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Crossett: A Southern timber capital

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.

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