Lumber Industry

By: Robert S. Maxwell

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: February 15, 2012

Lumber has been manufactured in Texas since the early nineteenth century. Records exist of a number of sawmills, both near the Gulf coast and inland, during the two decades before the Texas Revolution. These were sash mills consisting of a single blade held in a frame and powered by water, animals, or eventually steam, laboriously producing crude lumber one board at a time at a rate of 500 to 1,200 board feet a day. In 1829 John Richardson Harris planned what was perhaps the first steam sawmill in Texas, but he died before completing the project. His brothers William Plunket Harris and David Harris, with Robert Wilson, completed the mill, which operated with success at least until 1833. Antonio López de Santa Anna's troops destroyed it in 1836. After the revolution the increasing demand for lumber encouraged the development of sawmills along the Gulf Coast at Houston, Galveston, Beaumont, and Orange. In the interior of the state a number of mills served local needs in Bastrop, Cherokee, Nacogdoches, Rusk, and San Augustine counties. The 1860 census reported some 200 sawmills in Texas with about 1,200 employees, which manufactured lumber valued at $1.75 million annually. A considerable turpentine and barrel-stave industry had also developed in East Texas. At the end of the Civil War a number of operators built larger mills featuring circular saws that could cut more than 25,000 board feet of lumber a day. Yet in comparison to that of leading lumber states, Texas production was small; the state reported less than 100 million board feet in 1869 and only 300 million a decade later. Until this time most of the pine forest of East Texas remained untouched. Travelers remarked on the magnificent pine stands, the parklike, clean forest floor, and the individual trees often growing to 150 feet in height and measuring more than five feet in diameter.

The next fifty years, from about 1880 to the Great Depression, has been called the "bonanza era" in Texas lumbering. The railroad network developed rapidly and provided transportation to every section of East Texas. Entrepreneurs followed closely behind, establishing complete lumber-manufacturing plants and often tram roads to carry the logs to the mills and transport the finished lumber to mainline railroads. To provide for the employees, often numbering several hundred, the owners also built company towns such as Camden, Fostoria, Kirbyville, and Diboll. In the isolated areas of East Texas, the mill owner was like a feudal baron dominating the lives of his workers and their families. In many operations the company paid the workers not in cash but in merchandise checks, scrip, or tokens that were worth face value only at the commissary or company offices. Thus the dependence of the worker upon the company was nearly absolute. These conditions began to change after World War I, as the automobile and improved communications provided mill workers with more links to the outside world.

Lumbermen Henry J. Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore moved from Pennsylvania to Orange, Texas, in 1877 and built the first "big mill," with a daily capacity of 80,000 to 100,000 board feet. For the next half century, Lutcher and Moore set a high standard for quality lumber, advanced technology, and leadership in civic projects. Soon afterward, such lumbermen as John Martin Thompson, Joseph H. Kurth, Sr., Thomas L. L. Temple, W. T. Carter, and W. T. Joyce built complete sawmill plants, supported by thousands of acres of virgin pinelands purchased at bargain prices, and established themselves as major manufacturers. John Henry Kirby, an East Texas farm boy, rose to become the largest lumber manufacturer in Texas by combining some fourteen sawmills into the Kirby Lumber Company in 1901. He also organized the Houston Oil Company to hold the mineral, timber, and surface rights to a million acres in Southeast Texas. So widespread were his activities that the press referred to him as "Prince of the Pines." His name became known throughout the nation, and he held a number of important industry and government positions.

For the Texas worker the early lumber industry was one of long hours, low pay, and frequent accidents. The United States census bureau listed logging and sawmilling as among the most hazardous of occupations. Until 1913, when the Texas legislature established a workmen's compensation system, any payment for job-related injuries depended on the personal policy of the mill owner or a successful suit in the courts. Hours of labor averaged eleven a day until about 1900, ten until World War I, and nine until World War II. Employers classed most of their workers as common laborers and paid wages averaging $1.50 to $2.50 per day from around 1900 until the early 1920s. Only a few skilled employees-sawyers, edgermen, trimmers, planers, and saw filers at the mill, and fallers, scalers, loaders, skidder operators and railroad personnel in the woods-earned more than common laborers' wages.

Though their grievances were obvious and their wage scale below that of other industries, lumber workers failed repeatedly to organize effective unions to bargain collectively for their advancement. This was partly due to disunity within the work force. Skilled and unskilled workers failed to cooperate, and racial tensions divided the lumber workers. The mill owners also discouraged labor organization. They formed trade associations such as the Southern Pine Association and the Southern Lumber Operators Association to promote their own interests and block the formation of unions, especially the Brotherhood of Timber Workers. In these goals they were uniformly successful until the era of the New Deal.

Many lumbermen such as Robert A. Long of Long-Bell, Charles Keith of the Central Coal and Coke Company, and W. A. Pickering pursued a cut-out-and-get-out policy, cutting all merchantable timber and moving on to a new region, fully expecting that the cut-over area would be converted into farms. Conservationists led by W. Goodrich Jones, a Temple banker, argued that much of the East Texas land was good for growing pine trees and not much else. They demanded that the lumber companies follow a program of selective cutting, sustained yield, and reforestation. To promote these aims, Jones organized the Texas Forestry Association in 1914 and successfully lobbied to have the state legislature establish a state department of forestry the next year. This agency, later renamed the Texas Forest Service, promoted fire prevention and reforestation on public and private lands alike, with increasingly good results.

