Archive for February, 2020

From Crossett to El Dorado

Thursday, February 20th, 2020


In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest.

“Large-scale lumbering in Ashley County followed the 1899 incorporation of the Crossett Lumber Co.,” Don Bragg and James Guldin write for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “By 1902, a growing CLC consumed incredible quantities of pine and hardwood. Lumbering continued unabated well into the 1920s when it became obvious that the virgin timber was running out. The CLC was facing the choice of either changing its practices and engaging in sustainable forestry or going out of business. Even with the help of Yale University professor Herman Haupt Chapman and the efforts of company foresters, too little was known about the silviculture of loblolly and shortleaf pine forests to manage the lands effectively.

“To address this lack of information, the CLC began working with the Southern Forest Experiment Station of the Forest Service. In July 1930, the experiment station hired Russell R. Reynolds, a recent University of Michigan forestry graduate, to conduct inventories and help landowners develop sustainable forestry plans. Two years later, Reynolds and the experiment station assisted the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar, and Reynolds became familiar with the CLC. Around this time, Albert E. Wackerman, one of the first CLC foresters, came to work for the experiment station. Both the CLC and the experiment station recognized the opportunity for Reynolds and Wackerman to help manage the CLC’s timberland, including their last 25,000 acres of virgin pine.”

Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and enlisted the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps to inventory and market timber. He began studies on the use of trucks in logging and the partial harvests of Southern pines.

“As valuable as these initial studies were, an experimental forest was also needed for properly controlled long-term research,” Bragg and Guldin write. “In the fall of 1933, Reynolds and Wackerman searched for a suitable location on the CLC’s cutover land. About seven miles south of Crossett, the boundary of the new Crossett Experimental Forest was laid out in October 1933. This 1,680-acre parcel had been cut before 1920 by loggers from the Hickory Grove Camp of the CLC. The CLC agreed to a long-term arrangement with the experiment station that gave the Forest Service the land in exchange for the standing volume of the timber and a promise to conduct research continually on the site for the next 50 years. A warranty deed finally conveyed the property to the government on Aug. 2, 1934.

“Work on the CEF facilities began in late 1933 with help from civilian relief programs. A civilian work project to build roads on the CEF was granted by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration on Dec. 16, 1933, and construction started immediately. By September 1934, workers were building structures to lodge the CCC inventory crew, and sites for a house, filling station and garage were established. Construction of these buildings began in September 1935 under a new relief program, the Works Progress Administration. Along with other buildings, a log cabin-style home for Reynolds and his family was finished enough to permit occupancy on July 9, 1936. This remained their home for the next 33 years.”

The initial round of construction ended in 1936. Buildings were later added by the CCC in 1939-40. Three of them are on the National Register of Historic Places.

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

Arson had become a problem in the area, and fire prevention was an early goal. Reynolds divided the experimental forest into 24 blocks of 40 acres each. Firelines were built between blocks by WPA employees.

Reynolds worked at the experimental forest until 1969.

“Cuts in the Forest Service budget prompted the experiment station to close the CEF on Aug. 9, 1974, after serving Crossett and the nation for 40 years,” Bragg and Guldin write. “Shortly thereafter, it became clear that the CEF would revert back to the original landowner without an active research program. Even though the Forest Service had tried to close the CEF just a few years earlier, the imminent loss of the assets, including the historic buildings and the irreplaceable long-term demonstrations and studies, came to the attention of the Forest Service chief, John McGuire. He decided to re-establish the research unit. The newly rededicated CEF opened with considerable fanfare on Feb. 14, 1979.”

We leave the Forestry Capital of the South and head west on U.S. Highway 82. We soon find ourselves in the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge covers almost 65,000 acres in parts of Ashley, Union and Bradley counties. It was established in 1975 in a wild, remote part of the state where the Saline River meets the Ouachita River. There are oxbow lakes, bayous such as Caney Bayou and creeks such as Big Brushy Creek in the refuge. The Felsenthal Lock & Dam on the Ouachita River forms what’s known as Lake Jack Lee.

The refuge is a prime spot to see migrating waterfowl, eagles and even the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The waterways are filled with alligators. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates a visitors’ center right along U.S. 82.

