Archive for the ‘Trees’ Category

The Dierks family and south Arkansas timber

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

My longtime friend Len Pitcock of Hot Springs sent me a note today about the home in which he lives, the 1955 Peter Dierks Joers house. Joers died in March 2006, and the home was purchased by Pitcock the following year.

Being a native of south Arkansas, I’ve long been fascinated with the old timber families who owned so much of the southern part of our state in the 20th century. The story of the Dierks family is especially interesting.

Peter Henry Dierks was a German immigrant who became a successful banker and farmer in Iowa. His sons Peter, Hans, Henry and Herman founded the Dierks Coal & Lumber Co. in Lincoln, Neb., in 1895.

Peter Dierks Joers, by the way, was the great-grandson of Peter Henry Dierks.

Peter Henry Dierks married a Danish immigrant named Margaretha Dorothea Tauk. Herman Dierks, who became the brother most associated with Arkansas, was the couple’s seventh child.

In 1897, the Dierks family moved the company headquarters to Kansas City since that city was becoming a center of the timber industry. By the turn of the century, the brothers owned 24 lumberyards. They had made the jump in 1897 from simply selling lumber to manufacturing it following the purchase of a sawmill at Petros, Okla., for $15,000. Because of the lack of large timber reserves in the area, the sawmill closed after three years. The brothers had better luck with their purchase of the Williamson Brothers mill at De Queen. Herman moved to De Queen to manage that mill, starting the Dierks family’s involvement in the state.

Herman began purchasing timberland across southwest Arkansas, beginning with a major tract in northern Howard County.

Herman had been born in Iowa in 1863 and had joined his brother Hans in Nebraska after Hans purchased land along the newly constructed Burlington Railroad. In addition to heading up the family’s Arkansas operations, Herman Dierks served as president of the Florien Lumber Co. in northwest Louisiana, which the brothers purchased in 1906. When Hans died, Herman took over as president of the company and remained in that position until his death in 1946.

The next generation of the family joined the company and spread out to manage mills across Arkansas and Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, there were big lumber mills at Broken Bow and Wright City. The De Queen mill burned in 1909 and was replaced by operations in the Howard County company town of Dierks.

That area of Howard County had been settled by Henry Block, James Wallen and John Cesterson in 1848. A wagon trail connected a settlement known as Hardscrabble to the town of Center Point, which was 10 miles to the south. The area was covered by dense forests of hickory, oak and pine. In the early 1900s, the Dierks family established the De Queen & Eastern Railroad to move workers and supplies into the region while carrying the timber out. Hardscrabble grew rapidly and changed its name to Dierks in honor of oldest brother Hans Dierks.

The Holman Hotel opened there in 1903, a bottling company was opened by John William Pate to produce fruit-flavored sodas in 1907 and many area families gave up their attempts to grow cotton, instead choosing to move into Dierks to work in the mill.

“Hardwood was harvested first and was used largely for barrel staves,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Around 1917, the hardwood had been exhausted, and interest turned to the softer pine wood. The Dierks company built a sawmill in the city, and the population continued to grow. The racial composition of the community also began to change. At the time of the 1910 census, Dierks had been home to only one African-American resident. In 1917, with the new sawmill — and with many men joining the armed forces during World War I — the company created a segregated neighborhood for black workers and their families. The neighborhood included a hotel, two churches, a school and stores. The Dierks company also operated a large store, which they called the Big Store, for white residents of the area.”

In October 1925, the company made a huge land acquisition in the Ouachita Mountains when it bought the Yell Lumber Co. Almost 88,000 acres of timberland came with that purchase. The timber was used to supply a massive mill built at Mountain Pine in 1928.

It’s safe to say that the cities of Mountain Pine and Dierks owe their existence to the company. At one point, the family holdings grew to 1.8 million acres of timberland, making the Dierks family one of the largest landowners in the country.

The Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. changed its name to Dierks Forests Inc. in 1954.

According to the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program: “The company, always family owned, had undertaken a number of innovative projects to capitalize their investments and maintain profits, including the construction of box factories, facilities for the production of pressure-treated wood products, facilities to make fiberboard and a small paper mill. By the late 1960s, these operations were still managed by the grandsons and one great-grandson, Peter Dierks Joers. The family stockholders, now numbering in the hundreds, had diverse interests and small share holdings. When approached by Weyerhaeuser, the offer of $317 million in cash and preferred stock was too much to pass up. In September 1969, Dierks Forests Inc.’s 1.8 million acres of land, three sawmills, paper mill, treating plant, wood fiber plant, gypsum wallboard plant, two railroads and smaller facilities were sold to Weyerhaeuser.”

As for the town of Dierks, the Big Store closed in 1970. A plywood mill built by Weyerhaeuser replaced the old Afraican-American community. By the late 1980s, there were no black residents of Dierks. The Dierks population in the 2010 census was 1,133 residents, down from a high of 1,544 residents in the 1930 census.

Peter Dierks Joers continued to live in Arkansas after the company was sold. He had been born in Kansas City in 1919, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and went to work for the Dierks Lumber & Coal Co. in 1946. He became the board chairman in 1965.

The Arkansas Historic Preservation Program notes: “Joers was considered one of the state’s most prominent businessmen. In addition to holding a number of high-level positions in family-owned businesses, Joers also served on various boards and commissions including the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas Wood Products Association, Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield and Keep Arkansas Green. He twice was elected president of the Associated  Industries of Arkansas and served on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s natural resources council. In 1970, Joers was appointed by President Nixon to the U.S. Government Procurement Commission.

“Joers consistently worked to improve the community, attempting at one point in the 1970s to attract a branch of the Smithsonian Institution to Hot Springs. He offered to donate 100 acres for the construction of a museum. Joers died March 23, 2006, in Hot Springs, where he is buried. The home remained vacant yet cared for by a full-time staff until it was purchased by Kathleen and Len Pitcock in June 2007.”

