WT Block Jr -- Alexander Gilmer
Industrialist of Orange, Texas
By W. T. Block
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Orange, Texas produced a dozen eminent wood-processing industrialists, and the writer rates Alexander Gilmer second only to Henry J. Lutcher. Gilmer’s biography is the typical Horatio Alger story, of the immigrant youth who arrived in America without a dollar in his pocket, and who fifty years later died, leaving a million dollar fortune. And like David Robert Wingate his success occurred despite the loss of 5 sawmills to horrific fires and 5 schooners lost at sea.
Alexander “Sandy” Gilmer was born on Sept. 7, 1829 in County Armagh, Ireland, to George and Jane Gilmer, each of whom died when Sandy was quite small, leaving him to be reared by a grandmother. He immigrated to Georgia in 1846, where he made ship masts for the French Government, his brother John being the contractor; in 3 years time he had cleared $700. He promptly lost that when he and his brother built a steamboat, the Swan, which soon sank in the Chattahoochee River. He then helped build a schooner, the Altha Brooks, upon which he sailed for Galveston, and later to Orange.1
Gilmer spent some time as a lumberjack, floating logs in Sabine River as well as making cypress shingles by hand. He soon formed a partnership to build schooners with his cousin, George Gilmer, with a shipbuilder named Levingston, and with the Smith and Merriman sawmill.2 William Smith served 2 terms in the Texas legislature, and John Merriman was Orange County’s wealthiest citizen owning assets of $60,000 and 49 slaves.3 Smith and Merriman began Orange’s first major sawmill in 1851, and by 1859, its “spoke-shaving machine” was turning out wagon spokes and tool handles.4 In 1860 that mill cut 10,000 saw logs into 1,104,000 feet of lumber, worth $14,000, and employed 10 men.5
By 1860 Gilmer had bought out Smith and Merriman’s interest in the schooner enterprise. During that year Gilmer was also enumerated in the Orange County census as a 32-year-old shipbuilder with assets worth $3,000.6 It is uncertain how many schooners Gilmer built during his lifetime, but the writer believes at least fifteen, and that he was still engaged in shipbuilding until the late 1880s. One source noted that in Nov. 1871, “...Mr. A. Gilmer has launched his new schooner from the shipyard of Linford and Co. (located on Pavell’s Island at the mouth of Sabine River)... She is as handsome a boat as there is in the trade, and is an honor to her builders...”7
During the Civil War, Gilmer was one of Orange’s most successful blockade-runners, second only to Henry Scherffius. In partnership with M. J. Kopperl, a Galveston merchant, Gilmer made about 6 successful voyages to Havana, Belize, Br. Honduras; and Matamoras, hauling out loads of cotton, and returning with munitions, gunpowder, medicine, coffee, yard goods, and flat iron. In Aug. 1862, the blockader USS Hatteras captured one of his schooners.8 On Jan. 21, 1863, Gilmer was aboard the Confederate gunboat Josiah H. Bell, during the offshore battle that captured the Union blockaders Morning Light and Velocity.9 In addition Gilmer lost 5 schooners loaded with lumber off the Texas coast, with all hands lost on 2 voyages.10 In Sept., 1891, “...eight schooners, among them several three-masters, majestically sailed up the matchless Sabine... Their points of destination, with only one exception, was Gilmer’s wharf...”11
The writer has felt tempted to reprint Gilmer’s memoirs as they appear in Galveston Daily News of Feb. 11, 1905, but they are a full-column in length and deal principally with Gilmer’s saw milling partnership with James Woods. Hence the writer will include only the synopsis that appears in Vol. 1 of East Texas Mill Towns and Ghost Towns. Also one Gilmer biographer noted that he “was perhaps the largest individual timberland owner in the South. He reportedly owned 50,000 acres of yellow pine timberlands...” Actually by Gilmer’s own admission in 1905, he still owned 60,000 acres of timberland that had never been logged.12
Also many people in Texas and Louisiana owned more than 50,000 acres. In 1905 H. J Lutcher owned about 400,000 acres in Calcasieu, Beauregard, Vernon, and St. James parishes, including 60,000 acres at Lutcher, LA, and 90,000 acres at Wiergate, Texas. In 1900 Wright-Blodgett Lumber Company of Illinois owned 250,000 acres of timberlands in Vernon and Allen parishes. In 1893 William Wiess owned 90,000 acres, and Frank Carroll, also of Beaumont, owned 110,000 acres in Texas and a huge tract in Vernon parish. In 1880 Kountze Brothers owned 240,000 acres of East Texas pinelands, and in 1894 John H. Kirby bought 140,000 acres from a single Houston owner.
