Possum Bluff, a sawmill town

Published 1:31 pm Monday, August 7, 2017

By Mike Louviere

The Orange Leader

In 1890, a town was established on the west bank of the Sabine River, about 10 miles as the crow flies north of Orange. It was a sawmill town, named “Possum Bluff” because of the abundance of the small fuzzy grey animals in the area. For a short time, it would be called “Drake’s Landing”. After the Spanish-American War, the citizens changed the name to honor Admiral George Dewey, The Hero of Manila. The town became “Deweyville.”

The first mill owner was the Newton County Lumber Company. The 160 acre mill site was purchased from Pierre Peter Lavine, who had reportedly traded a team of oxen to H.L. Morris for the land originally. The mill site was on a sharp bend in the river. Some timber was pulled in by teams of oxen and some was floated down the river during the season when the river was high enough for the log rafts to travel. Eventually sawmill employees laid tracks for sawmill trams (narrow gauge railroads) to bring in timber.

Newton County Lumber Company sold the mill to the Smythe Brothers, who in 1897 sold to the Sabine Tram Company. Sabine Tram eventually sold the mill to the Peavey-Moore Lumber Company.

In addition to the tram line, employees of the mill also built homes, schools, stores, and churches. All of the property and buildings were owned by the mill owners, who also controlled everything that went on in the town. The company charged the employees rent on the houses. The church buildings were also company property, but the congregations paid the salaries of the pastors.

There was one church building for both the Baptists and Methodists. The pastors preached on alternate Sundays, attendance each Sunday was usually a mix of both faiths.

Once there was a bond issue proposed to build a new school building. The company objected to the amount of tax it would have to pay, so the bond issue failed. However, the company built a new school, and controlled it. In 1927, the Devil’s Pocket and Hartburg schools combined with the Deweyville schools.

The mill workers worked for $1.50 per day. The workday was ten hours. At Christmas, the workers would be given a bonus of either a $5 or $10 gold piece, depending on the length of service.

A man known as “Poppa Cecil Smith” was the mill superintendent; he also ran the town with the help of “quarter bosses”. The county sheriff approved what went on. There were few that dared to oppose the company. “There was nothing we could do about it—the sawmill was our living—we did not know anything else”, said one man.

During the years that Peavy-Moore ran the mill there were two brothers who were doctors, Charles and Leslie Powell, that ran a medical clinic. Most of their practice was dealing with mill injuries, loss of fingers, arms, and legs were common. The doctors also filled their own prescriptions.

Dr. Walker was a circuit riding dentist that came to town every two to three months.

There was river traffic between Orange and Logansport in those days. Boats would often stop and buy a few supplies or bring things from upriver to the town. For a short time, there was a small shipyard operated by a Captain Price. No trace of the yard remains, but there are rumors of ship skeletons in the river where the yard once stood.

The first blacktopped road in Deweyville was part of the Evangeline Trail connecting Baton Rouge and Beaumont. In 1938, the biggest event to ever occur in Deweyville occurred when the new bridge was opened. The states of Louisiana and Texas cooperated in getting the bridge built and the highway blacktopped. It was said that 7,000 people attended the opening ceremonies. The Orange High School band performed with the famous Bengal Guards marching. There were speeches by elected officials from both states, and a huge barbecue luncheon served by the Deweyville citizens.

The bane of sawmills, fire, caused the end of the Peavey-Moore operation. Richard Bickham opened a small mill on the site in 1949. Bickham’s son in law, Hager Davis operated the mill under a contract with Kirby Lumber Company. The flood of 1953 nearly destroyed the mill. It was able to reopen, but finally shut down in 1954.

The population of Deweyville had been over 2,500. In the late 1940s it dropped dramatically. When the oil and chemical business began to boom in the region, Deweyville began to grow again. The flooding in 2016 put the town underwater and destroyed every business in town. Churches and schools are still recovering along with all the families that lost their homes. Deweyville citizens are resilient and are coming back strong. The history of the town and the determination of its people won’t let it be any other way.

“And now you know”