Joers purchased the 10 acres where the home sits from Mose Klyman in 1954 at a cost of $10,000. A Dallas builder named Hal Anderson oversaw the $138,000 home project in 1954-55. Joers spared no expense. A pool was added at a cost of $10,522. The family company supplied premium-grade wood for the interior of the home. Texas limestone was brought in by Texas Quarries Inc. of Austin. A company known as Scandinavian Art Metal of California did custom copper work. The Dunbar Furniture Co. of Indiana was hired to provide the dining room table and its matching sideboard.

Another architecturally significant structure in Hot Springs with a connection to the Dierks family is the company’s former headquarters building, which was designed in 1956 by the father-son architectural team of Irvin McDaniel Sr. and Irvin McDaniel Jr.

McDaniel Jr. had dropped out of school when he was a high school senior in 1941 to join the Canadian Air Force. His plane was shot down by the Germans over the North Sea. He floated in a raft for four days before being rescused by a Danish fisherman, who took him to Denmark and turned him over to the Germans. McDaniel was a prisoner of war for more than two years before being part of the great escape from Stalag III. He studied architecture for eight to 14 hours a day in prison because there was nothing else to do. The younger McDaniel later practiced in Hot Springs and died in 1978.

The Dierks family moved the company headquarters from Kansas City to Hot Springs when the building at 810 Whittington Ave. was completed. People’s Ice Manufacturing Co. had been at the site.

A streetcar barn was just to the west of the building. Just past that was Whittington Park, a baseball field that opened in 1894 and was used by many professional baseball teams for spring training. The field also was used for high school football games and other events. It was torn down in 1942.

Weyerhaeuser now uses the Dierks building for offices. The site of the baseball field is a parking lot these days.

Post to Twitter

The beauty of Big Lake

Thursday, January 10th, 2013

The invitation was intriguing.

I was having lunch in Arkadelphia a couple of days before Thanksgiving with banker and philanthropist Ross Whipple, the chairman of Summit Bank.

He began telling me about the Big Lake Hunting Club, formed in 1886 by a group of Little Rock businessmen with prominent last names such as Worthen, Penick and Kavanaugh.

“One of the great things about Big Lake is you can almost see it from downtown Little Rock,” Whipple told me. “I would love for you to come duck hunting with me.”

Having lived in Little Rock since I moved back to my native Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989, how could I have never heard of Big Lake?

It appears I have plenty of company since most other Arkansans have never heard of this natural treasure in southern Pulaski County, which covers almost 1,100 acres. There are areas of open water, but much of the lake is thick with cypress and tupelo.

The Big Lake Hunting Club — also known in various documents through the years as the Big Lake Club, the Big Lake Sportsman’s Club and the Big Lake Sportsmen’s Club — had 41 original members who paid $100 each and then were charged annual dues.

On the walls of the lodge that Whipple built overlooking the lake in 2004 are maps of the club and photos of the individual members from the late 1880s. In those photos, each man holds a shotgun and is accompanied by a dog. They hunted ducks and geese on Big Lake in those days while hunting deer in the woods surrounding the lake.

A wooden clubhouse was built on the spot where Whipple now has his lodge.

They also fished. The shallow lake, which now has maximum depths ranging from six to eight feet, is the home to mostly rough fish. There still are some crappie and bass.

“It was a place for them to get away,” Whipple says of those early Big Lake Hunting Club members.

The club gave free memberships to governors, members of the state’s congressional delegation, judges, legislators, county officials and others. Those memberships proved especially popular during Prohibition. I’ll let you speculate why.

Members could ride the train south from Little Rock and get off the train close to the clubhouse at what was known as Rottaken Station.

In 1943, the club disbanded after 57 years of operation. It seems that someone was putting arsenic in the sugar, and no one could determine the culprit. The members voted to dissolve the partnership.

World War II was in progress. Many males were away at war, and money was tight. There just wasn’t much time or money for hunting, fishing and playing cards in the country.

In 1946, the land was purchased by south Arkansas timber magnate Hugh Ross, who would take the train each Wednesday from Arkadelphia to Little Rock for an evening poker game at the Marion Hotel. That poker game included a number of the state’s top businessmen. Financier W.R. “Witt” Stephens, a Prattsville native, told Ross that there was property in Pulaski County he might want to buy.

Ross made the purchase, though he didn’t use Big Lake as a hunting club.

As an Arkadelphia native, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the Ross and Clark families. J.G. Clark began buying timberland in Clark and surrounding counties in the 1880s. Ross married J.G. Clark’s daughter, Esther.

Jane Ross, the daughter of Hugh and Esther Clark Ross, was born in Arkadelphia in December 1920. She would go on to become one of the state’s best-known philanthropists. Jane Ross graduated from what’s now Henderson State University in 1942 and then worked as a Navy photographer in Washington. She joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and had assignments in Delaware and New Hampshire.

Jane Ross studied color photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology after the war and then came home to open a studio, Photos by Ross.

In a large scrapbook, Whipple has a collection of photos taken by Ross after her father hired a group of men from south Louisiana to use pirogues to harvest cypress trees from Big Lake.

When Hugh Ross died in 1955, Jane Ross gave up her photography studio in order to manage the family timber operations.

Christin Northern picks up the story from there in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Jane Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple. The Ross Foundation, which continues to operate, focuses on education.”

The Ross Foundation manages more than 60,000 acres of timberland with the proceeds from that land going for charitable purposes. The initial endowment consisted of about 18,000 acres that had been part of the J.G. Clark estate. Smaller tracts were added through the years.

