing machinery than at getting along with his supervisors, Kennedy typically would come home one day and give the order, "Pack up," offering no further explanation. His family then did as they were told, having moved so many times before that they had the process down to a science. A son recalled:

Papa had a little old contraption called a spring wagon. Lots of people had em. Most people hitched up just one horse to a spring wagon. Papa piled our beds in the wagon and what clothes we had. He didn't take the cookstove or the tin heater—I think he gave them to one of the neighbors. He knocked the table apart and put the legs in the wagon. All we ever moved of our table was the legs. When we'd get to a new place, Papa would just get some boards and make us a new table. But he always moved the legs.

Spring wagon packed, wife and two little girls perched on the spring seat, boys lying on mattresses in the back, off went the Kennedy family to Manning, or Groveton, or Ratcliff, or somewhere else; it mattered little where. Claude Kennedy always could get another job at another town, and a new cookstove and tin heater could be picked up from the items recently discarded by sawmill families leaving that place.

 

Thad Sitton, of Austin, and James H. Conrad, of Commerce, are historians and writers with extensive experience in collecting oral history.

"After completing the book, I truly understood life in the sawmill communities, intellectually and emotionally. It was very satisfying. Conrad and Sitton write in such a manner to make one feel the hard life, smell the sawdust, and share the danger of the mills. The book is compelling and stimulating."

—Robert L. Schaadt, Director-Archivist, Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center

T. H. Fehrenbach Award, Texas Historical Commission

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