Before Spindletop
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THE SAWDUST CITY IN THE 1880s:
BEAUMONT BEFORE SPINDLETOP

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, Sept. 3, 1978.
Sources:   "Beaumont's Big Business," Galveston DAILY NEWS, FEB. 15, 1888, and other "News" and New Orleans "Times-Democrat" articles reprinted in W. T. Block, EMERALD OF THE NECHES: THE CHRONICLES OF BEAUMONT, TEXAS

The myth that Beaumont was never more than a one-horse, two saloon cowtown prior to the Spindletop Era fades rapidly when one reviews that community's accomplishments during the 1880s. Not only did Beaumont acquire self-government and city status, but that decade also marked the beginning of utility services and the diversification of industry, breaking the stranglehold that lumbering had acquired.

Nor can the advances of transportation be overlooked, for the railroads spurred the phenomenal growth of the city. Beaumont's population doubled, from 2,000 to 4,000, between 1883 and 1888, and doubled again, from 5,000 to 10,000, during the decade of the 1890s. By 1895, five rail systems crowfooted in all directions from the town.

Large-scale lumbering began in 1876, and by 1878, the Centennial, Reliance, Eagle, Beaumont Lumber Company, and Adams and Milmo sawmills were sawing up timber in ever increasing amounts. For instance, the Eagle and Reliance mills had just installed in 1878 the latest in circular and gang saws, giving those lumber companies sawing capabilities equal to any sawmill in the South. The Long Manufacturing Company was making 175,000 cypress shingles daily, its "O. K." brand soon becoming the shingle industry standard by which all others were measured. By 1882, three lumber planing mills had been added, and it appeared that the city's economic future would be forever linked to timber-processing. Beaumont and Orange soon won international recognition as the lumber hub of the South.

In 1884, the town's daily manufacturing capacity amounted to 240,000 feet of rough lumber, 200,000 feet of dressed lumber, 200,000 shingles, 24,000 fence pickets, and 45,000 feet of moulding. Sawmills covered the river front from the present-day dock area, near the courthouse, to a point where the Neches River bridge crosses Brake's Bayou. Stacked lumber and mountains of shavings and saw dust filled the intervening spaces, even the vacant lots in the business district. Industrial boilers burned huge quantities of sawdust; citizens hauled away vast amount of logs slabs and waste for firewood and fencing, but nothing ever seemed to dent the high mounds of lumber waste products. Another facet of the timber industry were the Beaumont Boom and the Neches River Boom companies, which trapped thousands of saw logs in their floating "pens."

In 1885, the "sawdust city" manufactured 45 million feet of lumber and shipped 3,880 cars of timber products, increasing to 4,801 cars in 1886. But the next two years witnessed even larger investments for new and improved machinery. In 1886, four Beaumont mills manufactured and sold 95 million feet of lumber and 40 million shingles. Of 16,155 box cars of lumber billed from the city in 1888, more than half were shipped from the Beaumont mills, while the remainder originated from mills located in Hardin and Tyler couties. In 1889, rail shipments from the Beaumont mills alone increased to 10,548 cars. In addition, large shipments also moved by barge to Sabine Pass for trans-shipment to foreign and coastwise ports by schooner.

Industrial diversification began in 1883 when E. C. Ogden and J. J. Crichion founded the Beaumont Iron Works, Inc. Catering principally to the railroads and sawmills, the new business comprised a complete foundry, machine shop, pattern shop, and auxiliary departments, specializing in castings and chilled car wheels. In 1889, the New Orleans "Times-Democrat" recorded that the business of that firm:

". . . Extended all over the Southwest and parts of Louisiana. The works of this company present a most active appearance day and night, using electric lights at night throughout their many buildings, a fact that no other institution of its kind in the state of Texas can boast of. In connection with their regular business, they carry a large and varied stock of pipe, fittings, valves, pumps, boilers, engines, and shaftings."

In 1888, Beaumont and outside capital invested $1 million in factories, brick buildings, and other improvements in the city. If that figure seems insignificant by today's standards, one must remember that sawmill laborers earned only $1.50 for an 11-hour work day, and in 1875, the real and personal property assessments of Jefferson County totaled only $1 million.

In December, 1887, the Galveston "News" complimented Beaumont on its achievements, observing that:

"While Beaumont does not claim to be on a regular boom, there is abundant evidence of a steady and healthy growth. The people are alive to the interest of public improvement. They have fine schools, good church buildings, and are negotiating for city waterworks. They have a homestead and loan association with a capital of $100,000, an enthusiastic fire department, and the Beaumont Histrionic (theatrical) Society, in which some of the actors have served for about six years and have become quite proficient. Mr. E. L. Wilson, the live hardware man, is putting up a handsome, two-story brick building."

Because of the sawmill hazards and mounds of sawdust everywhere, Beaumont was always a fire-conscious community, maintaining at all times from one to three fire, or "hook and ladder," companies. With a high wind, a single conflagration could have devastated the water front, hopscotching from mill to mill or sawdust mound to dwelling. In June, 1885, the city purchased its first steam fire engine, and each of the large mills had its own hose and sprinkler system for self-fire protection.

