Historical Review of
has had numerous negative social impacts on communities dependent on the lumber
industry. In many cases small
landowners are left without a timber market for their products. As small sawmills are no longer competitive
and are declining, and employment they generate has steadily decreased. The consolidation of the sawmilling industry
has been a historical process, which has been influenced by greater economic
and technological trends. The social
impacts of sawmill consolidation have been substantial especially in the rural
This paper will outline the importance of
sawmills and the lumber industry as a whole in Alabama today, as well as
compare the trend of sawmill consolidation with similar trends evident in
agriculture. The paper will follow the
lumber industry and sawmills in particular through the history and development
of the lumber industry in the
Timber production is one of the most important industries in
the State of
The lumber industry, while having moved the
majority of its production to the Pacific North West in the 1920’s, continued
The move back to the South and
The reforestation of private
In addition to the regenerating forests,
desirable private land ownership, labor, and water,
Impact of Technology on American Farmers
The Consolidation of the sawmilling industry has paralleled the trends that have occurred in agriculture in the South. Agriculture and the right to own land are some of the oldest traditions of American life. Early pioneer farmed 30 to 40 acres, which during early subsistence farming was the most a single family could farm, using the primitive tools available (Healy). Subsistence farming allowed early Americans to provide for themselves what was necessary for survival during a time when a person’s own initiative provided the only source of food. Subsistence agriculture prospered in early American life, and while seldom being easy, it allowed freedom. However this type of farming changed, technology, government institutions, and the push to commercialize the farming industry would cause farming to develop into an industry run by the biggest, capital-intensive producers.
The Homestead Act of 1862 opened farming opportunities to every man by allowing farmers to own and farm federal land (Browne). Farming became a source of income that any man willing to farm could venture into (Browne). Additionally it originally required few capital investments, technology was minimal and the land was mostly free. Early farmers, farmed even the most unproductive sites in the South, due to the growing population and the lack of outside economic opportunities (Healy). The failure rate was high and the government responded by providing farmers with institutions like the USDA, Extension Service, and the Land Grant Colleges to help farmers succeed, and become producers in a developing nation (Browne).
The 1930’s introduced mechanization to the farming industry, which swept the nation, pushing thousand of farmers out of business (Healy). The institutions originally created to educate and disseminate technology to farmers, forced a change from subsistence to capital intensive, technologically advance farming (Browne). The results were a consolidation and decrease of the farming industry, where only the largest highest producing farmers remained (Browne). The small less productive farmers fell behind and increasingly lost their farms to the ever-growing capital-intensive production farmers (Browne).
Additionally technology allowed higher production on less land creating super-farms, where more food was available at a cheaper price (Browne). The ever-increasing production lowered prices, thus forcing large farmers to produce more to cover overhead and expenses, therefore continuously depressing the price through overproduction, the cycle was vicious. The decline in cotton and other traditional crops in the South were substantial, in part due to poor soils in the northern areas of the State, the bole weevil infestations, and the government’s favoring of high production farmers (Healey, Hightower). Farms consolidated and technology allowed more to be farmed on less land (Hightower). Cotton fell from its peak of 23 million acres in the 1920s to 2.9 million in 1982, and corn like cotton fell from 24 million acres in 1929 to 7.4 million acres in 1982 (Healy Pg. 25-26).
The need for labor also declined
with the consolidation and movement of agriculture out of the South. Cotton, even as late as the 1940’s required
98 man hours per acre to plant, weed, fertilize and harvest the crop (Healy Pg.
27). This meant plenty of opportunities
for farm laborers, but the introduction of mechanization caused the man-hours
for one acre of cotton to drop to 6, by the 1970’s (Healy, Pg. 27). The use of tractors reduced jobs for rural
Americans forcing a mass migration to urban cities (Healy). Those that remained had “little more comfort
than “adapt or die”” (Hightower, Pg. 5).
