20th Century Lumber and Oil Boom Companies

“The old adage was: You were born in the company, you worked for the company, you wore company clothes, you ate company food, and you died in the company. And these were actual owned, lock, stock, and barrel company towns. The company towns were mostly work camps.

The worst company towns were very primitive, put up overnight, you had very limited conditions. Essentially you had a place to sleep and then of course you had the commissary store.

In the worst camps, prices were jacked up in these stores by 50%. The men were paid in company script or notes, company money and they had to buy everything, and of course that money wasn’t any good anyplace besides the commissary, and they were really at the mercy of the industry.

Now John Henry Kirby (Kirby Lumber Company) had a reputation of being pretty honest and decent to his workers. There were two reasons for this. The prices in his stores were only marked up 5%, which wasn’t too bad, and the other thing was he provided decent housing. He actually had houses that were the typical shotgun house. He provided sanitary facilities and pretty good facilities for the workers.”
(Interview with Robert Schaadt, Director of the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center-State Archives Division at Liberty, Texas)

One of the last and largest lumber mills to be built in East Texas was at Wiergate, in Newton County. 2,500 people lived here. The mill was capable of producing 200,000 board feet of lumber day. There were three free movies per week at the company movie house and the town also had a baseball team that won all-star status several times. These company towns were never permanent, and were short-lived. When all the wood in the area had been cut, the town and mill were dismantled and moved to a new location.

Kirby at Bessmay

This pattern continued up until the 1930s and 1940s, when many lumber companies were forced out of business. Simply put, there was no wood left to cut. The countryside had been stripped bare. Millions of acres had been clear cut. Rotting brush and stumps lay where majestic long leaf pine had once towered overhead. It wasn’t until later that the area was replanted and the trees began to make a comeback. Today most of the land is planted in pine plantations and owned by giant timber concerns that use a planting-harvesting-replanting cycle. Most of the smaller mills have ceased operations. At Wiergate the lumber tradition is still being carried on, though it’s on a smaller scale.

mural of a town in Texas

“Boomtown U.S.A.” – Texas during the oil boom of the 1930s, when the largest oil field in U.S. history was discovered

When the oil boom hit Southeast Texas in the first quarter of the twentieth century, towns sprang up overnight. “Batson is an excellent example. Essentially it was a prairie, agriculture with ranching and a lot of cattle, and overnight it grew into a town of 10,000-12,000. And these were not nice towns. They were not a community. They were roughnecks, coming in to do the heavy labor of the oil industry, drilling the pipes and setting up the storage areas, and building the wooden derricks. A lot of fighting, a lot of gambling went on. Prostitution was rampant, saloons were set up overnight, and the towns were gone as fast as the oil field was produced.

In the Justice of the Peace records for Batson almost on a daily occurrence in the early days in 1909-1910, behind these saloons they would find somebody who had been knifed or shot to death. Dead bodies were very common. Violence was part of the way of life. Often times, drinking was involved and fights would erupt out of this. One night in Batson they had an incredible fight and the sheriff came out and arrested everybody he could. He didn’t have enough places to put people so he just chained them to trees.

The booms in these towns were also short-lived, often lasting only a year or two. The oil did not play out, but once the field was developed, all the companies had to do then was pump and store the oil in storage tanks, which is not labor-intensive. So these men would move onto the next major oil field. The boom towns quickly disappeared.”
(Interview with Robert Schaadt, Director of the Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center-State Archives Division at Liberty, Texas)

We hope you enjoyed these excerpts from our Texas History documentary “The Big Thicket of Southeast Texas: A History, 1800-1940.” You can also watch a high-resolution clip from this entertaining and informative program by clicking on the link to the right. Please check back regularly for new Texas History pages, as we will be adding many more in the coming year. If you are interested in Texas History, please be sure to browse our Verisign-secure order online web store for more information on our award-winning titles and to watch additional clips from our Texas History documentaries. At www.TexasHistory.com, we are Texas History.

All images on this page courtesy of: Sam Houston Regional Library and Research Center-State Archives Division at Liberty, Texas

Watch a sample video clip from our documentary

The Big Thicket of Southeast Texas

men working with lumber in Texas
oil field Sour Lake Texas
younger man on a horse

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