WT Block Jr -- Sawmill Boom Reached Zenith During 1880s
W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, March 24, 2004, p. A14.
During 1881-1882, the East Texas Railroad from Beaumont to Rockland was under construction. Dozens of sawmillers or investors rushed in; they soon discovered that most of the uncut timber already belonged to the Kountze brothers of Sabine Pass, and only very small tracts of 3,000 acres or less were still for sale at inflated prices.
Nevertheless, during the 1880s, 17 sawmills were already slicing logs between Lumberton and Rockland, and rail passengers were never out of earshot of a sawmill whistle.
For instance, the ghost town of Olive was located only three miles north of Kountze, the ghost town of Tryon was only one mile north of Olive and the ghost town of Plank was located only two miles north of Tryon.
The 1952 Handbook of Texas took little note of Plank, observing only that Noble and Sheldon had built a small sawmill there in 1882, at a town generally known as Noble’s Switch. The two principal sawmillers there were not even mentioned, even though Plank was a town of 600 people by 1890.
In 1885 Noble and Sheldon sold out to J. W. Middlebrook and brothers (J. W., Oscar, E. W.). By 1887, Oscar Middlebrook had already doubled the mill’s capacity to 45,000 feet daily, using a 72-inch circular saw, and he also installed a planing mill and dry kilns.
One article of 1889 noted that: “...The Plank sawmill makes a specialty of bridge timbers, cut in considerable quantities for the railroads. This mill has five miles of tramway, a locomotive and nine log cars; employs 60 men, and has pine timber sufficient for 10 years. ...Oscar Middlebrook is the ‘nimrod’ of this region, and keeps a pack of 20 hounds. He is ever ready for the chase...”
And indeed, Middlebrook often took his friends from distant locations on bear hunts in central Hardin County, which lasted for days. In 1889, some of his mill employees included George Ewing, bookkeeper; J. D. Worsham, yard foreman; C. M. Shipman, commissary manager; and E. S. Middlebrook, sawmill foreman.
With their timber finally gone, the Middlebrook brothers sold out in 1890 to J. A. Bentley of Louisiana and E.W. Zimmerman of Orange; the latter had formerly been bookkeeper for the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Co. Bentley increased the tram road to 10 miles in order to reach his timber. He also bought a 22-ton Baldwin locomotive and new log cars to improve his rolling stock. Bentley increased the mill’s capacity to 60,000 feet daily, which was deemed the maximum capacity for the size of his steam engine and boilers.
In November 1896, The Galveston Daily News reported that: “...The mill of J. A. Bentley and Co. at Plank has cut its last log, having exhausted its supply of timber. It will dismantle its machinery and move to Zimmerman, La., where the partners own a large tract of timber. It may take several months to remove the 3,000,000 feet of lumber still stacked on the yard, before dismantling and removal can take place...”
In 1898 the Plank Post Office was discontinued, since most of its residents had already moved elsewhere. Often the tenant houses and some cutover lands were sold to former employees, who had decided to become farmers and ranchers. And Plank, once one of the prominent sawmill towns of Hardin County, disappeared and became only another of the many sawmill ghost towns located in that area.
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