Buford Witherow said his father told him he saw the remnant of a huge tree cut down some 70 to 80 years ago in the logging days of what is now the Cohutta Wilderness Area that defied imagination.
“My daddy said that he saw a poplar stump one time that was so big you could turn a team of steers around on it,” Witherow recalled.
Hikers, hunters and anglers exploring the depths of the Cohutta Wilderness may have wondered about the rotting crossties that run in once-tracked rows along Jacks River in the popular Beech Bottoms area. Yet without knowing the early 20th century history of the land, any musing is only catalogued with senses already sated with lush vegetation, the laughter of cold, clear running streams and air so fresh you can smell its fragrance.
Visitors to this managed woodland look around and see towering trees and great fallen timbers, leading them to believe the Cohuttas (formerly a Wildlife Management Area, or WMA) are a virgin forest that’s never been logged.
But just the opposite is true.
Beginning after the turn of the 20th century and not ending until just before World War II began, the Cohuttas were extensively logged by lumber companies that built towns and schools, supplied electricity, and gave men honest work so they could provide for their families in some of the bleakest years of our nation’s history.
Logging in the Cohuttas was hard work, and oftentimes dangerous. The ideas for machinery that had to be used to pull and coax enormous trees out of the steep terrain and onto rails can still be seen in some of the techniques and equipment used in logging today.
‘To go back in time’
Witherow — a retired enforcement officer with the former Game and Fish Division (now Wildlife Resources Division) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources whose father Grady was one of those early loggers — thinks it “amazing” what such an operation without modern provisions accomplished in those days.
“I’d like to be able to go back in time and just watch it,” he said. “I tell you, you couldn’t find men today who would work that hard like they did back then.”
The Conasauga Lumber Co. in Conasauga, Tenn., owned vast areas of virgin timberland, “probably 70,000 to 80,000 acres,” wrote Rosalind Dooly Tovar in her book “Conasauga,” a historical record of the town. Logs were felled and hauled in to be cut from several forested areas, but the Cohuttas covering Murray, Gilmer and Fannin counties were quite a few miles away from the sawmill town in the southwestern corner of Polk County across the Georgia state line.
From some indications, logging by the Conasauga enterprise did not reach south into the Cohuttas until after 1912. According to the U.S. Forest Service, an estimated 70 percent of what is now the Cohutta Wilderness was logged between 1915 and 1935. The answer to getting Cohutta logs to the Conasauga mill — a distance of around 30 miles — was manpower, horsepower and rail.