In 1993, the Ross Foundation acquired a major tract of land from International Paper Co. in Hot Spring and Garland counties. Following Jane Ross’ death in 1999, the foundation received additional acres from her estate.

The foundation has opened part of its land to the public. For example, much of the land in Clark County is operated in partnership with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Hiking trails are maintained in Hot Spring County.

Ross Whipple has followed in the footsteps of the Ross family, becoming one of Arkansas’ most noted conservationists.

In an interview with the Arkadelphia Regional Economic Development Alliance, Whipple laid out his activities: “I serve as chairman of the Ross Foundation, chairman of the board of Summit Bank and run a timber management company, Horizon Timber Services Inc. I am also the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. This is a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisitions. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you.”

Big Lake isn’t open to the public, but the fact it is owned by Whipple is good news since that means that this natural wonder on Little Rock’s doorstep will remain pristine rather than ever being drained for row-crop agriculture or developed into a housing project.

Whipple established Horizon Bank. After selling it, he founded Summit Bank in 2000. The bank now has more than $1 billion in assets and has moved into the  Benton, Bryant, Conway, Hope, Hot Springs, Little Rock, Magnolia and Malvern markets in addition to Arkadelphia.

Whipple bought Big Lake from Jane Ross in 1996. He now owns almost 5,000 acres in the area. Hugh Ross tore down the original clubhouse in 1951, using part of the cypress timber to build a house on Lake Hamilton at Hot Springs.

When Whipple decided to build his hunting lodge, he determined the best location was the one that had been used by the founders.

If you were to search the corporation records in the Arkansas secretary of state’s office, you would find a nonprofit corporation with the interesting name of Clark’s Squirrel Head Hunting and Fishing Club. The club dates back to 1911, and the orginal bylaws allow 17 members. In its more than a century of existence, the club has included a number of well-known southwest Arkansas business figures. Arkadelphia attorney Ed McCorkle keeps the club’s records, but Whipple now hosts its meetings at Big Lake.

Several years ago, a man named David Gatzke contacted Whipple and said he had a box filled with Big Lake Hunting Club records. A descendent of J.W. Mons — an early officer in the club — knew that Gatzke hunted in the area and gave him the records.

Gatzke learned that Whipple owned Big Lake and turned the records over to him. Those records have since been preserved in scrapbooks and in frames on the walls of Whipple’s lodge, making it as much a museum as it is a hunting club.

A map from the 1880s showed that parts of Big Lake had names — the Frog Hole, the Pike Hole, the Big Opening, Holly Island.

The modern club also has names — the Grinnel Hole, the Round Pond, the Ash Hole, the Island Blind and the Beaver Pond Blind.

Whipple has a bound copy of the orginal articles of incorporation and club rules, done in beautiful calligraphy. Guest charges were $1 a visit for males age 10 and older, $1 a visit for females age 18 and older and 50 cents a visit for females from age 10 to 18. No females were allowed at the club from Sept. 1 until April 1 each year in the late 1800s.

The letterheads are fascinating. A few of the ones I looked at were:

– L. Muller & Co., which sold “liquors, cigars and tobacco.”

– The W.M. Kavanaugh Co. in the Southern Trust Building.

– The Little Rock Cooperage Co. with offices at the corner of Main and Markham in downtown Little Rock and a factory in Argenta. It listed its products as “oak barrels, whisky barrels and white oak staves.”

– Parker & Worthen Bankers, Brokers and General Real Estate Agents.

– Geyer & Adams Co., wholesale grocers and cotton factors.

– The American Delinter Co.

– F.B. Wells, the maker of the “Page” brand of boat oars with offices in Camden and DeValls Bluff.

– Cockrill & Cockrill Lawyers.

– Missouri Pacific Railroad Co.

 – The Little Rock Street Fair and Mardi Gras Celebration.

– Arkansas Rock Asphalt Co.

– Fones Brothers Hardware Co.

– St. Louis Cotton Compress Co. of Pine Bluff.

The club members made a concerted — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt to raise wild rice in the lake to attract more ducks. There are numerous letters to a supplier of seeds in Wisconsin and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning wild rice.

There also are letters to members of the Arkansas congressional delegation and to various federal agencies asking that crappie be stocked in Big Lake.

Many of the letters are signed by Mons, who headed the Little Rock operations of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Co.

Among the most interesting things in Whipple’s collection of papers are the thank-you notes from politicians for their complimentary memberships. The roster represents a who’s who of leading Arkansas politicians from the late 1800s and early 1900s.

There are letters from Joe T. Robinson both when he was a governor (he only served for a short time in early 1913 before resigning on March 10, 1913, to enter the Senate) and when he was a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Jeff Davis both when he was a governor and a U.S. senator.

There are letters from Gov. George Donaghey and Gov. X.O. Pindall (the Arkansas City lawyer who became governor in 1907 after Gov. John S. Little resigned for health reasons).

Carl Bailey, who would serve as governor from 1937-41, was an early member of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

There’s even a letter from the Garland County judge asking that a constituent be allowed to trap on Big Lake (with promises that he would not hunt or fish).

For those who love Arkansas history, what Whipple has is a treasure trove. He’s preserving both the natural beauty of Big Lake and the history of the Big Lake Hunting Club.

Post to Twitter

Deep in the Arkansas piney woods

Friday, June 29th, 2012

In the previous Southern Fried blog post on Crossett, which centered on its history as a center of innovation in the timber industry, we mentioned R.R. Reynolds. He was a remarkable man.

Reynolds was born Dec. 21, 1906, near Howard City, Mich., and graduated from the University of Michigan’s forestry school with a bachelor’s degree in 1929 and a master’s degree in 1930.

In July 1930, Reynolds joined the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station. He spent his first three years with the Forest Service doing case studies for individual companies and completing county economic studies.