During and after the Civil War, Gilmer and his cousin, George C. Gilmer, owned one of Orange’s largest mercantile stores for about 15 years until his cousin’s death. Later the store remained Sandy Gilmer’s personal property.13In 1867 Gilmer bought a 2/3 interest in James Woods’ sawmill, which was located on Sabine River, where later the Orange Lumber Co. plant was built. The little circular mill cut 7,000 feet of “boards and scantlings” during a 14-hour work day, or it could cut crossties at the rate of 10,000 feet daily. During that Reconstruction age, the owners paid $2.50 daily to a sawyer, whose job included filing the saws, repairing the engine, replacing belts, sorting lumber, for there was no grading of lumber in 1867. That sawmill burned down on April 1, 1869.14
Woods was very dejected because he was old, had a family, and was penniless with no insurance. Gilmer told him they would rebuild, and Woods could buy back his 1/3 interest out of profits accrued. The next day Gilmer wrote C. B. Lee and Co. of Galveston to send Gilbert McDonald, a sawmill machinist, to Orange to rebuild the mill. McDonald was accompanied by W. H. Bell, who told Gilmer he would sell him a Cincinnati sawmill that would cut 15,000 feet daily, or else the mill would not cost him a penny. Woods laughed, believing that no existing sawmill could cut that much in one day. The mill was installed on Conway’s Bayou, a short distance down the river from Orange.
The first cut of the new mill reached only 11,000 feet by 3 PM when the mill’s “journals” overheated and had to be shut down. The machinist made all necessary repairs and adjustments, and the next day the sawmill cut 15,000 feet during a 12-hour workday. Realizing he would not get a “free” sawmill, Gilmer wrote a check drawn on Bell, Hutchings, Sealy and Co. of Galveston. That sawmill cut only rough lumber that was air-dried, but Gilmer noted that he and Woods enjoyed a greater percentage of profit then than Gilmer ever did on any succeeding mills.15
Between 1870-1877 the Conway’s Bayou mill had edger and trimmer saws added, which increased production daily to 20,000 feet of lumber or 25,000 feet of crossties. In Jan. 1877, Gilmer and Woods sold out to Charles H. Moore, a major Galveston lumber dealer, and Eberle Swinford of Orange, who converted their property to a shingle mill. Woods moved to Newton County, where he soon died, and Gilmer quickly built his own shingle mill at Orange.16
In addition to his role as lumberman, Gilmer continued in 1877 as one of Orange’s leading merchants.17 He immediately built a cypress shingle mill, and by Aug. 1877 he was shipping 800,000 shingles weekly on his schooners.18 During the census year of 1880, the industrial census reported Gilmer’s shingle mill as capitalized a $35,000; with 35 men working 9 hours daily in winter and 11 hours in summer. Gilmer paid out $10,500 in annual wages, $3.00 daily to skilled employees and $1.50 to unskilled mill hands. He operated two 4-gang saws, 1 circular saw, 3 boilers, and one 150-hp steam engine to make 14,000,000 shingles, worth $32,900. His mill bought its cypress logs floating in Sabine River, and shipped all products on its own schooners.19
In Jan. 1882, Gilmer leased his shingle mill to Sheriff G. W. Michael, who was still recovering from flesh wounds from buckshot. Early in Dec. 1882, the Gilmer shingle mill burned, a loss of $35,000 offset by a $15,000 insurance policy.20 Soon afterward Gilmer replaced his loss with a sawmill that thereafter he operated himself. The following quote described Gilmer in 1887:21
Another article of 1888 explained that Gilmer’s mill was making 40,000 shingles daily in addition to lumber.22 A year later a New Orleans correspondent visited Gilmer’s mill and observed the following:23
Beginning in 1889, Gilmer began acquiring large tracts of timber, at first in North Orange County. In 1890 he became a partner with J. G. and G. W. Smyth and principal stockholder in Sabine Tram Company of South Newton County, with its first company town and headquarters at Laurel, named for Gilmer’s daughter Laura.24
Alexander Gilmer was destined to face the terrible fire fiend three more times during the 1890s. On Feb. 12, 1891, the Gilmer dry kilns caught fire and were destroyed with all contents, a $9,000 loss only partly covered by a $4,000 fire insurance policy. The dry kilns were quickly replaced.25
