Saturday, November 23, 2013

Texas Conference Strips $7000 From Beaumont District Salaries Thanks to Contribution from Mill Owners

This Week in Texas Methodist History November 24

Texas Conference Strips $7000 From Beaumont District Salaries Thanks to Contribution from Mill Owners  November 24, 1922

The Texas Annual Conference met in Cameron from Nov. 21-25, 1922.  The report of the Finance Committee is of particular interest because it sheds light on a practice of the day that seems strange in today’s world.  The Finance Committee allocated the Beaumont District $7,000 less for preacher salaries than the other districts because lumber companies paid that amount to preachers in company towns.

To understand how the system worked we need to go back to the 1880s and the era of the industrial exploitation of the southern pine forest.  Logging on an industrial scale had its American origins in the northern forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, but by the 1890s those forests were depleted, and the nation turned its eyes southward to meet the demand for lumber and other forestry products. East Texas was crisscrossed with railroads so loggers were no longer dependent upon rivers for floating logs to a mill, lumber companies could erect mills in the forest and bring logs to them on narrow gauge railroads, often called trams.  Trams could then move the finished lumber to mainline railroads.  After the trees were cut in an area, the whole operation could easily be moved to a new location where the process would repeat itself.  

Besides erecting the mill and the rails, the company would also have to build a town for the employees.  The town would include housing—single family dwelling for management and families, and dormitories for single men;-- a company store, and often a church and school.  The store provided basic grocery and household items in exchange for the company scrip or tokens with which the workers were often paid.  The mill owner presided over the company town much like a feudal baron.  

In many of the company towns the preacher was considered a company employee much like the mill hands.  Former mill superintendent W. A. Smith of the Sabine Tram company in Deweyville told an interviewer, that his company’s policy was to hire preachers like any other employee, and make sure that they confined their preaching to acceptable topics.  If the preacher had picked up any Social Gospel tendencies about labor unions, he had to keep quiet about them. 

My grandfather, W. W. Hardt, was appointed to a typical sawmill circuit at the 1919 Texas Annual Conference.  Keltys was the head of the circuit which included churches at Jack Creek, Clawson, Wildhurst, Wells, Chancey, and Durant.  All seven of the churches on the circuit were saw mill towns.  Five of them were in northern Angelina County and two in southern Cherokee County.  Seven mill towns and seven churches in such a small area of northern Angelina and southern Cherokee County!  That sounds like quite a concentration, but it was the norm in the Piney Woods.  

My grandfather’s letters from Keltys reveal that in addition to providing worship services, marrying and burying, he also distributed Christmas presents to the mill families.  Such holiday celebrations were fairly standard in mill towns.  Each child usually got sack of candy or piece of fruit, and families often received a turkey.  Company documents reveal that the Kirby Lumber Company bought 2600 turkeys for Christmas in 1922.  

The “bonanza era” of Texas forestry came to an end in the 1930s.  The oil boom created demand for timbers for derricks and plank roads, but the tram railways were replaced by logging trucks and many mill hands found employment in the oil fields.  Some of the company towns closed abruptly.  Others died a lingering death, but some East Texas mill towns like Diboll, Buna, Warren, Wiergate and others have survived into the present.   There are many United Methodist Churches in East Texas that can trace their origins to their establishment in a company town with the preacher’s salary paid by the mill owner.

Here are some of the Beaumont District charges in the timber belt.   Batson and Saratoga, Browndell and Remlig, Buna, Burkeville Circuit, Deweyville, Doucette, Hull, Jasper Circuit, Kirby & Bonner, Newton and Call, Pineland and Brookeland. Warren, Wiergate  Similar lists could be compiled for the Texarkana, Timpson, and Marshall Districts.


Post a Comment

<< Home