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GATEWAY TO THE PINEYS: A GLIMPSE OF LEESVILLE, LOUISIANA, BETWEEN 1905 AND 1908

©  By W. T. Block       (click here for W. T. Block web page)
(ALL MANUSCRIPT RIGHTS RESERVED)

After the Kansas City Southern rails reached Leesville about 1896, there was a steady stream of Kansas City retail lumber merchants arriving in Vernon Parish to buy up timberlands. Among them were W. R. Pickering Company, with its mills at Barham, Cravens, and Pickering; Central Coal and Coke Company, with mills at Neame and Carson; and Long-Bell Lumber Company, with mills at Deridder, Bon Ami, Longville, and Lake Charles.

Before 1875, Leesville had been a sleepy rural community, with a couple of stores, a physician, and a lawyer or two, to serve a large area of surrounding farms and plantations, tributary to it. Its economic position was principally that of cotton factor, destined to buy up the cotton, produce, and hides accumulated by the farmers; and as a merchant and creditor, to furnish the necessities of life needed to sustain the frontier economy. In 1871, the town also became the local seat of justice for the newly-created Vernon Parish, but it would be another quarter-century before Leesville became an incorporated city or the railroad arrived. By 1900, Leesville could boast of a "brand new" parish court house, ten general stores, "four drug stores, seven lawyers, seven doctors," and various other business houses and tradesmen.   1

In 1905, the principal mills at Leesville were Gulf Land and Lumber Company and Nona Mills Company of Louisiana, each capable of cutting 100,000 feet daily and employing more than 300 men. Gulf Land actually operated three separate mills, No. 1 being a pine mill one mile south of Leesville; No. 2 mill being a hardwood mill; and No. 3 being a portable pine mill, 3 miles from Leesville and located on the company's 11-mile long tram track. Gulf Land also operated a spacious commissary, managed by H. M. Graham, with clerks N. A. Williams and Jim Chalk, the latter also serving as deputy sheriff.

In that year, construction was buzzing at the Gulf Land and Lumber location. Each mill, as well as the planing mill, had just been overhauled. A new office, a 33-room hotel, and ten new tenant houses were under construction. A depot and post office were in the process of building. There were also a new market, a school house, and doctor's office. A new Detroit dry kiln, size 22'x140-feet, had just been completed, with a daily capacity of 75,000 feet. A new brick boiler house, with its large 80-inch by 18-foot boilers, had just been added. The mill also owned a 20,000 gallon water tank, with its standpipe elevated 80 feet.

The principal mill personnel at Gulf Land included G. W. Hymers, superintendent; M. S. Myers, auditor; - Puryear, timekeeper; T. S. Durman, No. 1 mill foreman; W. H. Davis, No. 2 mill foreman; J. A. Doaks, No. 3 mill foreman; S. R. Preston, planer foreman; A. D. McLellan, yard foreman; J. J. Franklin, woods foreman; S. T. Thompson, A. S. Sellers, sawyers; Jim Larkin, filer; Charles Martin, Dick Parker, James Knipe, R. G. Norris, H. M. Graham, steam and mill engineers; Tom Die, Chris Roshall, firemen; Smith Powers, E. P. Nichols, locomotive engineers; Dr. M. Monk, mill physician; and Professor Hall, teacher.

Two locomotives brought in four train loads or 48 cars of logs from the "log front" to the mill pond daily. Gulf Land paid $12,000 in wages each month to its 300 mill hands and loggers.

The mill equipment included one band saw and two circular saws. Planing mill capacity was 75,000, and its equipment included 4 planer- matchers and moulders, one 3-saw gang edger, 1 sizer, 1 band and 1 circular resaws, and 3 cutoff saws, all turned by one 14"x20-inch steam engine. A 60" double blower carried away all shavings to the burners. Gulf Land (Hymers Station) has its own church, school house, and about 100 tenant houses, but no other information was provided.   2

The Nona Mills Company of Louisiana was organized in 1898, and it built its Leesville sawmill in 1899. Company officers included F. L. Carroll, president; G. R. Ferguson, vice president; J. N. Gilbert, secretary-treasurer; and L. B Pipkin, assistant secretary-treasurer. The slate of officers were also the same for Beaumont Lumber Company and Nona Mills Co. of Nona, Texas. All Nona Mills Company books still survive at Lamar University Library. Frank Carroll came to Beaumont from Leesville, and he had served throughout the Civil War in a Vernon Parish company. Ferguson was also from Louisiana, but he owned extensive East Texas sawmill interests between 1890 and 1910, and later at Zimmerman, Rapides Parish.

In 1905, the Nona Mills office in Leesville had something not found in most southern sawmill offices, a lady stenographer, Miss Bird Smith, and a lady bookkeeper-cashier, Mrs. R. A. Davis. In fact, Mrs. Davis had already worked for Nona Mills for 12 years, most of it at Nona, Hardin County. The lady employees certainly caught the eyes of all the drummers, train personnel and passengers, and other passers-by.

