Deep in the Arkansas piney woods

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.

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6 Responses to “Deep in the Arkansas piney woods”

  1. Jim Rule says:

    Rex: Found your Dem/Gaz article and blog above very interesting. Some of it I was aware of from past research and family lore.

    My grandfather, Herbert C. Rule, Sr. and family, accompanied Watsek, Crossett and Gates to S. Arkansas from Iowa in 1899. He served as Secty. Treasurer of the company until his untimely death at age 3? in 1907 from T.B. My dad, H.C. Jr., was born at Wilmar, 1903. My grandmother, Idazora, moved up to L.R. in the early teens with her three young children; lived in the Abeles Apts. Fortunately, she was able to hang on to her Crossett stock, which helped put my uncle and father through Yale (a cousin, Bill, later graduated from Yale Forestry School in the ’50′s.) and kept widow and family going during the depression. In the early 30′s my dad and Uncle John started a furniture store on 7th St. (Manufacture’s) which limped along into the mid 60′s.

    I have a box of letters between grandparents and some photos of early Crossett days. They should go to an archive either in Crossett or at the Butler Center. Would appreciate your suggestions.

    Always enjoy your columns!

  2. rexnelson says:

    Fascinating history, Jim. I do think the Butler Center would love to have those photos and letters.

  3. Ernie Oakleaf says:

    Rex,

    These articles have been superb.

    The managed timber approach was left to Levi R. Wilcoxon, the first Forestry Director of the Crossett Company, to implement.

    He was my grandfather. There is a memorial stand of forest to him which you may have driven by on your way to Crossett dependeing on your route.

    All of the people you mentioned, Wackerman, Reynolds, Gates, Watzek, were familiar in my household growing up.

    The Rule family was also instrumental in the early Crossett development and very much of the Crossett lore.

    I thank you for these articles. Were my mother still alive, she would no doubt find numerous flaws, but that was one of her charms.

    Thanks again for this.

    Ernie

  4. rexnelson says:

    Ernie: I had no idea your grandfather was Levi Wilcoxon. I ran across his name many times in my research.

    He was one of the forestry pioneers.

    I continue to be fascinated by Crossett’s history — Rex

  5. Ernie Oakleaf says:

    Rex, you obviously have spent a lot of time and effort on this research. Is this perhaps part of a larger project? I hope so.

    Ernie

  6. Watty says:

    Rex – Enjoyed your two articles on Crossett. You reference the Rose Inn. My mom lived there on the third floor her first year of teaching in Crossett after graduating from Henderson. I don’t think she was required to live there but found it interesting that she did actually live there on the third floor. She says it was the school year 1957-58 so I guess the tradition of “Rooms on the third floor were reserved for unmarried schoolteachers, who were required to live there” was still true in the late 1950′s. Pretty ironic that our family moved back to Crossett almost twenty years later and I graduated from high school there.

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