Five years after Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge was established, the nearby Overflow National Wildlife Refuge was created to protect large tracts of bottomland hardwood in Ashley County. The refuge was designated a Globally Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy. In 1991, about 8,000 acres of farmland were added to the original 6,500 acres and planted in hardwoods. Overflow Creek, a tributary of the Bayou Bartholomew, runs through the wildlife refuge. Land on either side of the creek is covered with bottomland trees — cypress, water tupelo, willow oak and overcup oak.

We cross the Ouachita River as we continue west. This river begins in the Ouachita Mountains near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border not far from Mena and then flows almost 600 miles before joining the Black River in Louisiana. The river flows through 11 of Arkansas’ 75 counties and through five Louisiana parishes.

“The Ouachita is a river of diverse beauty,” Glenn Gore wrote for the Ouachita River Foundation. “It begins as a small mountain stream near Eagleton in Polk County and flows eastward about 120 miles. It winds through lush mountain valleys, steadily building as it flows between huge boulders beneath mountain bluffs. It flows onward on its 600-mile course amid banks of moss-covered oaks and cypress trees in the swampy bottoms of Louisiana.

“The Ouachita is noted for its great fishing, especially bass and bream. Wildlife is prolific along the banks of the river. Deer, turkeys and even an occasional bear can be seen in secluded areas. Alligators and bald eagles have also returned to the area after having been driven out in the early 1900s. The Ouachita is also a major flyway for ducks and geese feeding and resting in the river’s oak-laden backwater flats and cypress swamps, as well as in the rice and soybean fields along its banks.”

Towns like Arkadelphia and Camden owe their existence to the Ouachita River.

“The Ouachita played a great role in the establishment of the towns for it was the river that provided access to these areas for buyers from as far away as New Orleans who were purchasing cotton. … In 1819, the first steamboat came up the Ouachita, making such a strange sound and presenting such a monstrous sight that it was described as a ‘puffing dragon.’ After that frightful debut, steamboats began to play an integral part in the colorful history connected with the Ouachita. From 1819-1910, the Ouachita was the great highway of commerce and transportation for the entire river valley. Steamboats came from as far away as New Orleans, reaching even Camden and Arkadelphia during times of high water. Steamboats began to vanish in the early 1900s with the proliferation of the railroads.”

The famous novelist Charles Portis wrote a piece on the Ouachita River for the September 1991 issue of the Arkansas Times.

In a story titled “The Forgotten River,” Portis wrote: “I grew up in south Arkansas and thought of the Ouachita only in local terms, certainly not as an outlet to the sea. It was a place to swim and fish. I knew you could take a boat down it from the Highway 82 bridge near Crossett to Monroe because I had done it once with a friend, Johnny Titus. It was shady a good bit of the way and we had the river pretty much to ourselves. The keeper at the old Felsenthal lock was annoyed at having to get up from his dinner table to lock through two boys in a small outboard rig.

“But I knew no river lore … and it came as a great surprise to me lately when I learned that there was regular steamboat service on this modest green river, as late as the 1930s, and as far up as Camden. I am not speaking of modern replicas or party barges, rented out for brief excursions, but of genuine working steamboats, with big paddle wheels at the rear, carrying bales of cotton down to New Orleans and bringing bananas and sacks of sugar back upstream, along with paying passengers.

“There were two vessels, the Ouachita and the City of Camden, and they ran on about a two-week cycle — New Orleans-Camden-New Orleans, with stops along the way. The round-trip fare, including a bed and all meals, was $50. Traditional steamboat decorum was imposed, with the men required to wear coats in the dining room. At night, after supper was cleared, the waiters doubled as musicians for a dance.”

We cross the Ouachita on the U.S. 82 bridge and enter Union County, the state’s largest in terms of square miles. Ninety percent of the county is forested. The Arkansas Territorial Legislature formed Union County in November 1829 out of parts of Hempstead and Clark counties.

“The next spring, the county court convened at the former colonial trading post of Encore Fabre (now Camden in Ouachita County) on a bluff overlooking the Ouachita River,” writes noted Arkansas historian Ben Johnson of El Dorado. “In 1837, county officers anticipated that a pending division of the county would slice away the Encore Fabre region and approved the relocation of the county seat farther down the river to another port, Scarborough’s Landing (later renamed Champagnolle). Over the following two decades, three counties and parts of six others were carved from the original Union County.

