Back from the Ashes

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

In just over a century, Missouri's landscape has fluctuated dramatically. Much of Missouri was once a seemingly endless verdant forest. Overharvest reduced it to a virtual wasteland. Now Missouri's forest stock has again risen. With careful management we can sustain beautiful and productive forests indefinitely.

The first settlers of Missouri relied on forests to provide them with all the essentials of frontier life - fuel, shelter and food. Later, these same forests generated wealth for sawmills. Following the Civil War, Missouri forests helped supply building lumber and railroad ties for a growing nation.

Before the late 1800s and the coming of railroads, there was no economical way to transport Ozark lumber to markets. The first railroad to serve the logging woods of southeast Missouri was brought by the Missouri Lumber and Mining Company. The company moved a locomotive to the end of the rail line at Williamsville and then hauled it in pieces by wagon to the company’s Ozarks operation in Grandin, 22 miles away.

The Grandin Mill consumed huge amounts of logs, as did other mills at Winona, Birch Tree, Greenville and West Eminence. These early operations were big business. The lumber companies laid hundreds of miles of rails for trams to pull logs back to the mills. Rafts of logs floated down rivers to railroad sidings, where they were loaded and shipped to the mills.

The mills were so big that company towns, complete with stores, hospitals and churches, sprang up around them. Temporary logging camps housed lumberjacks as they cut trees further and further from the mills.

During the time of the big mills, Missouri led the nation in lumber production. In 1907, the Yale School of Forestry sent its senior class to Missouri to study logging and railroad operations. They also studied the Grandin Mill, learning lumber manufacturing procedures and the details of running a large sawmill. The class spent four months in Shannon County, staying at a camp near the present site of Sunklands Conservation Area.

The timber cutting was relentless. Three lumber companies in Shannon County reportedly cut 1.3 billion board feet of lumber between 1888 and 1903. Missouri’s timber production peaked in 1899. By 1910, nearly all the pine had been cut, and by 1920 the boom was over.

After the boom came the bust. Lumber companies set up real estate divisions to sell their cutover land. Touted as an excellent agricultural and fruit growing region, Missouri land was sold sight-unseen to unsuspecting Eastern buyers.

When the mills closed, workers were left to eke out a living in the rocky Ozark hills. They burned the cutover woods every year in an effort to encourage grass for their free ranging livestock and to rid the woods of ticks and snakes. This combination of overcutting, annual burning and open range livestock had a major effect on Ozark soils, streams and wildlife.

As early as 1910, there was concern about the condition of Missouri’s forests and wildlife. Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, visited the Ozarks in May of that year. He was accompanied by Gov. Hadley and J.B. White, one of the owners of the Grandin mill and a member of the State Forestry Commission. Their itinerary included visits to the areas around Grandin, Winona and Eminence and a float trip down the Jacks Fork and Current rivers to view cutover land.

In 1912, the University of Missouri established a Department of Forestry in the College of Agriculture. Only 17 people took degrees during the next 9 years, so the course was dropped in 1921 and not started again until 15 years later. In 1936, the university offered a pre-forestry curriculum in the Department of Horticulture.

The millions of barren acres in the Ozarks received no legislative attention until 1925. The Legislature added a Department of Forestry to the State Board of Agriculture and directed that it practice forestry upon lands owned by the state and "advance the understanding and promote the practice of forestry and wise use of forests and forest products in Missouri." They also gave them the job of studying "the causes of fires in the woods, to determine the damage done by them, and to devise means for their control."

The Legislature appropriated $10,000 to start this ambitious new program, but the governor vetoed it. The whole program would have died if not for the Missouri Forestry Association, a group of citizens and wood-using industries. They raised the $10,000 by public subscription and turned it over to the new department.

In the same year as the 1925 forestry law, conservation-minded legislators passed an act requiring the Fish and Game Department to use part of its funds for the purchase of state parks. Those parks became valuable forest additions that later formed the nucleus for present state forest areas at Deer Run, Indian Trail and Meramec.

In February 1925, the Department of Forestry named Paul Dunn district forester under the supervision of State Forester Frederick Dunlap. The agency assigned Dunn to Ellington, where his primary job was fire prevention. He drove around his district in a Model T, hauling a trailer with a motion picture projector and a generator - the origin of the "Showboat" later used by the Forestry Division of the Conservation Commission. He had one film, Trees of Righteousness, apparently made by the U.S. Forest Service in Arkansas. He wore out five copies of the film showing it to every school district in Reynolds and adjoining counties.

Foresters built Missouri’s first lookout tower in 1926 in Deer Run State Park (later called Deer Run State Forest) with funds from the Commissioner of Fish and Game. They constructed a second tower at Indian Trail the next year. At this time no organized fire protection existed outside of the state parks. Dunn reported that at least three-fourths of the land outside state parks burned twice each year.