G. R. Ferguson spent most of his time in Leesville, but the general superintendent for Nona Mills was Walter A. Martin. Nona Mills operated the largest store in Leesville in 1905, managed by A. K. Stone, and its grocery, dry goods, and hardware departments employed 7 persons, including W. E. Stevens, H. R. Johnson, A. W. Peyton, E. C. Bray, W. S. Ferguson, and Harry Booker. The commissary stock was valued at $50,000 in 1905.

Other key plant personnel included E. M. Lewis, mill foreman; W. A. McGregor, sawyer, T. H. Dillon, filer; H. T. Booker, timekeeper; J. C. Jackson, Charles Averre, mill engineers; Thomas Wentle, machinist; J. L. Martin, planer foreman; D. Martin, woods foreman; E. L. Dayton, electrician; C. T. Allis, planer engineer; J. W. McKee, planer checker; and Edgar Phillips and Lyle Geisendorf, locomotive engineers. The Nona tram road was 20 miles long, with the log camp and livestock corrals located 2 miles from town. The tram rolling stock included 3 locomotives and 25 log cars, and the stumpage reserve (uncut logs) amounted to a 20-year supply.

The main mill power unit was a 350 hp. steam engine, which turned a 72" circular saw and auxiliary saws. With a daily capacity of 100,000 feet, the mill shipped in 1904 22,000,000 feet of lumber and still had a 5,000,000 feet reserve drying on the yard. Nona's dry kiln capacity was low, only 25,000 feet daily. Nona Mills Company paid out $15,000 monthly in wages to its 370 loggers and mill hands.

The planing mill used a 150 hp. engine to rotate 4 planer-matchers and moulders, 1 picket machine, 1 resaw, 2 ripsaws, and 1 sizer. Planing mill capacity was 75,000 feet daily. Other mill departments included the machine shop, blacksmith shop, mill office, physician's office, barbershop, hotel, boarding house, and ice house. The company dynamo, water pumps, elevated water tower and standpipe furnished electricity and water to all the mill area and about 180 tenant houses.  3

In fact, Nona Mills Company, Ltd. became the greatest single contributor to Leesville's new lumber-based economy, as well as Leesville's new waterworks and fire department, ice plant, hotel, its baseball team, militia company, and its brass band. A news article of July, 1905, mentioned the Powell Brothers and Sanders Department Store, the newly-completed bank building, and added that:  4

. . . The occasion of the military company leaving Leesville this week, and the boys wearing their uniforms makes the town present the appearance of a military fort {how doubly prophetic!}. The company leaves here Sunday night for Alexandria. The Leesville Fire Department gave a smoker to its friends on Wednesday night last, participated in by 75 guests.... On Tuesday night the annual installation of the Knights and Ladies of Honor ( a fraternal order) took place.....

An article of April, 1907, reported that a banquet had been given in the high school building to benefit the High School Athletic Society. The editor added that:  5

. . . The Vernon Parish Teachers' Association held its regular session today at the high school building, Prof. A. Kaesemann presiding.... The attendance was good, considering that many of the parish schools have closed. Miss Leslie, secretary, and Prof. (W. L.) Ford, the parish school superintendent, were present....

. . . Rev. J. D. Adcock and Arthur Franklin were delegates from Leesville Baptist Church to the Southern Baptist General Convention in Richmond, Va.... The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, has been holding a protracted revival, Rev. T. N. Finley conducting....

. . . A new city hall has been decided upon and Architect. S. W. Stineman is to draw up the plans. The Wells Fargo Express Company has opened an office uptown. A brand new delivery wagon has been put on, and this is something that will be greatly appreciated by our citizens. The Western Union Telegraph Company has been ordered by the commission to establish an office in town. A petition was sent in requesting that this should be done.... A meeting of the Order of Railroad Telegraphers for the Kansas City Southern Railroad was held here today.....

. . . The "Coleman cleat" (a sawmill part), which is deservedly popular with the sawmill men, is the exclusive property of Messrs. Arthur Franklin and E. A. Hamilton. They have opened an office in the Leesville Bank Building, and within the last month, orders have come in totaling $5,000.....

In May, 1907, another news report verified that Nona Mills Company not only sought to produce a profit, but also sought to uplift the standards of living in the community, where its employees resided, as follows:   6

. . . The Nona Mills Company is the leading industry of Leesville. To it more than anything else is due the fact that Leesville todays ranks among the leading towns of the state. Honesty, business acumen, and progressiveness have accounted for its success, led by the man at the head, Mr. G. R. Ferguson.... He is a power in the upbuilding of the community and is first and foremost in all that holds for its betterment. Look for a moment at what that company has done for the city.

