King Lumber
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By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 9, 1980.
Sources: U. S. Census, Schedule V, 1880, Microfilm Reel #48, Texas State Archives; TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, Vols. IX (1973) and XIII (1977); also "Beaumont's Big Business," Galveston "Daily News," Feb. 15, 1888; W. T. Block, EMERALD OF THE NECHES: THE CHRONICLES OF BEAUMONT, TEXAS (Nederland: 1980), pp. 1-576; also W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas From Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland: Nederland Pblg. Co.., 1976), pp. 50-130; and Chapter III of W. T. Block, Ghost Towns and Mill Towns of East Texas: The Early Sawmills and Shingle Mills of Jefferson County, Texas.

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If Spindletop's geyser of oil fathered the city of Beaumont, then a host of whining circular and gang saws along the banks of the Neches River might rightfully be dubbed the godparents. For most of a century, petroleum-related industries have so dominated the local scene that the heyday of Beaumont's "King Lumber" is all but forgotten. In fact, considering the number of information sources available, no strenuous effort has ever been made to preserve it.

Beaumont's earliest proprietors were well aware of the timber resources which surrounded them, and the economic potential that was offered to both the city and its residents. The original townsite reserved a "steam mill square" on Brake's Bayou between Cypress and Mulberry Streets for the exclusive use of a sawmill.

In 1838, the Congress of the Texas Republic chartered the Neches Steam Milling Company at Beaumont, to Henry Millard, William McFaddin, Christian Hillebrandt, and others. However, the early planning proved futile until 1856. No railroads existed, and low-value, space-consuming lumber shipments were never able to compete with cotton for transportation priorities on the few steamboats during the cotton-shipping seasons.

Sawmill technology was equally primitive, and Beaumont's earliest timber shipments, recorded at the Sabine customhouse in 1839, were either handmade shingles or rough lumber cut in whipsaw pits. The earliest steam saws used in Texas during the 1840s were equally primitive, being upright or sash saws utilizing an up and down stroke. A brief quote from the biography of D. R. Wingate will verify the crudeness of those earliest machines, as follows:

". . .Judge Wingate built a mill at Pearlington (Miss.) in which he put in a sash gang of twenty saws. The saws were driven by an independent upright engine, the carriage fed up with cog gear, or rachet-feed, and had a capacity of 10,000 ft. daily."

By 1846, the circular saw had been introduced to Texas. Page's 48-inch portable circular sawmill, manufactured at Baltimore, had tripled the output of the earliest whip and sash saws for one to 3,000 feet daily, but could handle no logs larger than 16 inches. However, many of the virgin forest monarchs of East Texas measured no less than four or five feet in diameter.

In 1849, three circular saws, with a daily capacity of 10,000 feet, had been installed at the Spartan Mill Company of Sabine Pass. In 1858, this mill was purchased by D. R. Wingate, who increased its capacity to 30,000 feet daily, the largest in Texas (and some believed the largest in the South). A steam sawmill was built at Port Neches in 1856 by Samuel Remley and John T. Johnson. Between 1852 and 1856, the Empire Mills, John Merriman, R. H. Jackson, and Broser, Wood and Company built either steam sash or circular mills in Orange County.

In January, 1856, the townsite's proprietors conveyed the mill square to William Phillips and Loving G. Clark, and by August, Beaumont's first steam mill was sawing timber. William Lewis, an attorney, bought Phillips' business in 1858, and operated it until the Civil War Began. In 1866, Lewis sold out to John F. Pipkin and his son-in-law, Dr. N. G. Haltom. In Sept., 1873, the uninsured Pipkin Mill Company and 150,000 feet of lumber burned, and the owners never did rebuild.

In December, 1856, John Ross and James R. Alexander freighted a circular mill by wagon from the Trinity River at Liberty and erected it on Brake's Bayou adjacent to the 'Woodville Road,' now Pine Street. The sawmill was one of the most modern of its day and included a "self-setter, with which the logs are set to the saw, and which reduces the boards to an exact precision in width and thickness at both ends."

Ross and Alexander exported lumber to Galveston, but by November, 1858, were in dire financial straits. As the court-appointed receiver, Michael Alexander was attempting to pay off their debts when the mill and l60,000 feet of lumber burned in February, 1859. In March, 1860, he sold the 22-acre site and salvaged mill machinery to James M. Long and Frank L. Carroll, but due to the Civil War, the mill was not rebuilt until 1865.

