Lincoln County’s forestry roots run deep

Published 8:00 am Thursday, November 16, 2023

BROOKHAVEN — Lincoln County Heritage and Genealogical Society member Joe Brown never went to school to be a forester. He studied to be an electrical engineer at Mississippi State but with his family devoted to the timber industry he had no choice but to learn about it through “osmosis.” 

His family hails from south Bogue Chitto where Lincoln County used to be Pike County. Brown has a passion for history and told the story of forestry in Lincoln County when the timber industry was at its peak Tuesday night. The seminar was part of the Smithsonian traveling exhibit Crossroads: Changes in Rural America. 

Brown opened his presentation with an overview of how Lincoln County and Brookhaven came to be today. Land from Pike, Copiah, Lawrence, Franklin and Amite was used to form Lincoln County, likely named after Abraham Lincoln, and Brookhaven became the county seat. Timber was right there from the beginning. 

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“We were the first place in the state to use a locomotive to haul logs on a tram. First mill to have dry kilns, first bandsaw mill to cut yellow pine was at Norfield, the largest sawmill in the country in cutting capacity was at Pearlhaven,” Brown said. “Railroad was key to the sawmills here. We had 27 area sawmills in operation in 1884 but by 1910 to 1930 the sawmill operations slowed down because they had been cut out.” 

In other words, Lincoln County’s timber industry slowed to a crawl because they had run out of yellow pine trees to cut. This was in the days before sustainable forestry practices such as replanting trees, thinning stands and rotating stands were around. 

Lincoln County Sawmills

  • Hamilton, Hoskins & Company
  • Pearl River Lumber Company
  • East Union Mill
  • W.C. Chamberlin, Cedar Hill Switch
  • Hartman Lumber Company
  • Cooke-Grafton Lumber Company
  • Moreton and Helms 
  • B.E. Brister and Company
  • James M. Wesson Sr. 
  • Wessons, Persons and Money
  • Keystone Lumber and Improvement Co. 
  • Tyler Mills
  • Alva Richardson, Johnson Station
  • Norwood and Butterfield Lumber Company
  • Butterfield Lumber
  • Denkmann Lumber Company
  • Central Lumber Company

Growth of infrastructure

Before the steam engine started moving timber ox teams would haul wagons. Oxen and mules would also power the tram roads to the Illinois Central Railroad. Eventually, the logistical network expanded to include steam engines and dummy railroads, dummy railroads didn’t go anywhere but the timber.

Sawmill towns formed their own settlements and even economies. Brown passed around a coin made by the Denkmann Lumber Company which was used to pay workers and could only be used at the company store. 

He said his uncle found one while clearing a homesite and managed to dig up 12 to 15 coins. It is suspected the coins his uncle found had been buried by someone hiding them or it was a counterfeit coin. 

Brookhaven’s Coffee Pot Inn was once a part of the timber industry. Hickman purchased the inn and made it into a wood yard. 

Crosby Lumber Tract produced the biggest yellow pine ever felled. The tree had a 4,700 foot bore, 50 inches in diameter and its circumference was157 inches. Brown said the tree was well over 100 years old and had been struck by lightning and was dying so the tree was cut. 

By comparison, the current national longleaf champion pine tree is 105 feet tall with a 44 inch diameter and a circumference of 140 inches. 

Bring home the Mississippi

Brown next told the story of timberman James Hoskins who planned and built over 60 mills in Mississippi. Hoskins is well known for his involvement in the Civil War with his confederate artillery. 

Hoskins began cutting timber in Brookhaven in 1855 and started the Pin Oak mill in Brookhaven in 1866. He used the steam engine “Mississippi,” to haul his timber to sawmills in Lincoln County.

The steam engine now resides in a defunct museum in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was first built in England, shipped up the Mississippi River to Natchez where a team of Oxen had to pull it onto the railroad tracks. It first ran the Natchez and Hamburg Railroad before serving the railroad at Grand Gulf and Port Gibson. 

Brown said it is likely the steam engine served both Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War. In 1874, the “Mississippi,” derailed and got stuck in mud and was abandoned near Vicksburg. Hoskins bought it and recovered the train. 

“It is likely he knew the train from moving his artillery during the war. He got the Illinois Central Railroad to repair it,” Brown said. “It went to work on the Meridian, Natchez, Brookhaven Railroad before being donated to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 by the Illinois Central Railroad. We hope the ‘Mississippi,’ could come back home but it would take about $200,000.” 

Sawmill city

Brookhaven’s neighborhood Pearlhaven was once a fully functional saw mill and separate town. It was one of the most productive sawmills in Mississippi. Pearl River Lumber Company built Pearlhaven in 1900. 

The mill could pull timber from over 100,000 acres of land across seven counties. It had a triple bandsaw mill and could run 150,000 feet of wood a day and doubled the capacity with a second shift in 1903. Pearlhaven’s mill operated for 10 years before closing and moved 75 cars of lumber a day. 

Similarly, Norfield, the mill and town named for Norwood and Butterfield, only existed because of the Sawmill. Norfield survived until the post office closed in 1952. The Natchez, Columbia and Mobile Railroad ran through Norfield.

Brown said the railway never actually ran from Natchez to Mobile but it was hoped one day it could. In 1930, Norfield was the second largest town in Lincoln COunty behind Brookhaven. 

Norfield became known for its use of curly pine, a genetic mutation where the wood had a different pattern. Brown said curly pine could be found in 1 in 300 trees but due to the unusual pattern it was usually thrown away. 

Someone decided the wood could be better used and started making things with it. Eventually the wood was used to panel the inside of homes such as the Norfield Curly Pine home or Butterfield mansion. 

Norfield would remain in operation for 16 years and cut 35,000 acres of timber. Once the timber was harvested the acreage would then be sold for $10 an acre. Brown said in 1930 the town had a population of 1,399. 

“They had a good basketball team. The Norfield Tigers were great in any sport they played. They had electricity before anyone else did and indoor plumbing,” Brown said. “Norfield built a golf course for the mill’s doctor. Legend has it they used so much sheep manure to fertilize the golf course after the mill closed the course was used to grow cotton and it produced some of the finest cotton.” 

Timber companies’ use of railroads and dummy lines actually helped create many of the small communities we know today. For example, John Spencer Butterfield named the community of Jayess after himself. 

“His daughter suggested he name the town after himself but the post office made him spell out his initial JS into Jay Ess,” Brown said. 

Lincoln County and Southwest Mississippi’s story with the timber industry did not just end once the sawmills closed. Mississippi began to encourage farmers to take advantage of the land and grow trees on farms. Brown showed a picture of his daddy driving a Ford 8n tractor while another man on the back dropped saplings into the ground. 

Our local Homochitto National Forest was created out of land unsuitable for farming. Workers hand planted the trees in the national forest. 

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