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Lumbering Along With James Oliver Dunn

Article by Dan Shell, Senior Editor, Timber Processing May 2023

Some of my very first memories are playing around my grandmother’s house located on a county road in Brushy Creek, Ala., which is a suburb of East Chapman, Ala. (that’s a joke), located of course adjacent Chapman, which is no longer a town but primarily the Boise Cascade Chapman mill site, though the small community around it clings tenaciously to the tiny post office out on Hwy. 31. In fact, the county road where my father grew up dead-ended into the W.T. Smith Lumber Co. log yard, and both sides of my family had various relationships with the mill and its owners that go back well over 100 years.

As a result of family formulations and demographics, my parents became a repository of sorts for what is likely several thousand family photos, letters, documents, etc. And when I say thousand I mean a mountain of material that’s more easily measured in pounds than pages: boxes of cartons filled to the brim. With my parents’ passing in the past two years all this has come into my hands, and much of it is related to life and work in the piney woods of Butler County in south central Alabama. Things like a boxful of dozens of “courting” letters between my grandmother and grandfather—who eventually became the roads crew supervisor for Rocky Creek Logging, a W.T. Smith Lumber subsidiary—when he was living and working in the legendary Logtown. Miss. on the banks of the Pearl River. Some of the letters have really neat old Victorian nosegay cards in them, and from what I can tell my grandfather spent a lot of letters apologizing for various things. But what do you do with this stuff? Right now the plan is seal it into my attic and let my kids worry about it one of these decades.

So as we’re boxing and packing trying to get their house ready to sell, an envelope pops out: an interview with James Oliver Dunn, my maternal great grandfather who went to work for the McGowin family at W.T. Smith Lumber in 1908 and worked in the planer and molding operations for 43 years. The interview ran in Lumbering Along, the company paper for the company town that Chapman was way back when, in November 1951. My family still has a nice collection of Lumbering Alongs that have been donated to the Hatton-Brown Publishers industry archives, and each issue gives amazing insight to life and work in the Deep South during the postwar era.

The McGowins were just getting started with W.T. Smith Lumber and had bought Dunham Lumber just south of the mill, and the former owners had recommended ol’ great granddad as a good planer mill specialist. He had received the job offer third hand through a rural telephone system that included sending his brother out to tell him about it.

W.T. Smith was having lumber quality problems. Greeley McGowin told Dunn he could have the job if he could keep it. Great granddad told him the first hour they were dissatisfied with his work he was gone. “I waited here forty-three years for somebody to tell me to get going,” he said.

The company also bought out Empire Lumber in Andalusia, and Dunn went there to finish up the mill run as the Chapman site expanded: three sawmills, a veneer mill, a “terrible big” stave mill, a big turpentine still and a big box plant all running here at the same time.

This was the last couple decades of steam power and the daily cacophony that accompanied it was part of the rhythm of life around the mill, Dunn explained: “There used to be the most racket here. Everything was operated by steam power. Every one of those mills had a call whistle. It took at least thirty minutes for all of them to get through blowing. No. 2 Mill would have to blow, No. 1 Mill would have to blow, No 3 Mill would have to blow, it was the most foolish thing but it had to go on. They had a call at every mill.

“They did that so that the crew that was working at that mill would hear their call and know the mill was going to run that day. Then all the log trains started out about three o’clock in the morning and every one of them had to blow signals and get answers, and this was the whistle-blowingest place I ever heard tell of. It rocked on that way until now it has gotten to where you can hardly tell the mill is running now.” (Then again 43 years in a pre-PPE planer mill might have had a lot to do with hardly telling the mill is running now.)

During his overall 55-year career as a piney woods planer operator, Dunn said he saw feed rates go from 35-40 FPM to more than 400 FPM. He said when he came to Chapman the biggest lumber quality problem was everyone at the planer mill thought they were the boss. He mentioned good and bad coworkers and several bad accidents, and said the logging back then was absolutely rough work. His son Crawford worked at the mill starting at age 15 and rose to dry sorter foreman when he died unexpectedly at a young age. “They shut the mill down for his funeral. That was mighty nice of them. I appreciated that,” Dunn said.

Great granddad explained that he had only missed three days of work in 1950 but had been feeling run-down and tired, and when he went to the doctor he was told “not to go in that mill any more.” This led to his retirement in March 1951, and the newspaper interview six months later.

In closing, he said, “I wish them well-Messers. Floyd, Earl and Julian. I wish them well. It feels kind of homey, Chapman does-kind of homey. I’ve got a lot of friends in Chapman-white and colored.”

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