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Early forest industry in Texas

The first settlers of East Texas primarily used the forests for personal practices. They used the trees to build houses, cleared them for agriculture or sold and harvested them to pay personal debts.

At least one sawmill was in operation as early as 1819, but until about 1850, most construction lumber had to be imported into Texas by sea at very high rates. With the advent of steam-powered sawmills and circular or band saws capable of handling large-diameter logs, many more sawmills sprang up during the next seventy years. Until 1890, the mills were small and scattered throughout East Texas, primarily situated along major rivers and streams where a source of power was available. As early as 1869, Texas ranked twenty-fourth among lumber-producing states, with an annual output of 106,897,000 board feet of lumber, representing some 8 percent of the national total.

Small; temporary mills

Lumber barons first applied their trade in the Northeast and the Lake States, establishing sawmills and railroads to take advantage of the nation’s seemingly limitless virgin forests. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, as these northern forests were depleted, the timber industry moved to greener pastures rather than regenerate the trees within hauling distance of oxen or mule teams were harvested. 

hauling timber

Logging crews, known as “flatheads,” made fast work of majestic pines with use of nothing more than a double-bit ax or an eight- to ten-foot crosscut saw, aptly called a “misery whip.”


Other “swamping” and “bucking” crews limbed and cut the downed tree into sixteen- or twenty foot logs while mule skinners or oxen punchers kept their teams of animals busy hauling the logs to nearby rail landings.

Crosscut saw

High-wheeled, slip-tongue carts typically were used to elevate the front end of large logs to ease skidding.

Slip tongue cart

Also, eight-wheeled Martin wagons—built in Lufkin, Texas—carried logs over the soft forest floors to nearby rail tracks. Logging crews routinely faced many East Texas hazards—ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, scorpions, snakes, razorback hogs (called “pineywoods rooters”) and in loblolly and shortleaf pine forests, thick underbrush, poisonous plants, and thorny green briar or “gotcha” vines.

Martin wagon

With the arrival of steam power and short track railways, larger mills and supporting towns were established where a source of water was available. The first railroad to penetrate the heart of the Pineywoods was the Houston, East and West Texas Railway, a narrow-gauge (three-foot-wide) line constructed in 1876 to connect Houston with Shreveport. The nickname coined by passengers for the HE&WT Railway was “Hell Either Way Taken.”  Passage of the HE&WT rail line through four small towns in Shelby County generated a popular Tex Ritter folksong “Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair.”

Railroad and oxen

In 1894, T. L. L. Temple constructed a circular sawmill at Diboll, marking the beginning of the Southern Pine Lumber Company. This pioneering lumber company evolved over the years through many purchases and mergers to become Temple-Inland Inc., with over one million acres of forestland managed by a staff of some 50 professional foresters by the turn of the twenty-first century. Similarly, John Henry Kirby chartered the Kirby Lumber Company and began acquiring approximately one million acres of timberland in East Texas and Louisiana.

In the early 1900s, Kirby Lumber Company was operating 14 sawmills throughout Southeast Texas.

Timber production in East Texas reached a peak of 2.25 billion board feet of lumber in 1907, a level yet to be exceeded. In that year, East Texas supported 673 active sawmills and was the third largest lumber producer in the nation. Assuming 16,000 board feet go into framing an average-sized house, this is enough wood to build 140,000 houses.

Some photos courtesy of Texas Forestry Museum and Stephen F. Austin State University