Henry J. Lutcher
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HENRY J. LUTCHER:
SAWMILLER AND ARCHITECT OF ORANGE, TEXAS

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 9, 1980, p. 6-C.

On February 1, 1877, the Galveston "Daily News" observed that H. J. Lutcher, G. Bedell Moore and Thomas Rathwell, mill men of Pennsylvania, had spent the previous week touring "throughout our pineries on the Neches, Angelina, and Sabine Rivers." "They are thinking of coming to Texas" was the editor's casual remark at the end, a comment which may yet win top honors as the understatement of the nineteenth century. More than a century later, the city of Orange, Texas, is still reaping the bounteous fruits of that initial visit.

In 1860, Orange was a thriving community with five steam mills, 150 neatly-painted cottages, a shipyard, and two schools, boasting a population of 600 persons. But events of the Civil War were soon to bring unbelievable economic reverses. Three companies of Orange soldiers marched away to fight in Virginia, but only about six of them survived the war and returned. To add insult to its wartime adversities, a giant storm struck the city on September 13, 1865, killing and maiming many people and reducing to rubble all but four buildings. Following defeat, despair and lawlessness were the town's sole rewards, and by 1870, Orange County's population had dropped to 1,255, a loss of 700 souls.

In 1873, only three small mills at Orange, those of W. B. Black, R. E. Russell and Sons, and A. Gilmer, turned out modest quantities of lumber and shingles, all of which were exported coastwise by water. But in November, 1876, the last rail link connecting Houston with Orange was completed, giving the latter city access to the lumber markets of Texas' interior cities. As of that year, there was still a huge reservoir of virgin forest monarchs, containing a billion feet of pine and cypress stumpage in Orange County and thirty-five billion more straddling both sides of the Sabine River to the north.

Within months of the rail linkup, a number of sawmills, including Lutcher and Moore's Star and Crescent mill were completed, and by 1879, timber processing there had skyrocketed to 82,000,000 shingles and 75,000,000 board feet of lumber annually. With nine sawmills and six shingle mills located there by 1881, Orange emerged as the timber-processing capitol of the South, a position it would maintain for the next forty years.

Henry Joachim Lutcher was born on November 4, 1836, at Williamsport, Pennsylvania, the son of Lewis and Barbara Lutcher, who were German immigrants. Between 1857 and 1862, young Lutcher accumulated a modest nest egg of $15,000, the profits from his farming and slaughter house activities.

In 1862, he began his first sawmill venture at Williamsport in partnership with John Waltman. Two years later, Moore purchased Waltman's interest, and the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company was born. With a $50,000 profit that the partners realized from lumber sales and cattle-buying, they came to Texas in January, 1877, to investigate the availability of large tracts of virgin timber. They quickly learned that in areas to the north large forests were available at from $1 to $2 an acre. In areas not adjacent to the river, pine forests of trees five feet in diameter were a drug on the sales market, sometimes valued as little as 25-cents an acre and not considered by farmers as worth paying taxes on. Hence, Orange became the logical choice for their Texas expansion because of its easy access to raw materials, which could be rafted down river, and to markets, both by rail and coastwise lumber schooner.

At a horseshoe crescent on the Sabine River, Lutcher built a modern 50,000 foot mill, installing double circular saws, one 22-gang saw, two boilers and a 250-horsepower steam engine. He also added a sash and door factory next door, which employed fifteen men, and a shingle-making machine.

The sixty sawmill employees were kept busy twelve months of each year. When the supply of saw logs thinned out, they simply doubled as lumberjacks, felling the cypress and pine giants in the forests and swamps and rafting the logs down river. In 1880, a normal work day was about 11 1/2 hours, for which unskilled laborers received $1.50 daily and skilled workers, $3.50 daily. In 1879, the Star and Crescent mill manufactured 15 million feet of lumber and 7.5 million wood lathes, worth $150,000.

Lutcher bought up more than a half-million acres of valuable timber lands in north Calcasieu and Beauregard Parishes in Louisiana and built 100 miles of tram road known as the Gulf, Sabine and Red River Railroad. At the peak of logging operations after 1900, more than 500 men were employed as loggers in the Calcasieu forests.

Lutcher and Moore utilized ten locomotives and 151 flat log cars in the tram activities, contracting out most of their forest operations after 1885 on the basis of the number of logs rafted to the sawmill's log booms in the Sabine River. During the 1890's, Arbogast and Craddock, headquartered at Fields, La., were the prime contractors. By 1905, the latter had been superceded by the Sanders and Trotti Tram Company, who founded Starks, La., as a logging camp for their employees.

