Wiess Brothers
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BEAUMONT'S FABULOUS WIESS BROTHERS:
BUSINESS LEADERS OF EARLY BEAUMONT (HISTORY OF THE RELIANCE LUMBER CO.)

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont ENTERPRISE, November 9, 1980.
If the reader cares to read in depth about these remarkable families, consult text and footnotes of W. T. Block, "From Cotton Bales to Black Gold: A History of The Pioneer Wiess Families of Southeast Texas," TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, VIII (Nov., 1972), 39-61.

Wiess Bluff on the Neches River, fifteen miles north of Beaumont, Texas, could be anyone of a hundred beautiful piney woods sites, where towering timber monarchs rim the banks of the stream, creating a myriad of shady nooks beneath. Less visible is its historical significance which, in three generations, linked an immigrant's rustic cabin to the founding of giant Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon) in 1917. The same spot also provided early Beaumont with three brothers, Mark, William, and Valentine Wiess, who became an indispensable trio among the top ten lumber barons of the "sawdust city."

Their father, Simon Wiess, became a Neches River cotton broker at Wiess Bluff, Jasper County, in December, 1839, after having operated unsuccessful stores at Nacogdoches, Beaumont, and Port Neches between 1836 and 1839. One religious account of Beaumont credits Wiess with having been the first member of the Jewish faith to reside in Jefferson County. While that statement is probably true, Wiess never practiced his religion after his arrival in Texas and apparently guaranteed the demise of his faith when he married Margaret Sturrock, a Scotch Presbyterian. The twin sons, Mark and William, were born at Wiess Bluff in October, 1842, followed by Valentine in July, 1845. A daughter, Pauline Coffin, was the firstborn child, followed by two other sons, Captain Napoleon Wiess in 1839 and Massena Wiess, born in 1849.

Simon Wiess was a shrewd cotton trader and merchant, and while yet in their teens, the business acumen of his sons was being honed to microscopic keenness over the counter of the Wiess store. In 1862, the four older brothers enlisted in cavalry Company A of Spaight's Battalion, of the Confederate Army, and the brothers fought at a number of Louisiana battles, particularly the Battles of Calcasieu Pass, Fordoche Bayou, and Bayou Bourbeau. Each survived the war, and a collection of their Civil War letters is available at the Rosenberg Library of Galveston.

Pauline Coffin, the oldest, outlived all of her brothers and resided ninety of her 93 year lifespan at one residence at Wiess Bluff, dying there in 1930. Her fondest memory was of an occasion when Gen. Sam Houston stayed overnight there while he was en route by steamboat to Sabine Pass. Capt. N. Wiess lived all of his short life of 33 years at Wiess Bluff and died there in 1872. At various times after 1866, he owned and operated two Neches River cotton steamboats, the "Albert Gallatin" and "James L. Graham." Massena, the youngest, spent his career in business in Round Rock and Sour Lake, Texas, and died at Beaumont in 1921.

During the Reconstruction years, Mark, William, and Valentine pursued different business patterns until they united in ownership of the Reliance Lumber Company in 1881. From 1866 to 1875, Captain William Wiess was also in the cotton export business, as owner and master of the sternwheelers "Alamo" and "Adrianne," which sailed both the Neches and Sabine Rivers. He also owned a half-interest with his twin brother Mark in the store of W. Wiess and Company of Beaumont.

Mark Wiess was the first of the brothers to settle and enter business in Beaumont, founding a general mercantile store there in 1866 in partnership with David R. Wingate. In 1867, his twin William bought out Wingate's interest. After their father's death in 1868, Val and Massena Wiess operated the family store at Wiess Bluff for the next two years. Yet it appears that both commuted back and forth to Beaumont, for Massena Wiess was treasurer of Jefferson County in 1869. He resigned in 1870 to move to Round Rock. Mark was the only brother who showed an early interest in sawmilling. In April, 1870, he and Harry Potter bought the old Otto Ruff sawmill on Brake's Bayou, which they reorganized in 1878 as the Reliance Lumber Company. Ruff had bought the small circular mill from Steadman Foundry in Aurora, Indiana, in 1859, and shipped it via steamboat and schooner to Beaumont, where it became the third steam industry in the thriving frontier hamlet. During the 1860s, the mill had a spasmodic history, being operated intermittently for short intervals by A. J. Ward, Goldsmith and Regan, and Dan. Greene.

Apparently, Mark Wiess became disillusioned with sawmilling, for in 1873 he sold his interest in the Wiess and Potter Mill to James F. Ward and James Dalton. His reasoning for selling stemmed from the relatively small output of the mills of that era, a daily cut of about 5,000 feet being about average. Mark Wiess recognized that the production bottleneck was the friction-feed carriage, which depended on the weight of the log to feed it into the circular saw, a crude method by any comparison, and any improvement in circular or band saws would accomplish nothing until maximum efficiency of the log carriage could be perfected. About 1876, he invented and patented a device, known as "shotgun feed," in which a cylinder, energized by steam, moved the carriage back and forth on the carrige track. The innovation doubled production and revolutionized sawmilling overnight.

