Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana

Date added: April 20, 2023 Categories: Louisiana Industrial
Sawmill (2007)

Although Caleb T. Crowell was a native Southerner, his lumbering activities were part of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century southern lumber boom generated mostly by northern businesses moving south. After establishing short-lived operations in Arkansas and northwest Louisiana, Crowell and partner Alexander B. Spencer founded a new sawmill and company town in Rapides Parish, Louisiana in 1892. This time they chose the right spot. Long Leaf, as it was called, had suitable high ground; a water supply; vast acres of easily accessible, old-growth timber; and a major railroad line nearby. Consisting of a planer mill and a sawmill with one primary circular saw, the men's first factory-produced boards, planks, timbers, moldings, and other millwork. Disaster struck in 1900 when a fire burned most of the mill complex to the ground. However, by the following year the company had built a new sawmill with, once again, only one circular saw.

Whether the company's industrial railroad began operation before or after 1900 is unclear. However, it was in existence in 1905 when the company created a separate short-line company, the Red River & Gulf Railroad, to increase trackage, service, and revenue. The line eventually reached a length of about 75 miles.

In 1910 the company (now run primarily by Caleb's son, Stamps Crowell, while Spencer remained an inactive partner) significantly expanded by enlarging the sawmill and adding a band saw. It also constructed an adjacent boiler house and a new planer mill at this time. The railroad system needed constant maintenance and repairs, as did the sawmill, planer mill, and other industrial areas of the complex. To meet these needs, around 1918 the company constructed a railroad roundhouse, a machine shop capable of repairing and fabricating all kinds of equipment, and a car shop so Crowell workers could build railroad flatcars for log transport.

The southern lumber boom ended in the 1920s and 1930s when most companies cut out their timberland and then abandoned the South for greener pastures on the Pacific coast. However, Crowell managed to continue in operation and appears to have prospered until the Great Depression. Then, the company was lucky to stay in business. Production dropped 61 percent between 1929 and 1932, and for several months the mill operated only two days per week. Production began to rise steadily in 1933, although it never reached its pre-Depression levels. By 1936 the company had enough money to make some substantial improvements. It built a new and larger dry kiln, added a second-hand, 400-horsepower steam boiler, and enlarged the fuel storage house. Sometime in the 1930s, the company also replaced the roundhouse with a larger version.

With the original partners now deceased, in 1941 the Crowell family purchased the Spencer family's share of the business. Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. From that point forward, a large percentage of the mill's production went to the war effort. At this time shipbuilders still used wood to construct the hulls and superstructures of warships, so the production of fine-quality timbers like those available from Crowell was critical. Although the company had other defense contracts, Higgins Industries of New Orleans ranked as its most important customer.

Andrew Jackson Higgins is recognized today as the man who invented and built the landing crafts that helped the Allies win the war. During the 1930s he developed an exceptionally rugged, shallow-bottomed workboat capable of navigating the swamps, marshes, and bayous of South Louisiana. This boat could be run aground and then be retracted (removed) from the bank without damaging its hull. Called the Eureka, it was safe, durable, and able to carry equipment and people through difficult terrain. It took several years (both before and after the start of the war) for Higgins to convince the United States Navy that the Eureka, with a ramp attached for loading and unloading, was the best choice to serve as the military's much-needed landing craft. However, Higgins finally succeeded and began building the boats, renamed the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel) but known by the military and the press alike as "Higgins Boats," in his New Orleans factory.

Higgins built these boats using extremely high-grade yellow pine. As Melanie Torbett has explained in Forests and People, a publication of the Louisiana Forestry Association:

Southern yellow pine was used in several areas of the boat, most importantly as the head log, the main member that ties the boat's bow together. This solid block of pine at the bow was the strongest part of the boat, enabling it to run at full speed over floating obstacles, sandbars and right up onto the beach without damaging the hull.

The material needed for the Higgins boats could be cut only from old-growth, long-leaf yellow pine, which by the 1940s was a rare commodity. However, the Crowell sawmills at Longleaf and Alco (both in Rapides Parish but the latter now gone) still had stands of these trees. A May 17, 1943 letter from Nelson P. Brown, Jr. (Higgins' lumber purchasing agent) to R. D. Crowell, Jr. explains another reason why Higgins chose Crowell timber for the LCVP's most important component: "As you well know, the Higgins Industries have always preferred the use of Crowell Long Leaf Yellow Pine. In fact, we find that with your lumber, it helps us to cut down our handling and reworking time, and increases production."

