[p. 132]

Lumber, The City's First Stepping Stone

THE lumber industry of Beaumont might be said to have begun with the first tree felled by Noah Tevis when he settled on the banks of the Neches to carve out his own fortune and blaze the way for civilization. When the ax fell on the first tree to build the first log cabin, there resounded through the still forests a noise that was to echo back a half century later by the hum of hundreds of saw-mills, the whis of as many planers and the puffing of locomotives as they drew the manufactured products to many parts of the United States or to the wharves to be exported to the four corners of the globe.

The early settler had to have wood and water – and it was here in abundance, the forests offering pine, cypress and more than fifty varieties of hard wood. There had to be something near at hand out of which a place of habitation could be built, for there were no lumber yards upon which to draw for supplies.

When the walls of the first cabin were finished, the froe was brought into play to split boards used as a substitute for shingles, doors and window shutters. This was the first real manufactured product turned out of the forests in the Beaumont district.

Notwithstanding the large amount of virgin pine timber in this section, shingle-making received first attention, and was a growing industry. Shingles were made by hand, the operation consisting of splitting the blocks sawn to the proper length with a froe and then dressing them down with a drawing-knife. They were shipped mainly by schooner to Galveston and Sabine Pass, the latter being an important port at the time.

The real manufacture of lumber began in the crudest way. A pit was dug deep enough to accommodate a man underneath the log and another on top. A crosscut saw was pulled through the log lengthwise, turning out boards in that manner. This "plant" was located on the Neches river in the vicinity of where the O'Brien home now stands. Authentic dates and names of the men engaged in the task are lacking.

Shingle-making, however, was flourishing by this time and almost every man who had money enough to rig up a windlass to draw logs out of the river went into the business. Boys made their money in those days by bunching shingles instead of selling newspapers as they do today. Logs were secured by dragging them to the Neches river with oxen and floating them down to the plant. The early ox cart was a two-wheel affair with a windlass for clearing one end of the log in order that it might be dragged. Oxen were used exclusively in the woods until 1885.

The next step was the "muly" mill, which consisted of a power arrangement to pull a saw similar to the crosscut of today. Then came the sash-saw, which was rigged up from either end, cutting lumber much in the fashion as is done at the present time, although it operated up and down instead of being a continuous motion, as is the case with the modern band mill. When the first whipsaw mill built in Beaumont reached a capacity of 1000 feet a day it was classed as the greatest mill in the state. This is quite a contrast to some of the present-day mills, which cut up to a quarter million feet a day.

In 1859 Ross and Alexander put up the first circular mill here, with a capacity of 2000 feet a day. This plant was afterwards sold to Long and Son. Otto Rull built a mill, but soon afterwards died with yellow fever, and the plant was purchased by A. J. Ward, father of John Ward, who afterwards was a large manufacturer of lumber. After the war it was purchased by Pipkin and Haltom, John C. Ward later buying the Haltom interest.

The war came on at this time and practically put a stop to the infant industry, there being no market for lumber in the south except that used by the Confederate government. It was in this mill that some of the 42nd Massachusetts regiment captured by the Confederates when the Federals attempted to take Galveston in 1863 were camped.

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Long and Company Store.
(click here for an enlarged image) 

In 1870 the Long sawmill was changed to a shingle mill and, with what was considered wonderful machinery in those days, turned out 40 shingles a day. After the death of Mr. Long the plant was operated by Mrs. J. M. Long, F. L. Carroll, W. A. Fletcher and John W. Keith. It passed out of existence in 1896.

In 1869 the Bremer mill was built, with a capacity of 1500 feet a day. It was not until the 70's that the industry really began to expand and make Beaumont the greatest lumber market in Texas.

In 1876 the Reliance Lumber company was organized, William, Mark and V. Wiess and Harry Potter being the principal owners. They erected a modern mill in Brake's bayou, and it continued in operation under the same management until 1902, when the Kirby Lumber company was formed, that organization purchasing the three big mills in Beaumont. It continued operation until 1920.

The Beaumont Lumber company was organized in 1876. It was situated on the site now occupied by the city wharves. The organizers purchased a plant formerly in operation on Adams bayou. The principal stockholders of this company were W. A. Fletcher, F. L. Carroll, John W. Keith, Mrs. J. M. Long, John M. Gilbert and Olive and Sternenberg.

In 1877 Smith and Brothers built a mill where the waterworks now stand. It was later purchased by Olive and Sternenberg and operated as a shingle mill until it became known as the Eagle Mill.

In the meantime Reagan and Goldsmith had built a mill near where the ice plant now stands. This property finally fell into the hands of Smith and Seale and later became the Texas Tram and Lumber company, with W. A. Fletcher and John W. Keith becoming the principal owners.

When the Texas Tram and Lumber company, the Beaumont Lumber company and the Reliance Lumber company mills were in operation, upon them rested the prosperity of the city. This was before the discovery of oil at Spindletop, and every body worked at the mill. A day then was from daylight until dark, and the present day of eight or ten hours was unheard of. The saws started with the dawn and were not stilled until darkness came on.

The three mills operated large commissaries, and they were much larger stores than could be found in the Beaumont of that day. Mill checks were in common use, and labor was invariably paid off with them. They were good for face value at the stores, usually suffered a discount when converted into cash. For that matter stores uptown accepted checks, holding them until redeemed by the lumber company.

At that the lumber industry was of such great importance that it had built a city of 10,000 inhabitants before the appearance of oil.

With the exception of a few cattlemen, practically all of the old families who became wealthy could trace their fortunes to the lumber industry. Most of them had started as laborers, not a few in the woods getting out logs. The lat e Captain George W. O'Brien made shingles following the close of the Civil War, in which he participated. The late W. A. Fletcher spent many days floating logs down the river at $1 per day and considered it good wages. The late John C. Ward began as a shipping clerk in 1868 at the age of 16. John N. Gilbert first went to work in a commissary at very small wages. The first job secured by B. R. Norvell, president of the American National bank, was deliveryman for the Beaumont Lumber company's commissary. Steve W. and Beaureguard Pipkin began their business career bundling shingles while boys.

The passing of the big mills has diminished but slightly Beaumont's importance as a lumber center. It is now the largest exporter of yellow pine timbers in the United States, and is rapidly becoming one of the greatest hardwood centers. The Kirby Lumber company has erected two large hardwood plants at Voth, nine miles north of the city, while smaller mills are scattered throughout the woods. The Neches Lumber company, the Miller-Vidor Lumber company and the Southern Land and Lumber company still have plants in the city, while Beaumont capitalists are interested in many mills throughout the lumber belt and are heavy holders of timber lands.

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