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.
‘Shovels and mattocks’
The rail lines could only go so far into the precipitous terrain (one-fifth of the Cohutta Wilderness has slopes steeper than 60 percent). And as Witherow’s father told him, just getting to the timber was a laborious, back-breaking process.
“A team of three or four men would clear brush into the area,” he related second-handedly, “and then another team would come in and clear out a road. They would use shovels and mattocks to dig out every root that was in the way — anything that could get in the way and snag a log. Daddy said that road was smooth when they got done.”
After the trees were cut down with giant two-man crosscut saws, they were trimmed of branches and cut into sections that teams of horses could pull. A man with spiked boots would walk beside or ride the logs and guide the team with a set of reins in his hands. When the terrain became too steep and dangerous for the horses in front, the driver would leap off and shout “gee” or “haw” and the trained animals would guide themselves into a “J-hole,” or hewn-out spot on the side of the road where they could get out of the way. The “J-grab” helping hold the logs to the team would automatically unhook itself as the horses made the turn, freeing them from their load.
Another man “drivin’ grabs” would hook or unhook the logs at the appropriate time if the horses were slow to respond. Still, sometimes the horses did not get out of the way and were run over or dragged down the steep slopes and killed.
‘Go plumb off the ground’
“Pole roads,” or skidding roads, made of debarked trees set into the ground perpendicularly to the direction of the pull, were used on more level ground to make the job easier on the horses. Skidding in its modern form is still in use today as a log removal technique.
Another way to get logs out of the woods was “ball hooting,” according to Donna Gardner in the book about Polk and Fannin counties, “In Touch with the Past.” Her interview with the late Chris Boatwright, a former Murray County resident who lived near the western boundary line with Gilmer County, describes the method:
“The first crew came through and cut the trees and went on. The second crew ‘ball hooted’ the logs down the steep slope. First, they skinned the bark off the bottom of the log. Then they pointed the log’s nose. They would push those logs down the hill long ways. They was going so fast they would go plumb off the ground. Why, I’ve seen them go six feet in the air. They worked ahead of the men who skidded the logs. Sometimes it would be three or four weeks before a third crew would arrive and skid the logs out.”
At the bottom of the grade one of the rail lines would be nearby, or close enough for the horses to maneuver the logs, and the logs were loaded onto cars with a steam-powered engine and winch. According to “Conasauga,” a “Shay” steam locomotive with a Marion log loader was used on the main rail line:
“Often called ‘Sidewinder’ because the boiler box was offset to one side and the arms and linkage were on the other, the Shay was the most desirable steam locomotive ever made for mountainous terrain. It had a geared drive which gave (traction on) climbs and sharp curves. There was also a Climax locomotive for use in the (lumber) yard and a larger one for logging in the mountains. When the railroad reached Old Bray Field, a switching yard was built so the locomotives could be turned around.”
According to legend, Bray Field in the Cohuttas — which was once a settlement but now contains an extensive beaver pond — was so-named because the braying of mules could be heard in those days. Other old-timers contend it is simply named after a man called Bray.
A Millionaire’s Fun
In 1920 or ’21, railroad section crews were moving toward — and loggers were cutting on — Rough Creek near the Conasauga River. Again, Ms. Tovar:
“At this time the grading work on the railroad beds was done under contract using Italian immigrant labor ... but the rail laying crews were employees of the lumber company. Teams of Percherons — very large horses — were used for snaking logs. Percherons, in spite of their great size, are the quickest and most agile of the draft horses and one of the most intelligent. They worked so hard and used so much energy that they required special nourishment. Boxcar loads of feed from Cincinnati (Ohio) and Timothy hay were brought in for them. A fire in Camp 21 in 1927 or 1928 killed eight to 10 teams of these valuable animals.”
In his book, “I’ve Had a Millionaire’s Fun,” the late L.P. “Mose” Painter — who worked as a fireman and then as an engineer on the rails — wrote that it took about 10 tons of coal a day to make the 32-mile trip into the mountains and the return run to Conasauga.