Fortune favored the community, however, for over a 50 year period, only three sawmills, the Ross and Alexander mill in Feb., 1859, the Pipkin Mill Company in 1873, and the Beaumont Lumber Company in 1902, succumbed to flames. During the same time span, at least eight or ten sawmills burned at Orange.

Probably the most welcomed of the new companies of the 1880s was the Beaumont Ice, Light, and Refrigerator Company. This firm was organized in June, 1888, composed of local and outside investors, who spent $100,000 in facilities which required eight months to complete. O. J. Gorman came from Pennsylvania to superintend construction and remained as secretary and general manager of the new company.

A single battery of 400-horsepower boilers, fueled by sawdust, powered all five departments of the business. In 1889, the "Times-Democrat" described the new facilities in great detail, as follows:

"1. An electric light system of arc and incandescent dynamoes and circuits, run by an automatic engine. The lights of this company are extensively used in the city.

"2. A waterworks system, comprising a stand-pipe 120 feet high, 1 million gallons pumping capacity and about five miles of pipe distribution.

"3. An ice plant, conprising two 10-ton ice machines. The machines stand side by side, but are separate and distinct in their construction, and interchangeably connected, so that either machine can do the work of the other.

"4. The refrigerating department consists of six cooling rooms of 270,000 cubic feet, interchangeably piped for cold brine circulation. This department can handle 200 beeves daily, and their slaughtering room will be somewhat removed from the refrigerator and will have all the necessary facilities to do its work.

"5. This gigantic company also runs one of the finest steam laundries in the South, containing all the latest improved machinery and appliances."

In addition to its slaughtering department, the ice company owned two pastures and cattle herds in the county and refrigerated barges, which supplied cold beef to neighboring communities and to the merchant fleet docked at Sabine Pass.

During the same decade, brick construction in the business district became the fashionable trend. Although Beaumont was surrounded with an abundance of ceramic clays, brick-making had been delayed due to the competition of cheap and sturdy yellow pine lumber. In the fall of 1889, Nicholas Blanchette built the first brick kiln north of the city. And a few weeks later, the editor of the "Enterprise" visited the new facility, leaving the following description in a reprint from the Galveston "Daily News:"

"The bricks are machine-made, and the occasion of the first visit was to see the first brick made by steam power. The trial was very successful, and the machine made at the rate of 60,000 bricks in ten hours --- good, clean-made bricks. When at steady work, the machine will be regulated to make 25,000 bricks a day. This machine is supplied with clay by an elevator, and all appliances to save labor and time are in use."

The number of new brick buildings spoke well for the city's retail outlets, and that segment of Beaumont's early fiscal well-being dare not be overlooked. In April, 1889, the "Enterprise" published the following figures regarding retail sales for the year 1888, as follows:

"The dry goods houses of Schwartz Bros., Leon R. Levy, H. Solinsky, F. Hecht, E. Morris, and S. C. Pittman make annual sales of at least $220,000. The stores attached to the mills alone turn over merchandise in the neighborhood of $325,000."

"The grocery stores of V. Wiess, White and Petty, Leon R. Levy, J. M. Walsh, Will S. Hart and Davant and Bulgier make merchandise sales amounting to $180,000. Our two hardware stores of E. L Wilson and Co. and J. H. Eastham sell upward of $120,000 annually. The pay rolls of our manufacturing businesses foot up to $21,000 monthly."

Certainly the foremost of the merchants was Valentine Wiess, of whom the Galveston "Daily News" of Feb. 15, 1888, recorded the following:

"One of the most useful men of this part of the state is Mr. V. Wiess. Though self-made, he is a refined, polished, and well-read gentleman. In connection with a large wholesale and retail grocery business, he conducts an extensive banking system and at the same time acts as agent for thirteen of the standard fire insurance companies doing business in Texas. Mr. S. Lederer is at the head of the grocery department. Over Mr. Wiess' bank is the office of the East Texas and Louisiana Lumbermen's Association, of which Mr. Wiess is the president . ."

V. Wiess and Co. operated as a commission business, dealing in cotton, hides, and commodities and wholesaling to the upcountry merchants; a retail grocer as well as complete hardware and dry goods departments; an insurance broker as well as the town's only clearing house for letters of credit and commercial paper. Wiess was also Beaumont's largest real estate owner and tax payer, as well as president of the lumber association and of the Reliance Lumber Company sawmill. In 1889, he became the first president of the First National Bank, which under its newest name, survives as the county's third oldest, continuously operated business. In April, 1889, the "Enterprise" stated:

"Beaumont will soon have a national bank with $100,000 paid up capital ....The ice works will begin in full blast next week....Beaumont now has 5,000 inhabitants. . ."

The same decade witnessed the founding of three weekly newspapers, the "Enterprise" in 1880, the "Journal" in 1889, and the "Advertiser" in 1888, but the later folded after only a few years. Now well over a century old, The Enterprise Company survives as Jefferson County's oldest, continuously-operated business.