The Crossett Experimental Forest opened in 1933, and Reynolds spent the next three decades directing the research center. He was the author or co-author of almost 175 publications.

Reynolds retired from the Forest Service in 1969 but remained active in the industry as a member of the Society of American Foresters and a practicing tree farmer.

The Crossett Lumber Co., which was extremely progressive for its time, had established a relationship with Yale University in 1912. That relationship with the forestry scholars at Yale resulted in improved forestry and manufacturing practices.

Many Yale-trained foresters found their way to south Arkansas and north Louisiana through the years. Their research was augmented by the work done at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, which was seven miles south of Crossett.

Because of the efforts of the Crossett Lumber Co.’s foresters and the U.S. Forest Service researchers, Crossett became a leader in sustained-yield forestry in which trees were treated as a renewable resource.

A.E. Wackerman was the chief forester for the Crossett Lumber Co. from 1927-32 and later was a member of the staff of the Southern Forest Experiment Station. He worked closely with Reynolds in the early years. They made quite a team.

In 1980, the Forest Service published a fascinating paper by Reynolds titled “The Crossett Story: The Beginning of Forestry in Southern Arkansas and Northern Louisiana.”

The paper covers the period from 1930-55. Reynolds described it as an era in which “clear-cutting of virgin pine timber came to a crashing halt because there was no more. It also marked the start of managing the second-growth stands at a time when no one knew how or why they should be managed. These stands, which had grown up in spite of no protection or management, were generally understocked and widely variable in age classes. To confound the problem, it was a universal belief that lumber from second-growth trees was worthless.”

Reynolds noted that once the Crossett Lumber Co. began to manage the second-growth forests, visitors from “around the country and the world came to Crossett to see the far-reaching developments. They learned how they might put the same practices in use on their own areas and forests.”

Large-scale harvesting of the virgin shortleaf and loblolly forests of south Arkansas began in the 1890s. There were no logging trucks in those days, so railroad spurs were built to haul out the massive logs.

“By the middle to late 1920s, the end of the big cut was near at hand, and by 1930 many of the mill owners, who had come south after logging in the Great Lakes states had been completed, started looking at the big, untapped virgin stands of the West as the location for their next operations,” Reynolds wrote. “Many families had moved into the uplands of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana, had homesteaded and had established farms before the coming of the big sawmills. To these farmers, trees were something that had to be disposed of by cutting and burning before the areas were suitable for row crops. Since machinery for such operations was not available in those days, the farmers often welcomed the big sawmillers with open arms.”

Reynolds said that when he moved to Arkansas in 1930, he heard a story about how the Crossett Lumber Co. had set up a land office at Hamburg and offered $2.50 per acre in cash for timberland. Small farmers and timberland owners by the hundreds hurried in to get rid of their extra land before those “damn Yankees ran out” of money.

“As late as 1933, many people thought that timberland (or areas with trees) was wild and undeveloped land,” Reynolds wrote. “It would be of real value only when the trees were cleared and the acres put into pasture or row crops.

“When logging of the virgin timber began on a large scale, no one thought about developing the second-growth stands. Only one kind of lumber was worth anything for construction purposes: slow-growth virgin. Second-growth trees were often rapid growth, and second-growth lumber was supposed to be practically worthless ‘because it would warp or shrink or twist.’ And it supposedly had very little strength. So even though the lumber companies only cut trees that were about 14 inches and larger in stump diameter, they made no attempt to keep the smaller pines and hardwoods from injury. Many of those were cut and used for ballast and rough ties for the spur logging railroads.”

Most of the companies logging in the South in the early 1900s closed their mills once the virgin timber was gone and headed to the West Coast. Reynolds said the decision to manage the second-growth forest was a gradual one for those companies that stayed behind.

“Until about 1930, the Crossett Lumber Co. continued to offer its cutover land for sale to farmers and others,” he wrote. “The company also tried raising cattle on an experimental basis. It was decided that something of better grade than usual ‘range’ cattle should be produced, so the company purchased a high-quality and very expensive bull from Iowa in order to improve the strain. The idea was good, but the bull could not stand the ticks and the heat. The story was told that in hot weather they had to put him into a padded cell in the barn with fans blowing on him from ‘before’ and ‘aft.’”

Things changed when Yale professor Haupt Chapman entered the picture. Chapman headed the annual Yale summer camp for forestry students at Urania, La., which is between Alexandria and Monroe. Chapman became interested in the Crossett Lumber Co.’s second-growth stands.

“With the aid of his students, he inventoried some of these areas and suggested that perhaps the company could make a second cut of logs on some locations once the cutting of the virgin timber had come to an end,” Reynolds wrote. “In any event, he undoubtedly was responsible for creating an interest in timber possibilities in the minds of the owners of the Crossett Lumber Co.”

Reynolds said than when he joined the Southern Forest Experiment Station fresh out of the University of Michigan School of Forestry in July 1930, a number of the large Southern mills already had closed.

“The production of lumber had been largely taken over by small, ‘peckerwood’ mills that could be easily moved from place to place, and logging could be done by two or three pairs of mules or horses,” he wrote. “It was agreed almost universally that the South would soon be out of the large-volume, large-sawmill business, and few had any idea as to what would, or should, happen to the cutovers.”

In certain respects, the south Arkansas piney woods were still a wild place when Reynolds first came there in 1930. Most roads were unpaved. Rural residents lacked electricity and running water.

The oasis of civilization for the region was the Rose Inn at Crossett. Crossett natives still treasure the memory of the Rose Inn, which no longer exists. One of my mentors when I was in college at Ouachita Baptist University was Mac Sisson, a Crossett native. He had a framed print of the Rose Inn behind his desk.

