overview of roles in Mississippi's timber industry, 1840-1915

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The “Division of Labor” in the Mississippi Timber Industry, 1840-1910

I waffled between a discussion of Mississippi’s enactment of the 1850 Swamplands Act and one on the labor roles in Mississippi’s nineteenth-century timber industry. Though the Swamplands Act was the mechanism by which Mississippi acquired much of her forested land to begin with, I’ve opted for an article on the latter. Really, one could—and probably should—write a tome on the convoluted mechanizations used to cull high-and-dry pine country from the national domain under the Swampland Act. A discussion of “timbering” roles during the hey-day of yellow pine is more finite.

At the top of the timber-harvest chain were the loggers and the mill men. Logging men honchoed the felling of the trees and getting the logs to the mills. In the early days of Piney Woods' lumbering, “getting the logs to the mills” meant rafting. Hence, trees along navigable waterways were the earliest cut.

Up until the 1870s, choppers, or axmen, cut down the trees with a single-edge pole ax. In the 1870s-1880s, the “double-bit” ax with two sharp edges replaced the pole ax. The best “choppers” felled fifteen to twenty trees a day, notching a tree on one side of its trunk and chopping on the other. An average chopper felled roughly ten trees a day. Given a man’s height, a felled tree left a three- to four-foot stump.

In the 1880s, the ax man gave way to the sawyer (saw man) when the crosscut saw replaced the ax as the primary tool for cutting trees. Along with the sawyers came a “saw filer” who supervised the saw crews (two men were required for the saw). No longer were high stumps left by the fallen tree—sawyers could cut closer to the ground. [Sorry, but I just can't resist: How much closer to the ground? I'm invisioning two grown men sawing on their knees--or hunkered over and putting a lot of strain on their backs.]

The passing decades meant that felled trees fell farther and farther from the streams used to carry them to the tidewater mills. Before 1900, caralogs (a form of cart/wagon), pulled by teams of oxen, brought the logs to the stream, down which rafters floated them to the mill. Caralogs originally had small diameter wheels with a four inch tread. Usan Vaughan, a slave from Nezan Favre’s plantation in Pearlington, adapted the original caralog wheel to the Mississippi lowlands by widening its tread and expanding its diameter to seven feet. Even at that, the caralog could haul only two to three large logs at a time to streams.

Sometime after the turn of the century, John Lindsey of Laurel expanded the caralog’s axels to four and decreased the diameter of the now eight wheels to under four feet. The wide wheel tread of this “eight-wheel” log wagon remained the same.

One thing that didn’t change over that half century plus was oxen pulled the wagon with a talented master holding their reins. In the low, swampy area of the Piney Woods, oxen did not bog down as did mules and horses, and from my interpretation of source comments, Piney Woods’ children were born driving oxen. Boys twelve to fourteen, who were not yet strong enough to handle felled timber, drove the lumber wagons. Youths or not, oxen drivers were reputed to maintain excellent control over their beasts with no more than a soft voice, a patient hand, and the crack of a raw-hide whip used more for popping than inflicting pain.

As logging moved farther and farther from the waterways, lumbermen built trunk lines or tramroads (on wooden rails) to accommodate engines pulling log trains. Loggers constructed temporary camps along the tram lines to protect sleeping timbermen from sleet and rain.

Once at the waterway, timbermen rafted the logs downstream to the sawmill. The navigable streams would have been used by all timbermen and their respective companies/clients. If I’ve interpreted my source correctly, rafters drove logs downstream much like cowboys drove herds of Texas cattle north to market. In the case of the “log drive,” the timberman with the most logs in the water became the “creek runner,” responsible for getting everyone’s logs to the mill. [Note here: Some timbermen purchased logs from other loggers at the stream--or the beginning of the "drive".]

Streams needed banks four to five feet high to accommodate moving logs. Rafters sometimes had to wait for rain, but in a region with a 40-60 inch average annual rainfall, eventually the rain did come. In all areas, there was at least one stream capable of moving logs. Maneuvering was difficult in small streams where the rise and subsequent fall in water level proved rapid, but despite jams and stranded logs the problems were dealt with. A man walking along the stream bank with a spike pole was usually all that was required to break up a log jam. More difficult were logs marooned in swamps during a flood. These were dealt with in the same manner as newly felled trees—they were moved back to the stream. Time consuming, yes; financially devastating, no.

Rafting methods differed on larger streams such as the Pearl, Leaf, and Pascagoula Rivers where cribs and bull pens (recall my analogy to cattle drives above) were used for floating the logs downstream. Cribs were logs bound together to form rafts and subsequently linked by rope to another crib and another. Bull pens consisted of logs linked end to end to form some approximation of a square pen containing up to one hundred logs. The rafter then floated the entire contraption downstream. Accompanying these larger rafting efforts was yet another crib carrying the cook, who prepared food in iron pots set on an open fire on the floor of the raft. This crib carried the rafters’ bed rolls and personal possessions. And yes, accidents and breakups did occur, but rafting in the Piney Woods was not considered dangerous. Journeys could take days or even weeks depending on distance, flow of the streams, and difficulties encountered.

Logging in the Piney Woods peaked in the decade and a half between 1890 and 1905. By the latter date, most phases of the industry were becoming company controlled—in other words, the company owned the land, conducted the logging, rafting, and milling of the trees. The investment had simply become too great to rely on independent loggers and rafters for the raw material. Additionally, sawmills were no longer confined to the tidewater, but had moved into the interior, deprecating the role of the rafter. Though increasing land ownership and astute business acumen did result in some loggers transitioning from tree cutter to company owner, in other cases, acquisition of land, without the capital to maximize cutting and moving the newly-acquired timber, often bankrupted the new entrepreneur. The construction of tram and rail lines, in addition to specialized milling techniques, proved too expensive for the small timber owner.


The primary source for this article is Nollie Hickman’s Mississippi Harvest, University of Mississippi Press, 1962

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