Only 2 years later on March 15, 1893, Gilmer’s entire sawmill was consumed by fire once more, a $150,000 loss and the worst fire Orange had ever endured. The mill, dry kilns, five million feet of lumber all burned, and the planning mill, although heavily damaged, was only saved because 2 Negro employees endure intense heat while spraying water on it. The loss was only partially covered by a $22,000 policy.26
Despite his huge net loss of $128,000, Gilmer immediately replaced his mill with a new double-cutting band saw and a gang saw. Nevertheless the last Gilmer sawmill fire at Orange occurred on Oct. 3, 1899, only one day before Dennis Call, another Orange industrialist, lost his big mill at Call, Texas to fire. Very quickly everything, sawmill, planning mill, dry kilns, and millions of feet of stacked lumber went up in smoke. Again the net loss was staggering, $150,000, only partially covered by a $40,000 policy. Beaumont Enterprise predicted that Sandy Gilmer would build again, but it was mistaken. Sandy had had his fill of fires at Orange.27
During the 1890s, Gilmer bought or founded a number of retail lumberyards, and most of his production went to those mills, located at Velasco, Beeville, Yoakum, Cuero, Runge, and Brazoria, Texas. His retail businesses were valued at $100,000; Gilmer was also founder and president of First National Bank of Runge, Texas.28
Gilmer’s first marriage was to Etta Reading in 1856; she died within a year, probably during childbirth. His second marriage was to Cleora C. Thomas in 1867, by which he had 2 sons, who died in infancy, and 7 daughters, who survived him. Daughter Laura married Dr. F. Hydra, an Orange physician; Mattie married H. S. Filson, an Orange and Remlig mill superintendent; Cleora to Dr. J. D. Butler, also of Orange; Effie to R. M. Williamson; Eliza to G. H. Terrell; Ollie to R. B. Graham, and Annie remained single.29
Despite his abandonment of saw milling in 1899, Sandy would again return to his first love in 1904, when he bought Lemon Lumber Co. at Lemonville, and he soon built it into a mill with 100,000 feet daily production. When he dictated his memoirs in Feb. 1905, he had also just signed a contract to build a big sawmill at Remlig, Jasper County, where he owned 50,000 acres of timber. He would not live to see the last Alexander Gilmer Lumber Co., which was built at Jasper in 1909. Some time in 1905, Gilmer’s health began to fail, probably from a pulmonary disease, since he moved briefly to Marfa and then to San Antonio, TX. By the early summer of 1906 he was seriously ill, and in company with Dr. J. D. Butler he boarded a Mallory liner bound for New York about July 12, 1906 to seek treatment in New York. He was very ill throughout the voyage, and upon arrival on July 28, he entered St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died on July 30th. He was buried in Evergreen Cemetery on Aug. 5, 1906.30
When he died, Gilmer’s estate was estimated in excess of $1,250,000, a very sizeable sum for that era. He still owned 2 large sawmills of 100,000 feet capacity in Lemonville and Remlig, worth $300,000; he also owned 50,000 acres of timberland, valued at $15 an acre. His will named W. H. Stark as permanent executor at an annual salary of $3,000, and his entire estate was to be divided equally among his daughters. His widow survived him by only 1 year. Nevertheless since three Alexander Gilmer Lumber Co. sawmills would continue to cut lumber for many years afterward, it left his estate without total liquidation until about 1925; this article will continue with information about those mills.31
Even as Gilmer dictated his memoirs in Feb. 1905, his Lemonville sawmill was cutting 60,000-fee daily and harvesting Gilmer’s large tract of pine trees in North Orange County. In 1905 he boosted production there to 100,000 feet with the addition of a band saw and gang saw; Lemonville’s population expanded to about 600 persons. In Oct. 1905, the sawmill was shipping large quantities of lumber to Europe. When Gilmer’s timber was exhausted about 1910, the mill was dismantled and shipped to other Gilmer mills at Jasper and Remlig.32
Gilmer’s memoirs made the first mention of the Remlig sawmill, for he recalled he had just signed a contract with Bancroft, Ross and Sinclair of New Orleans to build a 2-carriage sawmill, with double circular saws on the short carriage and a single band saw and gang saw on the long carriage, with a capacity of 140,000 feet on a 10 hour shift. Remlig was only 4 miles south of Brookeland and 20 miles north of Jasper. Hence Gilmer’s 50,000 acres of timber may have spilled over into Newton and Sabine counties.