“Reflecting a changing economy, many residents in 1843 signed a petition requesting that the county seat be moved inland from the river floodplain and closer to major cotton farms. Three commissioners asked Matthew Rainey to surrender 160 acres he had preempted on a ridge that was the county’s highest point, about 12 miles from the river. A surveyor platted the newly christened El Dorado, and officials approved $200 to build a courthouse on the town square.”

With the soil depleted where they lived, settlers from Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi moved into the area during the 1840s to raise cotton. There were 12,288 residents of the county in the 1860 census, and more than half of them were slaves.

“About five percent of the landholders were planters (holding 20 or more slaves), and a third of the county’s slaves labored on these larger farms,” Johnson writes. “Besides raising cotton and corn, Union County was second in the state in the production of peas, beans and sweet potatoes. By 1833, Methodist circuit riders conducted church services in cabins while a Primitive Baptist congregation met in the southeast part of the county. About 1843, immigrants from the Carolinas who clung to their Scottish ancestry organized the first Presbyterian church.”

No battles were fought in Union County during the Civil War.

“White landowners had enjoyed considerable wealth in antebellum Union County,” Johnson writes. “While the war led to widespread devastation, prewar plantation families retained their land and position. Falling cotton prices throughout the late 19th century pushed many farmers into tenancy, but this was less pronounced in Union County than in other old plantation districts. Immigrants in the 1870s spurred a rise in black residents that exceeded the increase in the county’s white population. The newcomers forged new lives in the midst of the faltering cotton economy. Black land ownership at the turn of the century exceeded state averages. In 1870, Rev. Joseph Henry became the first pastor of the El Dorado Baptist Church, which became the largest black congregation in the county.”

The first passenger train arrived in El Dorado from Camden on July 4, 1891.

“The railroads created the local timber industry,” Johnson writes. “In 1892, J.S. Cargile formed a partnership with some El Dorado businessmen to build a sawmill and a town for workers on Loutre Creek. The partners formed the Arkansas Southern rail company to extend the Iron Mountain line from El Dorado to the mill. This transit artery led to the founding of Smackover and Junction City as rail terminals. The Union Saw Mill Co. built a line in 1904 to the new mill site of Huttig, soon the county’s largest sawmill community. This north-south network supplanted the east-west system between the old river landings and the interior region.”

Oil leases were being bought in the county as early as 1914. The first test wells, however, were dry. But then came the 1920 arrival of Dr. Samuel Busey, a medical doctor and shrewd businessman who earlier had invested in oil leases in Bolivia. He arrived in El Dorado and bought not only an interest in an oil well but also a hotel since he was confident of a coming boom.

“On Jan. 10, 1921, his well erupted with a thick column of oil that soiled clothes on wash lines a mile away,” Johnson writes. “The rural market center was unprepared to become a boomtown. Hotels and rooming houses overflowed, and tent-covered cot spaces, restaurants and shops went up along South Washington Street. A newspaper reporter noted that a person walking along what became known as Hamburger Row could ‘purchase almost anything from a pair of shoes to an auto, an interest in a drilling tract or have your fortune told.’

“Smackover became the second oil boomtown when a discovery oil well confirmed in July 1922 what an earlier gas explosion at a well site had indicated: The Smackover field held tremendous reserves of crude. By 1925, nearly 3,500 wells were pumping 69 million barrels of oil, the greatest rate in the world. The influx of wildcatters and oil field workers overwhelmed local authorities.”

Johnson notes that the drillers didn’t worry about the environment. They also ignored basic recovery practices, leading to a drop in production by the early 1930s.

“The oil booms introduced a new industrial elite into a state where the alluvial cotton-growing region had been the traditional source of wealth,” he writes. “For the rest of the 20th century, Union County was at the top of per capita income for the state. The county also was among the first to suffer from industrial pollution. The saltwater that surfaced with oil was released to turn surrounding creeks into undrinkable bogs and forests into a scorched landscape.”

A visitor who arrived in Union County by train in 1937 said: “I wondered what I had come to. It looked like a moonscape.”

El Dorado had about 4,000 residents when the oil boom began. By 1923, there were 59 oil contracting companies, 13 oil distributors and refiners and another 22 oil production companies in the city. Some estimated that the city had 30,000 people by 1925. The population had dropped to 16,241 by the 1930 census.