During the 1880s, the town's professional ranks also doubled, from 9 to 19, increasing to ten lawyers, six physicians, and three dentists. As of 1879, the "sawdust city" could support only four lawyers, three physicians, and 2 dentists.

It is an amazing fact that prior to 1888, Beaumont had no industrial establishment for processing agricultural commodities. And as late as 1905, there was still no cotton gin there, although one had existed in Beaumont before the Civil War. Prior to 1892, however, the county really had no agriculture of any kind that was worthy of the name, the few rural residents being principally stock raisers. In 1879, Beaumont had only one farmer of note living within a five-mile radius, and 80% of the town's produce, including corn, was imported from the Houston and Galveston markets. Even after 1892, when large acreages were devoted to rice, the new interest in agriculture did not carry over to any other crop. In 1900, a spokesman for Jefferson County farmers said: "Why, bless you, we raise no cotton and mighty little corn. Too expensive, too hard work! . . ."

The year 1892, however, unleashed a rice farming craze in Jefferson County that doubled and tripled prairie land prices in a span of three years. The county's rice production mushroomed rapidly thereafter, from 1,500 acres in 1892 to 54,000 acres in 1904.

The county's second oldest, continuously-operated business and oldest industrial establishment is the Beaumont Rice Mill. In July, 1888, C. L. Nash and J. K. Price organized the Beaumont Roller Grist Mill at the corner of Main and Forsythe Streets, and for the next five years processed only corn and some wheat. During 1890-1891, Joseph E. Broussard purchased a one-half interest in the firm, and after acquiring control of it, changed the name to the Beaumont Rice Milling Company.

In August, 1893, Price, Nash and Co. announced that it would add a rice mill, of 240 sacks daily capacity, on vacant property adjacent to the grist mill, and by December, 1893, the new machinery was in operation, or about one month after the Orange Rice Milling Co. opened for business of Nov. 8, 1893. In 1899, the capacity of the Beaumont Rice Mill was increased to 400 barrels daily. The third rice mill in the entire state, it was second only to the Orange mill and the Texas Star Rice Mill in Galveston.

By 1900, Beaumont could boast of having three of the state's eight rice mills located within its limits. In October, 1900, Gustave A. Jahn completed the 400-barrel Atlantic Rice Mill at the intersection of Main and Washington Streets. In the same year, Frederick Hinz erected the 1,200-barrel Hinz Rice Milling Co. on the block south of the courthouse.

In December, 1905, the Beaumont Rice Mill added a new 1,200-barrel mill on Pecos Street in the west end of the city. But the fire menace which the lumbermen had been so fortunate to evade was soon stalking the rice millers. In Oct., 1905, the Hinz Rice Mill burned to the ground, a $175,000 loss, and late in Oct., 1906, the new Beaumont Rice Mill also went up in flames. Both facilities eventually were rebuilt.

Another early firm also worthy of mention was the Beaumont Pasture Company, incorporated in 1887 by William and Perry McFaddin, Valentine Wiess, and W. W. Kyle (the grantees of many deed records of the 1870s was the Beaumont Pasture Company). In the region extending from Spindletop to Sabine Lake, the proprietors operated a 60,000-acre ranch so completely surrounded by water that only nine miles of fence were required to complete the enclosure.

The cattlemen ran a herd of 10,000 heads within the ranch confines and owned several thousand heads on another ranch in Greer County. They also introduced the first thoroughbred Brahman and Hereford bulls for upgrading their herds, and owned an orchard of 1,000 orange trees. In 1893, the partners sold about 40,000 acres of that land to the Kansas City Southern Railroad, after which ranching operations moved westward between Keith Lake and High Island. The pasture company gradually became a McFaddin family enterprise. In 1900, the partners extended their business to include rice production, milling, rice canal operation, and oil production and speculation.

During the 1890s, the lumber industry saw its heyday before beginning its ultimate decline and total demise. During that decade before Spindletop, population doubled again and so did the business houses and manufacturing establishments, including the creosote plant, shipyards, furniture-making, car-making, box-manufacturing, a round house and rail shops, and other industries.

Certainly no one can state that Beaumont was prepared in 1901 for the thousands of oil boomers and drillers, speculators and tradesmen, gamblers and prostitutes, and hangers-on of every hue who descended upon the city like locusts in October. But it was precisely because Beaumont was already a city of considerable means and worth, not a one-horse, two by four cowtown, that it could accommodate the stampede of oncomers in any manner whatsoever.

In 1901, at least forty Beaumonters had already acquired sizable fortunes from lumbering and other fields, and were prepared to sell out and invest in oil. And by 1902, many of the 200 firms on the Beaumont Oil Exchange were wholly organized and financed by Beaumont's local talent. One only needs to read the oil field history of other nearby boomtowns of that era, Batson Prairie, Sour Lake, or Saratoga, to comprehend the difference.

Copyright 1998-2016 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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