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.”
One employee who made the trip commented, “It was quite an adventure. It took us about three days to make the trip … we were well-equipped, dining cars and everything. The people had lots of baggage with them, household goods, you know, and even their chickens.”
Most of the employees who moved were African-American. According to the 1920 federal census, there were only 8,005 blacks in the entire state of Arizona. James McNary commented, “there was a good deal of indignation in some quarters in Arizona over the importation.” However, the threatened violence never materialized.
Gradually, some workers returned to Louisiana because of the cold climate, but even more relocated to Arizona over the years because of the availability of high-paying jobs.
One employee who helped build the town described the new lumbering town as, “The town grew with a Negro quarters and a Spanish-American quarters, each of which had its own elementary school, church and café. There also was a gathering of Navajo shacks which gradually developed into a nearby Navajo town. On the hill, was the Apache Hotel, commissary, lumbermill office, bank, post office, garage, theater, hospital and finally a clinic that made up the town.” It was described by all as a beautiful town.
Although the elementary schools were segregated, all of the children attended McNary (Arizona) High School. One resident commented, “there was no entertainment except what we made ourselves. We never fought. I don’t remember any of us fighting. We used to make games out of nothing.”
An individual who was born there, commented when he returned as a teacher, “We used to say McNary school was a ‘little United Nations.’ ”
Strangely, even though McNary was a community divided into segregated districts, there was a surprising closeness among its residents.
Old-timers never got over their enchantment with the town. Some commented, “although there was still a lot of discrimination, it was not the strict racial segregation that was enforced by Jim Crow laws and practices where we came from.”
The town became known for its diversity and relatively composed race relations.
Ironically, the fate of McNary, Arizona, ended up being the same as so many other sawmill towns — the mill burned in 1979 and the operation was moved to Flagstaff. The town of McNary now has only about 500 residents.
In 1935,James McNary had bought the mill from William Cady and renamed the company Southwest Lumber Mills (later it became the Southwest Forest Industries).
The uniqueness of the town has, however, caused it to be studied by numerous sociologists. Through this process, the fate of many black lumbermen from Louisiana and other Southern states has been defined.
Between 1920 and 1960, an unknown number of African-American loggers and sawmill workers migrated from farms and sawmills in the South to new mill towns and logging camps being constructed across the Southwest and into the Northwest.
These workers came from a pool of black timber workers whose numbers rose from 83,000 in 1910 to 180,000 in 1950.
Because of their expertise, by moving they found opportunities for good paying jobs and their families were assimilated into the newly developing industrial society.
Long-Bell Lumber Co., which closed their sawmill operations at DeRidder and Longville in the 1920s and moved to California where they established new mills, actively recruited black workers from Louisiana. The company needed experienced lumbermen.
An important aspect of this migration was family connections. Within the constraints of segregation, travel was dangerous and uncertain and demonstrated the resilience of the African-American community. It was the power of communication and relationship networks among families and friends that met the challenges encountered by moving to opportunities in the West.
Almost 100 years after the move of the Cady Lumber Co. from McNary, Louisiana, to McNary, Arizona, there is no sawmill in either town and neither has fully recovered.
But, the move established the migration of experienced black timber workers from the South to jobs in the West that continued for decades.
This process demonstrated the effect of lumbering on the move of black families from a time of servitude into the mainstream of the nation’s developing industrial society.
(Jim Barnett is emeritus scientist for the U.S. Forest Service. Everett Lueck is president of the Southern Forest Heritage Museum.)