A rebound occurred in 1937 when Lion Oil financed discovery wells in the Shuler Field. Col T.H. Barton had acquired Lion Oil and become one of the state’s top business leaders. He sold his company to the Monsanto Corp. in 1955. One company that didn’t sell was Murphy Oil Corp., which is still controlled by the Murphy family.

“With the onset of World War II, Union County’s industrial base attracted the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Johnson writes. “Entering a unique partnership with Lion Oil, the Corps supplied $28 million for construction of the Ozark Ordnance Plant to produce ammonium nitrate. The private company oversaw the operation of the plant and acquired it for a fraction of the construction costs at the end of the war. In 1983, the enterprise became El Dorado Chemical, which continued to make explosives as well as fertilizer.

“World War II encouraged dramatic growth in manufacturing, and state lawmakers authorized local communities to provide financial incentives to attract industry. Union County established one of the first industrial development organizations, enticing Jess Merkle to build a large-scale poultry processing plant that became the largest employer in El Dorado. Beginning in 1965, Great Lakes Corp. processed the underground brine into a variety of brominated products, including flame retardants.”

El Dorado’s population has since dropped from a high of 25,292 in the 1960 census to about 18,000 today. The Union County population hit a peak of 55,800 in the 1930 census and is less than 40,000 these days.

El Dorado once was known as the Queen City of South Arkansas. It later became known as Arkansas’ Original Boomtown and is now known for the Murphy Arts District (MAD for short) as the Murphy family spends more than $100 million to make the city a cultural attraction. The plan is not only to attract visitors but to make it easier for companies like Murphy Oil and Murphy USA to attract talented young employees to live in El Dorado.

From Lake Village to Crossett

Friday, February 14th, 2020


We head west out of Lake Village on U.S. Highway 82 and cross the Boeuf River, which is little more than a drainage ditch in this part of southeast Arkansas. The river, located between Macon Bayou and Bayou Bartholomew, begins in this part of the state and flows for almost 220 miles before entering the Ouachita River in Catahoula Parish in Louisiana.

We’re still in the Delta as we cross into Ashley County and find ourselves at Montrose, which had a population of 354 people in the 2010 census. This was once cotton country. Now cotton must share space on the area’s massive farming operations with rice, soybeans, corn and winter wheat.

“Although western Ashley County is noted for the timber industry, which is centered in Crossett, the eastern part of the county belongs to the Mississippi River Delta region, which was home to numerous cotton plantations before and after the Civil War,” Steven Teske writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Dugald McMillan was the first landowner who registered a patent for the land where Montrose now stands. His plantation, like others in the region, employed a large number of slaves, many of whom remained after the war, working as tenant farmers for the same landowners. Consequently, African-Americans have outnumbered whites in the area from the time slavery ended until now.”

W.T. Cone, a merchant from Hamburg, began acquiring land in the area early in the 20th century along with Sam Wilson.

“In 1922, with the national decline in cotton prices, Cone sold his land to Wilson and left the area,” Teske writes. “Cotton remained the main crop through the 20th century. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Iron Mountain Railroad built a line in the Mississippi River Valley that extended into Louisiana. It established depots at regular intervals where train engineers could obtain additional fuel and water. Many of these depots were named for railroad executives and employees. This is probably the case for Montrose, although no record of the namesake has been preserved.

“A post office was established at the Montrose stop in 1898. The Montrose depot became more significant when a team of investors created a short-line railroad — called the Mississippi River, Hamburg & Western Railway — to connect the Crossett area to Luna Landing on the Mississippi River. This line intersected the Iron Mountain line at the Montrose depot. Homes and businesses were quickly built around the depot, and Montrose incorporated as a second-class city in 1904.”

Montrose has been losing population since the 1980 census, when there were 641 residents. All schools in this part of the county are now part of the Hamburg School District.

