Before Cotton Was King

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By Hank Burdine

The Mississippi Delta, as we know it, is the alluvial floodplain of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers—bounded on the north by the Chickasaw Bluffs below Memphis, the east by the Loess Hills and Yazoo River, and the west by the Mississippi River.

For eons, annual floodwaters inundated the flat land with excess rainwater coming out of the hills from the Tallahatchie, Coldwater, Yocona, and Yalobusha Rivers and from the Mississippi, which drains 41 percent of the continental United States and parts of two provinces in Canada. This flood plain was an impenetrable virgin hardwood bottomland forest covered with towering oak, cypress, cottonwood, elm, pecan, sycamore, sweet, red, and tupelo gums, and hackberry trees, among others. Indians lived and thrived along the high riparian riverbanks of the waterways growing maize (corn) and gathering nuts and berries and wild game from the forest and fish, turtles, and mussels from its many lakes and streams.

Because of its impenetrability and the annual flooding, not to mention yellow fever, malaria, oppressive heat, mosquitoes, bears, panthers, poisonous snakes, alligators, and other hardships of the region, the Mississippi Delta was one of the last frontiers in the nation to be settled. Following the Civil War, only a few areas had been cleared for cultivation along the Mississippi River and some interior streams. Ninety percent of the hardwood bottomlands in the Delta were yet to be cleared. In order to raise a crop, the timber had to first be cut and used for building purposes or burned. Some of the timber was marketed downriver by building log rafts and floating the logs to a mill far away. There was no transportation system in the Delta as roads were too hard to build in the yet to be drained and leveed swamp, and railroads had at this time no reason to nudge into the deep woods. Yet several things happened that would forever change the face and character of our Delta homeland.

The invention of the cotton gin enabled the widespread production of short staple cotton and thus made the fertile ridges of the Delta a prime location for planting cotton. Sharecropping and tenant farming made the clearing and cultivation of this land very profitable. The two-handled crosscut saw replaced the ax in felling the huge trees. Railroad companies saw the opportunity to buy great tracts of land and right-of-way from the state for their railroads and to re-sell surplus lands to timber investors and farmers wanting to move into the Delta and clear that land to farm. (At that time, cotton, timber, and other products could be hauled out on the new railroads.) And by the mid 1880s, timber reserves in the North and Northeast had become depleted by extensive logging. The major lumber companies of the North, not realizing the generous reproductive capacity of natural forests and following a policy of “cut out and get out,” turned their forces to the great softwood forests of the Pacific Northwest, the southern pine and cypress stands of the lower South, and to the hardwood bottomlands of the Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi Deltas. The nation was on a march and growing rapidly with its need for wood products a major part of the growth. In Origins of the New South, C. Vann Woodward states, “As for the investment of Northern capital, the South is glad to have it come. We welcome the skilled lumberman with the noisy mill.” High ground, with its well-drained and profusely fertile soils was sold to farmers by the timber companies, and the lower, often waterlogged heavier ground not suitable for farming before the extensive protective levee system was in place, was often turned back over to the state for non-payment of taxes after the timber was cut.

Lumber for houses, veneers, boxes, containers, and furniture was in great demand. The integrated railroad system began to allow the transportation of these products to markets all over America and the world.

It was during this time that the South became the nation’s most productive lumber manufacturing region. The timber industry was the South’s leading industry regarding employees, payroll, revenue, and the geographical spread attributed to its sprawling forests. From 1904 to 1915, Mississippi was ranked third in timber producing states behind Washington and Louisiana.

Because of transportation avenues on the Mississippi River and interconnecting railroads, growing commercial opportunities and banking facilities and proximity to fertile bottomlands with twenty-one varieties of hardwoods from Arkansas, Missouri, and the Mississippi Delta, Memphis became a substantial center for shipment of logs and outsourcing of finished lumber products. Memphis soon became known not only as the “largest spot cotton market in the world” but also proclaimed itself as the “hardwood capital of the world.”

Originally logs cut for market had to be transported to a navigable stream by either skidding behind mules or using an ancient caralog, a heavy two-wheeled wagon pulled by oxen. In 1905, the Lindsey brothers from Laurel invented the Lindsey Eight Wheel Log Wagon to replace the caralog. Soon skidders, huge winches attached to long cables, skidded the logs to a rail head where steam log loaders loaded the heavy logs on railcars pulled by small steam locomotives on dummy lines that ended at primitive steam driven “peckerwood” or “ground hog” sawmills erected deep in the woods. These lines connected to other larger railroad lines able to market the processed lumber. As the tracts of land were cleared of marketable lumber, the dummy lines were simply removed and replaced in other areas that had not yet been cut. Because of the growth of the railroads, the number of sawmills in Mississippi grew from 295 in 1880 with a total investment of almost a million dollars to 608 mills in 1899 producing more than a billion board feet of lumber annually. (A board foot is one foot long, one foot wide, and one inch thick.) By 1910, Mississippi’s timber industry represented a thirty-nine million dollar capital investment producing over forty-three million in annual revenues.

