Sunday, Aug 2, 2020
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The Great Forest
To the newly arrived settler, the Arkansas Ozarks offered many resources for building a new life. The area’s vast stands of virgin forest were full of possibilities. Timber was used for building structures and furnishings, for heating homes and cooking food, and as a way to earn cash by making roof shingles and other products for sale. A few entrepreneurs built sawmills, selling lumber and trim to homebuilders.
The timber industry began in earnest around 1881 when the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad (the “Frisco”) steamed through Benton and Washington Counties. The line was built in part because of the great demand in other markets for railroad ties and mine props. The rich forests of the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks were the last source of timber this side of the vast western prairies. Eager settlers and expanding railroads needed the wood to build homes and rail lines. With the coming of the Frisco, increased transportation and business opportunities meant new growth for the region. Soon other railroads and branch lines sprung up. Farmers and businessmen rushed to harvest the forests.
Removing the Forest
When the first settlers came to Northwest Arkansas, they found forests thick with large, ancient trees—one-hundred-foot-tall white oaks, red cedar trees two to four feet in diameter, huge stands of hickory and walnut flanking the hillsides. The settlers cleared the land for crops and used the timber to build new lives. Then the railroads came, opening new markets for the region’s greatest natural resource.
Hardwoods were the first to be logged, the old-growth timber perfect for railroad ties and mine props. Commercial uses were found for other woods—ash and hickory for making tool handles, locust for making fence posts. In Newton County red cedar trees were virtually ignored until 1903, when the Houston, Ligett and Canada Cedar Company began harvesting them and floating the logs down the Buffalo River to Searcy County, over 50 miles downstream. All that hard and dangerous work to make pencils!
Once an area had been heavily logged of the first- and second-growth timber, there often wasn’t enough vegetation to hold back erosion. Soil washed down the hillsides, exposing bare rock. Habitat for animals was destroyed and new plant species took over. Some folks tried to farm these areas or use them for grazing animals, but found it difficult. In some places the land was left to heal itself. In others it was burned to clear vegetation after which low-value plants (at least in the lumberman’s eyes) moved in.
Others thought to “reclaim” the land for different purposes. Scientists with the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and other agencies believed that the “low-grade” trees in “much of the so-called Ozark Forest [was] not true forest.” In 1953, at a time when Texas and other southwestern states were experiencing drought, cattlemen looked to the Arkansas Ozarks and neighboring states as possible places to graze their herds. They bought Arkansas land and sprayed chemicals to kill off blackjack and post oaks and other “useless” scrub plants to allow bluestem and other native grasses to grow.
Boomtowns and Lumber Barons
For a time it seemed that anyone with a saw could turn hard work into a fortune. Near War Eagle (Benton County), Peter Van Winkle and his enslaved workers began a lumber empire in the 1850s, supplying material for many fine area homes. Over in Carroll County in the late 1870s, Franizisca Massman and her logging crews were hurriedly chopping down trees (sometimes without the landowner’s permission) in the fast-growing town of Eureka Springs. By 1887 Hugh F. McDanield of Washington County had exported over $2 million in railroad ties at about 25 cents each. That’s about eight million ties!
McDanield was among the first to exploit the railroad. He bought thousands of acres of land along the Frisco and sent out his loggers. Once he exhausted the resources of southern Washington County he looked east. In 1886 he began building a railroad line from Fayette Junction to Madison County (later the St. Paul branch of the Frisco), sparking a string of lumber boomtowns like Baldwin, Elkins, Durham, Crosses, Delaney, Patrick, Combs, and St. Paul. People flocked to the hills to get in on the action. Towns sprang up overnight with all the amenities of bigger cities. At one time St. Paul had three hotels, a number of businesses and churches, a baseball team, a brass band, and twelve nearby sawmills. Today its population is less than 200.
A few miles east of St. Paul, Pettigrew sprang up virtually overnight because of the logging industry. Although the town’s population was small, a number of businesses were started to meet the needs of the lumber industry and offer amenities to the surrounding population. Since Pettigrew was the end of the line for the Frisco’s St. Paul branch, lumber from the surrounding hills and communities was brought there and piled as closely as possible to the railroad tracks to make loading easier. Lightweight fence posts could be loaded easily by teenage boys but it took strong men to load the heavy railroad ties. At the Frisco tie yard in Rogers in the early 1900s, it was said the African-American workers were able to load ties singlehandedly. Unlike the rest of the local black population, which was sometimes harassed or threatened in those days, these tough men were left alone.
Saturdays were often busy as that was the day many folks hauled their lumber into town to sell. They took their payment vouchers to the bank, cashed them in, purchased food and supplies, and perhaps grabbed a bite to eat at a café. In the morning a bank’s cash reserves were depleted; by evening they had been replenished, thanks to the merchants depositing the day’s take.
Saturday, Aug 8, 2020 at 10:00am US Mountain Time
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