In 1931 the Legislature failed to appropriate any funds for forestry. The forestry division abolished the Fish and Game Department, and the state forester, Frederick Dunlap, resigned in despair. An official report signed by him concluded that it was impossible to establish forest fire control in the Ozarks.

While there was no forestry program in Missouri for several years, forest conservation efforts continued to move forward. In 1929, the Missouri National Forest Association successfully lobbied the Legislature to permit the federal government to purchase land in Missouri for a national forest. Eight purchase units were set up in 1934 and 1935, and the forest became a reality. The more than one million acres of cutover forest land acquired is now known as Mark Twain National Forest.

In the midst of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This program gave much-needed employment and training to young men. More than a half-million men were enrolled at its peak, and about half were assigned to forestry projects. Nationwide, the CCC developed more than 800 state parks, planted three billion trees, built 3,100 lookout towers and fought thousands of acres of wildfires. Their work came at a time when our natural resources were desperately in need of helping hands.

Conservation efforts were now under way at the state level. Voters approved the constitutional amendment creating the Conservation Commission in 1936. This new agency included forest management - an innovative idea at a time when most other fish and wildlife agencies were separate from forestry departments. The early Missouri conservationists recognized that a healthy forest was essential to healthy fish and wildlife populations.

In 1938, the Conservation Commission hired former Forest Service employee George O. White as state forester in the Division of Fish, Game and Forestry. Fire control was his first big job. He hired four young foresters and sent them out to organize districts. They were William Towell, Arthur Meyer, August Schmidt and Edward Seay, with Charles Kirk soon joining them.

Money was tight and equipment scarce. The Conservation Commission issued each district forester a pickup truck, an ax, a one-man crosscut saw, a long-handled shovel, a dozen council rakes and a couple of backpack pumps.

Fire detection depended on a few scattered lookouts, word of mouth, sense of smell and the U.S. mail. One district forester recalled receiving a post card from a neighboring district. It read, "If you are at all concerned with the most interesting phase of our work technically known as fire suppression, you should be informed that you have had a fire in progress since Tuesday P.M. in Sec. 28, T28N, R2E."

Education was, and still is, the key. People had to learn the need for fire protection. The foresters had to teach rural folks not to burn and persuade city folks to finance protection. The "Showboat" was put into operation, borrowing an earlier idea from Paul Dunn. This was a truck with generator, screen and projector that took forestry movies into the Ozark hills where there was no electricity. Foresters showed the movies in schools, general stores and churches - anywhere they could get a group of people together. The Showboat operated for 12 years, even through World War II.

White also encouraged tree planting on private land. He believed that if someone invested time and sweat in planting trees, they would be less likely to let their seedlings burn.

The Conservation Department established a seedling nursery at Meramec State Forest and eventually took over operation of the Forest Service nursery at Licking. The two nurseries produced millions of trees and wildlife shrubs for replanting burned and eroded land. When the Meramec Nursery closed in 1962, the Conservation Department moved all nursery operations to Licking. The Licking Nursery was named in honor of White upon his retirement in 1960.

The Conservation Commission in 1940 authorized a farm forestry program in cooperation with the Soil Conservation Service. The agency offered landowners free technical advice on tree planting, forest improvement practices and marketing timber. Since most of Missouri’s forests are privately owned, this was a big step in improving the overall health of the state’s forests. The farm forestry program eventually grew until landowners in all parts of the state had access to a forester.

In 1944, the Conservation Commission formed a Forestry Division under State Forester White. Two years later the Legislature passed the State Forestry Law. A major portion of the law was the creation of the forest crop land program. It enrolled private forest land for increased fire protection and timber trespass enforcement. A landowner received a reduction in property taxes for classifying his land and also paid a yield tax when forest products were harvested. The new law was a big incentive in early farm forestry work.

During the 1950s and 60s budgets gradually increased and programs expanded. The acreage under fire protection grew, the Conservation Department added farm foresters, the size of the Licking nursery doubled and the agency bought more state forest land for public use. Educational efforts were beginning to pay off. With fewer fires to contend with, efforts could be turned to managing forest land. Foresters planted seedlings, harvested trees damaged by fire and removed undesirable trees. Private landowners learned how to improve their forest and wildlife habitat.

Tremendous progress in Missouri’s forest management has been made in the past century. The once-impossible task of fire control in the Ozarks became a reality. Today less than one-tenth of one percent of Missouri burns each year. Wildlife once again abounds. Missouri has once more become a leader in the production of wood products.

Conservation - wise use - has made all this possible. So remarkable has been the recovery that some areas are once again called "wilderness." Old foresters just smile and think back to all the years of firefighting and management that helped renew this valuable resource.

