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OPINION | REX NELSON: The woods of Arkansas

by Rex Nelson | October 11, 2020 at 8:51 a.m.

I have fond memories of that cold day in December 2011. John Ed Anthony was about to be inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, and I had been asked to write a magazine story on the south Arkansas timber baron. We were at Anthony’s home at Shortleaf Farm near Hot Springs.

“It was about 25 miles from Camden in the middle of nowhere,” Anthony said as he put another log on the fire. “My grandfather had built a mill right by the railroad. There were a lot of poor people living in those woods. My dad would tell stories of how men would walk up and down the railroad line looking for work.”

Garland Anthony, John Ed’s grandfather, had an idea.

“He would cut the second-growth forests and say, ‘Leave those little trees,’” John Ed said that morning. “In a sense, it was the beginning of modern forestry.”

The man known across south Arkansas as Mr. Garland and his uncle had built a sawmill in 1907. John Ed said Mr. Garland’s uncle threw up his hands one day and said, “Garland, if you’ll pay for this darned thing, you can have it. I’m going back to the farm.”

Garland Anthony persevered in the lumber business, joining forces with three brothers to form Anthony Brothers Lumber Co., which operated into the 1920s. Other partnerships were established throughout the region as the Anthony family acquired cut-over timberland and nursed it back to health. John Ed Anthony’s father, Ted, was Mr. Garland’s oldest son.

By the 1930s, the Anthony family was believed to have one of the largest private lumber operations in the country with between 20 and 30 mills in south Arkansas and east Texas. Mr. Garland knew that the cut-over pine land left by Northern-owned companies would renew itself in 20 to 30 years if properly managed. Those companies had come to the state during the period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut, which lasted from the 1880s through the 1920s.

An unforeseen tragedy in his early 20s would propel John Ed into the family business ahead of schedule. John Ed’s father died at age 48 of a heart attack during John Ed’s senior year at the University of Arkansas. At age 22, John Ed leased a house in Bearden and took his wife and one-month-old son Steven there in order to join forces with 77-year-old Mr. Garland.

The Anthony family became a leader in the techniques of selective harvesting, giving smaller trees time to mature so the forest could be harvested repeatedly over the long term. The big companies that had come to Arkansas and other areas of the South beginning in the 1880s moved here after cutting out virgin forests in the Great Lakes region. After harvesting the virgin pine and hardwood forests of Arkansas, many of those companies moved on to the West Coast.

“After the Civil War, the development of powered machinery allowed individuals to set up small sawmills,” George Balogh writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “But these served only the local communities. The means to get lumber to larger, growing markets in the Northeast and Midwest didn’t exist until railroad builders saw opportunity and began to extend their lines into Arkansas and Texas. Samuel Fordyce, a Civil War veteran from the Union side who spent time after the war recuperating in Hot Springs, built the Cotton Belt railroad from St. Louis to Pine Bluff, Camden and on to Texas.

“Once the mainline was in place, Northern lumber entrepreneurs from Illinois and Iowa—including Moses Franklin Rittenhouse, John William Embree, Frederick E. Weyerhaeuser, Dr. John Wenzel Watzek, Charles Warner Gates and Edward Savage Crossett—began to acquire timberlands, especially in south Arkansas. Watzek, Gates and Crossett founded the Fordyce Lumber Co in 1892 and the Crossett Lumber Co. in 1899. Rittenhouse and Embree established the Arkansas Lumber Co. at Warren in 1901. Weyerhaeuser founded the Southern Lumber Co. in Warren in 1902.”

Railroad feeder lines were built into the forests where sawmills had been set up for the harvest of the virgin pine.

“Over time, additional power equipment—such as tree cutters, road building machinery, haulers and material management tools—supported larger operations,” Balogh writes. “The relationship between railroads and the timber industry was mutually beneficial. The railroads needed crossties and products to carry to market. The timber industry needed transportation and the mechanical skills supplied by railroad men. As the timber industry mechanized, men with metal-working skills in the railroad repair shops in Pine Bluff and Camden found jobs in the large lumber mills.”

A major drawback was the technique known as “cut out and get out” in which these companies entered an area, bought thousands of acres of virgin timber, built sawmills, cut the marketable trees, milled them and moved on. What was left behind was cut-over land prone to erosion.

“The distinguishing characteristics of the ‘cut out and get out’ method were large areas of denuded land and periodic relocation of the production facilities,” Balogh writes. “For towns whose livelihood relied on the timber industry, relocation of production meant the town’s decline and possible death.”

The Anthony family wasn’t alone in noticing that with patience, money could be made off these cut-over lands as the Northern entrepreneurs moved on. Families with names such as Sturgis, Clark and Ross also began to prosper in those pine woods of south Arkansas.

By 1998, a sixth of all manufacturing jobs in Arkansas (43,000) were in forest product harvesting and manufacturing operations. At the time, 2,500 companies in the forests products business supported $1.2 billion in annual payroll The Great Recession and the housing bust that began in 2008 shook the Arkansas timber industry to its core. Thousands of workers across south Arkansas lost their jobs.

The timber industry has always been highly cyclical, but this downturn was a long one Against all odds, timber prices have soared to record highs during this year’s pandemic as people working from home across the country did home improvement projects and built new houses in order to take advantage of low interest rates.

Sky-high prices won’t last, but Arkansas has people in the industry—members of the Anthony family, Ross Whipple, Ray Dillon and others—with a clear vision of where it needs to go. These people have put their money where their mouths are.

John Ed Anthony contributed $7.5 million and Dillon contributed another $1 million for construction of the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation on the UA campus at Fayetteville. Whipple has contributed heavily to establish the Ross and Mary Whipple Family Forest Education Center and Jane Ross Forest Institute at Garvan Woodland Gardens near Hot Springs.

Arkansas is among the top 10 timber states in the country, and some unlikely sources of innovation have stepped up in recent years. These include Walmart and an academician named Peter MacKeith.

Walmart is beginning development of a 350-acre corporate campus at Bentonville, and some of the buildings will be constructed of wood harvested in Arkansas. MacKeith is dean of the UA’s Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design and has become an international leader in advocating for what are known as mass timber buildings.

The first of these big buildings was built in Montana in 2011. More than 500 have since been built, are under construction or are planned. The move toward cross-laminated timber panels could rejuvenate the industry in this state. As goes the timber industry, so goes south Arkansas.

“We have a huge inventory of uncut timber,” John Ed Anthony once told me. “Trees are cutting size, but there has been no demand for them.”

Fortunately for Arkansas, that appears to be changing.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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