Wendell Berry states “If mechanization has been a boon to agribusiness, its has been a bane to millions of rural Americans. Farmworkers have
been the earliest victims. There were
4.3 million workers in 1950. Twenty
years later that number had fallen to 3.5 million.” (
The American farm has changed, family run farms making a “good ole’ living” are part of a past American tradition. The land grand colleges, and government agencies sealed the rural farmers fate, by pushing technology to make all aspects of American farming more efficient, more productive, and more cost effective. “Since 1940, more than 3 million farms have folded, and farms continue to fold at a rate of 2,000 per week.” (Hightower, Pg. 2)
The Lumber industry like the
farming industry has changed from an early colonial system of subsistence to a
modern system of improved technology, and maximized capital gains. Sawmills like farming have evolved into large
technological, highly efficient mills that require large inputs of timber and
have developed to the point of excluding the small woodland owner by increasing
the size and production constraints of logging operations. Additionally like in farming, the larger more
productive mills drove the price of wood down so far, that small local sawmills
were forced to shut down. To fully
understand the situation of the sawmilling industry in
Early History of Sawmills and the Lumber Industry
Sawmills according to Michael Williams were the
first local industries established in “semisubsistence
economies of the newly settled areas”(Williams, Pg
95). Sawmills located in the early
colonies were often very small and run by individual farmers or families. They required little labor, often only two
men, but were vastly important to the survival of the communities. As Michael Williams writes “Because the
sawmill was so essential to pioneer life, towns made grants and townsfolk held
shares in what was, in reality, a cooperative enterprise.” (Williams, Pg. 95). These early sawmills served the community and were an
essential to pioneer farmers in rural
Timber production in the
“…the scale of operations was small. Tools were crude and hand-forged, production was restricted, distribution haphazard, and the market local. There was little competition and little incentive to initiate change. Simply, timber getting was still an adjunct to agriculture settlement, and the timber cut was mainly the by-product of the land clearing and the concern of a multitude of small mills that dotted the country to serve the agricultural population.” (Williams, Pg. 163)
The census data of 1840
illustrates this point by contrasting the number of mills in relation to people
employed by the industry. There were
31,649 sawmills in the
The sawmill industry began to change during the
1850’s and 1860’s (Williams). As the
country developed the lumber industry began to change from one and two man
operations to large industrialized operations employing 20 to 100 men
(Williams). Williams explains that there
were four technological and social changes, which developed the industry that
moved across the country. The first were
the technological advancements in saws, machinery, and the introduction of the
steam engine. The second was the
development of “local transportation” (Williams pg.167) with the use of the log
drive. The third was the development of
a national transportation system connecting areas with timber surplus and those
with timber demand (Williams Pg. 167).
The fourth and last reason was the “development of wholesale centers at
focal points in the transport system, which held together a multitude of
movements between forests and markets” (Williams Pg. 167). The changes in available technology,
transportation systems, and local and nation wide markets enabled lumber
production to change into an industry that would eventually consume the vast
wood supplies of
Early loggers and sawmill owners cut forests
with little thought to future timber production and the environment, and were
thus forced to follow the timber supply from the East to the West and
South. These early years of the lumber
industry are commonly referred to as the “cut-out-and-get-out” era (Williams, Nassey). Sawmilling
began in the eastern colonies and crept west in search of plentiful timber
supplies. In 1839,
Increasing lumber demand led to
a shift in the timber industry to the Lake States of
The shift of timber production to the South was much like the shift that had occurred 30 years before from the East to the Lake States. The assault on Southern forests was now far more advanced, as technology in the sawmills and logging operations was more efficient and capable of producing more saw timber. The production of saw timber in the South went from 1.6 billion board feet in 1880 to an estimated 15.4 billion board feet in 1920 (Williams, Pg. 238). New technology was immediately applied to southern sawmills; the use of steam engines and circular saws replaced the old waterwheel sawmills often working in unison with gristmills.
