History of Tioga and the Timber Industry

Tioga: A Brief History

Tioga: A Brief History

Like many towns in Louisiana, Tioga has its roots as a sawmill town. Its history has to begin with the landscape which was like much of the rest of the south. Otis Dunbar Richardson noted in one article: "The 'piney woods' covered immense areas in the Gulf South; they grew on undulating lowlands drained by shallow, sluggish 'branches.' Companies ... bought hundreds of square miles of this timber and had made enormous investments in the equipment needed to turn it into useful dimensions" (192).

Such rich resources brought the timber industry to Louisiana, and timber made its impression on the landscape of the state in many ways, especially with bringing the railroad to rural areas and with the establishment of sawmill towns. These towns had several characteristics in common including "a large mill plant, a company-owned commercial district, residential sections, and particular house types" (Stokes 257). A more in-depth description of typical sawmill towns includes the following:

A single building - the commissary - was the commercial heart of the community. This was a department store owned and operated by the company, and there the mill employees bought the bulk of the everyday items they consumed. The commissary building often housed other facilities, and it was not uncommon for the barber, the doctor, the deputy sheriff, and others to occupy offices under the same roof. The company offices were usually situated in a large frame building near the commissary. Boarding houses two or three stories high were prominent features of the commercial district. (Stokes 262)

The commissary of Tioga served the community by providing food, clothing, and other essentials and even served as the post office. Company offices, a hotel and a boarding house have all been part of Tioga's history.

Elaine Brister looked closely into the history of Tioga and provided the following facts:

This sawmill, itself, was first built in the 1880's by Julius Levin, who had come to Alexandria from Prussia in 1853. After a successful career as a merchant, he became somewhat of a specialist in the lumber business at his mill at Levin, later known as Tioga. He was a manufacturer and dealer in lumber, cypress, shingles, doors, sash, brick, and longleaf pine cistern. In 1905 the mill begun by Levin changed hands . . . . It was known thereafter as the Lee Lumber Company with S. R. Lee, a native of Grant parish and an experienced sawmill operator, as the leading stockholder. When this mill discontinued operations in 1925, Sam Allen, commissary manager for four years, bought the store and its fixtures as well as all the houses owned by the company in the town of Tioga. (67)

More facts about Tioga's history are available from Sue Eakin in her book Rapides Parish: An Illustrated History.

The town of Tioga was incorporated on May 27, 1902, by Warner Lumber Company, which placed its sawmill at the site. The town was incorporated in order for the company to be able to sell whiskey to employees. After a few years liquor was voted out of the ward, and Tioga has been "dry" ever since. Sword Lee bought the sawmill at Tioga from Warner Lumber Company in 1904. Sam Allen, Superintendent of the sawmill commissary in 1920, eventually (after 1926) purchased the commissary and other property of the lumber company for around $10,000 when the company closed because all the timber was gone.

The town of Tioga is considered a typical sawmill town. The former commissary now serves as the headquarters for the Tioga Historical Society, and many of the original company houses are still occupied. Simple facts can provide a brief history of the town of Tioga, but its people are what really make the town important. In her column "Remembering when ...." written for a local newspaper, Lola Russell always touched on this aspect of small town life. Visiting neighbors, playing outdoors all day, walking to school, tending a garden, going to church on Sunday, and eating some of the best meals ever cooked are some of the pleasures of a small town. Tioga has a warm place in the hearts of its past and present residents and continues to flourish as the small town/home town for many.

Timber Industry

From Piney Woods to Paved Highways

Tioga --- A growing community merging with Pineville on the north side of Red River. But it wasn’t always this populated area. Let’s go back to the mid-1800’s.

Immediately following the Civil War, the northern states of Michigan. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were rated as the top three timber producers. In a few short years this picture changed as the northern forest were stripped and the industry began to search for other plentiful forestland. They looked to the South. The Southern forests remained comparatively untouched until this time. However, lack of rail transportation in the Southern pinelands prevented their early development. Small quantities of Louisiana timber had been harvested and process but only from forest lands that adjoined waterways.

Prior to the 1880’s, small communities were few and far between in Central Louisiana. Alexandria was the only one of any size. The area north of Red River was covered by virgin pine timber.

The year 1882 brought two railroads into Alexandria. In an effort to promote the building of railroads in the South, the federal government offered land grants to Northern railroad builders to venture into the lush pineland of Louisiana. One of the families which profited most from land grants in Central Louisiana was Jay Gould. His Iron Mountain Railroad pushed its lines south completing construction into Alexandria in July of that year Soon, many small mills sprang up along its tracks. So began the great timber boom and gave rise to thriving mill towns such as Pollock. Ball, and Levin. Levin later was renamed Tioga.

The Levin sawmill just 5 miles north of Pineville was built in the 1880's by Julius Levin. He also built a town for the convenience of the woodsmen who served the timber industry. The first rough lumber cut by the mill was used to build the company houses for the workers and their families. The company did not skimp on quality and some of its best lumber products went into the construction of its houses, a fact supported by the original houses still standing.