The Ross and Alexander firm was the most important antebellum mill industry, for it provided the nucleus of Long and Company's operations during the heyday of Beaumont lumbering. The four families associated with the mill -- the Fletchers, Keiths, Longs, and Carrolls -- would eventually account for four-fifths of the timber processed in the "sawdust city."

In 1859, Otto Ruff purchased a steam mill in Indiana and shipped it via steamboat and schooner to Beaumont, where he erected it on Brake's Bayou. During the census year ending July 1, 1860, Ruff employed ten men and cut 1,250,000 feet of lumber from 8,000 saw logs. In December, 1860 he sold out to Andrew J. Ward, but the mill remained idle during the Civil War years. In October, 1865, Ward conveyed the mill to E. L. Goldsmith and M. W. Reagan, both of whom died of yellow fever at Houston in 1867.

From 1870 to 1876, the mill was operated intermittently by Harry W. Potter, Mark Wiess, and James Dalton, evolving in 1878 into the Reliance Lumber Company. The 61-year history of the mill begun by Otto Ruff is continuous until 1920, when under John H. Kirby, it was dismantled and moved to another location.

By 1867, seven-foot circular saws, powered by large and efficient steam boilers and large size engines and flywheels, were available at Houston and Galveston, but production did not increase proportionately. A 5,000-foot daily cut was average due to the slow and cumbersome, friction-fed log carriages then in use, which depended upon gravity for feeding the log to the saw.

During the early 1870s, a Beaumonter, Mark Wiess, decided to remove the production bottleneck. Visualizing a carriage activated by steam, Wiess made southern sawmill history when he perfected "shotgun feed," utilizing a steam cylinder device under the carriage track which directly energized the carriage. His innovation doubled sawmill production overnight and soon enabled Beaumont to become a byword among lumbermen throughout the South.

In 1865, Davis Long of DeSoto Parish, La., joined his son, Capt. James Long, in the management of the Long and Co. sawmill. Four of his sons-in-law, William A. Fletcher, John W. Keith, and Frank L. and Joseph A. Carroll, were wed, respectively, to Julian, Haseltine, Sarah, and Martha Long. In time, the family connections formed an interlocking directorate over three of Beaumont's four largest timber-processing firms, as well as owned several mills elsewhere in East Texas and Louisiana.

In 1869, Long and Company employed nine men and manufactured 1,200,000 feet of lumber. After James Long's death in 1873, Fletcher and F. L. Carroll took over the firm's management and converted the mill to shingle-making, eventually producing 175,000 daily. In 1879, the firm employed 60 men and owned the only band saw in Beaumont, three circular saws, four boilers, and three steam engines. In the same year, it cut 24,000,000 cypress shingles worth $50,000.

By 1888, the annual cut of shingles was 36,000,000 a year. Long and Company purchased the first shingle-cutting machine in Southeast Texas. Its daily capacity was 80,000, and it was necessary to import skilled labor from Michigan to operate it. By 1878, Long's "O. K." brand of cypress shingles was the industry standard. By the time that Long Manufacturing Company was dissolved about 1897, the products of its shingle machines exceeded one billion shingles. The first telephone line in Beaumont connected the company office with the office of Beaumont Lumber Company in 1881. W. A. Fletcher as president, John W. Keith as vice-president, and John L. Keith as secretary-treasurer managed the firm for about 25 years.

In the brief span of four years, from 1875, when the Texas and New Orleans Railroad was rebuilt, until 1879, Beaumont and Orange became the hub for timber-processing unparalleled elsewhere in the South. With a combined population of only 4,000, the two communities produced 82,000,000 shingles and 75,000,000 board feet of lumber in 1879, production figures that would be quadrupled during the ensuing 20 years.

In March, 1877, the Long and Company owners, in partnership with John C. Ward, John N. Gilbert, and George W. Carroll, organized the Beaumont Lumber Company and the Beaumont Boom Co. They erected a large sawmill at the Neches River crescent, which is the present dock area. The firm eventually became the domain of the Carroll families.