Reynolds lived at the Rose Inn before he and his wife Geneva found a home.

“The Rose Inn was a three-story wooden structure with open walk-up stairways,” he wrote. “It was company owned and provided the only public overnight housing in town. It had a large lobby with a big fireplace and a long row of rocking chairs. Another long row of such chairs adorned the covered front porch. Rooms on the third floor were reserved for unmarried schoolteachers, who were required to live there. Not too much space was required since there was only one white and one black school in town.

“Crossett was very much off the main roads. In those days, the rooms on the second floor usually could take care of visiting lumber company officials, plus two or three of the single men who worked for the company and did not have other housing. It also accommodated an occasional salesman and other visitors.

“The large Rose Inn dining room, always with sparkling white tablecloths on the tables and waiters in white jackets, was famous for its good food. For many years, men had to wear ties and coats before they were admitted to the room. To be reasonably sure that those who came without proper attire could have something to eat, Mr. Boardman, the hotel manager, kept a supply of extra coats and ties on a clothes tree just outside the room.

“Geneva and I were allowed to live and eat at the hotel on a monthly rate that was similar to the one paid by the other regulars — $30 each per month. This included steak every night if one wanted it and always plenty of hot biscuits and many choices of potatoes and vegetables.”

All the houses in Crossett in those days were built, owned and maintained by the company. They were painted the same color. Most of them had outside toilets.

“Because of the low wages paid (by sawmills in general, including Crossett), families kept cows and chickens to help make ends meet,” Reynolds wrote. “There was no such thing as a stock law in those days. So, after milking time in the morning, the cows were turned out of each back yard to hunt for grass and other vegetation to eat during the day. Several people owned horses and pigs, and there were even a few mules. These, along with the cows, roamed at will up and down the streets, including the area that might be considered downtown.”

It was only 80 years ago, but it was a far different time in the deep south Arkansas piney woods.

Post to Twitter

Crossett: A Southern timber capital

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

I had the honor of addressing the Crossett Rotary Club earlier this month after eating one of the best lunches I’ve had this year.

The meeting was held at Country Vittles, which is in a former drugstore downtown. My lunch consisted of perfectly fried chicken, fresh yellow squash, sliced tomatoes that likely were picked that morning and crowder peas.

I’ve long been fascinated by the history of Crossett – a former company town that has been associated with the timber industry since the city’s founding. It was once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

As the forests of the Great Lakes region began to be depleted during the late 1800s and early 1900s, American investors turned to the huge swath of Southern forests that ran from east Texas to the panhandle of Florida.

On May 16, 1899, three businessmen from Davenport, Iowa — Edward Savage Crossett, Charles Gates and John Watzek — formed the Crossett Lumber Co. with land in south Arkansas and north Louisiana. They had purchased 47,000 acres at a price of $7 per acre from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken.

Edward Crossett had been born in February 1828 in West Plattsburgh, N.Y. His father was a veteran of the War of 1812. Crossett worked in a Troy, N.Y., printing office and later as a clerk in a shoe store, earning $2.50 per month along with room and board. With his brother as a partner, he purchased the store in 1848. Two years later, Crossett left the store in the hands of his brother and headed west.

By 1853, Crossett was operating a supply store for lumbermen in Black River Falls, Wis. He also was the town’s postmaster from 1854-56. Crossett purchased timberland along the way, moving from Wisconsin to Davenport in 1875 to join a trading firm known as Renwick Shaw & Crossett.

“In 1882, Crossett made his first investment in yellow pine, which was the predominant softwood species in the Southern forest,” the late Bill Norman wrote for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “In 1886, he sold his interest in the Renwick firm, taking as payment 10,000 acres of Arkansas land covered with yellow pine.

“His friends were confident that he had made a serious mistake in this exchange. Having personally inspected it, Crossett was convinced of the great possibilities in yellow pine, and his judgment was speedily vindicated. Along the way, he became interested in other lumber companies just setting up operations in the same part of Arkansas.”

Crossett, Gates and Watzek held three-fourths of the stock of the Crossett Lumber Co. with the remainder held by top employees. Gates was the president and Crossett was the vice president of the new company. Charles Gates’ brother — Cap Gates — was sent to south Arkansas to supervise the building of mills and the development of a company town, which was named in honor of Edward Crossett.

Crossett died in December 1910 in Davenport. By then, the company had taken off.

Investors spent almost $1 million (a fortune for the time) starting the company — including building railroad connections — before the first commercial timber was sold. Construction of the first pine mill began in 1899, and construction of a second mill began in 1905. By the time both mills were in operation, the Crossett Lumber Co. was producing 84 million board feet annually.

The Crossett Lumber Co. became a leader in Southern forestry, adding paper mills and chemical plants in an effort to ensure there was minimal waste. Money also was spent on research and development projects, unusual in the early 1900s when many companies had a cut-and-run philosophy in the South.

The company built a school and homes, incorporating the city of Crossett in 1903. There was full electric service, something that was rare at the time in south Arkansas. A Methodist church was built in 1904, the city’s newspaper began publishing in 1906 and telephone service was added in 1907.

“The town-company dynamic was the epitome of how these two establishments could work together successfully,” Bernard Reed wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “During the Great Depression, Crossett Lumber Co. remained financially stable, and it supplied the government with lumber during World War II. In the 1940s, Crossett Lumber Co. focused on the expansion of the town, and many of its residents came to own rather than rent their houses.”

As part of its progressive philosophy, the company hired a Yale graduate named W.K. Williams in 1926 to help it begin a program of sustained forestry based on practices in Germany. The company also was helped by a Yale professor named Herman Haupt Chapman.

With the virgin timber running out across south Arkansas and north Louisiana, company officials knew they would either have to change their ways or go out of business.