Ashley County was carved out of parts of Union, Drew and Chicot counties in November 1848. It became the state’s 53rd county and was named for Chester Ashley, the third Arkansan in the U.S. Senate. In addition to Montrose, the communities of Parkdale, Portland and Wilmot also thrived in this part of the county when cotton was king and the bottomland hardwoods were being cut.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas: “After the Civil War, the county enjoyed prosperity until the Great Depression. The railroads that had developed in the late 1890s helped support the economy but were later supplanted by the growth in highway transportation. Communities in the eastern part of the county were supported by farming, while Crossett continued its growth as a manufacturing center. Ashley County was within the flood zone of the Great Flood of 1927. The greatest effect of the flood was felt in the low-lying Delta region of the county, while the upland wood-product manufacturing area experienced only minor disruptions of activity.

“Ashley County was home to an important federal experiment in the public health sector during this era. In 1916, a mosquito-eradication project was funded, which reduced the incidence of malaria by almost 80 percent using a system of drainage and poisoning. This system became known as the Crossett Project and was used as an example in other parts of the country. The county’s population began to decline after World War II as agricultural workers were replaced by machines and other workers left for better-paying jobs.”

Leaving Montrose, we soon cross Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the country. It begins near Pine Bluff and then goes through Jefferson, Lincoln, Desha, Drew, Chicot and Ashley counties before entering Louisiana and flowing through Morehouse Parish. Like the Boeuf River, Bartholomew empties into the Ouachita River. Before the railroads came to this part of Arkansas, Bayou Bartholomew was the main transportation corridor.

“The present bayou bed was formed by the waters of the Arkansas River during a period when it was constantly changing course,” writes Rebecca DeArmond-Huskey, the foremost expert on the bayou’s history. “About 1,800 to 2,200 years ago, the river diverted from the present area of the bayou, and the leisurely bayou began to develop in the old riverbed. The first inhabitants along the bayou were Native Americans, who left artifacts along the banks from its source to its mouth. French explorers crossed the bayou in 1687. Henri Joutel, a member of the ill-fated La Salle expedition, left Texas that year in search once again of the Mississippi River. Among the six men he chose to go with him was ‘Little Bartholomew, the Parisian.’

“His party crossed the Saline River and the bayou and eventually found Arkansas Post, where Bartholomew stayed. It is likely that the bayou was named after this young Parisian. Spanish colonists also took note of the bayou. Don Juan Filhiol, commandant of the District of Ouachita in the 1780s, was impressed with its navigation potential as well as the good agricultural land around it. The colonists used the bayou for transportation as there were no good roads in the area. They used flat-bottom barges, propelled by poling, rowing, cordelling (towing with ropes) or by sails if the wind was favorable.”

By the 1830s, there were steamboats on the bayou hauling out cotton and timber.

“All such commerce halted when the Civil War began but resumed soon after it was over,” DeArmond-Huskey writes. “With the advent of the railroad in 1890, steamboat activity began a slow decline, though it continued in Ashley County until some point between 1906-12. Major ports along the bayou in Morehouse Parish were at Point Pleasant and at Lind Grove near Bonita. In southeast Arkansas, the major ports were at Poplar Bluff (present-day Parkdale in Ashley County), Portland, Thebes, Boydell and Baxter. All steamboating was a treacherous business, but according to Ben Lucien Burman, who boated on both large rivers and bayous, ‘bayou steamboating was steamboating at its worst.’ The bayou was much more narrow and shallow than the river, and pilots had to avoid sharp bends, shoals, snags and overhanging trees.

“Although steamboat trade was put on hold during the Civil War, the bayou remained for the duration of the war a significant transportation route for steamboats carrying troops and supplies. … After the war, cotton was the primary export shipped down the bayou until the railroad prompted the development of an extensive timber industry, backed primarily by Northern capitalists. Although locals had used the bayou for log rafting since the 1830s, shipment by rail was much more expedient. The timber companies devastated the fine timber stands and then moved out. Farmers followed by clearing the cutover timberland for farms, which today remain the dominant enterprise along the bayou.”

Area residents had once used the bayou as their major recreation site. They drank water from it, fished in it, swam in it and were baptized in it. With the clearing of the timber, sediment polluted the stream, and it became jammed with logs.

Curtis Merrell of Monticello organized the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance in 1995 to bring the stream back to life. The group began monitoring water quality, planting trees along the bayou’s banks, picking up trash and removing logs and other obstructions.

Before reaching Hamburg on our trip west, we leave the Delta and enter the Gulf Coastal Plain. They grow pine trees here rather than cotton, soybeans, rice, corn and wheat.