Although the Crowell sawmill was most likely supplying timber to Higgins before October 1942, in that month the New Orleans industrialist placed an order with the company for 300 pieces of 12-inch x 12-inch by 8-foot timbers for use as head logs in the landing crafts. More orders would follow. Although Higgins' orders were atypical for the sawmill and impractical to manufacture, R. D. Crowell, Jr. instructed his workers to start save the best lumber for Higgins. Crews began cutting as much high-grade lumber as possible from each Crowell log, sometimes destroying wood of lower grades to do so. In peacetime, the lumber destroyed in the manufacturing process could also have been sold for a profit. The Crowell family knew that these cutting practices, combined with the volume of material required, would exhaust their timber supply faster than would have occurred under normal circumstances but wanted to contribute to the war effort. As a member of the Crowell family stated in a letter to the federal Office of Price Administration in 1942, "...we only produce these grades for the Higgins Industries as a patriotic measure...."

It was Crowell's solid, old-growth pine timber, and the company's willingness to sacrifice its already dwindling supply of trees to help build the boats, that gave Higgins' landing crafts the strength and ruggedness required to transport and land troops and equipment along challenging coastlines. Thus, the Crowell sawmill played a nationally significant, although generally unheralded, role in the Allied victory.

After the war, the Crowell complex continued to produce lumber. However, relatively little of the first-growth timber that had sustained the company for almost 60 years remained. The final standing tract, located in adjacent Evangeline Parish, lasted until 1954. As these trees were being harvested, the mill's management made the difficult and painful decision to close. They based this decision on three factors. First, Crowell was unable to cut and run to a new location as previous lumber companies had done in the past because most of the virgin timber had been harvested throughout the nation. Second, the existing sawmill had been built for cutting large, long logs rather than the smaller second-growth timber that remained available. Finally, much of the old processing machinery was quite worn out and obsolete.

The mill closed on August 17, 1954. However, the complex's productive life was not yet over. The younger generation of the Crowell family decided to invest in modernization and reopen the mill complex. In addition to the changes they made to the physical plant, they also reorganized the company corporation and brought in trucks and tractors for moving men, logs, and other materials. In its new configuration, the sawmill operated from 1957 until early 1969. Production never rose above 15 million board feet per year and often totaled less than 10 million board feet annually during this period. Several years had marginal financial returns. Thus, on February 14, 1969, the family corporation made the decision to permanently close the mill. The planer mill operated for four additional months as it processed a backlog of rough lumber stock. It closed on June 6, with workers simply walking away and leaving everything in place.

Desire to preserve Crowell grew during the 1970s and 1980s as people realized the rarity and importance of a historic sawmill complex from the early industrial period with its equally historic equipment intact. After completion of a feasibility study, interested parties formed the Southern Forest Heritage Museum & Research Center in October 1992. This non-profit organization met its first goal in October 1994 when its officers accepted the donation by Crowell Lumber Industries of a 57-acre parcel containing all of the industrial complex, all the surviving lumbering and railroad equipment, and several non-industrial buildings from the now mostly vanished company town. After a year-and-a-half of cleanup and preparation, the museum opened to the public on May 1, 1996.

Site Description

Located on a 90-acre site at Long Leaf, Louisiana, just south of Forest Hill in southwest Rapides Parish, the Crowell Sawmill Complex is fairly widely spread out on a gently rolling site in the long-leaf pine forests.

There are essentially two parts to the Crowell site: 1) an industrial zone with the sawmill, planing mill, a railroad system, the latter's support buildings, an incredibly rare Clyde Log Skidder, and two also rare McGiffert Log Loaders; and 2) a non-industrial area of residences, the company office, the commissary, a church, etc.

Crowell's founders constructed the facility without the benefit of formal plans reflecting what they believed to be the most efficient design for its purpose and location. Purely functional and utilitarian, the buildings cannot be described in terms of any specific architectural style. They are primarily of wood frame and some non-combustible construction, one and two stories in height, with wood or concrete floors, metal or in some cases open sides, and wood-and-metal covered roofs.

The sawing area actually consists of one building (that contains the saws) and two structures (called boiler houses) that provided steam for powering the saws.

The sawing building was built using a method called "mill construction." This means that the building's framing consisted of very heavy timbers that would survive a fire unless it burned for a long time. Additionally, large and thick roof trusses were used to form and support the roof. They minimized the number of interior posts, which got in the way of lumber handling. The building was long and relatively narrow and had two principal stories plus a very small single-room third story that was used for sharpening saw blades. The enclosed bottom story contained a complex system of shafts and wheels for operating the mill's belt-driven machinery as well as two steam engines.

