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.
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.
End of an Era
In 1909 over two billion board feet of lumber were cut in Arkansas. But by the early 1930s the vast stands of old-growth and second-growth forest throughout Northwest Arkansas had been exhausted. In the rush to make money, nearly every usable tree was felled. Boomtowns dwindled, production at sawmills fell, and railroad service on the St. Paul branch ended. The tracks and equipment were removed in 1937.
Some businesses were shuttered for a time. The barrel-stave industry fell victim to Prohibition, when liquor sales were illegal. But with the passage of the Cullen-Harrison Act in 1933 allowing the legal sale of beer, loggers and sawmills in Madison County were back in business. In February 1933 one mill reported an order for three million staves for beer kegs, ranging in price from nine to eleven cents each. In Kingston, D.C. Combs logged a tree which was turned into 1,145 staves. He made $38.50. The demand for staves helped some folks weather the Great Depression.
As the early loggers found out, not only did overharvesting wipe out the trees needed to maintain the industry, it also led to environmental problems such as soil runoff, air and water pollution, and loss of habitat. Today logging can be a hot-button issue, pitting environmental ideals against employment opportunities.
When Mountain Pine Timber began logging near Jasper (Newton County) in the late 1980s, environmental groups called it clear-cutting and feared that it would “irreparably damage” the environment and impact residents and the tourists who came for the natural beauty of the Buffalo River. Some residents didn’t want the logging to continue while others felt that if it didn’t, their livelihoods would be taken away. Others wanted to be sure that landowners’ property rights were upheld.
Lumber Industry Today
Logging has continued, but on a much smaller scale. The Martin family of Pettigrew (Madison County) began logging just as the timber was playing out. But because they were a small-scale operation, they didn’t need an inexhaustible number of trees. They were able to log selectively, leaving the smaller specimens for the next generation to harvest. By 1992, when Wayne Martin finally quit the family business, he had likely logged the same hills as his father and grandfather.
Today in Madison County, Willhite Forest Products in St. Paul makes railroad ties, flooring, and slats for wood pallets. In Wesley the Richland Handle Company makes handles for tools and implements such as rakes, shovels, hammers, and picks. J.R. Banks Lumber in Marble (Newton County) has made railroad ties since the 1960s. They’ve also begun producing lumber and pre-cut pallet stock. These are just a few of the companies that continue the long tradition of lumbering in Northwest Arkansas.