“The engines ran an average speed of 10 to 12 miles an hour ... they were powerful engines that weighed about 80 tons with coal and water,” Painter wrote. “We hauled 40-foot standard gauge flat cars from the mill back into the mountains. The log loaders had a track on top of the log cars. Rails on the cars held the logs steady. We’d start at the engine and work toward the back loading two bunks to the car. It took 12 flat cars a day to run the mill and that was approximately 80,000 board feet of lumber. We worked not less than 10 hours a day, anywhere from 10 to 24 hours a day to keep the sawmill running. It was pretty hard work.”
A native West Virginian, Painter was lured to the lumber company along with his father and the rest of the family in 1924. He eventually moved to Dalton and became a chief innovator in the fledgling tufted carpet industry as it evolved from the early hand-sewing days of making bedspreads.
When an associate once remarked that Painter’s innovations eventually made several people millionaires in the carpet industry — but not himself — he reportedly said, “Well, I’ve had a millionaire’s fun.”
Boatwright remembered the days he worked arduously with the Conasauga company, and later with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
“I worked for the Conasauga Lumber Co. in the Hoover days,” he recalled of the 1929-1933 Depression years when Herbert Hoover was president. “They kept me going all through the Hoover days.”
Boatwright helped build the roads to get the logs out and also cut the timber.
“I pulled a crosscut saw all day sometimes,” he recollected. “It sure made the supper table look good.”
Boatwright remembers “dragging the logs to the tracks to be taken out by steam engines below Potato Patch Mountain.” The peak was one where a “spike camp” was located away from the main camp.
The camps and the Depression
The logging camps were “a necessity when the operation was distant from the mill,” Tovar wrote in “Conasauga”:
“(Camps) were set up at strategic locations and moved as the work progressed. Certain facilities remained in key places. Buildings were constructed in units, sometimes three to a house, and could be lifted through the roof, loaded on flat cars and moved to prepare foundations without removing the furnishings.
“Often men stayed at camp throughout the week and returned home on weekends. Those working the train on the main line went to the woods every day and came back with the logs for the mill each evening.”
Gardner, who contributed to “In Touch with the Past” with a chapter on the Cohuttas, wrote that “large logging camps housed all the men necessary to work such (a logging) operation. At any given time three to four logging camps operated simultaneously, each housing 80 to 100 men. Some locations were Panter Bluff, at Beech Bottom by the (Jacks River) falls and at Bear Creek Branch.”
Boatwright remembered the logging camps in “In Touch with the Past”:
“They had boarding houses called ‘lobbys’ owned by the lumber companies, (which) charged you for your bed and board out of your paycheck. I made $3.50 a day crosscut sawing. It was good money in them days. The camps were mostly men. We slept in bunk houses. The commissary had good food and plenty of it, things like beans and meat. There’d be 40 or 50 men at a meal.
“There was a few families in camp and the women did the cooking. Men stayed at the camp for months. They didn’t usually go out on the weekends. Many of them lived in North Carolina. Women came in on the Shays sometimes for a visit and a picnic.”
In his book, Painter tells of a startling feat of meal-cooking at the camps, revealed by his mother-in-law.
“I’ve heard her (his wife’s) mother say that at times she helped make 1,400 biscuits for breakfast to help feed the men. People don’t know what work really is today. There was plenty of hard work but very little pay.”
He also noted a doctor visited the camps on a rail motorcar to tend to the men and their families, and at night “the musicians around the camp tuned up their instruments and played string music to everyone’s entertainment.”
The heights — and depths
According to The Knoxville Sentinel, in 1925 the Conasauga Lumber Co. employed 700 men at its mill in Conasauga and in the woods, including the Cohuttas. Because of Conasauga, Polk County was one of the largest lumber producers in Tennessee with production of about 75,000 board feet a day.
With the lumber company beginning after the turn of the century and picking up steam for the next couple of decades, Conasauga entered a new era of commerce as suddenly as it had gone from an Indian to a white settlement after the “Trail of Tears” removal in 1836-1838. Churches, schools and timbering support industries — such as blacksmiths, commissaries, livery stables and homebuilding — sprang up to meet the growth in population that the new “band mill” brought.
By 1929 logging was completed in the Conasauga River vicinity and proceeded deeper around the Jacks River area.