The Texas lumber industry grew rapidly and in 1907 reported an annual cut of more than 2.25 billion board feet of lumber (third largest in the United States), a figure that has remained a record for the state. During World War I Texas lumbermen cooperated with the United States Shipping Board's effort to build wooden ships for freight transport. The war ended, however, before most of the "pine-built" vessels were completed. In the 1920s lumbering declined, as many companies, large and small alike, exhausted their timber holdings and ceased operations. The Great Depression accelerated this trend, and production fell to 350 million board feet in 1932, the lowest since 1880. During the fifty-year "bonanza" period, lumbermen had logged about eighteen million acres of pine timber and produced some fifty-nine billion board feet of lumber. Most of the virgin pine had been cut, and many operators had moved to new locations, often to the Pacific coast, leaving vast cut-over areas behind them.

Under the New Deal program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Texas lumbermen participated in the drafting and administration of the National Recovery Administration fair-practice lumber code during the brief life of the NRA. The Civilian Conservation Corps fought forest fires, cleared underbrush, and planted pine seedlings in the state forests and other public lands. The federal government purchased more than 600,000 acres of cut-over land and established four Texas national forests. On these and other lands the United States Forest Service and the Texas Forest Service began the long-term task of developing a vigorous second-growth forest that would provide timber, recreation facilities, and an improved wildlife habitat for the next generation of Texas citizens. Slowly, timber production increased to predepression levels, so that by 1940 the state again reported an annual cut of more than a billion board feet. The same decade saw the first successful production of newsprint from southern yellow pine. After Georgia chemist Charles Holmes Herty had developed a satisfactory experimental newsprint pulp in his laboratory, he interested Ernest L. Kurth, Arthur Temple, Sr., and others in establishing a commercial venture to produce newsprint for southern newspapers. This group built the Southland Paper Mills at Lufkin, which began operations in 1940. Thus began an important new industry that spread to other parts of the South. Also, timber growers, large and small alike, had a profitable new market for their pine trees.

The generation after World War II saw a revolution in the Texas lumber industry. The introduction and widespread adoption of the log debarker opened the door for the production of a variety of wood products and the utilization of much more of the total tree. Texas pine now went into laminated beams and other engineered wood products such as particle boards, fiber boards, and wood flour, plus a myriad of paper products and newsprint. In 1964 Arthur Temple, Jr., of the Southern Pine Lumber Company, and the United States Plywood Corporation joined in producing the first plywood from southern yellow pine. Within ten years plywood became a major export of the Texas lumber industry. The new diversification of the forest products industry greatly increased the demand for trained foresters. Before 1946 no Texas institution offered a forestry program, although the state forester had taught some courses at the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University) before 1921. In 1946 Stephen F. Austin State College organized a department of forestry under the direction of W. Robert Owens, who had been trained at Duke University. The program grew to become the Texas School of Forestry, which offers both undergraduate and graduate training, including the Ph.D. In 1937 Texas A&M again authorized forestry courses to be taught in its College of Agriculture, but not until 1969 did the institution establish a department of forest science. In addition to training young men and women for positions in government and the forest-products industry, the faculties of the two universities conduct valuable research on the problems of Texas forests.

The postwar generation also witnessed a significant change in the pattern of mill and forest-land ownership. Almost without exception, the traditional family-owned lumber company gave way to a national or international multipurpose corporation with no local roots. The International Paper Company took over the holdings of the Frost Lumber Industries; Owens-Illinois acquired the Angelina County Lumber Company; Champion Paper purchased the W. T. Carter and Brother Lumber Company; and a subsidiary of Boise Cascade bought out the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company. The Kirby Lumber Company became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, and the Southland Paper Mills became part of the St. Regis Paper Company. Temple-Eastex, a consolidation of the Temple properties, merged with the Time-Life Corporation. With the announced retirement of Arthur Temple, Jr., in 1983, the last of the great Texas lumber families passed from active management roles in the industry that they helped found.

The Texas lumber industry continues to be a large and important contributor to the state economy. As of 1982 lumber and forest products ranked among the top ten manufactures of the state. But relatively, the industry's status is far below its dominant position at the beginning of the twentieth century. Then it was the state's largest manufacturing enterprise, first among Texas industries in generating income, and the largest employer of labor in the Lone Star State. In 1991 loggers cut 460,848,865 cubic feet of pine and 104,527,642 cubic feet of hardwood to produce an estimated 1,134,100,000 board feet of lumber. Employment in 1992 was 31,100 in sawmills, logging camps, lumber, and wood production, 9,700 in planing mills, and 25,200 in paper and allied products.

Ruth Alice Allen, East Texas Lumber Workers: An Economic and Social Picture, 1870–1950 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961). Paul Burka, "The King of the Forest," Texas Monthly, August 1982. Robert S. Maxwell and Robert D. Baker, Sawdust Empire: The Texas Lumber Industry, 1830–1940 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1983).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert S. Maxwell, “Lumber Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 16, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 15, 2012