In 1879, the Beaumont Lumber firm employed 50 men while cutting 10,000,000 feet of lumber and 2,000,000 shingles, worth $78,000. The sawmill was idle for two months each winter, while the millhands doubled as lumberjacks to raft logs down the Neches River. By, 1886, Beaumont Lumber Co. had increased its daily cutting capacity to 50,000 board feet, a figure that would double again by 1900 when the owners sold out to John H. Kirby.

In 1888, the Beaumont mill was cutting 60,000 feet daily, and its planing mill was dressing 50,000 feet daily. In 1887, that firm sold 35,000,000 feet and could easily have sold several million more had the railroad been able to furnish transportation. As a result, the officers chose to build barges and lighter finished lumber to Sabine Pass, where it could be shipped to coastwise and foreign ports. Beaumont Lumber Co. also owned Yellow Bluff Tram Company for hauling logs, several thousand acres of pine trees in Jasper County (where it built the town of Buna as a logging camp for its tram operations), and had a paid up capital of $239,000. And by 1890, the owners owned Nona Lumber Co. sawmill at Odelia, Hardin County, and Nona Lumber Co. of Louisiana, located at Leesville. Decades after the Nona mills had quit cutting lumber, the heirs and stockholders sold their pine lands to the Southland Paper Mills for $5 million about 1962. Under Kirby, the Beaumont Lumber Co. sawmill near the courthouse burned down in 1902 and was never rebuilt.

In 1875, John C. Ward and J. G. and George W. Smyth, Jr., built the Eagle sawmill, Beaumont's first large sawmill, at the intersection of Hickory and Cypress Streets, and organized the Neches River Boom Company. Earlier, the same owners had operated a mill on the Neches at Smith Bluff, north of Nederland. In 1877, the Eagle sawmill was purchased by George W. Smyth and Elias T. Seale, who in 1878, installed new mill machinery with a 40,000 feet daily capacity.

In 1879, Smyth and Seale's Eagle Mill employed 45 men and manufactured $62,500 worth of lumber. Its equipment included a five-gang saw, one circular saw, three boilers and a 130 horsepower steam engine. In 1883, the new owners, Smyth and C. C. Caswell, sold the saw, shingle, and planing mills as well as their interests in the Neches River Boom Company to the Texas Tram and Lumber Company, which soon became one of the "big four" in the history of Beaumont lumbering.

In 1888, the Texas Tram mill was being operated by W. A. Fletcher and John W. Keith, with S. F. Carter as secretary and business manager. The mills had a sawing capacity of 40,000,000 feet annually and a planing capacity of 25,000,000. The company also owned 100,000 acres of pine lands, 21 miles of tram roads, and four locomotives. In 1887 the Tram mill shipped 35,000,000 feet of lumber and could have sold much more had rail cars been available. Their products included railroad and bridge timber, dimension lumber, shingles, fence pickets, and mouldings. For about 20 years, the Texas Tram also operated the Village Mills Company at Village, Hardin County, which was ably managed by J. Frank Keith. In 1900, the owners, principally the Fletcher and Keith families, sold both mills to Kirby Lumber Company, who continued to operate the old Texas Tram mill until 1920, when it was dismantled.

On Sept. 1, 1887, the Texas Tram signed a railroad contract for 15,000,000 feet, and four months later, they had already shipped two-thirds of their contract without withholding lumber from any of their hundreds of retail dealers. For years the Texas Tram and Village companies gave employment in the mills and forests to about 600 men "at fair wages", while their company stores sold about a quarter-million dollars in merchandise.

In 1876, Beaumont's second large sawmill, the Centennial Mill, owned by Sidney C. Olive and J. A. Sternenberg, was built on the "steam mill square." Since the owners also did their own logging, the number of employees varied seasonally between 60 in the mills and 160 in the mills and forests combined. In 1879, the Centennial Mill cut 9 million feet of lumber and made 4,000,000 shingles, valued at $88,000. In 1884, Olive and Sternenberg dismantled their mill and transferred their operations to a new site, the new town of Olive, built 2 miles north of Kountze. Renamed the Sunset Sawmill, Olive and Sternenberg employed 200 men in 1890 in the mills and forests and operated two locomotives and 18 log cars along its seven miles of tram rails. In 1890, the pride of this mill was its 12-piece Olive Brass Band, which furnished instrumental music for many Beaumont dances of that era. The Sunset mill burned in 1904, but Sternenberg used his employees to rebuild the mill: and six months later, it was back in operation. As its timber became totally exhausted in Hardin County, the Sunset sawmill cut its last log about March 25, 1912, after which the mill and town of Olive were dismantled and sold. One of Beaumont's largest firms, the Reliance Lumber Company, was organized in 1878, when the owners purchased the old Wiess and Potter mill, formerly the Otto Ruff mill, on Brake's Bayou and installed the very latest double-circular machinery. By 1884, the sawmill was owned by three brothers, Mark, Valentine, and William Wiess, with William as general manager and Mark as sales manager. In 1879, the Reliance mill employed 60 men and manufactured 9 million feet of lumber and 200,000 wood lathes valued $90,000. By 1890, the firm owned 110,000 acres of East Texas pine land, while another 90,000 was the personal property of William Wiess.

