WT Block Jr -- Huge Sawmill
Once Operated West of Lufkin
W. T. Block
Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, March 13, 2004, p. A18.
From 1902 to1918 the biggest sawmill under one roof west of the Mississippi River was located between Ratcliff and Kennard, Texas, 28 miles west of Lufkin. Its owner was Central Coal and Coke Company of Kansas City (hence, the appellation of 4-C), but it was incorporated in Texas as Louisiana and Texas Lumber Company. By 1900 its “4-C” parent company already owned six sawmills, 48 coal mines, 150 miles of railroads, and employed 10,000 persons.
Mill construction began in 1901 and took one year to complete. Although the company amassed 170,000 acres of pine timber, its timberland buyer was a double-agent, who secretly sold land to other mills. The firm built the 28-mile Eastern Texas short-line railroad to Lufkin, and its first cut of logs came on May 20, 1902.
The two-story sawmill building was 175 feet wide by 486 feet long. The planing mill building was 150 feet wide by 450 feet long, and the sheer size of the buildings created two immediate problems. The interior of the buildings, even in broad daylight, was so dark that artificial light was needed all day. During summer, the interior heat, aggravated by heat generated by the mass of whirling machinery, was unbearable, forcing installation of many large fans.
The sawmill had four bandsaw headrigs, a “rosser” circular saw, which slabbed two sides of each log; and one 53-blade Wickes gang saw, which could slice 52 size 1x12 boards in one minute. Cutting capacity was 400,000 feet daily. The planing mill had 27 machines erected in a straight row. The mills were energized by one 1,200 horsepower steam engine and two 800 horsepower engines, each of which turned a flywheel 27 feet in diameter and more than 50 tons in weight. The mill could cut more than 100,000,000 feet annually, and employed 1,000 workers.
Some of the key personnel in 1904 included Howard Davis, superintendent; G. W. Lake, sawmill foreman; F. H. Brannen, planing mill foreman; J. Kennedy, yard foreman; J. C. Webb, woods foreman; and A. Chandler, dry kiln foreman.
The plant paid out $30,000 monthly in wages, and owned 500 tenant houses. Its commissary, size 65 by 165 feet, employed 15 persons, had overhead wire currency cups; furniture, hardware and dry goods departments; a meat market and slaughterhouse, a feed store and ice cream parlor. Other buildings included the office, churches for three denominations, schools for both races, dispensary, hotel and boarding houses, depot, drug store, movie theater and two community halls.
Other than the railroad to Lufkin, the mill tram road was 25 miles long, with six miles of spur laterals. Four locomotives hauled 129 log cars to the mill daily, and four Shay engines ran on the spur lines. Some 250 loggers labored in the forest.
At Residence 184 of the 1910 Ratcliff census, the main occupant was Thomas Jennings, “showman,” who employed 16 actors, actresses, helpers, and musicians at the opera house.
By 1914, the 4-C mill was already transferring machinery to Conroe, where it’s new Delta sawmill owned 90,000 acres of uncut timber at present-day Lake Conroe. As the 4-C mill reduced its operations, about 500 of its employees moved to Conroe. In 1918 the remainder of its machinery also moved there or to its other mills in Louisiana, and Ratfcliff, once the second largest sawmill in the South, returned to the forest which had spawned it.