Construction of the Remlig mill actually began in Dec. 1904, and the first bill of lumber was cut on Sept. 10, 1905. Harry S. Filson, Gilmer’s son-in-law, was the plant superintendent at Remlig for many years, before he returned to Orange to help liquidate the Gilmer estate. The Remlig sawmill had to build 2 miles of standard gauge railroad to connect with the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad.33
The Remlig sawmill was rated at 125,000 feet daily, but on a long shift could actually cut 160,000 daily. It employed 250 mill hands, with 150 more “flatheads” logging the forest. The town of 190 tenant houses had a population of 900 to 1,000 persons, a commissary, schools and churches for each race, a fully-equipped planning mill and dry kilns, mill pond, 3 locomotives and 80 log cars, with water and electric lights installed all over town.34
The book, The 35 Best Ghost Towns, printed a rose-colored picture of life in Remlig, as follows:35
Mill hands at Remlig had a health and hospital insurance program that cost $1 monthly for single men, and $1.50 for families. The Remlig mill also issued daily “pay checks,” good at the commissary, and once monthly, the daily paychecks remaining were redeemed in cash. Remlig remained in operation until 1925, at which time its timber was exhausted and the mill was dismantled.36
The Alexander Gilmer Lumber Co. that most Orange historians know little about was built at Jasper in 1909. Its 3 founding officers were all Gilmer sons-in-law, Drs. Hydra and Butler and H. S. Filson. One article noted:
The Gilmer sawmill at Jasper was sold to Jasper County Lumber Company in 1923. Indeed, the ghost of Sandy Gilmer remained active as it strolled through the piney woods of Jasper County for 19 years after his death.
The life of Alexander Gilmer was such a Horatio Alger story of success, tempered by the many instances when his sawmills burned, that dozens of people have sought to write about him. His beginning featured that of a lumberjack on Sabine River; shipbuilder; successful blockade-runner to such points as Havana, Belize and Matamoras; schooner fleet operator; merchant; banker; realtor; lumber and shingle manufacturer; financier and retail lumber dealer. He perhaps faced bankruptcy on some occasions, but with a shamrock in his pocket and the luck of the Irish, he always bounced back, even into the millionaire class. And he was certainly Orange’s second wealthiest man when he died in 1906. As a family man, he was a husband and father to 9 children. In view of his 50 years of service to the citizens of Orange, often employing 300 or more of its citizens, it is only fitting that he be permanently honored in the annals of Orange County, and that a Texas State Historical marker should sanctify his gravesite and perpetuate his memory for all time.
1 John H. Brown, Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas (Austin: Daniell, 1894), pp. 195-196.
2 Ibid.; W. P. Webb et al, Handbook of Texas (Austin: 1952), Vol. 1, p. 692.
3 Manuscript Census of 1860, Orange County, Texas, Sched. I, Population, res. 47, 50; Schedule II, Slaves.
4 “Description of Orange County,” (Nacogdoches) Chronicle, Aug. 16, 1853; Galveston Weekly News, May 10, 1859.