In 1889, a group of Lake States lumbermen from Benton Harbor, Michigan, decided to move their operations to Memphis and establish headquarters and a mill. The Anderson-Tully Company was formed and with its forward thinking ideas became a dominant force in the timber industry of the region. Anderson-Tully began buying timber land adjacent to the Mississippi River enabling the company to transport its logs to its own mills on the riverbank in Memphis adjacent to the railroad. The ever-growing need for shipping crates, barrels, kegs, boxes, furniture, flooring, veneers, plywood, and lumber allowed the Anderson-Tully Company to grow vertically and horizontally. Anderson-Tully began diversifying and re-investing its profits into more company-owned land, ensuring an economical source of good quality raw material. By utilizing an appreciating company owned investment, and by adhering to responsible forest management of the sustained growth aspect of regenerating forestland, Anderson-Tully was able to withstand many up and down cycles in the timber industry and evolve as a dominant force in the region. With several mills and diversified timber-related factories in Memphis, including its own river flotilla, the Patton-Tully Transportation Company formed in 1906; the company was well set to push forward into the twentieth century.

In 1881, a German immigrant named Herman Paepcke formed a company in Chicago and started a small lumber business and planing mill. As his business grew, he bought out his partners and formed the Chicago Packing Box Company, American Box Company, and later the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. In 1893 Paepcke formed the Paepcke-Leicht Lumber Company and bought a sawmill in Greenville and twenty-five thousand  acres of land on the Mississippi River. By 1909, the company owned over 125,000 acres of timberland in the Delta. Chicago had emerged as America’s mail order capital with Montgomery Ward, Marshall Fields, Sears, Roebuck and Co., and Spiegel, among others, needing thousands of boxes and crates to ship products and merchandise into and out of Chicago.

The marketing of the mail order catalog became a gold mine for Paepcke with much of the lumber for the boxes coming from his own timberland and mills in the Delta. By 1980, the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company operated three sawmills and two box factories in the Delta and owned over two hundred thousand acres of timberland in Mississippi and Louisiana.    

In the interior of the Delta, many smaller mills were bought up by larger operations, and some families emerged as major players in the timber industry. Relocating to Yazoo City from Kentucky around 1900, four brothers of the Gooch family built a mill and began acquiring timberland. Specializing in hardwoods and cypress, the company produced lumber for housing, flooring, and the wooden container industry. The Gooch Brothers Lumber Company owned fifteen sawmills and over one hundred thousand acres of land by 1930.

The great demand for lumber to be used in barrel staves, boxes, crates, fruit, vegetable, and egg containers, kegs, tubs, pails, buckets, and baskets continued until around 1920 when the process for utilizing wood pulp for making strong and versatile corrugated boxes was perfected. Much hardwood was used in early automobile parts and frames until steel mills replaced wood. (One by-product of the excess hardwood used in the automobile industry was a technique developed and marketed as Kingsford Charcoal.) Houses were being built all over America, and hardwood flooring was in great demand. By the mid-’20s Memphis was called home to forty mills and numerous wood product plants. However, following the boom years of the ’40s and ’50s, with plastics, carpets, and other substitutions for wood products taking precedence, Memphis claimed only one mill by the early 1980s, yet it still had over one hundred and fifty hardwood-using companies utilizing some sixteen thousand workers. During 1955, 1.2 billion feet of hardwood flooring was sold out of Memphis, yet only ninety-six million feet was sold in 1975. The city had become a marketing instead of a manufacturing mecca for hardwoods.

Anderson-Tully, in its ever-attentive desire to change with cycles and utilize modern technology and scientific regenerative timber management approaches, closed its Memphis operations and moved to Vicksburg in 1955. There it continues today in the hardwood business, supplying quality hardwoods worldwide from its almost three hundred thousand acres of timberland. Anderson-Tully has sawed more than 3.3 billion board feet of hardwood lumber since 1900. Today the Vicksburg operations ship carloads of mixed species of high-grade lumber to lumberyards in the United States and all over the world. Furniture manufacturers using Anderson-Tully lumber include Broyhill, Drexel Heritage, and Henredon Furniture, among others.

The Gooch Lumber Company legacy continues today with third-generation John Gooch Jr., along with Tully family member Kenny Hall, operating Cypress Depot in Ridgeland with a modern band sawmill supplying quality Delta cypress and hardwood products to homes all over the South.

And so the timber boom came in the 1890s and was gone by the 1930s, yet in its path was opened very possibly the most fertile farmland in the world. Over seventeen million acres of timberland had been cut in the lower Mississippi River floodplain with most of those acres going into very productive farmland. Many thousands of acres of the lesser productive and marginal land has been enrolled in WRP/CRP programs developed by Uncle Sam to put these lands back into hardwood trees and wildlife habitat. Will we ever again see the towering, massive forests that our Native American brothers and sisters lived in and depended on? It’s doubtful, but we should visit and appreciate our state and national forests and plant an indigenous tree every chance we get.