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The news came suddenly, and it couldn't have been much worse for Crossett.

Georgia-Pacific Corp. announced earlier this month that it will close its bleached-board operations at Crossett, costing 555 people their jobs. In 2011, the company closed its plywood and stud operations, and 700 people lost jobs. That's 1,255 jobs gone in this decade in a town that has seen its population drop from 6,471 in 1990 to about 4,900 residents. For now, Georgia-Pacific will continue to employ almost 500 people in its consumer tissue and towel business.

Regardless of what happens in the future, nothing can take away Crossett's place in history as one of the towns where the forestry industry came of age. Crossett had close ties to Yale University and was a center of research and innovation.

As the forests of the Great Lakes region were depleted during the late 1800s and early 1900s, American investors turned to the huge swath of Southern pine from east Texas to the Florida panhandle. On May 16, 1899, three businessmen from Davenport, Iowa--Edward Savage Crossett, Charles Gates and John Watzek--formed the Crossett Lumber Co. They purchased 47,000 acres in south Arkansas and north Louisiana at a price of $7 per acre from the Michigan investment firm Hovey & McCracken.

Edward Crossett had been born in 1828 in West Plattsburgh, N.Y. He purchased a shoe store in 1848 along with his brother. Two years later, Crossett left the store in the hands of his brother and headed west. By 1853, he was operating a supply store for lumbermen in Wisconsin. Crossett bought timberland along the way, moving from Wisconsin to Iowa in 1875 and joining a trading firm known as Renwick, Shaw & Crossett.

"In 1882, Crossett made his first investment in yellow pine, which was the predominant softwood species in the Southern forest," wrote the late Bill Norman, a longtime Crossett resident with a deep interest in the city's history. "In 1886, he sold his interest in the Renwick firm, taking as payment 10,000 acres of Arkansas land covered with yellow pine. His friends were confident that he had made a serious mistake in this exchange. Having personally inspected it, Crossett was convinced of the great possibilities in yellow pine, and his judgment was speedily vindicated. Along the way, he became interested in other lumber companies just setting up operations in the same part of Arkansas."

Crossett, Gates and Watzek owned three-fourths of the Crossett Lumber Co.'s stock. The remainder was owned by top employees. Cap Gates, who was Charles Gates' brother, came to south Arkansas to supervise the construction of mills and the development of a company town named in honor of Edward Crossett.

Crossett died in December 1910 at Davenport. By then, the company had taken off.

Investors spent $1 million (a fortune at the time) before the first commercial timber was sold. That included building several railroad connections. Construction of the first pine mill began in 1899, and construction of a second mill started in 1905. By the time both mills were operational, the company was producing 84 million board feet annually.

Crossett Lumber Co. became a leader in Southern forestry, adding paper mills and chemical plants in an effort to ensure there was minimal waste. Money also was spent on research and development projects, unusual in the early 1900s when companies had a cut-and-run philosophy.

The company built a school and homes, incorporating the city of Crossett in 1903. There was electric service, something that was rare at the time in south Arkansas. The city's newspaper began publishing in 1906, and telephone service was added in 1907. The company sold large amounts of lumber to the U.S. government during World War II and finally sold out to Georgia-Pacific in 1962.

As part of its progressive philosophy, the Crossett Lumber Co. hired Yale graduate W.K. Williams in 1926 to begin a program of sustainable forestry based on practices in Germany. The company also received advice from Yale professor Herman Haupt Chapman. With most of the virgin timber gone, company officials knew they would either change their ways or go out of business.

In 1933, the U.S. Forest Service established the Crossett Experimental Forest, one of the first such tracts in the South. For decades, the forest was the home for scientific research in areas such as wildlife, hydrology, soils and silviculture.

"The scores of studies conducted on the Crossett Experimental Forest have generated hundreds of scientific publications, making the station an internationally known example of high-quality, long-term forestry research," wrote Don Bragg and James Guldin of the Forest Service.

In July 1930, the Forest Service's Southern Forest Experiment Station had hired a University of Michigan graduate named Russell Reynolds to help landowners develop sustainable forestry plans. In 1932, Reynolds was assigned to help the Ozark-Badger Lumber Co. of Wilmar. During that period, he became familiar with the work of the Crossett Lumber Co., which was down to its final 25,000 acres of virgin pine. Reynolds moved to Crossett in August 1933 and began working with a Civilian Conservation Corps crew to help the company inventory and mark timber.

In the fall of 1933, Reynolds joined forces with forester Albert Wackerman to find a site on the company's cutover land suitable for an experimental forest. They identified a 1,680-acre parcel seven miles south of Crossett. History would be made there.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/19/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: Forestry's Southern home

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