Great Southern Lumber's William Sullivan began aggressive reforestation near Bogalusa
Fueled largely by out-of-state capital, the early 20th century lumber boom fundamentally changed the look of Louisiana ... and was far-reaching.
With a policy of “cut out and get out,” natural resources were lost by the millions of acres. Large sections of the state, in a relatively short period of time, became vast “stumpscapes” of barren cutover land. Some 4.3 million acres of Louisiana virgin timber had been clear cut — a land area roughly the size of the state of New Jersey.
One author at the time observed: “The rapidity with which big-time lumbering had entered Louisiana was matched by the speed of its departure.”
The early to mid-1920s is generally given as the ending date for the great lumber boom — it is then when almost all of the big mills had run out of timber and closed down.
Steam-powered logging and milling equipment had become efficient and in 25 to 30 years most of the virgin pine forests had been harvested. Millions of acres of cutover forests remained and efforts to develop other uses of the land were generally unsuccessful. Lumbermen gave little thought to the potential of future forests because the trees being harvested were 150 to 200 years old.
How could growing more trees be considered economical?
Henry E. Hardtner at the Urania Lumber Co. became an advocate for reforestation based on observations of his naturally regenerated stands. Slowly, he began to convince other lumbermen of the potential of growing a second crop of trees.
When convinced that Hardtner’s ideas on reforestation were sound, William H. Sullivan, general manager of the Great Southern Lumber Co. in Bogalusa, began an aggressive reforestation program. The company would use natural regeneration when possible, but also develop techniques to grow and plant Southern pine seedlings.
Great Southern Lumber was a remarkable company. Established by Frank H. and Charles W. Goodyear, lumber barons from New York, the company purchased 300,000 acres of virgin longleaf pine timberland and in 1906 began building a mill and town. It was not a typical lumbering operation. The sawmill was built with steel and was meant to become the largest mill in the world, capable of processing a million board feet of lumber per day.
When construction of the mill was completed in 1907, it was a magnificent structure. Paul M. Garrison, later chief forester for Great Southern Lumber and then the Gaylord Container Corp., described it as “there was, of course, all the other equipment necessary to produce 1,000,000 board feet of lumber and timber in 24 hours. Back of this were the forests, railroad, Shay and rod locomotives, log cars, Lidgerwood and Clyde skidders and McGiffert loaders to supply the raw material to satisfy this hunger monster. Here in Bogalusa was invested $15,000,000 in forests, houses, and sawmill and logging equipment before one thin dime of revenue was taken out.”
The town of Bogalusa was also exceptional. Harvey Murdock, who had planned several real estate developments in New York City, was engaged to draft plans for the city of Bogalusa. The final draft of Murdock’s map showed three residential areas; a business section; plots for public buildings, such as a city hall, a hospital and schools; and several parks. Bogue Lusa Creek divided the town site and was basis of the town being named Bogalusa. To the south of the creek, the company proposed to build 850 homes to be sold or rented to employees.
From the onset, the sawmill town was planned to become a permanent city. Sullivan and the Goodyears provided the needed infrastructure and amenities. Sullivan once stated, “All my life, I’ve built sawmills and sawmill towns. I’ve come into virgin forests with my men and their wives and children. I’ve seen the young folks marry and have children of their own. I’ve seen them attending churches and schools I built. Then, even in the biggest operations, we’d come to the end of the cut. I’ve seen the whole town pulled up by the roots and moved. Worse, I’ve seen it stand empty, another American ghost town. So, when I started building Bogalusa in 1906, I swore by the Lord that it was going to be one sawmill town that would last.”
To accomplish this, they soon began to seek to diversity its economy.
In the late 1890s, the Goodyear interests had investigated development of a paper mill as a means of utilizing waste products from a sawmill plant. They believed that by developing a paper industry the permanency of the town might be secured.
The Goodyears successfully developed a paper mill operation in 1916. Papermaking then became a subsidiary of the Great Southern Lumber Co. and it was named the Bogalusa Paper Co.