Early competition in the sawmilling industry kept prices down. Sawmills ranged from large to small “peckerwood” mills (Nassey). The investment in sawmills ranged from over one million dollars to a few thousand dollars, for the small portable sawmills (Nassey). Like in agriculture entry into the sawmilling industry was easy at this period in time, but the lack of education and money forced producers to sell their outputs immediately, regardless of price (Nassey). This like in agriculture forced an overproduction which, suppressed timber prices and kept competition and the rate of failure high (Nassey). This was the era of the small lumbermen; numerous markets and an endless timber resource in an undeveloped region favored the small producer. The success of these small operations would later suffer from further advances in technology, and the development of the region and the transportation systems.
The South reached its maximum
timber production in 1920 at which time the
The shifts in the locations of natural resources combined with the changes in technology continually changed the face of the lumber industry. The industry follows very closely with the initial settling and pioneer movements. Sawmills changed from small one to two man operations located in numbers of up to 25 per county in the early colonial America, to large highly industrial mills which have consolidated to a mere 4,403 in the entire United States in 1997(Census, 1997). The technological changes of sawmills were a key factor and an important part of the process of sawmill consolidation.
The early mills were primitive and logs were cut using two man teams who practiced the pit-sawing method (Williams). This method involved, first squaring the logs using axes and then placing the log over the pit, where two men one above and one below would laboriously hand saw boards (Nassey). A hard days work would yield anywhere from 100-200 board feet of sawn lumber (Nassey). This technique while being considered primitive was used in the south almost exclusively until the Civil War (Nassey). The relatively low demand for wood and the community markets allowed for this primitive method to succeed (Nassey). The method had a low site impact and was environmentally friendly, only selective trees were cut (Nassey, Williams).
The placement of mills near water became essential as the use of the water wheel became more common. This new system called a Muley saw consisted of a single saw attached to a waterwheel from which it derived its power (Nassey). The use of the waterwheel revolutionized sawmilling. This system was capable of sawing 8000 board feet a day (Williams), and was often used in conjunction with gristmills (Nassey). The use of this method required less labor, and was capable of supplying a greater amount of wood for growing communities demanding lumber. Additionally it created few pollutants and still cut a relatively limited amount of wood having a limited impact on forests.
The greatest improvement in
technology for sawmills occurred with the introduction of the circular saw (Nassey). It was
The circular saw was used in
Additional technology has been added to modern sawmills to further improve their outputs and production. Most mills today still use variations of the band saw technology, and the larger mills have fully mechanized the production process, requiring less labor and higher output requirements to maintain production. Mills have strived to increase efficient output, while reducing maintenance and labor costs (Sternitzke, Pg. 9). The lumber industry in general has increased the efficiency of wood use by 41 percent between 1952 and 1998, which has in part reduced the timber output over the past few years (Prestemon, Abt, Pg. 305).
The cut-out-and-get-out era of the lumber industry was the “hay day” for the sawmilling industry. Small operations remained common even throughout the technological advancements of the cut-out-and-get-out era. The advantages for small to medium size mills were greater during this time, for the amount of lumber wasted during sawing in using the primitive techniques, was great (Nassey). Even circular saws wasted a lot of wood, so it made sense to locate more, smaller mills closer to the wood supply to reduce freight (Nassey, Pg. 175). This helped many of the smaller sawmilling operations compete with the larger mills. However the improvements in technology allowed for higher efficiency and minimal losses of the product due to poor sawing techniques. The band saw for example allowed for less saw kerf while increasing the speed of production (Nassey, Williams).
The consolidation of the sawmilling industry like the consolidation of agriculture began with changes in technology. Sawmills, like in agriculture where farming went from “…sticks as hoes to sharp steel plows and then to tractors.” changed from pit sawing to modern high production band saws (Browne, Pg. 40). The initial subsistence farming and the early years of sawmilling, as an integral part of subsistence communities, have both changed into capital intensive, production-maximizing industries. The impacts of technology have not only decreased the number of sawmills but have also replaced machines with manpower. Where labor was once an important asset and necessity in early sawmills, it has been replaced with the modern machine.