In 1874 Valentine Wiess founded V. Wiess and Company at Beaumont which, within a decade, became Beaumont's largest merchandising and insurance firm, representing 13 insurance underwriters. Next door to it, he began Beaumont's first private bank which operated as a branch of the mercantile business. In 1889 he was instrumental in founding and became the first president of First National Bank, which is still in business although the name is altered.

During the 1870s, William and Val Wiess joined William and W. P. H. McFaddin and Dr. O.M. Kyle in founding the 60,000 acre Beaumont Pasture Company (known also as the "Mashed-O" Ranch), which operated a herd of 10,000 cattle on the 60,000 acres of the open prairie south of Beaumont. They also owned a large ranch and a few thousand steers in Greer County. In 1900, these partners also entered the canal business, when they built a pumping plant and system of 25 miles of canals, beginning where Dupont Chemical is currently located. In 1905 they organized the McFaddin-Wiess-Kyle Rice Milling Company. In Jan., 1901, it was upon land of the McFaddin-Wiess-Kyle Trust Company that Capt. Anthony Lucas bored the successful Spindletop gusher, thus launching the Wiess brothers into the oil business as well. The brothers were silent partners in the ranching and canal activities, which were actively run by the McFaddin family.

Also during the 1870s, each of the brothers had the misfortune to lose a young wife still in her twenties, two of them, Lou E. and Mary Wiess, being daughters of a pioneer Beaumont merchant, William Perry Herring. At later dates, each of them remarried. Mark Wiess reared six children to adulthood; William Wiess, four children; and Valentine reared two children.

In 1878, Mark Wiess teamed up with J. F. Ward, H. W. Potter, and W. P. H. McFaddin to found the Reliance Lumber Company, using as its nucleus the land and facilities on Brake's Bayou of the old Wiess and Potter mill. They immediately went heavily into debt to buy a $6,000 double-circular sawmilll, boilers, engine, and related equipment from E.P. Allis and Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and all of it financed by a $10,300 loan from Val Wiess' bank. From its beginning, the Reliance mill had a cutting capacity of 50,000 feet daily, unbelievable lumber production for that era, and due solely to its "shotgun feed' steam carriage. For a time it was the only sawmill in the world that was so equipped.

In 1881, William and Valentine Wiess bought out Ward and McFaddin's interests in the company, but Val Wiess' interests in sawmilling were strictly financial thereafter (except that Val Wiess also organized the area lumbermen into an association for their mutual protection). For the next twenty years, William Wiess served as president and production genius, while Mark Wies became sales manager and Beaumont Board of Trade's emissary to the rest of the world. For years, he maintained sales offices in such remote places as London, and he was continually on the road to the Northern states, Europe, and Latin America.

Today, it is hard to visualize the extent of national stature enjoyed by Beaumont's early timber barons. In addition to the Wiess brothers, members of the Long and Carroll families, W. A. Fletcher, John W. Keith, J. N. Gilbert and J. F. Ward were well-known in every lummber market, and long biographies of them survive in several lumber trade journals. Mark Wiess was gone for eight months of every year, most of it in the mid-western and eastern states. In every respect, he was Beaumont's "one man chamber of commerce" when actually no chamber existed, and the Galveston "News" took note of large write-ups about him in such distant cities as Chicago and Mexico City. The "News" dubbed him as the "Bishop of Beaumont," because he never ceased to extol the virtues of "sawdust city."

In February, 1888, a "News" correspondent toured the confines of the Reliance sawmill's "whirl of machinery," and upon exiting, he "was right glad to inventory as many arms and legs at the end as when he started."

By then, the Reliance facilities had grown to an annual cutting capacity of about 20,000,000 feet annually, while its planing mill could process 75,000 feet daily and its dry kilns, 20,000 feet daily. One of its other factories processed wood lathes, fence pickets, barrel staves, and moulding, while another manufactured windows, doors, ballasters, stair rails, pulpits, office desks, and tables. The Reliance Lumber Company continued to expand until 1902, when the Wiess brothers sold out to J. H. Kirby, and by then its double-cutting band saws were slicing up 125,000 feet per day.

In September, 1891, the sawmill landed the largest lumber order ever recorded in Beaumont and perhaps anywhere else in the South. Mark Wiess signed a contract for 100,000,000 board feet of lumber with the Omaha and Kansas Central Railroad. The footage was considerably beyond the company's ability to produce, and for two years, the Reliance mill bought up the entire output of a number of East Texas mills.

During the 1890s, the Wiess brothers owned 90,000 acres of timber lands, but already they could foresee the end of Beaumont's lumber era and the rafting of logs down the Neches River. By 1890, for economy's sake, it was already preferable in most instances to erect sawmills along the line of the Sabine and East Texas Railroad, in the vicinity of the log supply. And when John H. Kirby offered them a favorable sale price in 1902, they sold out. Another factor was the Spindletop discovery a year earlier, which had already caused the brothers' business interests to focus more and more on the oil-producing industry. Under Kirby, the Reliance mills continued to operate until 1920, when they were dismantled and moved inland to the piney woods region.