Hamburg was laid out in October 1849, soon after Ashley County was formed. The first courthouse and county jail were built in 1850 in an area at the center of the county that once had been known as the Great Wilderness. Hamburg provided troops to the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the war, there were highly publicized lynchings there in 1877, 1884 and 1891.

“Because it’s near the county’s geographic center, Hamburg in some ways is pulled in two economic directions,” David Moyers writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Immediately east and west are prairie regions dedicated to the rice and soybean culture. A dozen miles east of Hamburg is the Delta, where cotton and soybeans dominate the economy. To the north and the south, the timber culture reigns. Many people in Hamburg work at the Georgia-Pacific mills in Crossett or in supporting industries. The city’s economic base is thus divided among agriculture and forestry.

“Agriculture continued as the dominant force of the economy through the early 1900s, though lumber production became increasingly important in later years. After the Great Depression, the city underwent major social and economic shifts. Many small farmers gave up their attempts to subsist on their land and left the region or went to work in sawmills or paper mills. After World War II, continued pressures on small farmers led to increased consolidations of agricultural enterprises with the small family farms replaced by larger, more efficient units.”

As the Delta declined and stores there closed, more residents from the eastern part of the county began coming to Hamburg to shop. The Hamburg School District increased in size as it consolidated with districts at Portland, Parkdale, Wilmot and Fountain Hill. Still, Hamburg’s population fell from 3,394 in the 1980 census to 2,857 in the 2010 census. It’s now estimated at less than 2,700.

“In the 21st century, the downtown square remains surrounded by retail businesses and professional offices, though the courthouse that occupied the center of town for more than a century is now a block away,” Moyers writes. “A gazebo is now in the center of the square.”

We leave Hamburg and head southwest to Crossett, the place once known as the Forestry Capital of the South.

The town was founded in the 1890s by three investors from Davenport, Iowa — Charles Warner Gates, John Wenzel Watzek and Edward Savage Crossett.

“In the last quarter of the 19th century, the demand for wood fiber for a growing country led lumbermen, investors and speculators into the vast forest that stretches from east Texas across the lower Mississippi River Valley to the Florida panhandle,” wrote the late Bill Norman of Crossett. “Demand having outstripped the forest resources of the Great Lakes region, other sources for timber were sought. One result of the interest in the forestland of the South was the founding of Crossett.

“The land in western Ashley County was of the upland forest variety and was largely undeveloped and sparsely settled in this era as the terrain was unsuitable for farming. Towns that were formed, such as Fountain Hill, had populations of less than 500. As an established community with rail service, Hamburg would seem to have been the logical site for a new sawmill. However, company officials eventually decided that the better course would be to establish a new town, and Crossett was born. The site chosen was about 15 miles west of Hamburg. Of the three investors, Crossett and Gates were veteran lumbermen. Watzek was Edward Crossett’s physician. Also considered a founder was Edgar Woodward ‘Cap’ Gates, Charles’ brother. Cap Gates was sent to Arkansas to acquire timberland and to oversee construction of the sawmill and the building of the town.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1899. Officials of the company formed close relationships with those at Yale University’s School of Forestry. This resulted in the end of the cut-and-leave practice of clearing forests in Arkansas. The Crossett Co. soon was hiring Yale-trained foresters.

“Yale’s initial research was later augmented by the studies at the 1,680-acre Crossett Experimental Forest, headquartered about seven miles south of town,” Norman wrote. “Established in 1934 and still in operation today, the U.S. Forest Service’s research program at Crossett focuses on the silviculture of naturally regenerated loblolly and shortleaf pine forests. Several of the buildings on the Crossett Experimental Forest are on the National Register of Historic Places.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. owned all the land and homes in town in the early 1900s. Those not wanting to live in company housing settled in communities known as North Crossett, South Crossett and West Crossett.

“The Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II came and went with little visible effect on the city,” Norman wrote. “Demand for its products grew steadily, and unemployment was low. … The founders insisted on having a first-class school system. Seeing the advantages of the city schools in the 1940s, many rural one-room schools voluntarily consolidated into the city’s school system, and an extensive busing operation developed. The Crossett School District was one of the smallest school districts included when it was accredited in the 1940s by the prestigious North Central Association.

