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Texas Sawmills Once Rolled Out Barrel Industry

W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, April 24, 2004, p. A12.

The manufacture of barrel staves and wooden barrels in America probably dates back to the Virginia and Massachusetts colonies during the 1600s. Foods and cloth shipped from England were packed in wooden barrels, and oak logs for making barrel staves were probably shipped from the colonies to England. However, barrel staves in that age were hewed by hand.

By 1750, wooden barrels were also being made in the colonies. Such barrels stored whiskey during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794; rum arrived at Newport, RI, for the slave trade in wooden barrels; and many foods, such as salt herring and codfish, crackers and hardtack, pickles, lard, cider, apples and many liquids were shipped in such barrels. In 1826 David Crockett nearly drowned when two of his boats, loaded with barrel staves, wrecked on the Mississippi River.

In 1851, the Smith and Merriman steam sawmill at Orange made lumber, shingles, wood pickets, barrel staves, wagon spokes and tool handles (Nacogdoches Chronicle, Aug. 16, 1853). During the 1890s, one factory of the Reliance sawmill at Beaumont manufactured wood lathes, fence pickets, barrel staves and fancy moldings.

In 1900, when the hardwood forests of Europe were depleted, many unemployed barrel stave makers were imported from Europe. There was a barrel stave sawmill located at Shawnee, Texas, four miles from Zavalla in Angelina County. All of the employees were imported from the Yugoslav region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The town became a ghost town after World War I started in 1914, and all products were shipped to Europe for the wine-making industry.

In April 1892, W. F. North and Co. built a stave mill at Liberty, which cut barrels until 1897.

In 1908, T. B. Allen and Co. moved its barrel stave mill from Brookeland to Allen in north Liberty County on the Riverside and Gulf Railroad. Although Allen died in 1915, his sons continued making staves until 1920. The H. G. Bohlssen Hardware Co., cut barrel staves in four different counties between 1907 and 1925.

At one time, wooden barrels were made in Port Neches. In 1902 Central Asphalt (Texaco after 1906) built a cooper shop which made 750 wooden barrels daily for shipping bulk asphalt until 1913.

Sometimes river steamers carried only barrel staves to market. The steamboat Minna was launched at Logansport, LA, in 1897, and in May, 1899, the...Minna, owned and operated by the Austro-American Stave Co. of Shreveport, reached Orange from the upper river with another load of staves for the French wine-making industry...and left today for Sabine Pass...” (Galveston Daily News, May 21, 1899).

Barrel staves were also shipped aboard the earliest freighters to dock in Port Arthur. On Aug. 19, 1899, the steamship St. Oswald began loading 79,000 barrel staves, bound for Rotterdam in Holland. Some companies made only the round ends, called “headers,” for wooden barrels. On one occasion the Crockett (Texas) Heading Company sold 162,000 “white oak bourbon barrel headers” to the Brooklyn Cooperage Co., of New York.

Hence, the manufacture of barrel staves was once a well-known industry in East Texas prior to World War I. And wooden barrel-making is still a leading wood products industry for the whiskey distillers of Kentucky and Tennessee.

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