What Made Orange Great: Orange was not a typical sawmill town

Published 6:34 am Wednesday, September 29, 2021

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By Mike Louviere

Orange Leader


In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century in East and Southeast Texas and the western portion of Louisiana if you were not a farmer or were not engaged in some sort of self-employment, you likely worked in a sawmill or the woods cutting timber for a sawmill. It was hard work taking long hours and giving low pay.

If you lived in a sawmill town, conditions were only slightly better than indentured servitude, as an article in the newspaper Rebel pointed out in February 1912. “He (the worker) is born in a company house, wrapped in company swaddling clothes, rocked in a company cradle. At 16 he goes to work in the company mill. At 21 he gets married in a company church. At 40 he sickens with company malaria, lies down on a company bed, is attended by a company doctor who doses him with company drugs, and then he loses his last company breath, while the undertaker is paid by the widow in company script for the company coffin in which he is buried on company ground.”

These words give a rather dismal account of a worker’s short life, but it is not far off from reality.

John Henry Kirby viewed himself as a “father figure, a protector, not only to workers but to the entire American social system. His detractors argue that Kirby’s methods were similar to the plantation system.

Several of Kirby’s towns were closed company towns. Only stores owned by the company or sanctioned by the company could operate there. Workers were paid in July and not again until December. During the unpaid months they acquired debts for rent, for supplies, for merchandise bought in company stores. When they were finally paid, they were paid in company script. At times it took all their pay to pay the acquired debts. They may start the next pay period already in debt.

The company stores set the prices, there was no other store to purchase goods from, at any rate. The employees were paid in script good only at the company store, they had no real money.

In addition, in some towns they were charged hospital fees, insurance fees, and maybe a fee to belong to a union.

Some mills were surrounded by a tall wooden fence giving a fortress like appearance.

One woman said, “The company works the men to death, pays them very little money and what money they have has to be spent at the company store.”

The industry offered more hope than slavery or indentured servitude but there was still economic hopelessness. Workers and their families lived in small nearly unlivable lodgings, were charged rent by the company and if a man was injured and could no longer work, he would be forced to move out of the company house leaving he and his family homeless, and with no income due to him being fired by the company for being unable to work.

Wages were between $1.50 per day for unskilled labor and $2.50 per day for skilled labor and some of the woods and railroad crews. The working hours were 11-hours per day until 1900, then 10 hours per day until WWI, dropping to nine hours during WWII.

If prices dropped the mill owner would often increase the workday to increase production and maintain profits. They often cut the employees pay by as much as 20% to try to keep their profit margin steady. There was no gain for the employees since they were paid by the day, their workday just got longer and their pay less.

In the early 1900s unions began to form, the first was the Brotherhood of Timber Workers (BTW). The mill owners countered this by forming the Southern Lumber Owners Association (SLOA). When labor unrest and strikes started the SLOA countered by closing mills. In 1911, the New Orleans Times Picayune announced that eight mills would close due to unionism. Later that year 22 more mills closed and still later 14 more ceased production.

Mill owners tried to determine the status of employees and union activities by putting Burns and Pinkerton detectives and spies on company payrolls.

One resident of Merryville, Louisiana said, “It was exciting times around here. They actually built a fort all the way around the mill to keep the union out and their mill hands in.”

In 1912, the strike at the Galloway mill resulted in “The Graybow Riot”. When the riot ended three men had been killed by gunfire and several dozen injured. It was the worst and most violent of the strikes involving the SLOA and BTW.

Over the years wages increased slightly and working conditions got a bit better in the mill towns in Louisiana and East Texas. But the work remained hard and the pay lower than in other industries.

Orange was never a town owned by any company. At one time there were about seven sawmills and about 17 shingle mills in and around Orange. Surrounding Orange there were lumber camps and small towns like Texla, Lemonville, and Remlig. The towns out of Orange had company stores but the prices were fair. The mill owners were men that treated the employees with a degree of respect. The hours were long and the work hard but the mills in Orange were good places to work in their time. The owners tried to keep the men employed.

David Wingate had seven sawmills over his career. After each fire, he rebuilt the mill as soon as possible. He wanted to keep his business going and his men employed.

Alexander Gilmer in addition to owning sawmills was the sixth largest merchant in Orange. Gilmer paid his skilled workers $3.50 per day and his unskilled workers $1.50. Gilmer owned a fleet of eight schooners to ship his lumber and later built a short line railroad from his timber lands into Orange. Gilmer was respected as a merchant and had good relations with all who worked for him.

Robert B. Russell was a veteran of the battle at San Jacinto. He came to Orange and entered the sawmill business when he bought the mill from Robert Jackson. Over time he entered other business in Orange and became a respected merchant. He was killed in a tragic accident at his sawmill and was mourned by the entire city.

The Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company at one time operated one of the largest lumber companies in the nation. For a time in Orange, they had two mills, the Upper Mill and the Lower Mill. The company stayed in business from 1880 until about 1933 when they ran out of timber and the country was in the Great Depression. Lutcher bought out Moore and ran the company with his sons-in-law. Eventually his son-in-law, W.H. Stark, assumed management. The family was always concerned about the health and welfare of their employees. Frances Ann Lutcher, the wife of H.J. Lutcher became so concerned about the sawmill employees in Orange being injured in the mills that in 1921 she opened the Frances Ann Lutcher Hospital.

Some of the mill owners in Orange became merchants and some entered civic service. J.W. Link partnered with Leopold Miller, and formed the Miller-Link Lumber Company. Miller became a merchant in addition to the lumber business and Link, who was an attorney, served as mayor of Orange before moving to Orange.

Unlike some “timber barons” who owned the town and their employees and were only concerned with gaining personal wealth, mill owners in Orange gave back to Orange and while they were in business to make a profit, they also tried to be fair with their workers in the mills and the woods.

Unlike some of the company towns in East Texas and Western Louisiana, mill workers in Orange worked for large mill owners who had other business interests. There were some mill owners who had small lumber or shingle mills. Regardless of the size of the mill and the number of employees, there were never stories of mill owners treating their employees in a “feudal” manner, nor was there any labor unrest or strikes.

Most mill workers in Orange felt fortunate to be working in the mills in Orange. They had income that was in line with or slightly higher than the industry standard and fair treatment in the mills.