The open-air (wall-less) second floor was where the sawing took place. The narrow northern end of the building faced the millpond. Logs were conveyed from the pond up to the second-level sawing floor via an inclined "V" shaped wooden trough with a powered conveyor chain inside. Once inside the mill, logs progressed from north to south, becoming planks in the process. The first operation involved the "cut off" saw, a three-foot in diameter circular saw blade complete with wooden housing and drive belt. Once cut to the chosen length, short logs were sent to one side of the sawing room while long logs were sent to the other. On each side, they were placed upon wooden carriages for sawing into planks. The carriages were mounted on steel tracks running parallel to the building. The carriages holding short logs were propelled back and forth in front of a second set of large circular saws by steam pistons called "shotguns." With each pass another plank was cut off. The carriage for the long logs carried them past a band saw (the mill's first use of this technology) for cutting.

South of the plank cutter saws were two long wooden platforms fitted with large steel rollers. These conveyed the planks to edger saws that cut the bark from the edges of the newly cut planks and sawed boards into narrower ones. It contained eight saw blades, of which six were adjustable to allow the cutting of different-width boards. Planks left the mill after the edging operation to be stacked according to length and then dried in the kiln.

The two boiler houses are the product of three periods. A two-story, steel frame and metal-sided boiler house set just west of the northern end of the mill originally provided power for the sawing operation. This building contained two pairs of boilers, each pair with an individual smokestack. The boilerplates on these machines have a date of 1910. In 1920 the company added a third pair of boilers, with a third smokestack, to the boiler house. Power from the additional boilers ran a dynamo that supplied DC power for lights within the mill and some of the homes in the adjacent company town. A substantial brick firewall separated the early boiler house from the mill. All the boilers used sawdust, shavings from the planer mill, and chipped-up scrap materials from the sawing area as fuel. A brick fuel house for storing these materials stood west of the boiler house. A double conveyor chain enclosed within a system of steel ducts carried the fuel from the sawing room to the fuel house and, eventually, into the boiler house. The chain was powered by its own steam engine.

The purpose of the planing mill was to smooth the surfaces of rough-sawn planks to produce "dressed" lumber. At Crowell, the planing mill operation consisted of two resources: the planer mill building itself and a structure, known as the engine house, that generated power to run the mill. The planer mill remains almost totally as built.

Construction of the planing mill also occurred in 1910. About 100 feet square, it was also built using "mill construction." Surprisingly, some of the building's fire-susceptible board-and-batten siding remains. However, much of the building is open to the air. Very large roof trusses were also part of this design. Two reasons determined the main floor's placement several feet above ground. First, this allowed a long line shaft or power shaft coming from the engine house to the mill basement to turn, feeding power to the planer and other machinery by flat belts going through openings in the floor. Second, it allowed easy loading of lumber and millwork into boxcars parked on the adjacent railroad siding. The planing space culminates in a monitor roof with corrugated metal roofing. There is also a small second story whose purpose is to provide access to the system of steel ducts designed to convey the wood shavings to the engine house for burning and storage. A highly skilled worker maintained the blades of saws and knives in a sharpening room located under the mill.

The corrugated metal-over-steel-frame engine house was constructed in 1910 and remodeled in the 1930's. Located just northeast of the planing mill, it contains four boilers, a brick chamber for storing wood shavings, and a large Corliss steam engine. The smokestacks above the boilers have been lost. Sawdust produced in the planer mill served as fuel for the boilers. The steam they produced rose into a tank, and then moved into a pipe leading to the Corliss steam engine. (The latter, the largest stationary steam engine on the site, was built by Allis Chalmers in the 1920s.) The steam operated a large piston in a cylinder, causing the steam engine's enormous flywheel (measuring twelve by four feet) to turn. A two-foot-wide drive belt attached to the flywheel transferred the power to a pulley below the floor, and the pulley turned the 120-foot shaft running outdoors and under the whole length of the planer mill. This line shaft carried the power to the planing mill's machines.

Crowell's industrial railroad system consists of track, three locomotives, one Clyde Log Skidder, two McGiffert Log Loaders, roundhouse, machine shop, and car shop. Today much of this network remains intact.