During the 1880s, when a fifty square-mile tract of virgin cypress swamp became available near the Mississippi River for taxes due, Lutcher purchased it, and in 1889, he built a 100,000-foot sawmill in St. James Parish at a town he named for himself. Lutcher, La., is still a thriving community on the east bank of the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Lutcher also built the Orange and Northwestern Tram Road in order to get to timber reserves in Orange and Jasper counties. This line eventually became the railroad to Buna. By 1890, the Lutcher and Moore Lumber Company was cutting 250,000 feet of lumber daily in three states, but a gradual phasing out of the Williamsport, Pa., facility soon began.

In 1858, the pioneer sawmiller married his hometown sweetheart, Frances Ann Robinson. According to Lutcher, her sound business judgment was to become a principal instrument for the accomplishment of his many economic successes. The Lutcher-Robinson marriage produced two daughters, namely, Miriam, who became Mrs. W. H. Stark, and Carrie Launa, who married Dr. E. W. Brown. They and their descendants have remained at the helm of Orange's cultural and economic life to the present day.

Lutcher soon bought out his partner and in 1890 Moore moved to San Antonio. In the same year the company was incorporated under a Texas charter, with Lutcher as president; Dr. Brown as vice president; W. H. Stark as secretary-treasurer and chief operating officer; and F. H. Farwell and John Dibert as sales representatives.

In 1905 the Beaumont "Enterprise" observed that W. H. Stark was "the moving spirit of the company. He is thoroughly familiar with all the details of the manufacture of lumber, is a fine organizer, and understands the handling of men."

Fortunately, that newspaper has also documented the history and statistics of this huge firm down to its lowest clerk. In 1905, Lutcher's Sabine River facilities included two giant mills, known respectively as the "upper" and "lower" sawmills, and each with a daily cut of 150,000 feet. By that year the Lutcher-Moore Lumber Company was shipping in excess of 125,000,000 feet of lumber annually. The horsepower of the steam engines alone footed up to 1,200, and the main engine at the upper mill had a unique history of its own. Ironically, it was one of the instruments used during that cruel (Civil) war which had leveled the city of Orange economically; perhaps justly, it was destined to live on and help restore that city to its rightful position at the court of 'King Lumber.'

In 1855, the 400-horsepower marine steam engine had been mounted in the 1,800-bale, Trinity River steamboat "Josiah H. Bell," which was actually a deepsea steamer with a solid oak, V-bottom hull. In 1862, the "Bell" became a cotton-clad gunboat at Sabine Pass, where it remained until the Confederacy surrendered.

When the war ended in April, 1865, the steamer was in an Orange shipyard, undergoing conversion to a blockade-runner. On May 25, 1865, its engine was removed, and the hull was then towed four miles downstream and scuttled to prevent its capture by the Federal occupation forces who were at that moment coming ashore. In 1905, the engine had been in almost continuous use for fifty years without suffering so much as a sheared pin.

Each Sabine River mill was identically-equipped with double-circular and band saws. The planer mill could process 125,000 feet daily, while the steam kilns could dry 65,000 feet daily. About 360 men were employed in the saw and planer mills, and 500 more logged the forests and rafted the floating logs to Orange. By 1905 the standard work day had decreased to ten hours, and pay day came every Saturday, with a monthly wage expenditure exceeding $22,000.

Although Lutcher remained active as a mill man until old age, his sons-in-law, especially Stark, gradually assume the greater burden of responsibility. His sizeable fortune enabled him to pursue many cultural activities which he found fascinating. For instance, he was an avid reader, and his palatial home overlooking the Sabine River contained a magnificent library of classical volumes unsurpassed in East Texas. He was one of the earliest exponents of deep water, and as early as 1882, appeared before congressional committees, seeking funds for jetty-building and deep channelization of the river bars.

Lutcher died in Ohio in 1912 at age 78. His widow survived him for ten years, during which time she became involved in a number of philanthropic enterprises. Space will not permit a detailed account of the Lutcher family philanthropies, but they included the Frances Ann Lutcher Memorial Hospital and the domed Memorial Presbyterian Church. And through the Stark and Brown Foundations, the fruits of Lutcher's labors are filtering down to the present generations. The Stark home has been preserved in its original form. Lutcher Stark, a grandson, was an avid collector of western art and Indian artifacts, and today these are all housed in the new Stark Museum. The Stark Theatre is another gift to the city of Orange. And the showplace home of the late Edgar Brown, Jr., as well as a million dollar endowment to maintain it, is now one of the most prized properties of Lamar University.

H. J. Lutcher was a man with a dream and possessed the keen business acumen and other qualities to make that dream come true. And because a large share of his estate has been passed on for the benefit of posterity, a little corner of Southeast Texas is much better off by the fact that Henry Joachim Lutcher passed this way. One of the most recent bequests of the Stark Foundation was a $12,500 grant to the Texas Forestry Museum at Lufkin.

Copyright 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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