Sunday, January 29, 2017

With Sawmills Came Prosperity

The early history of St. Tammany Parish deals in a large part with timber. That, combined with sawmills, means lumber, and growing communities throughout the South needed lumber to build homes, businesses and boats. 

Lumber Sawmill

The Poitevent Favre Lumber Co. sawmill in Mandeville. It was located just east of where the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway north toll plaza is today.

In this 1976 article, Polly Morris explains what an efficient operating sawmill meant to a community in particular and what it meant for St. Tammany as a whole. 

Click on the image above to enlarge the text. 

Here is the text from the article above

BY POLLY MORRIS Feature Writer

St. Tammany News Banner February 25, 1976

It has been said that the soil of St. Tammany is half sawdust and splinters. Often it seems like an understatement instead of an exaggeration, for every town has the site of a sawmill not too far away, plus the many mounds of sawdust rottening in isolated areas. 

But the jealous soil of St. Tammany slowly and surely reclaims its own, and it is difficult to imagine the screech of saws, the scream of the steam whistle, and the loud voices of the workmen where there is nothing left but a sprinkling of woody remains of hundreds of giant pines. All are gone down the sawdust trail of yesteryears.

The word "sawmill" brings to mind the whining, whizzing machinery that savagely rips logs into finished lumber. In truth the first of the sawmills had little resemblance to the modern ones. The early mills used only man power. 

Stripped to the waist the laborers shaped the logs with brute strength, uncommon skill, and a few simple tools. . . and plenty of sweat. They worked with broadaxe and adze for the heavier timbers, but the specialists who made the narrower planks were the sawyers.

The sawyers considered themselves experts and they were, even though they used hand saws. So when two men teams started the pit saw business with only a shovel and a long handled saw between them, the professional sawyers were sorely vexed. The two men had saw and would travel to a building site and be set up in a very short time. 

All they had to do was dig a pit and roll a squared off log over it, and they were ready to go. One man called the pitman would get down into the hole and pull down on the saw, cutting through the wood. The tiller who stayed on top of the ground pulled the blade back up.

However there was one definite disadvantage of the pit saw. The blade was at least 6 feet long and quite flexible. It would bend or whip. This was corrected by putting the saw into a sash. or a frame, that kept it taut, and all went well with the pit saw business until someone had time to sit on a stump and watch the toilsome operation. 

It was far too much labor to suit him. There should be some way to raise and lower the blade with less effort. . . and without man power. It was like grinding meal by hand when there was a grist mill.

The loafer chewed on a pine splinter and was inspired. He picked up a small twig and drew plans in the dirt. Put the  sash saw into another sash. This would let the small frame with the saw slide up and down freely in the larger frame. Which could be attached to a crank, which could have horse power or a water wheel to move it.

The sawyers were even more furious with the new fangled method than they had been with the pit sawmen. They united and decided to burn the sawmills that went along with the tomfoolery that made their trade obsolete. There was no stopping of progress, and it took no great brain to make yet another improvement. Use two blades instead of one. . . or even 3. The "gang" saw came into being.

It is believed that another idler that was less industrious than the stump sitter made another important contribution from his chair beside the fire. He had nothing more to do than watch time tick away the days. The wheels of the clock counted off the minutes and the hours with little revolving wheels. One of them was the ratchet wheel, and it was also inspiration to the clock-watcher. Its notches were like unto the teeth of a saw, and it turned constantly. Why did a saw blade have to be straight? It did not, and soon the sash saw that cut 100 feet of lumber a day was replaced.

The sawmill business boomed. More men were employed at higher wages. Loggers felled trees and lopped off the limbs. Men loaded the logs and hauled them by ox teams to the streams where they were rolled into the water. They floated to the mill pond where men removed the bark and shoved them against the greedy saws. Other men stacked them for seasoning, or loaded them on schooners.

The sawmill was the busiest place in the country. Farmers came to buy lumber or to sell timber. Often he went halves with the sawmill operator, getting his part in finished lumber for the raw product. If he was short of cash money, he would often bring in farm produce "to boot." And the mill operator was more than a horse trader. He swapped for anything of value.

In time the operator could hardly move around his own mill. There were stacks of hides, barrels of molasses, and sacks of potatoes everywhere. Added to the noise of the mill was the cackling of chickens, the bawling of calves, and the yelping of coon hounds and bird dogs. The operator fed them with grain and wheat and corn he had swapped, but his mill was a mad-house. So he built a store building where he could sell the motley merchandise.

Sawmills attracted people like magnets attract nails. Everyone wanted to take part in the prosperity. A logger's wife started selling cakes and pies to the mill customers who waited for their finished lumber, then turned her parlor into an eatery. 

Her brother opened a blacksmith shop to repair wagons and to sell farm tools. The inevitable saloon obliged weary travelers who came through the swinging door "spitting dust."

The suspicious wives who smelled whiskey on their husband's breath refused to stay home next mill day. So a merchant moved his general store opposite the mill and stocked cotton flannel, calico, and Ladies Ready-To-Wear.

Production increased, and so did the population. There came to the sawmill settlement a variety of merchants and craftsmen. A harness maker.. . a cobbler... a semstress. And a minister who built a small white 'church with donations from customers, consumers, and school children who passed by on their way to a little red building with a bell.

Then came the steam powered mill and the large companies who built spurs to the railroad, and sometimes even encouraged the main line to pass through and put up a depot. Logging trains smoked up and down the tracks and even the old mill stream was not needed any longer.

The timber fell fast and was fed into the hungry saws until the surrounding areas bristled with stumps. In a surprisingly short time there were not enough trees to keep the sawmills going. The policy of many companies was to cut down until the land was cut over. Then close up and move on to a new location.

Settlements became mere shadows of themselves as sawmills closed and railroad tracks were taken up. Buildings sag and fall and seedlings of pine come up through the ruins, but it will be 40 years before they are sawlog size. Some towns survive because they have something else to support them, Others simply disappear. except for heaps of sawdust.

The old sawmills are only memories now. . . the Davis sawmill at Mandeville. . the Cedar Hill mill at St. Benedict.. the Todd mill on Bayou Lacombe. And the town with the great expectations, Ramsey, is only a ghost of a ghost town, where the hoot of an owl sounds strangely like the whistle of Engine No. 1 of the Greenlaw Lumber Company.

The Greenlaw Lumber Company saw mill was in Ramsay, just north of Covington

Jay's Saw Mill was on the Tchefuncte River in Houltonville

The following photographs are from the Madison Lumber company operations

The Koepp Sawmill in 1919