Approximately three miles of the Crowell railroad track survive within the complex. Although track located around the perimeter of the industrial area is somewhat covered by vegetation, the spurs leading to the sawmill, planing mill, roundhouse, machine shop, and car shop are visible. Track is also visible where the Clyde Log Skidder, the McGiffert Log Loaders, and the locomotives are stored.

The roundhouse, machine shop and car shop are located near each other in a row at the eastern edge of the complex's industrial area. Built in 1930 to replace a smaller predecessor, the roundhouse is actually a rectangular building that never had a turntable for locomotives. It features a monitor roof and is composed of corrugated metal over a steel frame. Using a pit in the floor to give them access to the undercarriages of locomotives, Crowell workers conducted inspections, performed routine maintenance, and made repairs to the engines here. They also filled the engines' tenders with fuel oil and kept them warm at night. Otherwise, it would have taken about three hours to fire a locomotive up from a cold condition. The car shop (built between 1922 and 1925) is constructed of timber frame with corrugated metal roofing and siding on one elevation. Its other three sides remain open. A single-cylinder Westinghouse steam air compressor with hydrostatic lubricator is mounted on the west side of the car shop wall.

The belt-and-shaft-driven machine shop (which also includes a blacksmith shop) is constructed of timber frame with corrugated metal siding. Like the roundhouse, it has a monitor roof. It was built between 1912 and 1920, when the mill was investing in new machinery and new railroad equipment. Measuring 50 x 100 feet, it is well equipped with mostly turn-of-the-twentieth-century machinery and tools. Examples of tools found here include a blacksmith's anvil, forge, forge blower, two-wheel cart, grinder with stand, Cincinnati Bickford radial drill, Acme Machinery Company power pipe threader, Buffalo Forge Company floor-model drill press, double-ended belt drive bugger-grinder, large Lodge and Shipley machine lathe, smaller lathe, American Tool Works Company shaper, rare small Cincinnati metal planer, rare double-arbor or offset J. J. McCabe lathe, early hydrostatic railroad wheel press, and a vertical boring mill. Additionally, a Westinghouse cross-compound steam air brake compressor is attached to the north wall outside the machine shop. The integrity of the machine shop remains intact. Especially important is the fact that, unlike some other shops, the belts connecting the machines to their power source were never enclosed to increase safety.

Crowell's three surviving locomotives include:

Locomotive #202, a 1913 standard gauge Baldwin 4-6-0 (four small wheels in front, six larger driving wheels in the middle, and no wheels at the rear) pine knot burning engine with a steel cab, cabbage head stack, 40-inch diameter driving wheels, and a steam jam locomotive brake. The latter indicates that this engine most likely served on the woods lines. The tender survives but is parked elsewhere within the district. The engine has been moved from its 1993 location and is now is stored on track inside the Machine Shop. The locomotive is missing the bell, headlight, whistle, front number plate, some cab fittings, and both builder's plates. However, as mentioned, its cabbage-shaped stack survives. Also known as a Rushton stack, it is a spark arrester designed to guard against forest fires by containing the showers of sparks and cinders generated by the wood-burning engine.

Locomotive #400, a 1919 standard gauge Baldwin 4-6-0 with a steel cab, turbo generator, electric headlight, two single-stage Westinghouse 9-inch air pumps, air brakes, 48-inch driving wheels, and a tender with "Crowell Long Leaf Lbr. Co., Inc." lettered on its side. The power system has been converted to burn oil, and a square riveted oil tank is located in the fuel space on the tender. The engine's cannon stack was added as part of this conversion. Its original Rushton cabbage stack is visible nearby in a pile of discarded machinery. The engine is missing the builder's plates, front number plate, bell, whistle, safety valves, and some of the smaller cab fittings. Locomotive #400 and its tender are parked on a yard track near the roundhouse.

Locomotive # 106, a 1923 standard gauge Baldwin piston-valve 4-6-0 accompanied by a tender with the lettering "Red River & Gulf Railroad" on its side. This engine has a Walschaert valve gear, air brakes with a Westinghouse cross-compound air compressor, electric headlight, turbo generator, and 48-inch diameter driving wheels. Its builder's plates, front number plate, bell, whistle, and safety valves are all missing, but its cab fittings are pretty complete. This locomotive was also converted to oil by the addition of a square riveted oil tank in the fuel space on the tender and the installation of a cannon stack. The engine and tender are stored inside the car shop.