. . . It has made possible a waterworks, a fire department, an ice plant, and a hotel for in advance of cities much larger. It has disbursed hundred of thousands of dollars, by which every business in the city has benefited....

. . . When the lumber business of the Southwest was paralyzed by the recent panic, the question of duty to those dependent on the company was taken up. This was entirely a matter of sentiment, not business. but the company... has during the whole period of stagnation provided the means of support for its employees, and indirectly, of hundreds of others. Everyone who knows the financial condition of that company knows it could have shut down and saved money.

. . . At present, there are a number of new improvements being made in the mill. A new 28"x46-inch stroke Corliss engine (1,000 hp.) is being installed, also a 52-inch gang saw. Fifty-one live rollers 5 feet apart are being placed in position.... A new trimmer, a slab conveyor, and a slab slasher are being added. This will increase the daily cut to 150,000 feet....

. . . The turpentine plant, of which we will write more in the future, is in operation. The main line of tram (railroad) will be extended 2 1/2 miles. The mill is now running on 3/4 time, eight hours daily. The new superintendent, W. K. Ferguson, is making a fine record... The Nona Mills Co. has a way of educating its men. The ice manufactured by this company is excellent. The commissary is like a department store, and Miss Katie Bailey is the new stenographer....

. . . Plant personnel of 1907: W. K. Ferguson, superintendent; E. M. Lewis, assistant superintendent; M. R. Farris, sawmill foreman; Charles Malzacher, machine foreman; L. Martin, planer foreman; T. W. Harris, yard foreman; C. G. Marsh, woods foreman; Tom B. Martin, shipping clerk; N. C. Edwards, E. J. Robinson,sawyers; O. L. Lee, filer; Charles Averre, mill engineer; Edgar Phillips, locomotive engineer; W. E. Stephens, commissary manager; Leo Bass, J. J. West, C. D. Clawson, Misses Brownie Zachary, Zula Bowden, store clerks; Ella Mae Phelps, store cashier; H. T. Booker, Roy Booker, bookkeepers; P. H. Hall, timekeeper; and Katie Bailey, stenographer....

A newspaper article of September, 1907, observed that throughout the financial panic of 1907, the Nona Mills Company kepts its mill and woods crews at work at reduced hours, for the relief of both its white and black employees. Luckily, railroad and export orders kept the firm in business when the domestic retail market was stagnant and prices were low. All improvements were in place by 1907, including the new Wilson gang saw and the 1,000 horsepower Corliss engine, and the power house was fire- proofed with brick masonry all around.

A log pond was excavated and filled (probably by damming a creek branch of nearby Bayou Castor), that held 1,000,000 scaled feet of logs. The standard gauge tram railroad,with its radiating spurs, extended 22 miles into the company timberlands and to its "log front." Forty cars of logs daily were being unloaded at the log pond, all of them loaded by the company's new steam McGiffert log loader. New key personnel added in 1907 included F. A. Powell, loader foreman; C. L.Milliken, sawmill foreman; and H. B. Landis, checker.  7

Another key industry of 1908 that served Leesville and all the outlying sawmills was the Vernon Iron Works. Its financial condition was known to be sound, it patronage wide, and it attracted mill business from as far away as Shreveport, Lake Charles, and Beaumont. The foundry owned several lathe and boring machines, a large crane, a 25 hp. steam engine and boiler, a steel roller for making boilers, and the firm could pour castings up to 3,000 pounds in weight. M. R. McGee was the firm's bookkeeper.  8

In May, 1908, construction was progressing rapidly on the new Leesville Opera House, said to have "no equal between Shreveport and Beaumont." The Holcomb-Smoot revival at Franklin Hall was also in progress, attracting crowds of 400 persons or more. Rev. Walt Holcomb was a son-in-law and co-worker of Rev. Sam Jones, a nationally-known Methodist evangelist. Since 1908 was the year of the Taft-W. J. Bryan election, the growth of the Progressive or "Bull Moose" Party was noticeable in Vernon Parish. And that week, the Leesville White Sox of the Yellow Pine Sawmill League was scheduled to play the Noble, Louisiana, team.  9

Following a disastrous fire in the business district, Leesville was quite proud when its new fire station, a 2-story, reinforced concrete building, was completed in 1908. The new station and equipment cost $8,000 and much of the cost and the fire horses, along with salaries of the only two full-time firemen, were gifts of Nona Mills Company. The sawmill pumped water to the center of Leesville through a 6-inch water main, but replacement of them with a 12-inch line was in progress.