But on “Black Tuesday” of the same year, hard times began for millions of Americans as the stock market crashed and the Great Depression was under way. At its peak in 1933, 13 million Americans were out of work, including loggers in the Southeast.
Conasauga Lumber Co. cut back on its logging and milling operation, laying off single men first. According to Tovar’s research, there appeared to be two separate periods when operations shut down completely during the Depression years. When work was available it was divided or rotated so that a larger number of men were employed. In 1931, Weyman Dooly Sr. of the lumber company convinced the company president to resume operations — even at a loss for the sake of local people — after they had ceased during the early years of the Depression. Gardner said her research showed logging had lapsed entirely for three years.
‘Heads held a little lower’
Even so, in 1933 at the nadir of the Depression nationwide, the mill was running again at Conasauga and the lumber company had persevered, Tovar noted.
Painter, who alternated working between Conasauga and the camps, said that in 1932 work had been slow at the mill.
“I had been able to work some even though it was sporadically,” he wrote in his book. “Machines and equipment again became silent about the time (Franklin) Roosevelt was elected (in 1933) and the men of my acquaintance walked at a slower pace with their heads held a little lower. The mill opened once more in a cautious mood for about six months before it closed with a ring of finality in 1933 ... I was one of the lucky ones as the lumber mill opened once again in 1934, and as was the case each time the mill had closed and reopened, we began maintenance and repair work to become operational.”
Forest Service buys land
Boatwright said that while the Conasauga Lumber Co. primarily used horses to pull logs down the slopes, many of the local logging companies used steers.
By around 1939, Conasauga logging crews had worked their way west to east to the Bear Creek area of Gilmer County. Logging near there and the now-preserved Cohutta Wilderness Area ceased in the next year or two. As areas were logged, the U.S. Forest Service was able to purchase land from the lumber companies, according to “In Touch with the Past”:
“The first tract of land was bought in 1930 from the Conasauga (company) and contained 23,000 acres. Some of the land was acquired by the (Forest Service) without cost. Lumber companies would give timbered acreage to the (Forest Service) in exchange for the right to timber other government-owned land.”
By 1942, the Conasauga Lumber Co.’s narrow-gauge railroad tracks that had hauled so much timbers out of the Cohuttas were taken up all the way back to the switching yard in Conasauga.
In commemoration, the company left standing one of the huge poplar trees workers had been cutting. The “big poplar” in Gilmer County, also known as the “Gennett poplar,” has been topped out several times by lightning and scarred by generations of woodpeckers. The tree does not stretch upward to its former glory, but still sees many hikers visit and gawk each year. To learn more about the trail, visit the Georgia Trails website at www.georgiatrails.com /gt/Bear_Creek_Trail.
The size of some of the virgin hardwoods brought down for timber — especially the poplars — is still remembered by many old-timers whose fathers and grandfathers passed down the memories to their sons.
The late H.C. Tankersley, a former logger and father of retired Forest Service employee Ray Tankersley of Murray County, said in “In Touch with the Past” there were many trees over 100 feet tall.
“We cut down one poplar tree that was so big a 16-foot log from it was cut into 1,400 feet of lumber,” he said. “We cut logs like that. It took three hours with a crosscut saw to cut some of them. On Tear Britches (Trail) there is a stump 11 feet wide.”
‘Average person couldn’t tell’
Bill Black, a retired district ranger for the Cohutta District (now Conasauga District) of the Forest Service in Chatsworth, knew and worked with Boatwright, Ray Tankersley and Grady Witherow. He was asked what he thought it would be like to work just one day on the logging crews.
“Tough,” he replied with a smile. “Just think about building a railroad back in those mountains. So much of it was just hard work.”
He was asked if any of the work from the heyday of logging in the Cohuttas could still be seen.
“The average person couldn’t tell there was any logging done,” he said. “Everything is grown back up. But some of the trails still walk down the old railroad grades, and if you look close you can find some old rotting crossties and even rails. Some of the old railroad wheels are still up there.”
He noted Boatwright, who was born in 1899, would have lived in three centuries if he had lived just one more month. Boatwright died sometime in early December 1999, he recalled. Black said some of the hemlock trees along Jacks River, which were useless for commercial purposes, may date back to the 1700s.