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Industry of Bertie County

Forest | Peanuts


by David L. Jennette
"The Windsor Story - 1768-1968" - published by Windsor Bicentennial Commission. Used by permission of Harry L. Thompson

"Widow-maker" was the cry as the pine began to crackle and quiver, and its sheaf of green verged on tottering. Dropping their axes, the stumpers ran sideways to avoid kickbacks of the trunk as the top crackled and swished groundward. It was only seconds before the air was filled with flying chips and the sounds of axes slicing into the virgin pine. Now for a few seconds the woods were tomb-like as everything seemed to be adjusting to the deafening crash. Moments later axes again sounded their rhythm as the giant loblolly was topped and limbed. Soon the squeaks of heavy harnesses, the slow, even plod of the oxen, and the clanks of chain and cart would be heard. The teamster's commands of "Hew, Bright," "Gee, Duke," or "Go long thar" were added to the other sounds as he prodded his team to pull the logs evenly and steadily toward the mill.

The mill was likely a pit-saw rig in the latter part of the 1700's in the Albemarle area. This consisted of simply a pit and a platform with a saw diagonally projected through a slit in the platform. A log was rolled on the platform- and checked into place over the saw slit. The saw resem- bled the present cross-cut and was dra~n by two men, one in the pit and one straddling the log. The pit man pulled downward on the saw and was accredited with doing most of the cutting. The man on the platform simply pulled the saw up to begin the next cut. Many of these type rigs were in operation on plantations and large farms in the late 1700's. Most pit-saw mills in this area were operated by slaves for the owner's use only, but some lumber was sold locally by the owners.

In the early 1800's the pit-saw mills bowed out to overshot and under- shot water-wheel mills. The same sawing principle was employed, but the power was furnished by water. The operation consisted of a dam with a spillway channeling the water to drive a large water-wheel, The principle of this type operation was very similar to the old grist mills in operation around the area at the same time. The turning water-wheel powered the saw up and down slicing the log into boards. This was the first type of operation that required the log to move against the saw. This was accomplished by using ropes and a hand-cranked drum. A "dog ring" was driven in each end. of the log, ropes tied to each ring and the log was wound back and forth along skids as each board was cut. Later, weights were attached to ropes; the ropes passed over a roller, and the ropes were attached to a block which pressed against the end of the log. After each pass of the log through the saw, the carriage had to be cocked back into place for the next pass. Toward the end of the water-wheel era, several parallel saws were operated making several cuts at one pass. Thus, the modern gang saw was first conceived.

Two water-driven mills of this type were in operation in Bertie County in the early 1800's. Nathaniel Hill and James Castellow applied for and received permission from the Colonial Assembly in 1733 to build a grist mill at what is now known as Hoggard's Mill Pond. Several years later a sawmill was added to the operation. This mill probably operated until about the Civil War, but records are incomplete. A combination sawmill and grist mill was also operated at Harden's Mill Pond during the same period. Logs were skidded to the mills or ponds by oxen and mules and floated until used. The water mills cut primarily for local use. A small amount of lumber was transported North by schooner, but commercial operations did not show up in any area of the Southeast until the late l800's.

The mid 1800's was the time for inventions in the lumber industry. Water-wheel mill operations gave way to turbine wheels and steam engines. Circle saws were invented and first used in North Carolina in 1859. Gang saws were developed and the band saw first showed up in 1876. Planing mills and steam dry kilns were improved during this era. Cross-cut saws replaced the axe for felling trees about 1880. Logging railroads began showing up with steam powered skidders to pull logs and load cars and steam locomotives to pull the cars to mills, barge landings, or rivers.

When Greenleaf Johnson Lumber Company moved to Bertie County about 1880, it brought with it many of these new technological advances and began a new era in logging and saw milling. Records indicate that Greenleaf Johnson purchased his first tract of land from the Sheppards on October 18, 1879. This transaction was for "Baltimore" on the Cashie River and Johnson paid four hundred dollars for the one hundred-twenty acres, more or less. Johnson located at what is known as Johnson's Mill, Southeast of Windsor on the Cashie River. Logs were brought to this mill by an extensive rail system servicing the thirty thousand acres of land that they purchased in the Buckleberry, Merry Hill, Big Woods, and Green's Cross sections. Logs were skidded to the rail sidings by oxen and mules, loaded by steam engines mounted on rail cars andpulled by steam locomotives to the mill. Johnson's Mill was one of the first in North Carolina in its use of steam power and circle saws. The objectives of this large operation were purely commercial in nature and almost all of the lumber was shipped to northern markets by barge. Very little lumber was sold locally.