“This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing, and then leaving the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil,” Reed wrote. “These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. … The Crossett Lumber Co. was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

In 1933, the U.S. Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest, which was among the first experimental tracts in the South. For decades, the forest was the home for scientific research in areas such as wildlife, hydrology, soils and silviculture.

“The scores of studies conducted on the Crossett Experimental Forest have generated hundreds of scientific publications, making the station an internationally known example of high-quality, long-term forestry research,” wrote Don Bragg and James Guldin of the Forest Service.

In July 1930, the Forest Service’s Southern Forest Experiment Station hired a University of Michigan forestry graduate named Russell Reynolds to help Southern landowners develop sustainable forestry plans.

In 1932, Reynolds was assigned to help the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar in Drew County. During that period, he became familiar with the work of the Crossett Lumber Co. At the time, the Crossett Lumber Co. was down to its final 25,000 acres of virgin pine.

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and began to work with a Civilian Conservation Corps crew to help the company inventory and mark its timber. In the fall of 1933, Reynolds joined forces with a forester named Albert Wackerman to find a site on the company’s cutover land that would be suitable for an experimental forest.

The 1,680-acre parcel they found seven miles south of Crossett had been cut prior to 1920. The Crossett Lumber Co. agreed to give the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of timber and the promise that research would be conducted there for the next 50 years. The deed conveying the property to the government was dated Aug. 2, 1934.

By late 1934, the federal government was building a lodge to house the CCC crew along with a filling station and a garage. The Works Progress Administration later built a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family that was completed in July 1936. Reynolds would live in this home for the next 33 years.

Several buildings on the site are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The primary objective of Reynolds and his staff at the Crossett Experimental Forest was to develop silvicultural principles and practices to manage the cutover second-growth loblolly-shortleaf stands typical of the area,” Bragg and Guldin wrote. “The challenge was whether it was possible to rehabilitate existing stands while simultaneously providing landowners with an acceptable return on their investment. If so, Crossett Experimental Forest research had considerable practical application not just for the Crossett Lumber Co. but also for other companies and landowners across the southern United States.”

U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers once declared that “forestry began in Crossett.”

In a very real sense, many of the advancements in modern forestry came as a result of the work done by Crossett Lumber Co. foresters and Forest Service researchers stationed in south Arkansas.

Edward Crossett’s son died in 1955, and some of the heirs became interested in selling their stock in the company. By the late 1950s, there were consistent rumors about a sale or merger.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed interest in purchasing or merging with the Crossett Lumber Co, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed wrote. “Although millions of dollars were spent in the late 1950s to modernize the company and give the impression of vitality, one of its board members, Peter Watzek, a relative of John Watzek, was instructed to conduct reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects.”

Watzek concluded in his report that the company was strong enough to stand alone, but other stockholders remained restless. A sale to Union Bag & Paper that was announced in May 1960 fell through.

On April 18, 1962, it was announced that Georgia-Pacific had reached an agreement to buy the Crossett Lumber Co. It was the end of an era in south Arkansas.

Georgia-Pacific has now been a major part of the state’s corporate landscape for decades. In October 2010, the company announced that it would invest more than $250 million to upgrade one of its existing paper machines in Crossett with advanced technology and install associated equipment. About 1,300 people work at the Crossett paper mill.

Bad news followed in September 2011 when it was announced that Georgia-Pacific would shut down its plywood and stud mills in Crossett as the housing recession continued. The last day at work was Nov. 7 for almost 700 employees.

More than 70 of those employees have since found work at the company’s other divisions in Crossett. The upgrade at the paper mill, which makes bath tissues, continues with more than 350 construction workers involved in the project.

Crossett, founded because of the surrounding pine forests, remains joined at the hip with the forest industry, its ups and its downs.

Post to Twitter

Digging southwest Arkansas

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

The sun is already high in the June sky by the time Paul Austin, the executive director of the Arkansas Humanities Council, and I arrive at Washington in Hempstead County on a Wednesday morning.

In a small field in the middle of one of the state’s most historic communities, tarps help keep the early summer sun off the professional archeologists and the amateurs who are hard at work.

This spot was the merchant center of Washington in the 1830s. It was therefore among the most important places in Arkansas during the final years of the Arkansas Territory and the first years of the state (Arkansas became the nation’s 25th state in 1836).

In those days, what we now think of as the cotton country of the Arkansas Delta was mostly mosquito-infested swamps and impenetrable forests of bottomland hardwoods. The cotton country in those days was farther to the southwest with Camden and Washington as centers of trade.

Paul and I are greeted by Tom Green of Fayetteville, the director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the finest organization of its type in the country.

Too often we fail to recognize the areas in which Arkansas is a national leader. This is certainly one such area. In 1967, the Arkansas Legislature created the Arkansas Archeological Survey, becoming the first state to have a coordinated research and public service organization of this type. The survey is responsible for studying prehistoric and historic archeological sites, managing information about those sites and sharing that information with Arkansans.

A longtime state representative from my mother’s hometown of Des Arc, John Bethel, was interested in archeology. As early as 1959, he sponsored legislation creating an archeological laboratory on the University of Arkansas campus. Bethel also sponsored a 1959 bill protecting archeological sites on state land.

The work of the survey has been complemented through the years by the efforts of the Arkansas Archeological Society, which was formed in 1960.

In 1964, a series of weekend excavations began under the direction of University of Arkansas Museum archeologists and society members. The Arkansas Archeological Survey partnered with the society in 1967 on these events.

By 1972, what had begun as a series of weekend events had expanded into a 16-day training program with excavations at various sites across the state. It’s the oldest and best program of its type in the country.

The archeologists are in Washington for a second consecutive summer, discovering the foundations of buildings that were once on the site and carefully removing everything from nails to pieces of pottery to coins.

