From La. to Ariz.: A sawmill town moves

In the early 20th century, when lumbering was at its prime in the South, lumbermen bought old-growth longleaf pine forests for as little as $1.25 per acre and built sawmills in isolated areas near their forest land.

To support the operation of these mills, towns would be built for workers and their families to live. When their forests were cut, the owners essentially had two options: buy more timberland or close the mill.

Guidelines for reforesting the land had not been developed and it was viewed as unrealistic at the time. This was the problem faced by the Cady Lumber Co. at McNary in 1924. Although the owners wanted to buy more timberland, none that was close to the mill was available. Closing mills usually resulted in the demise of the town.

Cady Lumber had been chartered in 1913. In its heyday, the town of McNary had a population of almsot 3,000 residents with a church, school, post office, hospital, swimming pool and a large theater. With the closure of the mill and the move of many of the workers to the new mill in Arizona, the town’s population decreased to a few hundred and it struggled to survive.

In 1929, McNary’s charter became inactive. The community petitioned the state to have its charter re-established in 1965.

Wanting to stay in the lumbering business, William M. Cady, with his two partners James McNary and Alfred Smith, began to look for options for relocating their mill. They found and purchased a small defunct sawmill and town, named Cooley after a famed Apache scout, on the Apache Indian Reservation in the White Mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona. In addition to the Apache Lumber Co., they purchased its ponderosa pine timber leases and the accompanying Apache Railroad.

The purchase had to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Forest Service because some of the timber leases were on land in the Sitgreaves National Forest. Cady Lumber Co. then spent $3.5 million to install an all-electric mill with three band saws. For marketing purposes, the company received permission to rename the town from Cooley to McNary.

On Feb. 7, 1924, the last log in the McNary, Louisiana, mill was cut. Knowing that an experienced labor force would be needed, three days later employees and their families — about 800 in all — boarded special trains with their baggage and equipment and moved west to the new home that awaited them.

They moved from the heat and humidity of Louisiana to a town at 7,300 feet above sea level, where annual snowfall could be measured in feet.

“Cady could not visualize a lumber operation without the employment of black labor,” McNary noted, “and we decided to import about 500 of our experienced and faithful employees to Arizona.”