The huge Clyde Log Skidder (built in 1919) is a piece of self-contained, rail-mounted machinery that included a steam engine with its own central wood-burning vertical boiler. Thus, when operable, it could travel along the rails under its own power. The steam engine also powered drums holding several thousand feet of thick wire cable used to pull logs to the railroad track for transport to the sawmill. The pulling drums could operate simultaneously. Skidder crews would run the cables into the woods, typically an eighth of a mile, attach them to logs with large tongs, and then pull the logs to the railroad track. A double-ended skidder had at least one drum on each end. A "rehaul" model (developed in the 1910s) could also run its cables in reverse, carrying the tongs back out to the woods under power. Crowell's machine is a double-ended, rehaul model with two drums on each end. It is the largest Clyde double-end skidder ever built and the only one built in this size.

Despite some deterioration caused by weathering, the skidder's overall condition is good. Missing but replaceable parts include the boiler fittings, the smoke cone and stack (located on the ground nearby), and two large wooden poles known as booms that have rotted and are in pieces. Surprisingly, the original builder's plates (one on each side) remain in place.

Crowell retains two McGiffert Log Loaders, both built by the Clyde Iron Works in 1919. A McGiffert was essentially a large crane mounted high on a tall and wide steel frame that traveled and operated on a railroad track. Its job was to lift each log from the pile created by the skidder and lower it onto a log car. Steam generated in a vertical boiler burning pine knots and other wood scrap stored on a deck at the rear powered the self-propelled machine.

When a McGiffert reached the pick-up site, its operator lowered the machine's oversized feet until they rested on the railroad ties. Next, he retracted its railroad wheels. Even though the machine still straddled the tract, these operations left a space beneath the loader high enough to allow a series of empty log cars to be pulled underneath the machine. An empty car was always positioned on the track near the McGiffert. Swingable booms attached to the loader lifted the logs and, one at a time, placed them on the exposed car. As each car was filled, it was pulled through the loader and the next empty car rolled forward into place. In this manner the McGiffert gradually built a trainload of logs for transport to the sawmill.

Of the two McGifferts at Crowell, the one located next to the Roundhouse is the more complete. Its front-drive chain has been removed and stored, but its rear-drive remains in place. All the boiler fittings are missing. Although the wooden boom rotted and disappeared long ago, the iron parts once attached to it survive. As with the Clyde skidder, this McGiffert's rare cast iron builder's plate survives.

The second machine, located not too far away, is similar to the first. However, it has lost more of its parts. Both are clearly recognizable (by those familiar with the history of the logging industry's technological development) as McGiffert log loaders.

The non-industrial zone is set to the west of the industrial area. At one time there were numerous houses and streets in the area, a virtual town. But the Crowell company town lost most of its population, long abandoned houses have disappeared, and even the roads are overgrown. Part of one residential street remains, containing two frame cottages, one bungalow and a frame garage, all dating from about 1925. The grandest residence at Crowell is the 1935 Allen Crowell House, a rambling one-story Colonial Revival house with nine rooms, a garage wing and a square columnar front gallery. Another building of note is the old post office, a small gabled frame building with narrow gauge clapboarding. The large, single-story, "T" shaped commissary, with its three porches, was built to replace a previous one that burned in 1947. Near the commissary are two historic corrugated metal storage sheds and a small frame modern post office. The company built Long Leaf Baptist Church (c.1920) is a plain narrow gauge clapboard building with a front-facing gable. Next to the church is a single-story auxiliary building built in the 1960s. The present company office building was built in the 1930s as a residence for Draughton Crowell and his family. It was a story-and-a-half Colonial Revival house with a partial front porch and a front-facing gable containing a Palladian window. The family moved out in 1944 and the house was enlarged with a huge rear wing to become the company office. Next door to the house/office is a frame garage with rooms above.

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Clyde Log Skidder (2007)
Clyde Log Skidder (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Clyde Log Skidder (2007)
Clyde Log Skidder (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Locomotive #400 (2007)
Locomotive #400 (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Railroad tracks (2007)
Railroad tracks (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana McGiffert Log Loader (2007)
McGiffert Log Loader (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana McGiffert Log Loader (2007)
McGiffert Log Loader (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Roundhouse, Machine Shop, Supply Shed, and Car Shop (2007)
Roundhouse, Machine Shop, Supply Shed, and Car Shop (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Planner Mill and Engine House (2007)
Planner Mill and Engine House (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Sawmill (2007)
Sawmill (2007)

Crowell Sawmill Complex, Longleaf Louisiana Sawmill (2007)
Sawmill (2007)