In 1888, the Reliance was a double-rotary mill of 40,000,000 feet annual capacity. Its equipment included a Reynolds-Corliss 250-horsepower steam engine, four boilers, and a flywheel 16 feet in diameter. The planing mill could dress 75,000 feet daily while the dry kiln could season 20,000 feet daily. In conjunction with the mills, the Reliance also operated "a manufactory, where they made large quantities of doors, windows, stair rails, ballasters, handsome office desks, tables, etc." By 1892, they were also making very valuable church pulpits, which were being shipped all over the South. In the same year, the company signed a railroad contract to furnish 100,000,000 feet of rail timbers, the largest ever known in Southeast Texas, and it was expected that the Reliance would have to purchase the entire output of three or four other sawmills in order to fill it. The company also had "boomage" for about 10,000,000 feet of saw logs at one time. They accomplished this by damming one end of Brake's Bayou and digging 1,200 feet of ditch to connect the head of the bayou with the Neches River. This project eliminated three miles of log 'rafting' to the mouth of the bayou. In 1902, the Wiess brothers sold out to Kirby, and the Reliance became Kirby Mill 'A' and the Texas Tram became Kirby Mill 'B.' Both mills were dismantled about 1920. At the time of its sale in 1902, the Reliance Lumber Company was cutting 100,000 feet daily and was maintaining sales offices as far away as London, England. Because of his years of travels all over the world as sales manager, Mark Wiess became known as the "bishop" or "duke of Beaumont" and Beaumont's ambassador to the world.

Between 1885 and 1900 the huge mills of the Reliance Lumber Company, Texas Tram and Lumber Company, Beaumont Lumber Company, and Long Manufacturing Company dominated the local timber scene. During the 1880s-1890s, there were other Beaumont mill operations, which space will now allow any elaboration of, namely, the Adams and Milmo sawmill, Williams Planing Mill, Beaumont Planing Mill Company, and some barrel and cistern factories.

By 1900, other large Beaumont sawmill concerns had been established in or near Beaumont. Frank Keith began the Export Lumber Company as well as the large Keith Liumber Company sawmill at Voth, which he later sold to Kirby. Sam Park started the Industrial Lumber Company. The Miller-Vidor Lumber Company built a large sawmill near the present-day Mobil Refinery. There was also the Turner-Nabors Sawmill Company, and on Pine Street, near Magnolia Cemetery, the Neches Lumber Company sawmill was built on the banks of Brake's Bayou.

As late as 1938, the writer can recall four sawmills that were still in Beaumont, but the old Neches Lumber Co. sawmill had been closed down for several years. On several occasions, the writer as a teenage boy recalls hauling lumber from the other three. Roy Cloud operated the Cloud Lumber Company sawmill at 11th and Hollywood Streets, when both streets were dirt roads. The Southern Land and Lumber sawmill was at the corner of 4th Street and Hollywood, north of the old Pyramid Concrete Company, and the Burris Lumber sawmill was on Crockett, near 4th Street; and each mill utilized one double-cutting band saw.

For some one who has never stood alongside of a shotgun carriage and watched a huge log screech its way through a big band saw in both directions, nor heard the carriage exhaust as it changed direction, believe me, it was a most novel, noisy, and scary experience. But the advent of World War II silenced the screech of the big band saws for all time, and with it, a way of life for many Beaumonters came to an end. In truth, petroleum built Beaumont, of that there can be no denial, but lumber bridged the gap in the city's transition from a rural community to its present urban and city status.

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Copyright 1998-2023 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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