5 Manuscript Census of 1860, Orange County, Texas, Sch. V, Products of Industry.
6 Ibid., Sch. I, Population, res. 8; Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas, pp. 195-196.
7 Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Nov. 12, 1871, quoting Sabine Pass Beacon
8 W. T. Block, Schooner Sail to Starboard: Confederate Blockade-Running on the Texas-Louisiana Coast Lines (Woodville: Dogwood, 1997), p. 129.
9 Indian Wars and Pioneers, p. 195; Schooner Sail to Starboard, p. 133.
10 “Memoirs of Alexander Gilmer,” Galveston Daily News, Feb. 11, 1905.
11 “Orange Marine Matters,” Ibid., Sept. 14, 1891.
12 T. A. McKenna, “Alexander Gilmer,” unpubl. typescript, n. p., n. d., p. 4; Galveston Daily News, Feb. 11, 1905.
13 Indian Wars and Pioneers, p. 195; Galveston Weekly News, Aug. 13, 1877, quoting Orange Tribune.
14 “Gilmer Memoirs,” Galveston Daily News, Feb. 11, 1905.
15 Ibid.; Southern Industrial and Lumber Review, Aug. 1906, p. 36.
16 “Gilmer Memoirs,” Galveston Daily News, Feb. 11, 1905; “The Sabine Trade,” Daily News, Feb. 1, 1877.
17 Galveston Weekly News, Aug. 13, 1877, quoting Orange Tribune.
18 Ibid., Sept. 10, 1877, quoting Orange Tribune.
19 Manuscript Census of 1880, Orange County, Texas, Sch. V, Products of Industry, copied by W. T. Block from Microfilm Reel No. 48, Texas State Archives, and published in Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, Vol. IX (Nov. 1973), p. 57.
20 “Orange Fires,” Galveston Weekly News, Dec. 7, 1882.
21 Ibid., Dec. 22, 1887.
22 “Orange County Prospects,” Ibid., Feb. 9, 1888.
23 “Orange, TX: The Sawmill City,” (New Orleans) Times-Democrat, Mar. 22, 1889.
24 “Laurel’s Laurels,” Galveston Daily News, Nov. 22, 1890.
25 “Texas Fires,” Ibid., Feb. 19, 1891.
26 “Gilmer Mill Burns,” Galveston Daily News, Mar. 16, 1893; Galveston Weekly News, Mar. 23, 1893.
27 “Gilmer Mill Destroyed,” Beaumont Journal, Oct. 6, 1899.
28 Indian Wars and Pioneers, p. 195; McKenna, “Alexander Gilmer,” typescript, p. 4; Inventory of the County Archives of Texas, No. 181, Orange County, Dec, 1941, p. 12.
29 Ibid.; J. Swinford, “A. Gilmer: Pioneer Sawmiller, Orange Leader Centennial Edition, Mar. 29, 1936.
30 “Death of A. Gilmer,” Beaumont Enterprise, July 31, 1906; Gilmer Obituary, Galveston Daily News, July 31, 1906.
31 “W. H. Stark is Executor,” Beaumont Enterprise, Aug. 9, 1906; W. T. Block, “Antebellum History of Orange County,” Orange Leader, Aug. 4, 1975.
32 W. T. Block, “Lemonville: A Ghost Town,” Orange Leader, Jan. 25, 2002; Galveston Daily News, Feb. 11, 1905; Beaumont Enterprise, July 31, 1906.
33 Webb, Handbook of Texas, Vol. II, p. 478; “Brookeland Items,” Beaumont Enterprise, Jan. 24, 1905.
34 “The Alexander Gilmer Lumber Company,” Beaumont Enterprise, Mar. 15, 1905.
35 B. Bowman, The 35 Best Ghost Towns of Texas (Lufkin: 1990), p. 303.
36 R. Maxwell, Sawdust Empire (College Station: 1983), p. 142; “Notes on Three Texas Lumber Towns,” quoted in Sawdust Empire, p. 151; M. P. Hancock, “History of the City of Jasper,” typescript, p. 303, in Jasper Public Library; Webb, Handbook of Texas, II, 460.
37 Ibid.; “Alexander Gilmer Lumber Company,” Orange Leader Holiday Edition, Dec. 1910; George Creel, “The Feudal Towns of Texas,” Harper’s Weekly, LX (Sept. 15, 1915), pp. 76-78.