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OPINION | REX NELSON: The timber entrepreneurs

by Rex Nelson | December 26, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.


As goes the timber industry, so goes south Arkansas.

Never has that been more true than it is these days with 1.6 million more acres in Arkansas forestland than was the case as recently as 1978. Most of that growth in forested acres has come in the south half of the state.

With the exception of prairies here and there, Arkansas was once fully forested. The harvest of those trees helped define our state's history and shape its economy in the decades after the Civil War.

In 1995, George Balogh's book "Entrepreneurs in the Lumber Industry: Arkansas 1881-1963" was released. It told the story of the men who changed the look of this state.

"The timber industry in Arkansas developed in all directions after the Civil War," Balogh wrote in a later history of the industry for the Central Arkansas Library System. "The abundant forests made it possible to produce lumber, kraft paper, fine paper, newsprint, chemicals, charcoal and other products.

"From Little Rock to the north, west and south are forests and marketable timber. To the east is the Delta, where hardwood grows in swamps and river bottoms. The Ozark Mountains in the north are home to a mix of slow-growing pine and hardwood. The Ouachita Mountains to the west abound in pine on the slopes and hardwood in the valleys. The rolling hills to the south contain more pine trees. The pines grow more quickly in the sandy soils and warm climate of south Arkansas than in the Ouachitas or Ozarks."

Prior to the Civil War, Balogh noted, forests were viewed as obstacles to travel and settlement. Trees were meant to be cleared and burned so farming could take place.

"After the Civil War, the development of powered machinery allowed people to set up sawmills," he wrote. "These served only local communities. The means to get lumber to growing markets in the Northeast and Midwest didn't exist until railroad builders saw opportunity and began to extend lines into Arkansas and Texas.

"Samuel Fordyce, a Civil War veteran from the Union side who spent time recuperating after the war 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, John Wenzel Watzek, Charles Warner Gates and Edward Savage Crossett--began to acquire timberlands, especially in south Arkansas."

Watzek, Crossett and Gates began Fordyce Lumber Co. in 1892 and Crossett Lumber Co. in 1899.

Embree and Rittenhouse established Arkansas Lumber Co. at Warren in 1901. A year later, Weyerhaeuser founded Southern Lumber Co. at Warren.

"Entrepreneurs hired men, created feeder lines in forests, built large sawmills and began to harvest virgin pine," Balogh wrote. "Over time, additional power equipment--such as tree cutters, road building machinery, haulers and material management tools--supported larger operations.

"The relationship between railroads and the timber industry was mutually beneficial. Railroads needed crossties and products to carry to market. The timber industry needed transportation and mechanical skills supplied by railroad men. As the timber industry mechanized, men with metal-working skills in railroad repair shops at Pine Bluff and Camden found jobs in lumber mills."

The 1880s through the 1920s were a period of Arkansas history known as the Big Cut. Lumber companies cleared virgin forests statewide. Towns such as Pine Bluff, Camden, Fordyce, Warren and Crossett--all of which are losing population these days--prospered.

"Prosperity had drawbacks," Balogh wrote. "Timber-cutting operations, even large ones, practiced a technique known as cut out and get out until the 1920s. With this method, a company would enter an area, buy one or more parcels of virgin timber, build a sawmill and production facilities, cut all marketable trees out of each parcel, mill them and move on to another parcel.

"The chief difference between a large operation and a small one was that the small operation bought smaller areas of land and produced less lumber, using a more modest production plant. The big operation bought much greater areas of land, built large sawmills and left them in place as they shipped raw logs over rail lines that they built.

"The distinguishing characteristics of the cut out and get out method were areas of denuded land and periodic relocation of production facilities. For towns whose livelihood relied on the timber industry, relocation of production meant the town's decline and possible death."

By the 1920s, things began to change as some in the industry questioned the cut out and get out method. One such visionary was Leslie Pomeroy, a Wisconsin native who came to Arkansas in 1925.

"Although Sierra Club founder John Muir championed forest conservation by setting aside land, it was Pomeroy who devised a conservation plan for growing and harvesting timber that both conserved it and turned it into a renewable resource," Marcia Camp wrote for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "His science-based management plans regenerated timberlands across the South after the cut out and get out practices decimated its forests. Pomeroy's groundbreaking work carried out in Arkansas ultimately affected forestry in the South and across America."

Pomeroy enrolled at the University of Wisconsin in 1915 to study civil engineering. He quit school during his third year to enlist in the armed services as the United States became involved in World War I. He was rejected because of physical issues and returned to the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., where he had been working part time. He never finished his degree.

"When the war ended in late 1918, Pomeroy conceived the idea of making a trip around the world to study forestry and related matters," Camp wrote. "On Oct. 24, 1919, Pomeroy and Eugene Connor sailed on the Monteagle from Vancouver, bound for Japan. With five letters of introduction, they found work doing dry kiln consulting. They worked as seamen on a voyage that took them to the Philippines, Japan, China, Egypt, India, Siberia and Italy, then across Europe to do forestry research in France and England.

"When they returned, Pomeroy and Connor were offered jobs in October 1920 by Edward Young, president of three Southern lumber mills They were sent to learn to cruise timber (a term for measuring standing timber), stack lumber and other tasks pertaining to the manufacture of lumber. . . . After two years of intensive training, Pomeroy and Connor returned to Madison, where they worked in sales and administration."

Pomeroy met Herman Kessler, owner of wagon wheel hub maker Stoughton Wagon Co. Kessler offered to sell an Arkansas sawmill he owned at Wilmar in Drew County.

"In 1925, Pomeroy and Connor moved to Arkansas and became owners of an abandoned sawmill in a ghost town with neither electricity nor running water," Camp wrote. "They started Ozark Badger Lumber Co., which included 160 acres of cut-over timberland. Lumber companies had clear-cut the land and hauled timber out by railroad before moving away. Remaining sawmills had only a scant amount of timber left to cut.

"By selectively marking a few trees per acre to be cut, the land became productive enough to allow timber cutting while the forest regenerated. Pomeroy had become the father of sustained yield. He was also the first to begin timber management by surveying land into 40-acre parcels. He was the first to cruise and establish the number of board feet per acre, then formulate a plan to be carried out on five-year rotations."

In 1931, Yale University forestry students began coming to Arkansas each year to study Pomeroy's methods. In 1934, Syracuse University also began sending forestry students south to Arkansas. A new day had arrived in Southern forests.


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


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