Meanwhile, life goes on in this part of southwest Arkansas as a large lumber truck rumbles down the sunken gravel road that once was part of the Southwest Trail.

The Southwest Trail was the network of routes that linked St. Louis with what’s now northeast Texas. The trail entered the state at Hix’s Ferry across the Current River in Randolph County and exited the state southwest of Washington along the Red River.

The first big wave of immigration to Texas occurred in the 1820s. After 1817, an estimated four-fifths of the new arrivals in Texas came via the Southwest Trail. Sam Houston, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie were among those who came through Washington on their way to Texas. Washington was later a mustering point for troops marching south to fight in the Mexican War.

Elijah Stuart had built a log house on the sandy hill that would become Washington as early as 1818. That house served as an inn and tavern. Stuart’s Tavern was designated as the first permanent seat of government for Hempstead County in 1824 because of its location.

“The land around the tavern was then surveyed and laid out in square blocks oriented along the Southwest Trail,” Steven Teske writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “A land auction in 1826 created the structure of the city, and merchants began to conduct business soon thereafter.”

A courthouse (just across the Southwest Trail from the site being excavated this summer) was built in 1836. A Presbyterian church was established in 1836, and a Baptist church was built in 1845.

The Washington Telegraph began publication in 1840 and was the oldest weekly newspaper west of the Mississippi River when it ceased publication in 1946.

“By 1860, Washington had seven dry goods stores, two drugstores, a tailor shop, a watch repairman and other businesses,” Teske writes. “Many wealthy families built mansions, some of which have been restored and are preserved in the contemporary state park. The area also held many slaves, who served as household servants and also worked in the cotton fields surrounding the city. A Methodist church was built in 1861.”

A new courthouse was constructed in 1874, and the businesses at the site being excavated this summer began to move. A major economic blow came in the 1870s when the Cairo & Fulton Railroad bypassed Washington and went through Hope. A depot was built, and Hope was incorporated on April 8, 1875.

Devastating fires struck Washington on July 3, 1875, and Jan. 21, 1883, furthering its demise as a center of business. As early as 1879, people were advocating that the Hempstead County seat be moved to Hope, though the change did not take place until 1939.

“Unethical behavior abounded on both sides, consisting of lies, cheating, mudslinging and election fraud,” writes Bryan McDade. “Finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court intervened and, in a ruling in May 1939, declared that Hope was the county seat.”

The Legislature appropriated $5,000 in 1929 to help restore the 1836 courthouse. The United Daughters of the Confederacy played a key role in pushing for those funds and supplementing them with private contributions.

In 1958, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation was organized to raise money and plan the preservation of Washington’s historic homes and commercial properties. Annual tours of remodeled homes were part of the group’s efforts.

During the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers, when the state parks system was in an expansion mode, the Pioneer Washington Restoration Foundation donated buildings and antiques to the state.

On July 1, 1973, Old Washington Historic State Park opened.

During my years in the Huckabee administration, I regularly was contacted by the noted Arkansas preservationist Parker Westbrook.

“It’s not Old Washington,” Parker would insist. “It’s just Washington.”

Parker got his wish in September 2006 when the state Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission voted to change the name to Historic Washington State Park.

I consider Washington to be among the most important historical and cultural assets in this part of the country. The 101 acres in the park contain 54 buildings, 30 of which are historically significant. Several of the buildings are open for tours.

When my mother was still living at Arkadelphia, we would attend the Jonquil Festival each March at Washington. The jonquils only bloom in late winter and early spring, but the trees are always there — the massive, gnarled trees.

The catalpas. The magnolias. The pecans. The black walnuts.

Trees that were planted in the 1800s for shade and nuts still survive. I can’t imagine that there’s a better collection of catalpa trees anywhere in the country. Just across the street from where the archeological work is taking place is an enormous magnolia that reportedly was planted in 1839. The road is blocked off to traffic at this point with the limbs of the old tree covering half the street.

In 1995, the state created what’s known as the Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program. There are several trees at Washington that made the list – a pecan tree associated with Abraham Block, the first permanent Jewish settler in the state in 1823; a catalpa associated with mail carrier John H. Smith; a black walnut on the grounds of the 1914 public school; and a loblolly pine on the grounds of the 1836 courthouse that was planted in 1976 from seeds taken on the Apollo 14 mission to the moon.

There are eight professional archeologists at work during what Paul and I refer to as the summer dig. The volunteers include everything from a firefighter to a hairdresser. Some of them have been participating in the 16-day summer program since the 1970s, spending the night in tents that are placed in a grove of trees next to the excavation site. They are building on the work done last summer, digging 10 centimeters at a time, bagging artifacts and keeping meticulous records.

Under a pavilion in an area known as the lab, 86-year-old Anna Parks helps bag items. She has participated in the summer excavation since 1976.

The volunteers are particularly anxious to show us the ornate label that came off a bottle of olive oil in the 1800s. American coins minted in 1806 and 1827 have been found. Spanish coins minted in the 1700s also have been discovered.

Jamie Brandon, an archeologist stationed on the campus of Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia, shows us around. We walk through the Pioneer Cemetery, where both black and white residents of Washington were buried beginning in the 1820s. Whites continued to be buried in the cemetery until the 1880s. Blacks continued to be buried there until the 1920s.

The Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, which is in a former elementary school at Washington, has produced a book on the pioneer cemetery titled “Thou Wert Dear To Us” by Mary Kwas and Jami Lockhart of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.

The past envelops us as we walk through Washington. A country lunch of stuffed porked chops, squash and okra awaits at the state park’s Williams’ Tavern, bringing us back to the present.