Greehleaf Johnson ceased operations in Bertie County in 1912 and moved the entire outfit to Norfolk, Virginia. Shortly after this, Foreman-Blades Lumber Company of Elizabeth City purchased Johnson's holdings. Foreman- Blades, about 1927, began operating several portable mills on the property along the rail lines. One small mill was located at the old Johnson's Mill site. Lumber from the mills was moved by rail to Johnson's Mill landing, loaded on barges and transported to Elizabeth City for further processing. In the late 1930's, Foreman-Blades phased out the portable mills and railroads. Because of the new bridge across the Chowan River and improved roads, they began hauling logs by truck off their lands to the Elizabeth City plant. During this period, Foreman-Blades purchased a great deal of land, and at the peak of their activity they owned seventy-eight thousand acres of land in Bertie County and surrounding areas. All of the original acquisitions of land were made for the hardwood logs to supply Foreman's original operations, but eventually most of their requirements were pine. In 1941, Foreman-Blades Lumber Company dissolved, and the land was divided among the stockholders according to percentage ownerships. This division began the chain of events which resulted in the eventual loss of influence of the Foreman mill in the Bertie area. The Vernon Blades heirs and the Wesley Foreman heirs are the only associates of the great organization of Foreman-Blades that have retained their land in Bertie County.

On April 23, 1899, Branning Manufacturing Company, a corporation operating large mills in Edenton and Columbia, began operating a steam driven band sawmill in Ahoskie. The owners, J. W. Branning, C. E. Branning and Horton Corwin, were Pennsylvania men who came to exploit the vast timber resources of the Albemarle area. These far-sighted men and this great organization perhaps had as much to do with the development of this area as any industrial operation up until the present.

Preceding the mill by several months, Branning invested in the Welling- ton and Powellsville Railroad. Wellington was located about twelve miles from Windsor on the Cashie River. Previously, logs were transported from lower Bertie by "bogey" tracks to Jacocks Landing (Wellington) and carried by barge to Edenton and Columbia. Then the idea was conceived for a mill in Ahoskie, the line was extended through Powellsville to Ahoskie, and this provided rail transportation for all of lower Bertie North. At Ahoskie this railroad tied into the Atlantic Coast Line for shipments of lumber to northern markets. The only transportation of freight, passengers, and mail previous to these developments was by boats to Edenton and Norfolk.

Branning's operations in Edenton and Columbia had purchased large tracts of timber in lower Bertie County, and this timber was carried by rail and barge to these mills. The purchase of the large Askew Tract near Powellsville prompted them to move into Ahoskie. As many as six locomotives operated on their woods or "bogey" tracks daily to supply this new mill with its requirement of from forty-five to sixty thousand feet per day. Lines were extended to Buckleberry and Merry Hill, and Branning purchased the boats "The Bertie" and "The Mayflower" that served old Bertie so faith- fully. The transportation facilities that Branning promoted greatly benefited the agricultural community and linked an isolated area to the fertilizer and commodity markets in the North.

Tne new mill and railroad represented an investment of a quarter million dollars by the Brannings. Employment of more than one hundred men and all of the related workers in the woods operations resulted in a fantastic payroll for the period and Bertie. Branning was in operation continuously for over twenty-five years, and during all that time the economic life of Ahoskie and northern Bertie County was built around them. No single operation has yet come along to equal the contributions that the "Big Mill," as it was known, made to Bertie and the area.

About the time these big mill operations began phasing out in this area, smaller permanent-type mills began showing up around the county. Technology allowed many portable operations to develop and operate efficiently throughout the first thirty years of the 1900's, but no reference will be made by name to these. Many permanent mills were operated for years in other parts of the county, but comments will be restricted to only those operations of a permanent nature in and around Windsor.

Gatling Manufacturing Company was formed about 1908 and a steam-operated mill was located on the Cashie River at the present site of Coulbourn Lumber Co., Inc. Catling manufactured hardwood coopcrage initially, but later cut pine and hardwood lumber. Mr. E. L. Gatling formed the company and operated the mill until 1928.

Mitchell Lumber Company located at the Mitchell Farm near the inter- section of the Ahoskie and Aulander highways. Mr. Mitchell owned a building supply house in Windsor, and this mill cut his lumber requirements for the building supply business. Mitchell Lumber Company operated between the dates of 1911 and 1942 and was supposed to have had the first Diesel operation in Bertie County.

E. Rhodes and Company began their operations about the same time as Mitchell. Mr. Rhodes located at the present site of Southeastern Timber Company in Bertie. This was a steam operation and manufactured pine lumber primarily. E. Rhodes and Company operated until 1938, and Rhodes Brothers Lumber Company continued the operation until 1961.

Thompson Lumber Company was formed in 1922 and located just out of Windsor on the Aulander Highway, their present site. The mill was originally formed to cut railroad crossties for Branning Manufacturing Company in Ahoskie. When Branning ceased operations in 1924, Thompson continued to operate on his own. In the late 1930'5, Thompson began to specialize in the manufacture of cypress lumber and has continued this up to the present. This mill has operated continuously throughout the years and has recently expanded.

Coulbourn Lumber Company, Inc., located in Windsor at the Gatling Manufacturing Company site in 1928. The Coulbourn brothers had several going operations in Virginia at the time and decided to move one of the mills to Windsor. From the beginning, the operation has been oriented toward the manufacture of pine lumber, Their original power source was steam and diesel, but now the mills are almost entirely electric powered.