“Crossett became a diversified forest products manufacturing center with the construction of a paper mill in the mid-1930s. A division producing and marketing specialty chemicals and charcoal followed. By 2006, employment in all paper operations was about 1,500 with an annual payroll of $160 million. Following a divisive labor strike in 1940, the workers in Crossett’s manufacturing plants were granted the right to establish trade unions.”

The Crossett Lumber Co. was purchased in 1962 by the Georgia-Pacific Corp. The company began producing plywood from Southern yellow pine at Crossett along with the chemical plant and the pulp and paper production facility.

Crossett has been hit hard in recent years by large layoffs. In September 2011, Georgia-Pacific announced that it was suspending operations at a sawmill and plywood manufacturing facility and laid off 700 people. In June 2019, Georgia-Pacific announced it was closing its bleached board mill and laying off another 530 people.

Despite all of the lost jobs, Georgia-Pacific remains a major employer in this part of south Arkansas. And the history of the Crossett Lumber Co., the Crossett Experimental Forest and their ties to Yale are fascinating.

When the company was founded, the three founders purchased 47,000 acres of land from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken for $7 per acre.

“At first, the company expanded slowly as new railroad connections were being built, and no commercial timber was sold until 1902, by which time investors had spent $1 million starting the company,” Bernard Reed writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “Its first pine mill, built in May 1899, was an enormous operation with two band mills, dry kilns, a planer mill and other equipment to smooth and then distribute the lumber. In 1905, a second pine mill similar to the first was built, and the company was soon producing 84 million board feet annually.

“CLC continued to develop products that allowed company growth and added a paper mill, silo and chemical companies. These endeavors not only helped to eliminate waste but also allowed CLC to invest more in research and development programs to maintain the affordability of its products. These expansions spurred new railroad connections with the Crossett Railway Co., a non-company railroad, connecting Crossett and the settlement of Stephens (now Milo in Ashley County) 10 miles north. The company built houses, a school and a church for the workers and their families. In 1903, all of this was incorporated as the company town of Crossett.”

Electric service soon became available, and the first church opened in 1904. A newspaper began publishing in 1906. Telephone service was added in 1907.

The company remained stable during the Great Depression and provided the government with large amounts of lumber during World War II.

“The standard logging procedure was a cut-and-get-out strategy that resulted in many acres of useless land,” Reed writes. “However, because this cutover land was perfect for growing pine, CLC in 1926 hired a graduate of Yale’s School of Forestry, W.K. Williams. He helped the company begin a program of sustained yield. This involved ceasing the practice of cutting down trees as fast as they were growing. He then left the healthiest trees in an area to repopulate the soil. These techniques kept the forests alive rather than destroying them. Such procedures were progressive at the time in American forestry and had previously only been used in Germany. Soon, a federal forest research station was founded, and CLC was tackling and solving problems in the 1930s that would not be regarded as environmental issues until the 1970s.”

Edward S. Crossett’s son, Edward C. Crossett, died in 1955. Family heirs began to consider the option of selling their stock.

“Many larger Northern lumber companies had expressed an interest in purchasing or merging with CLC, and stockholders were becoming worried about the company’s stability,” Reed writes. “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 prepare reports on companies with which a merger was possible. He also traveled to New York to meet with several merger prospects. Despite Watzek’s report that CLC was strong enough that a merger was not necessary, stockholders were still not satisfied.

“The announcement of a sale to Union Bag & Paper was made in May 1960, but by the fall of that year the plan had fallen through. For two years, business went on as usual at CLC with a rise in earnings in 1961. But a sale was still pursued.”

The announcement that Georgia-Pacific had purchased the company was made on April 18, 1962.

There have been two major strikes through the years.

“The first one, in 1940, came several years after the company decided to recognize a local union but refused to let it open a union shop,” Reed writes. “Workers commenced a 58-day strike that brought the community’s economy to a near standstill until a compromise was reached with the help of a young pastor named Aubrey C. Halsell.

“The second strike occurred in 1985 during negotiations for a new contract that would force workers to work outside of their traditional job classifications. Workers disapproved of the changes, their pay and the work expectations. When they went on strike, Georgia-Pacific ordered that permanent replacements be sent in. This was the first time that permanent replacements had ever been used in the paper industry. Although it effectively ended the strike, it left many of the union workers bitter. The town was, and in many ways still is, divided because of these issues.”