FOURTH IN A SERIES
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.”
Very good article. Surprised that the school system was not mentioned more. I taught at Norman Jr High (named after Bill Norman’s family) and knew Bill and his good wife. After 22 years of teaching in the Crossett District, my wife and I retired to rural Sharp Co where family originated. At one onetime the Crossett School District had the largest group of “adopters” in the world in the Adopt A-School program. Led by the late Barbara Gates as superintendent, one of the few female such leaders in the state at the time, over 200 businesses sponsored one or more local campuses. Former First Lady, Hillary Clinton came to Crossett in recognition of this. The next time you see Bill Wright, tell him “hello, and I want an invitation to the luncheon! He’s a long time friend and family lawyer.