Carolina Cooperage Company located in Windsor in 1932. Their steam, electric, and diesel mill has manufactured pine cooperage at their original site for thirty-six years.

White and Lassiter Timber Company located their steam-powered mill at the Cashie River near Hoggard's Mill Pond. This mill was operated from 1934 to 1941 and manufactured hardwood lumber for export to Europe.

Winfield Spruill Lumber Company was located near the intersection of the Woodard and Williamston roads in the mid 1930's. This small, pine mill operated until the early 1950's.

Taylor Lumber Company, located near Midway, operated from 19~7 until 1965. This was a steam-powered operation and cut mostly pine lumber.

C. H. Gillam Lumber Company was located just out of ~indsor on the Edenton Road at the present site of Bertie Stave Company. Gillam operated this pine sawmill,from 1940 until 1955.

Wheeler Lumber Company was formed by Mr. George Mardre and Mr. Wheeler Cooper and located just North of Windsor on the Lewiston Road. This diesel- powered mill operated from 1941 to 1948 and manufactured pine lumber.

Lea Lumber and Plywood Corporation first came to Windsor in 1945 and located at their present site on the Aulander Road. The initial operation consisted of a pine sawmill, but in 1948 a hardwood plywood plant was constructed. The pine sawmill ceased its operations in 1964, but the plywood plant continues to be one of the area's largest manufacturing plants.

Windsor Veneer Company came to Windsor in 1946 and located near the bridge to Bertie, In 1949, this became Stubbs Veneer Company. The goal of this operation from the beginning has been to manufacture quality, hard- wood veneers for the furniture industry.

Blue Grass Cooperage Company first began operating in 1957. They cut white oak logs and manufactured staves for whiskey barrels. When Blue Grass ceased operations in 1964, Bertie Stave was formed and continues to operate with the same manufacturing objectives. This mill is located just out of Windsor on the Edenton Road and uses diesel power.

White Lumber Company originated in 1958 and located on the Askewville Road just off the Aulander Highway. This pine sawmill operates with diesel power.

Southeastern Timber Company, a hardwood, furniture square manufacturer, is located at the old Rhodes Brothers Lumber Company site in Bertie. This is the newest addition to the wood-using industry in the area, and recent expansion makes it appear extremely permanent.

Some of the mills discussed previously were originally ground or portable mills, but all of them were permanently situated and modified. If any local sawmilling operation of a permanent nature has been overlooked, it has not been intentional. Many other mills, both permanent and portable, were in operation throughout the county and made the same contributions as some of the local, permanent outfits.

The "Giants," the pulp and paper mills, must be mentioned while attempting to portray the overall picture of the development of the wood-using industry. Camp Manufacturing Company of Franklin, Virginia, was the first of the "Giants" to make their presence known. They have never had a manufacturing plant in the area, but their large land holdings and the market for pulpwood that they created have had economic effects. Camp later merged with Union Bag Corporation to become the present Union Camp Corporation. Also, Weyerhaeuser Company's operations, formerly North Carolina Pulp Company, in Plymouth, have had economic effects. Weyerhaeuser has brought more money into the area than the others, because of their location. Albemarle Paper Company's interest, locally, has been in forest land only up to the present.

Within the immediate area of Windsor at the present time, we have one pine sawmill and planing mill, Coulbourn Lumber Company, Inc.; one plywood manufacturer, Lea Lumber and Plywood Corporation; one cypress lumber manufacturer, Thompson E Company; one furniture s9uare plant, Southeastern Timber Company; one veneer mill, Stubbs Veneer Company; one pine cooperage plant, Carolina Cooperage Company, and one white oak cooperage plant, Bertie Stave Company. Each of these existing plants require different types and quality logs to some extent, and the diversification indicates strength to some degree. Nowhere could one find a more complete outlet for almost any forest product.

Through the years Bertie County has been widely known for its productive forest lands and quality forest products. These forests have yielded tremendous volumes of products. Lumber has been the primary product, but cypress and cedar shingles, pales and piling, pulpw00d, cooperage, turpentine, veneer, plywood, furniture squares and other products have been a part of the forest yields. These yields have not ceased for over two hundred years. The wood-using industry has exploited these resources beyond reason in many cases; but overall, the industry has played a major role in the development of Windsor and Bertie County. The industry has promoted utilities more than any other concern. It was responsible for linking Bertie and Windsor to the outside world originally; it has brought fantastic amounts of money to the area and created markets for the forest products of the land- owner; the industry has provided more jobs for local labor than any other industry, except agriculture; the forest industry has provided a market for woodsland, the sale of which has resulted in the expansion of other businesses; and now the forest industry is embarking on a great movement to recover the productivity of Bertie's forests through reforestation of depleted lands. It is extremely fortunate that the forest resource is the only major natural resource that is renewable, and conditions are favorable for the continued influence of the forest industries in the development and future of Windsor and Bertie County.

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