Black Sunday

Old timers will long remember Easter Sunday 1941 as "Black Sunday" in the Ozarks. The right combination came together that day- prolonged drought, high temperatures, low humidity, 55 m.p.h. winds and a few kitchen matches.

For 24 hours it seemed as if all the Ozarks was on fire. In Deer Run State Forest, fire swept about 1,000 acres. The first timber sale on state land was made the following year to salvage the damaged trees. Even today evidence of this fire remains.

Why is fire prevention week in October?

The nation's deadliest forest fire burned on Oct. 8, 1871, around Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The Great Lakes states were in the midst of a logging boom, and settlers set fires during the summer to clean up logging slash.

A severe drought combined with hot weather and strong winds caused these fires to explode on Oct. 8. The fires burned several towns and more than 1.2 million acres of forest, leaving 1,500 people dead.

Several days passed before news of the deaths and destruction spread to the outside world. A city to the south had a fire on the same day that captured most of the headlines. This big fire, caused by a cow kicking over a lantern, we know as the Great Chicago Fire.

  • Burnt-over lands made living difficult in the early part of this century. The logging boom had become a bust for generations that followed.
  • During the 1940's, Conservation Commission efforts at fire protection and the Forest Crop Land Program helped Missouri's forests regenerate.

Fire Fighting Tools

Pulaski - The Pulaski combines and ax and grub how on the same tool. It was developed by Forest Service Ranger Pulaski, who won fame for his efforts during the 1910 fires in northern Idaho. The Pulaski is a versatile tool. It can be used for digging fire lines, cutting down trees or grubbing out smoldering roots. A Pulaski and shovel are the standard tools of western firefighters.

Broom rake - Broom rakes were developed specifically for Missouri fire fighting conditions. They resemble a lawn rake except they have heavy wire tines. They are commonly used in states where the forest floor is covered with hardwood leaves. Broom rakes are used like a broom to sweep away leaves to create a fire break. With the tines stuffed full of leaves and set on fire, they become backfiring tools. No Missouri firefighter goes to a fire without his broom rake.

Backpack pump - A backpack pump consists of a 5-gallon tank, a short length of hose and a slide pump. Filled with water it approaches 50 pounds in weight. But it is still the simplest and most portable way of getting water to remote sections of a fire. It is used to cool down hot spots and extinguish spot fires and in mopping-up operations. First-time firefighters often get the "honor" of carrying a backpack pump.

Lumberjacks had their own colorful vocabulary. Some of their terms faded away with the era of big logging camps, but others survive and are still used today.

Birling

the loggers’ game of log rolling.

Brains

man from the head office.

Branding ax

a tool for marking ownership on a log.

Buck

to cut a tree into log lengths after it has been felled.

Bucker

one who saws trees into logs.

Bull

By itself, the boss of a camp or logging operation. When used as a prefix, except in the case of "bullcook," it denotes the boss man.

Bullcook

chore boy around camp who cuts wood, fills wood boxes, sweeps bunkhouses, feeds pigs and is often the butt of camp jokes.

Bull of the Woods

the camp foreman or logging superintendent.

Choker

a loop of wire rope, used for skidding logs.

Choker-setter

the man who puts chokers around logs.

Corks

calks; short, sharp spikes set in the soles of boots.

Cruiser

man who estimates standing timber.

Deacon seat

a classic piece of camp furniture; usually made of half of a log, flat side up.

Donkey

a stationary engine, usually steam-powered.

Drag day

the day of the month when a logger can draw his wages in advance of the day they are due.

Faller

man who cuts down trees.

Gandy dancer

a pick-and-shovel man.

"Give her snoose"

to increase power; a tribute to the potency of snuff used by loggers.

"Got her made"

quitting the job. "He’s got his stake made."

Hardtack outfit

a company that sets a poor table; from the term for hard and cheap bread.

Ink slinger

logging camp timekeeper.

Iron burner

camp blacksmith.

Landing

the place where logs are assembled for loading or rolling into the river.

"Make her out"

"Make her out" - what a logger tells the timekeeper when he wants his pay check.

Muzzle loaders

Muzzle loaders - bunks that you crawled into over the foot of the bed.

Nosebag

lunch bucket.

Peavey

tool with a hook and spike on the end used for maneuvering logs.

Pike pole

long pole with a spike at one end, used on river drives to free logs.

River hog

a name for river drivers.

Scaler

fellow who says how much lumber a log contains; his rule stick is said to be the cheat stick.

Short staker

a very migratory worker.

Show

a logging chance; spoken of as a good show or a poor show.

Skidroad

a road over which the logs were pulled; also means that part of a city where loggers congregate when in town.

Steel gang

railroad track laying crew.

"Tim-berrr!"

traditional cry of warning.

Widow maker

a tree or branch blown down by wind.

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