The visit of Sullivan to Henry Hardtner at Urania in 1918 provided them information needed to modify the company’s logging and milling practices and justification to begin a reforestation program. Sullivan realized, however, their large acreage of cutover land would require planting of trees to establish a second crop of merchantable timber. He anticipated that a second crop of trees could meet the needs of the paper mill and hoped that trees would grow large enough to supply the sawmill before all the company’s old-growth timber was harvested.
Lack of funding to carry out the proposed program was never a problem. Sullivan realized the company would need to develop forestry expertise, so he named a forester and a ranger as his assistant. J.T. “Jake” Johnson was the forester and F.O. “Red” Bateman was the ranger. Neither had any forestry training or experience, but they served the company admirably. Johnson spent much of his time in public relations. Bateman took the lead in developing reforestation techniques. Their efforts began in 1919-20.
One early decision in 1920-21 was to begin leaving seed trees in their harvesting efforts and to take advantage of natural regeneration. Noting a bumper crop of longleaf pine cones was in place in an area to be logged, Bateman asked Sullivan that an area of 15,000 acres be fenced and protected from hogs to obtain natural regeneration. More than 10,000 acres of longleaf stands resulted.
By 1923, Bateman had nursery and planting techniques for loblolly and slash pine well under control. He had worked out the essentials of the general practices still employed today — slit planting of bare-rooted seedlings grown at moderate seedbed densities in the nursery without shade. He developed a planting tool (or dibble) that is still used to plant pine seedlings. The 6-by-8-foot spacing he chose as most suitable and economical for Southern pines was the almost universal standard throughout the South for decades. Before the Great Depression halted the planting operations in 1933, Bateman had planted 12,700 acres. With only one exception — the Biltmore estate in North Carolina — there was no other successful Southern pine plantation of more than 100 acres.
The Great Southern reforestation program quickly gained significant international recognition. Within five years after initiating a reforestation program, Great Southern was recognized as one of the world’s most progressive lumber companies and a pioneer in developing reforestation technology.
In 1928, Henry Hardtner wrote to Sullivan praising Great Southern’s reforestation program. He wrote in part, “I have watched with interest and enthusiasm the development and progress of reforestation at Bogalusa … I knew the land in its naked, desolate state only a few decades ago, and now that same land … is covered with a mantle of green thrifty pine trees, growing rapidly and rearing their tops heavenward. Your success is beyond my greatest expectations and your greatest difficulties are over. You have done more real reforestation work than any other organization in America.”
As successful as the Great Southern’s reforestation effort was, the stands were not of the age needed to continue the operation of the lumber company when all the virgin stands were cut — a gap of 10 to 12 years remained. So, with the harvest of the old-growth pines and the influence of the Great Depression, the Great Southern sawmill was shut down in 1938.
In early 1935, all the then 472,000 acres of Great Southern lands, including their administration and management, were transferred to the Bogalusa Paper Co. and in 1936 the reforestation program resumed. In 1937, Robert Gaylord Inc. and the Bogalusa Paper Co. merged and the resulting company became the Gaylord Container Corp. Using as a guide their past experience in bringing cut-over land back into production, the new directors agreed to continue an aggressive forest policy. The company has since changed ownership several times, but has always maintained its commitment to progressive and sustainable forestry practices.
Although the Great Southern Lumber Co. ceased to exist, the forests it created continue to be productive today. Hardtner’s Urania Forest was deemed first as having a sustainable forestry program. Great Southern, however, soon achieved sustainable forestry status by not only using natural regeneration practices, but by developing artificial reforestation technology and applying it across their land ownership.
W.H. Sullivan died unexpectedly in 1929. However, Sullivan’s vision in diversifying the company resulted in the transfer of the lands of the lumber company to the Bogalusa Paper Co. and its continued operation as a forestry enterprise.
In 1954, the Gaylord Container Corp., successor to the Great Southern Lumber Co., planted its 100 millionth pine seedling. This became the largest privately owned, man-made forest in North America and the first planted forest in the country of sufficient size to reach merchantable age. This forest is a lasting testimony to W.H. Sullivan’s vision and the energy and dedication to carry out his vision in practical way.
(Dr. Jim Barnett is an emeritus scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.)