Post to Twitter

The demise of the longleaf pine

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

House Concurrent Resolution No. 2 during the Arkansas legislative session of 1939 designated the pine tree as our state tree.

A state representative from down in my neck of the woods, Boyd Tackett of Pike County, called timber one of the greatest sources of wealth in our state and “one of the few renewable resources.”

Tackett’s resolution drew no opposition.

Unfortunately, the resolution never specified a particular type of pine as the state tree even though Arkansas’ forests are covered with shortleaf and loblobby pine trees.

“Before European-American in-migration, almost all of Arkansas was forested with notable diversity,” David Ware writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net). “Until the maturation of Arkansas’ rail network in the late 19th century, timber cutting was driven by agricultural concerns or local demands for wood. Rails brought mass access to external markets, and Arkansas timber left the state at a rapid rate.

“By 1930, many former forest sections were effectively logged out. However, war production plus postwar economic and housing booms ensured good markets for pine. Depression-era forest restoration measures, public and private alike, ensured future supplies of salable logs. By 1951, pine growth exceeded annual removals by some 13 percent.”

While Arkansas is known for its shortleaf and loblolly pines, there was a time when the longleaf pine belt dominated much of the South. The longleaf range was from southeastern Virginia to east Texas in a belt running about 150 miles inland from the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

That longleaf belt even widened northward into west-central Georgia and east-central Alabama. I’ve found claims that some longleaf pines once were native to small parts of Arkansas, but they were rare.

Through the years, those longleaf pine stands became almost a thing of the past. In 1995, an organization known as The Longleaf Alliance was formed to foster partnerships between private landowners, the forest industry, federal agencies, conservation groups and researchers.

Based in Andalusia, Ala., the organization has set about restoring the longleaf pine in parts of the South.

“Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden used the phrase ‘be quick but don’t hurry’ to encourage his record-breaking teams to be so good at the basics of basketball that they could set a phenomenal, game-winning pace while avoiding the mistakes inherent in hurrying,” writes Emily Jo Williams, the director of the alliance. “I think this philosophy fits well with our approach at The Longleaf Alliance and in our collective approach to longleaf restoration and management. When you think about an ecosystem reduced from 90 million acres to about 3.5 million acres, a sense of urgency is appropriate. Maybe we should hurry. Then again, let’s think about the challenge that we face.

“Much has changed across the range of longleaf country since the glory days of seemingly endless longleaf forests that afforded a squirrel a hassle-free journey across vast distances without so much as a tiptoe onto terra firma. Towns, cities, interstates, country roads, industrial complexes and other less-than-friendly features now populate places that once nurtured longleaf forests and their inhabitants. People just don’t seem to understand that smoke can actually be a good thing.”

She mentions smoke because it was fire that defined where longleaf pine forests were found. Frequent fires skimmed along the ground’s surface, nurturing the ecosystem. Following the Civil War, the South began changing rapidly. By 1880, virgin longleaf forests had attracted the interest of Northern logging companies. Production of longleaf pine timber peaked in 1909.

By 1938, the Great Southern Lumber Co, the largest sawmill in the world, had run out of longleaf pine trees to cut. The sawmill shut down. The last crop of longleaf pine to be worked for turpentine was in 1994.

“In a little over 150 years, the longleaf pine forest transitioned from a forest that dominated the Southern landscape to one of near anonymity,” the alliance writes at its website (www.longleafalliance.org). “Although remnants of this once great forest abound, they are often only noticeable to the ardent observer.”

In a 1913 article that referred to longleaf pine trees as pitch pine, the American Lumberman stated: “Almost as soon as the beautiful white pine of New England began to be expropriated by the English government for its navy, and immediately following the development of commerce in that wood, pitch pine began to be exported from Savannah, Brunswick and Darien, all in Georgia. The last is a name that would hardly be known as that of an American port but for pitch pine, while Brunswick has its chief fame, and its only fame abroad, because of its exports of pitch pine. But lumber and timbers of size and strength have not been the only products of the longleaf forests. Chiefly from this wood has been developed our century-old business in naval stores.

“It is still, next to the chief species of the Pacific coast, the wood of greatest supply, and its range of growth is greatest, so far as solid bodies of it are concerned, of any wood. Compared to it, the splendid forests of northern white pine were limited in area. But pitch pine was native from southern Virginia south along the Atlantic seaboard and thence westward into Texas. Only one interval of account was found, and that was where the longleaf pine belt was cut across by the Mississippi valley.”

In the spring of 1773, Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram had traveled across the South and described a huge forest of the “most stately pine trees that can be imagined.”

The decline from those 90 million acres to less than 4 million acres is among the most drastic reductions of any major natural ecosystem in the country.

Longleaf pine trees can live for 300 years. But the virgin longleaf pines were cut decades ago, and the removal of the necessary fire that allows longleaf pines to thrive and reproduce also led to the decline of this ecosystem.

“Areas with productive soils were cleared for agriculture,” it’s written at www.landscope.org. “Other areas with sandy, less fertile soils were left in trees and grazed as open range. During most of the 1800s, longleaf pine trees were used for turpentine production. The sides of the trees were scarred with sharp tools so the resin ran into containers, then collected and distilled for a wide variety of uses.

“By the 1880s, railroads had been built into much of the region, and pine trees close to the railroads had been cut for lumber. By 1930, nearly all the longleaf pine trees on the entire coastal plain from Virginia to Texas had been cut. Cutover lands were abandoned as lumber companies moved on to uncut areas.

“When these lands were reforested, usually loblolly pine or slash pine was planted. These trees were much easier to grow commercially and were better suited to the short-rotation pine plantations that supported the growing paper industry in the region.”

Here’s wishing The Longleaf Alliance success in bringing back forests filled with this majestic tree.

Post to Twitter