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Sawmill Town Now Only Few Old Foundations

W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 22, 2003, p. A12.

In 1902 Kirby Lumber Co. bought 60,000 acres of magnificent virgin pine timber in extreme northeastern Jasper County and built a sawmill at Browndell, 18 miles north of Jasper, to harvest the logs. It was designated as “Mill-S” in Kirby’s alphabet soup of mills, and the town was named after Kirby’s Baltimore financier, John Wilcox Brown and his wife Dell. By 1910 Browndell had a population of 900 people.

Kirby built the new sawmill in a building 60 feet by 214 feet. It was equipped with an endless chain log haul-up to the second floor, steam log kickers, log turners and loaders for its twin log carriages. All were designed by Theodore S. Wilkin, the East Texas sawmill machinist for the E. P. Ellis Co., a sawmill manufacturer of Milwaukee.

The mill was also equipped with two double-cutting band saws, capable of cutting 150,000 feet daily; a 36-gang saw, 36-inch edger and trimmer saws, a drag saw and live rollers. The sawmill burned on Aug. 25, 1904, but the new mill which replaced it was back in service on Aug. 2, 1906.

A large steam engine and boilers were in a separate brick building. The sawmill also had a planing mill with 13 matchers and molders, picket and flooring machines, a sizer and resaw. There were also two large dry kilns and two dry sheds of 100 by 150 feet.

The plant superintendent was J. A. Herndon until 1906 when he was replaced by J. S. Rogers, who formerly had been mill supervisor at the Kirby sawmill at Fuqua in Liberty County. Other mill employees included J. H. McAdams, shipping clerk; N. T. Tolin, planer foreman; J. R. Simmons, checker; M. R. Jelly, commissary manager; and E.W. Galloway, dock foreman.

The Browndell mill employed 300 mill hands and loggers, and shipped 15 cars of finished lumber daily. Its tram road extended 10 miles east to Farrsville in Newton County, and on the west it connected with the Santa Fe Railroad. Its rolling stock included three Baldwin and Shay locomotives and 26 log cars.

In 1912 the Timber Workers Union tried to organize East Texas and Western Louisiana sawmills with no success. In August 1912 there were 30 Texas sawmills and 20 Louisiana mills on strike simultaneously. Much violence, spikes driven into trees and five deaths at Grabow, LA, occurred that month.

John Henry Kirby’s dream, the Burr’s Ferry, Browndell and Chester Railroad, was supposed to retrace the route that Kirby’s father traveled into Texas, but the rails never reached any of the towns mentioned in its name. Chester was on the Trinity and Sabine Railroad, and no common carrier ever reached Browndell or Burr’s Ferry. Kirby’s B.F., B. C Railroad started at Rockland, reached Aldridge, and ended at the Angelina River.

In 1903 Browndell had 30 tenant houses in its white and black quarters and 50 more houses were under construction. It had a large commissary and community hall, with the latter housing the church and school quarters on the lower floor, and fraternal and social quarters on the second floor. The Browndell sawmill burned a second time in 1925, and because all the nearby timber was already cut, it was not rebuilt. Browndell quickly became a ghost town, leaving only a few concrete foundations in the forest. In 1940 the rural farming population adjacent to Browndell still numbered about 150 people.

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