Turning trees into pencils

Cedars were big businessin long-ago Arkansas

Posted: October 7, 2018 at 1 a.m.

On a recent drive to Eureka Springs, I noticed the vast number of red cedar trees growing in the area. The sight reminded me of that brief moment in Arkansas history at the turn of the 20th century, when crews of boys and young men, along with their skilled mules, cut the ancient cedar forest clinging to the hills and then floated the logs down the unpredictable Buffalo River. It is a story of incredible human drama and endurance, played out on the steep sides of mountains and in the cold waters of the Buffalo.

Cedar was a valuable commodity because it was used for a variety of purposes. Being rot-resistant, cedar made excellent fence posts. In the late 1800s, the Handford family of Batesville established a mill which cut cedar along the White River and its tributaries, floated it to the mill and shipped the finished posts via the railroad.

Red cedar was especially useful for making pencils. Prior to World War I many pencils were made of cedar -- and they were often unpainted and did not have an eraser, both ends usually being sharpened. Large amounts of cedar were needed to sustain pencil manufacturers, and by 1900 most of the cedar forests of the southeastern states had been harvested. While many manufacturers turned their attention to the incense-cedar forests of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains, a few, such as Eagle Pencil Co., decided to tackle the thick stands of cedar along the steep banks of the Buffalo.

These were virgin forests, and the trees were much larger than those we typically see today. Daniel Boone Lackey, a precocious lad from deep in the hollows of Newton County, recalled in his retirement years that most of the trees measured an amazing 22 inches in diameter at ground level. One specimen near Pruett stood 85 feet tall and measured 42 inches in diameter.

Lackey painted a dismal picture of the challenges of getting the timber to market: "Rough roads, steep hills, rivers to ford -- not a single bridge over the rivers in Newton County at that time -- and a distance of 30 miles or more by wagon to the nearest railroad at Harrison ..." Lackey went to work for Eagle Pencil Co. as a water boy at the age of 16 -- for 50 cents per day. He quickly worked his way up to "snake" work, meaning he and a mule were responsible for retrieving freshly cut logs in inaccessible places.

Lackey recalled one instance along the Buffalo when he and his mule, "Going Joe," were charged with trekking "around the side of the mountain where we could reach some logs that had been cut in a gulch. The only way the logs could be reached by wagon was for us to 'snake' them to a bluff, unhitch our mules and roll the logs over the bluff." Lackey developed a deep regard for the mules that "skidded" the logs toward the river: "Down the steep hillside the mule picked his way among trees and rocks. When the log began crowding him, he zigzagged and sidestepped to prevent it from running over him," Lackey recalled.

Like Lackey, Frank Villines was a member of another large and respected Newton County family who cut cedar for Eagle Pencil. Villines was in his eighty-sixth year in 1970 when he told writer Billie Touchstone Hardaway about his dangerous career as a teenager cutting and floating cedar logs.

Villines especially recalled two aspects of his work as a woodsman: the good meals he was served and the excitement of the "float." Hardaway writes that Villines "always felt excitement when the foreman put his hands to the sides of his mouth and bellowed, 'Let's put 'em in the water.' The sound of stakes snapping and logs rumbling, sometimes over a fairly steep bluff, and the splash and spray of water many feet high, was indeed a phenomenon ..."

Since the Buffalo was normally too low to float large rafts of logs, timing of the float was crucial. The optimal time was after a good rain, but only when the water level began to recede. Villines recalled that "when the river was going down, the pull was toward the middle and this gave the floaters command of the logs." Floats normally occurred in the spring or fall.

According to Villines, the young employees "jumped in the water as if it were dry land to straighten logs and untangle some." Bad weather was the bane of the floaters. Sudden drops in temperature would turn wet clothes into stiff, icy armor. Fortunately, according to Villines, "... somebody always had a bottle to warm the blood and stave off a bad cold ..."

Villines recalled that the largest float he ever worked on involved moving 185,000 logs 22 miles to Gilbert. Daniel Boone Lackey remembered a float beginning at Boxley involving 175,000 logs.

When the float reached an accessible point in the river, the logs were mechanically retrieved and run through a sawmill where they were cut into uniform "slats." These were then shipped to factories which produced finished pencils, which in 1906 sold for 10 cents per dozen.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com. An earlier version of this column was published Jan. 14, 2007.

NAN Profiles on 10/07/2018