Perspectives

It Came from the Archives: Sawmills of the Wiregrass

August 30, 2018

Although the Wiregrass is known for commercial-scale peanut and cotton agriculture, those were late comers to the region’s economic life. Hunting and bottom-land gardening fed the original Native American inhabitants, and white settlers merely added droving of rangy cattle and hogs to the mix.

Eventually, naval stores and small-scale logging supplemented the new inhabitants’ incomes, especially in the late 19th century. Turpentine stills sprang up, and subsistence farmers used their off season to cut logs and float them on the small rivers to Gulf docks. When railroads penetrated into Southeast Alabama, the lands further away from rivers opened to “cut-and-get-out” loggers. Many industrial-scale loggers (like the W. T. Smith Lumber Co. of Chapman, Alabama, incorporated in 1891) paired logging railroads with large sawmills and landholdings. Yet few of these large companies lasted any length of time, and as the forests regenerated in the 1920s and even more so after the Great Depression and World War 2, small operators using portable (colloquially known as “peckerwood”) sawmills could once again supplement their farm income or wages.

That appears to be the story of World War 1 veteran Levi Washington Greer of Slocomb, whose son, Mike, donated a number of photographs of his sawmill in operation in the 1950s. We have no information about LW Greer’s business practices – whether he worked for wages or farmed, whether he made a living from his sawmill, what kind of lumber he produced or for whom, whether his lumbering fed into large-scale sales or served a niche market. But from these images we can see the technology he used.

peckerwood sawmill

In this photo, L.W. Greer rides a log skid he made from the caisson of a WW1 artillery piece. Note the oxen used for motive power, which were less usual than faster mules but cheaper and sturdier.

“Peckerwood” sawmills became feasible with the introduction of the circular sawblade in the 1880s. But until portable gasoline engines also became available, the economics of steam-operated mills required an economy of scale. Here, Greer or an associate poses with a one-cylinder gas engine that turns a double-flywheel shaft.  The belt powers the mill.

Peckerwood Sawmills in the Wiregrass

You can see the wide belt (disengaged, so it drags the ground to the left) that turns the shaft connected to the circular saw. The crew feeds logs from this end, and the man in the middle (probably Greer) acts as chief operator.

Compared to the giant pulpwood and lumber yards of today – or even industrial-scale lumber yards of this era – L.W. Greer’s yard indicates that his business was very small.

You can see these images and more online at the Wiregrass Archives website, Mike Greer Papers (1917-2005), RG 060, https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/060.html

You can see five similar images of the larger Williams-Vorris Lumber Company of Dothan in the Harold Wiggins Papers (1873-1984), RG 019, https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/019.html (scroll down).

It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.