The fire brigade consisested of a volunteer chief, Charles W. Averre, a Nona mill engineer; two paid firemen, Will Ford and Andrew Cook; and 28 volunteers. The new equipment included one large chemical engine, one combination hose wagon, a hook and ladder wagon, a pump and 1,000 feet of Eureka hose, as well as the horses, harness, and accessories. The station contained ample storage room for the wagons and engines, stalls for the horses, other storage space, and rooms for the firemen.  10

Also in May, 1908, an effort was afoot to raise funds to build a Leesville hospital. Several physicians and the mills sought to raise $12,000 for the project, but with a mill laborer's wage being only $1.50 for a ten-hour work day, a total of $12,000 was a huge sum to raise. At the same moment, Charles Smith, who had been shot through a lung in a gun fight at Fields, had to be housed in a hotel room while Dr. J. H. Ward treated his wound. It is not known at this writing whether or not the hospital effort proved successful.nbsp; 11

By October, 1908, Leesville's long awaited new opera house was a reality, "of which a city three times its size might well be proud." A news release observed that:  12

. . . It has a stage 30'x40-feet, magnificently appointed, four dressing rooms on either side, each supplied with lavatory, a steam radiator, and electric lights. There is a toilet on each side. The rigging loft is 40 feet high. The arrangement of foot lights is excellent, and the overhead lights give a brilliant effect. The scenery was painted by Charles Cox. There are two drop curtains and all the extra accessories needed for staging any play that may come. There are two fire escapes, four Babcock fire extinguishers, and a volume of water....

. . . The auditorium will seat 503, and the floor slants gradually from front to rear. Modern opera chairs are in evidence. There are four boxes, two on each side.... There are handsome globe lights in front of the gallery, besides the bracketed lights. Overhead is a large cluster light with thirty incandescents.... Arrangements have been made to give the people of Leesville a fine class of entertainment this winter.....

During the same month, another news release reported on the Leesville school system for the fall semester of 1908, as follows:  13

. . . Leesville has always been noted for its excellent public school system. The utmost care has been taken in the selection of the faculty and in its building. The high school building occupies a site commanding a fine view of the city and surrounding country...

. . . It is throughly graded and is under the supervision of Prof. G. D. Free.... Quiet, firm, and methodical, the schools do well under his management. He has among his assistants Messrs. Manley Hawes and W. B. Middleton.... All the corps of teachers have had professional training, and the enrollment is 352. Faculty: G. D. Free, principal; M. Hawes, first assistant; W. R. Middleton, eighth grade; Miss C. L. Davis, sixth and seventh grades; Miss L. D. Frost, fifth grade; Miss S. F. Compton, fourth grade; Miss -- Oliver, third grade; Miss Maud Husband, second grade; Miss E. Etheridge, first grade; Mrs. -- Rodgers, music depaertment; and Miss -- Conner, elocution.....

Thus ends this glimpse of Leesville as outlined in the pages of Beaumont Enterprise between 1905 and 1908. Undoubtedly, the Gulf Land and Nona sawmills continued to grow, and with their payrolls to sustain the business establishment, Leesville grew with them. In time, however, the surrounding virgin timber reserves were completely denuded until only a cutover wasteland of ugly stumps remained. For 25 years, however, the sawmills provided the economic sustenance that breathed life into Leesville, and with it came a new and urban way of life, waterworks, sewerage, electric lights and other utilities, an ice plant, an opera house and theaters, and everything else that defines a city culturally. During the decades that followed, Leesville witnessed other "ups and downs," years of Great Depression, two World Wars, and the openings and closings of Fort Polk, but those are stories better left for others to tell.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. E. W. Wise, Tall Pines II: A History of Vernon Parish and Its People (Sulphur: 1988), pp. 4-5, 13-21.
  2. "Gulf Land and Lumber Company," Beaumont Enterprise, May 7, 1905.
  3. "Nona Mills Co., Ltd." Beaumont Enterprise, Feb. 26, 1905.
  4. "Leesville Liners," Beaumont Enterprise, July 16, 1905, p. 2, col. 1.
  5. "Leesville Budget," Beaumont Enterprise, Apr. 28,1907, p.8, col. 4.
  6. "The Nona Mills Co., Ltd.," Beaumont Enterprise, May 11, 1907, col. 6.
  7. "Nona Mills Co., Ltd.," Beaumont Enterprise, Sept. 30, 1908, p. 6, col. 7.
  8. "Vernon Iron Works," Beaumont Enterprise, May 10, 1908, p. 3, col. 3.
  9. Ibid., "Leesville Locals," and "Holcomb-Smoot Revival."
  10. "The Leesville,La. Fire Lads," Beaumont Enterprise, May 10, 1908, p. 20, col. 5.
  11. Ibid., "Sanitarium Next?"
  12. "News of Louisiana--Leesville," Beaumont Enterprise, Oct. 2, 1908, p.7, cols. 5-6.
  13. "News of Louisiana--Leesville," Beaaumont Enterprise, Oct. 3, 1908,p. 6, col. 5.

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