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Sawmill town Bessmay gave its life to fire

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday August 21, 1999.

In 1901 the newly chartered Kirby Lumber Company planned a new industrial complex to become the "brightest star in its galaxy of sawmills;" also to be known as "Mill R" in its alphabet soup of mill identities. The new town, 2 miles north of Buna, was named Bessmay, after Kirby’s only child.

Construction began early in 1902, and by Sept. 1903, the town of Bessmay was finished. The sawmill contained 2 double-cutting band saws and a 52-gang saw, that could slice 240,000 feet of lumber in ten hours, or double that amount if a night shift were operated.

The powerhouse contained 2 huge steam engines, one of 1,000 hp. The other engine of 400 hp. turned 2 dynamos, generating 300 kilowatts of electric power. The planning mill had 10 machines it it, all geared to electric motors, for Bessmay was designed to be the nearest thing to an "all-electric" sawmill of its age.

The town also had a large mill office, commissary, post office, physician’s office, and hotel. The 200 residences of Bessmay were segregated into white and black sections to conform to the living patterns of that age. W. H. Preston was the first mill superintendent.

In 1907 the Bessmay sawmill cut 58 million feet of lumber, which probably was its banner year. By 1918, production was down to 46.5 million feet, and its 716 mill employees were paid a total of $452,000 in wages.

Bessmay was built on swampy land, and after a rain, employees had to wear rubber boots to work because of the muddy streets. Nevertheless many men spent a lifetime working there. Dave Bird, who began as band sawyer in 1905, was promoted to plant superintendent in 1929, and filled that post until 1942. Joe Marriott, who began as chief carpenter in 1903, still held that title in Nov. 1935, the month that Beaumont Enterprise published 4 articles about Bessmay, as follows:

"...People in Bessmay 25 years ago were much different than today. There was no law here then, every man making his own law. The superintendent wore a gun, and many residents also.... Boys who stayed at the hotel shot at box cars on the siding... Once they saw something running out... it was whiskey dripping from a bullet hole in a barrel..."

By 1935 some Bessmay streets were blacktopped. Houses had electricity and running water, and employees paid a nominal monthly rent. Company-filled medicine cost 10 cents for one prescription. The grammar school had 5 teachers, but older students were bused to Buna schools.

In 1935 A. W. Dainwood was assistant superintendent, who later replaced Dave Bird. R. E. Vandeventer was sawmill foreman; Jack Hatch was planer foreman, and Nolyar Hatch was dry kiln foreman.

Jack Owens was the last plant superintendent when the sawmill burned on May 10, 1950. The 350 plant employees were transferred to Silsbee and elsewhere, and Bessmay, where 1,200 people lived in 1948, gradually became a ghost town.

If you should encounter Mrs. Marjorie Bridges of Beaumont, Mrs. Guy Richardson of Nederland, or Mrs. Marjorie Haire of Buna, either could tell you what teenage life was like in old Bessmay. Fortunately for the sawmill historian, the microfilm of Beaumont Enterprise contains a long series of wonderful Bessmay articles, beginning in 1905 and ending in 1950.

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