Perhaps Valentine Wiess' greatest contribution to Beaumont lumbering, in addition to financing, came with his founding in 1883 of the East Texas and Louisiana Lumbermen's Association, of which group he served as president and maintained its headquarters on the second floor of his bank. Throughout the last century, the sawmillers were plagued by perennial box car shortages and unfavorable freight rates, and Wiess banded them together for their mutual protection. One result was the development of a flourishing coastwise trade, wherein lumber was barged to Sabine Pass and from there, trans-shipped by schooner to all of the world's markets. Much of the Wiess lumber correspondence is preserved in the associations's "Letterbook for 1884-1886."

Although the brothers were part-owners of the Spindletop gusher site, they showed no enthusiasm over the oil discovery. They had each earned a fortune already and were comfortably situated in fine mansions scattered along "Lumbermen's Row" in Beaumont. Like others of their economic status, they looked with a certain disdain on the swarm of boomers and roughnecks, lease traders, and hangers-on of every hue who surged back and forth between the depot, the hotels, and the oil field. The brothers knew that significant, and perhaps unwanted, changes would occur that might lower the quality of life in the quiet but industrious "sawmill city."

William Wiess remained perhaps the most aloof, he and his family spending the first week after January 10, 1901, cruising about aboard their yacht on the Neches River. But gradually, he too was caught up in the quest for oil, and by August, 1901, he was a member of a committee appointed to draft a uniform code of fire prevention and safety regulations for the renowned oil field.

For twenty years Valentine Wiess had owned the largest business firm in Beaumont, V. Wiess and Company consisting of a grocery firm, a dry goods firm, hardware and farm implement firm, retail lumber, banking, and insurance firm, and his payroll had begun to compare to that of the sawmill. By by 1902, his interests too were beginning to focus on oil. He soon became an early stockholder of the J. M. Guffey Production Co.; he invested in pipe lines, and later teamed up with W. P. H. McFaddin to found the McFaddin and Wiess Oil and Gas Company, headquartered at 302 Tevis Street. In 1913, the year of his death, Val Wiess was the largest taxpayer on the city's tax rolls, having invested heavily in business property and in practically every other enterprise of note within the city. In 1900, he built the first five-story brick building in Beaumont. There seems to be little doubt that, when he died, Val Wiess was the wealthiest of the three brothers, although all fiscal papers have been removed at some time in the past from his probate file and were never returned. At a later date, his daughter donated Wiess Park to the City of Beaumont.

Mark Wiess invested heavily in oil stock and real estate as well. He was generally recognized as the "father of the deep water movement" in Beaumont. In addition to his inventions and "firsts" in sawmilling, he also owned the first typewriter and the first ice company in Beaumont. Although many of his probate papers are also missing, it is apparent that the last division of property to his heirs was in excess of $300,000.

For one who at first was the most aloof, William Wiess ended up with the largest commitment to the oil industry. His first activity was a large investment in the fledgling Texas Company (now Texaco Inc.). In 1903 he and others founded the Paraffine Oil Company and brought in the Batson Prairie oil field, pumping about 10,000,000 barrels of oil from its depths in 1904 alone. Ultimately, William Wiess became sole owner of the Paraffine Oil and Reliance Oil companies and he bought a half-interest in the Ardmore Oil Company of Oklahoma, which brought in several fields in that state after 1908. As his health began to fail prior to his death in 1914, William transferred the presidency of these companies to his youngest son, Harry C. Wiess, who was a 1910 graduate of Princeton University.

To free themselves from the arbitrary whim of refiners, pipe line operators, and others, young Wiess joined other independent producers, among them Ross Sterling, W. S. Farish, R. L. Blaffer, W. W. Fondren, and other old Spindletop veterans, in organizing the Humble Oil and Refining Company in 1917. The immediate result was the building of the huge Baytown refinery, which is today a part of the huge Exxon Corporation. Harry Wiess took both of his father's oil companies and sizeable oil properties in both Texas and Louisiana into the formation of Humble. He also served as vice president of Humble for many years, and from 1936 until his death in 1948, he served as its president and guiding business genius.

Mark Wiess died in 1910, and William Wiess died four years later. William Wiess' probate papers are intact and show a net worth of $1 million at the time of his death, an era when lumber sold for $10 a thousand feet and oil at 30 cents a barrel. The writer would wager that the Mark Wiess estate was of equal worth, and that of Valentine Wiess was probably worth $2 million.

In brief, these are the amazing annals of Wiess Bluff, a site which contributed three of the founding fathers of Beaumont, and another who managed the destinies of a giant national corporation. And all because their progenitor, Simon Wiess, chose to abandon the financial woes, hates, and prejudices of Europe, and seek a better life for himself and his successors among the pine forests of Southeast Texas.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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