Monday, January 19, 2009

Taking the trees

(This picture is of a now defunct steam engine at the Southern Forest Heritage Museum in Alexandria, Louisiana)

I’ve been reading a book called Looking for Longleaf, by Lawrence Earley.

Why write a book about one type of pine tree? Because it used to cover most of the eastern United States, before the lumbermen took them all. And by accident. Early started out researching a book on the history of turpentining. “But I soon realized that this history would be told most effectively in the context of a book on the longleaf pine ecosystem.”

I’m interested because it’s this pine tree that drew the lumber companies to my family’s part of Louisiana, and that actually built DeRidder. DeRidder was almost entirely a company town.

One of my favorite spots in the book is where Earley visits The Southern Forest Heritage Museum near Alexandria, Louisiana, which Paul and I also visited a few years back. The “museum” is a group of buildings on a 56 acre parcel of land that includes the remnants of the Crowell Long Leaf Lumber Company, established in 1892.

What you see when you go there is a nice visitors center, with a lot of information on the trees of the region (which I now wished I’d paid more attention to), along with the skeleton of a steam-powered sawmill (that must be how my great-grandfather got scalded), planer mill, dry kiln, steam skidder, tracks and a steam-powered logging locomotive.

When we went, we took the tour with three REALLY old guys, wearing overalls, who’d made the drive over from Texas. They’d actually worked in the mill as young men, and filled in the tour with their memories of the place. Among the tidbits they contributed: they used to offer to work ten minutes extra for a chunk of ice thrown in the water bucket, and that near the saws, they used to use hand signs to communicate, because the roar of the saw was so deafening.

On Earley’s visit, he interviewed the director of the museum, Don Powell. Here are some of Powell’s comments:

“You know, people don’t understand the South. They think of plantations but less than two percent of the people participated in that. I’m doing some genealogy for my family and everybody—and I mean everybody—was a farmer. They grew cotton but their land got its fertility depleted—there ain’t nothin’ that eat up land like cotton; it sucked the nutrients out of it. Now the sawmill people come in. Some of them are pretty tough business people, but they were willing to risk their capital and that says a lot. ‘I’m willing to put my capital out here, build this mill, and believe that I can hire people and buy enough timber to make it and sell it at a profit.’ And by doing so they provided the means by which southerners had their first real opportunity to participate in the Industrial Revolution. There was no industry down here, a little textile in the Carolinas, and there was a splash of it in Mississippi, but not much. You can’t really say a cotton gin was the Industrial Revolution because it only operates two months out of the year and it didn’t take that many people to do it—ten people could run it easy—wheras it took 250 to run a sawmill and logging operation."

“So here we are in just this area right here, ten mills just a few miles away from each other. That’s 2,500 jobs. The people came from all over, from all these worn-out farms. They were leaving a house where they were feeding the chickens through the cracks in the floor almost, coming to a warmer house, a tighter house, a nicer house, in a community.”

My family didn’t start out as lumbermen. They started out as farmers. But once the lumbermen brought the railroads and the lumber mills to western Louisiana, there was no question what constituted the better career choice.

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