The community was totally self-sufficient. Doctors, barbers and store clerks were there to serve the people who worked the mill. A boarding house provided living quarters to the unmarried gentlemen.

The commissary. a large spacious store. was owned and operated by the company mill. Levin built his commissary near the railroad track so that merchandise and supplies could be easily loaded off the train onto a dock which lead from the tracks to the porch. The commissary included a meat market, post office, dry goods and clothing. food products, hay, and anything else that a family may need. The office of the town was part of this big building.

Many such mills paid their workers with wooden nickels or tokens. This could only be spent at the local commissary, forcing the people to buy all their necessities from this store. After a short period, this practice was outlawed and the company was forced to pay their workers in cash. The work force, out in the forest, was composed of sawyers or flatheads, skidders and bull punchers, who readied the logs for transporting. Once a tree was felled, the top and limbs were cut off, the trunk was hooked and dragged by mule to the wagon to be transported to the mill. The wagon was pulled by six or eight oxen, hitched together in pairs of two.

In 1905, the mill was bought by Stephen Lee. "Sword, as he is called, had previously received a land grant and built the Georgetown Lumber Company. He sold this mill in Grant Parish and bought the Levin Mill. The mill was renamed the Lee Lumber Company and the town was renamed to Tioga. Tioga was a well-managed sawmill town. First, of course, there was a stable and dependable basic labor force. With the company in control of all community services, almost every aspect of life of the employee was tied to his job. If a worker got out of line, whether on the job or in the community, he was promptly fired. He lost not only his job but also his home, his store privileges, healthcare -- everything. Therefore, you can understand the loyalty and civic pride exhibited by the people living in Tioga.

The mill workers’ day began with a "wake up'' whistle. The whistle also signaled the start of the workday, dinner time, and the end of the work day. The sound of the whistle and mill, itself, could be heard through the community. The great saws and the planer could be heard for a mile or so echoing through the trees. However, three blasts of the whistle, was not a welcome sound… That meant a fire had broken out and every able-bodied man was expected to turn out and help fight the blaze.

By 1925, most of the timber had been cut from this area. Sword Lee moved the sawmill to another location: selling the 50 town houses, large commissary and 250 acres to Sam Allen. The entire sale was $10,000.

Tioga became a bedroom community with most of the residents going into Pineville or Alexandria to work. The town continued to grow and a large high school was built to accommodate students north of Red River. The commissary, standing proudly, remained the center of the neighborhood with Mr. Sam being the unofficial mayor.

Jimmie Nelle Adams Lewis remembers "I was raised on Second Street and had many fine memories of the old commissary. I graduated from Tioga High School, went off to college, and married a local boy. I taught school and later became an elementary supervisor in Rapides Parish. In my travels from school to school, I had to pass in front of the old store, decaying and rotting from long years of being ignored. I would think. "Why doesn't someone do something with that old building?" In 2001, I began an effort to form the Tioga Historical Society with the sole purpose of saving the historic sawmill commissary. Flyers were placed in store-fronts all over Tioga to announce upcoming meetings. In July of that year, it became an official organization with 27 active members having the same goal. I was elected president and we soon adopted our bylaws and began to negotiate with the Price family to donate the old store to the Society. Within six months. there were 58 members on the roll.

2002 was a very eventful year. I petitioned The Louisiana Preservation Alliance to have the commissary listed as one of the ten most endangered historic sites. The Price Family officially donated the property which included the old store, a small barber shop, and four acres to the Historical Society. And finally, the organization was awarded their Federal non-profit status.

And now the hard work began. Years before, when the Price family closed the doors to their Army Surplus store, all the merchandise was left in the building. For 10 years, vandals had plundered the building and goods were allowed to rot. Painstakingly, the volunteers began to go through this large structure, careful not to throw anything of value away. This slow process took several years. The members continued to clean up the property, patch the roof and replace decayed wood. In general, try to stop the damage already done to the building.

ln the meantime, l met with the Louisiana Legislature to place the Tioga Heritage Park and Museum under the authority of the Secretary of State's Office. Once this assignment was made, $135,000 was allocated for the restoration project.

In essence, the building has been saved. Much has been done to this site since those early days. The building now has two major areas: the museum area at the main entrance and a sizeable community room ideal for reunions, parties, and corporate meetings. A well-equipped kitchen and modern bathrooms are available. The total four acres have been cleared and ready for walking trails.

The following actions were done with strictly volunteer labor and monetary donations. The barbershop was totally restored with the original equipment. a toy dog museum was constructed and a telecommunications museum built. An old steam engine, which was used to ground corn, was moved to the site, eventually to be restored and working. A caboose found a new home behind the old commissary.

Hopefully, the museum in the big building will be completed soon and ready of business. It will, not only, feature items of interest to Tioga residents but to all of Central Louisiana. The community room has already been used for reunions and receptions. In the near future, we hope to have one of the shotgun houses moved to the park and restored with furnishing of the early l 900's. An old locomotive and flatcar will be added to the caboose site."

Again, the big white commissary will be the center of Tioga activity.