Sawmills in Alabama prior to the
increased production experienced during the cut-out-and-get-out lumber
operations were few, numbering 284 in 1870, and were primarily local operations
(Manufacturing Census, 1870). In 1880
The number of sawmills has decreased in
Timber dependent counties as described by Conner
Bailey and John Bliss are counties in “which 25% or more of manufacturing
employment is in forest-based industries” (Bliss, Bailey pg. 5). Counties such as these are found in many
Initially the local communities pay; the merchants, bondholders, churches, and homeowners are often the segments of the community who suffer (Cottrell). Out migration of the younger and more mobile sector of the population abandon the declining communities and move to prospering urban centers (Cottrell; Bailey, Bliss 2001). However, the older population with extensive experience in a declining trade (i.e. mule logging, outdated sawmilling laborers) are less flexible and likely to move, and are often victims of persistent poverty in declining communities (Bliss, Bailey, 2001; Cottrell). As out migration becomes more evident, and money more scarce, the local merchants, churches and bondholders find limited business and are often forced to close (Bliss, Bailey 2001; Cottrell).
Additionally, community services such as education begin to decline with the out migration of the younger and more capable community members, adding to the problem of community growth and persistent poverty. These trends are not restricted to only timber dependent communities, but any community that depends on a single industry. Communities such as these become ghost towns, when the sawmill closes and the need for the community disappears, for there is nothing left to support the community (Bliss, Bailey 2001).
Land in many timber dependent counties of
The technology used for harvesting timber is increasingly becoming too costly to operate on tracts under 50 acres and impossible on tracks under 20 acres (Greene, Harris, 1997). The options available to small land owners have largely disappeared with the loss of shortwooders, mule loggers, and small more manual labor oriented operations needed to make these smaller tracks profitable (Greene, Harrris 1997; Toms, 2001). These types of operations existed at one time, when smaller sawmills were more prevalent.
A large portion of
timberland owners in timber dependent counties where land consolidation is most
evident have a limited or declining market. The 8% of
Timber dependent communities and counties have paid the price for technology, and forest industry consolidation, but as Cottrell asks, “who benefits?” (Cottrell). According to Cottrell “Defense of our traditional system of assessing the costs of technological change is made on the theory that the costs of such change are more than offset by the benefits to “society as a whole”” (Cottrell, pg. 363). The advancement in sawmills has had many positive impacts on society as a whole. The changes in technology from sawpits to band saws, and the development of transportation systems and wholesale centers has allowed lumber to be readily available to American consumers. The subsistence system or the underdeveloped sawmilling techniques of the previous century could not have provided the lumber needed for the overall booming American economy. To allow for the success of the “whole” portions of American society paid the price of success (Cottrell). While employment has declined, sawmills continue to provide some of the only sources of employment in some rural timber dependent counties (Bailey, Bliss 2001). Additionally worker safety has increased, and the environments the modern sawmill workers labor under are far beyond that of mill workers of the previous century (Nassey).
Specifically the impacts of sawmill consolidation on rural communities affect not only the laborers, the loggers and small sawmill owners, who are left behind, but also the landowners or timber growers. The need for management options for landowners, especially small landowners are growing. As the timber industry continues to grow and the economic constraints of not only sawmills but of loggers increase, landowners are forced into clearcuts or limited types of selective cuttings increasingly becoming rare (Greene, Harris, 1997). The developments of a forestry market with applicable scale-appropriate systems have not been largely developed (DeCoster 1998) since the decline of such systems during the consolidation of sawmills.
The fragmentation of private property and
the growing size and production constraints of logging crews and sawmills have
left many landowners without a market.
The need for scale appropriate logging equipment and processing
mechanisms along with a viable market are needed. As was illustrated in this paper sawmills in
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