It not having been that long ago that I covered the community of Clifton, it is timely to take a look at area sawmills which were prevalent there and elsewhere.
With forests once replete with virgin timber, it stands to reason that sawmills have been commonplace in Washington Parish. My research led to my primary source for this series - a stack of historian Daunton Gibb's articles which, published in The Era-Leader in the 1970s and 1980s, I found sagely squirreled away. Sawmills in Washington Parish numbered around one hundred by 1910.
As the larger sawmills were naturally situated near the railroad, they resulted in the establishment of settlements such as Isabel, Rio, and Zona. Flag stops existed between the towns, with all three having loading switches built in the towns. As one example, to the south of Lawrence's Creek, there was a flag stop known as Jenkins. Its name came from Richard Jenkins who constructed a large sawmill at that location. Conversations with descendants - prominent local businessman Richard Jenkins along with his brother Baton Rouge resident Darryl Jenkins, and their aunt, the late Charlene Spencer - have confirmed this.
The sawmill era ended around 1930; before that, it was a heyday. I received kind correspondence in 2018 from a 1953 graduate of Franklinton High School - Paul White. A regular reader of my column, he inquired about Palestine after I wrote about my great-great-great-grandfather William Brumfield, the postmaster there. Paul informed that he is in possession of a letter dated July 9, 1906, to his grandfather J. M. (Monroe) White at Palestine. Said missive quoted the price on a sawmill, which was situated about two miles to the west of present-day Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church.
According to Paul, his grandfather lived on Silver Creek, where he was residing in 1900 when his wife died. Remarrying, J. M. White moved to Warnerton, sometime between 1900 and 1908, where he ran a sawmill. Paul's father Johnny was born there in July of 1908; tragically, Johnny's mother died the following day. Johnny was raised by an uncle near Stoney Point where Paul, a Baton Rouge resident, today owns property.
Just as with the Jenkins and White families, sawmills are woven into the fabric of many family histories in our area. Perhaps the most famous sawmill to operate in the Franklinton area was the McCreary Lumber Co. sawmill. I have seen it referred to as The McQuarery Lumber Co. though I have taken the two to be one and the same. In an article published in The Era-Leader in 1984, Mr. Daunton detailed The McCreary Brothers mill which was situated on the Bogue Chitto River near the eventual location of the Franklinton town dump.
The McCreary brothers who hailed from Evergreen, Alabama founded the business, building the mill, in 1911. Dudley H. McCreary served as President while W. A. McCreary was Vice President. E. R. McCreary was Secretary and Treasurer.
A large portion of Mr. Daunton's information was derived from the late Arthur D. Roberts, Sr. (1880-1968) who, employed by the McCreary Lumber Co., maneuvered the logs on the river to the sawmill. He rode on the logs themselves, using a log jam pike for balance. And these weren't your ordinary logs. Virgin timber, they measured three to five feet in diameter, at least at one end. Not intimidated by the logs' massive size, Roberts completed his task while attired in shoes and hat. An expert in his field, he never feared falling into the river. He escorted train loads of logs down the deep Bogue Chitto to the mill pond. In the event of a log jam, Roberts took the McCreary Lumber Co. motor boat upstream to dislodge the logs.
Mr. Daunton noted that this was the first motor boat which operated on the Bogue Chitto River in Franklinton, and for years after the mill's closing the hull of the boat, in the mill pond, was visible, partially underwater.
There was a floating log boom which traversed the river to mere feet below the entryway to the pond, at which point back in that day, the river took a sharp turn to the south. According to Mr. Daunton, the river's course was changed, courtesy of both explosives and high water, in the early 1930s to protect Varnado Street from water. Even as late as the 1970s and early 1980s, a small portion of the pond could be visualized between the river and Riverside Shopping Center. The boom stopped the logs floating downriver so that Roberts and his crew could guide them into the pond.
Also working for the McCreary sawmill in his youth was my mother's first cousin, Dr. T. C. W. Magee. As he described in his memoir, "Recollections of T.C.W. Magee, D.D.S. Tulane University Dental School 1922-1927," "Later, when about 15 or 16 years old I did common labor, stacking lumber, pulling trucks of lumber out of hot dry kilns, loading gondola cars by sliding crosstimbers 12" x 12" x 30'and sometimes longer down greased skids, pulling slabs off the slab chain and other sawmill jobs. Some of these timbers were 14" X 14" also and occasionally large "square timber" sticks would run 40' in length."
Dr. T. C. W. feared the demanding mill superintendent Robert "Bob" Riley. He also remembered other employees at the sawmill including Owen Kemp (mill foreman), Slidle Pierce, Sam Brock and Moses Weary
•Stay tuned for next week's column, which will continue with the history of the McCreary sawmill.