Virginia Hardwood Lumber Company

Submitted by: O.E. Elliot, Jr. July 20, 1994

Virginia Hardwood Lumber Company was a giant in the finished-wood products industry bearing such economic impact visited this county where agriculture reigned supreme for so many years. Though its lifespan was short, when compared to most enterprises of such magnitude, Virginia Hardwood is still remembered as “the biggest thing that ever hit Bland County.

            The closely held stock company began acquiring timberlands and cutting rights in Southwest Virginia through a combination of investors in Tazewell. Properties that became key parts of the realm crossed the boundaries of Scott, Russell, Tazewell, Bland, Smyth, and Giles counties.

            Where, when and how did it all get started? Machinery that was to crank up and send the hardwood products firm into action began Aril 2, 1920 in the Tazewell law offices of Barnes and W.T. Gillespie. By early 1921 property acquisitions were well underway. Since the end of World War I, men of vision had looked for investment opportunities. The nation was on an expansion binge as the “Roaring Twenties” rolled into high gear with building booming coast to coast. What could be better than becoming part of a giant industry that stood ready with construction supplies- especially wood products.

            Small localized lumber operations dotted the western Virginia mountains, but they were not prepared to handle even the early Gillespie group requirements. So, than plan for starting a new timbercutting, sawmilling and finishing company that would include marketing began to take shape. Company founders realized that the awesome chance they were taking would pit them against the biggest operation east of the Mississippi River- W.M. Ritter with 14 mills that ranged from northern Pennsylvania to South Georgia. Besides, the Gillespies knew next to nothing about such an undertaking.

            Barnes Gillespie had clients who were experienced in lumbering. They were the Boyd brothers, C.W. and E.R. Boyd of Tazewell and I.C. Boyd of Putnam, Virginia. The move began to take hold with the naming of officers and a board of directors. C.W. Boyd was selected president, E.R. vice president and treasurer and John W. Flannagan of Clintwood, Virginia became the new company’s first secretary. Flannagan is remembered for his long service as a member of the United States House of Representatives form the “Fighting Ninth District.” The Boyds, E.L. Greever of Tazewell, William D. Ord of Alexandria, and Gillespies were directors.

            Initially real estate holdings were limited to 50,000 acres with maximum capital stock authorized by charter at $250,000 on March 29, 1923. Over the next few years, investments were to experience a healthy growth as property acreage climbed into the hundreds of thousands.

            Management personnel was recruited from other firms. They came from Ritter, Babcock, White Oak, McCorkel and New River, all prominent lumber operators in the early twentieth century.

Virginia Hardwood began its first operation in the spring of 1923 at South Clinchfield in Russell County, and almost immediately turned to Fort Blackmore in Scott County for its second location. Both were single band sawmill establishments that were expanded from operations began by other operators.

            When supplies of timber fell sharply in 1924 at both the Scott and Russell sites, the company turned eastward. Timber stands, cutting rights, and outright land ownership had been acquired in Bland, Tazewell, Smyth, and Giles Counties. Now, where would the mill be located?

            Single bandmills in two locations was first consideration. Powers who made such decisions first thought Narrows in Giles County would be ideal for one mill site. It was a river terminal at the banks of New River for Norfolk and Western Railway, and Narrows had access roads. But landowners sent their prices soaring. Lumberyard space was quite limited and some influential Giles natives did not want to industry “on our river.” However, they were ready to welcome Celanese Corp. a few years later.

            Whenever new mills were placed, a Norfolk and Western spur line was essential. Planners engineers scoured the Wolf Creek Valley in Bland County but could not find sufficient water supply for human consumption that did not involve very expensive purification installations. From the Valley of the Wolf, searchers branched off upstream along Hunting Camp Creek. N&W had small picky up and delivery stations at Bastian And Suiter. Again, water was a problem at Suiter, and it was not a desirable location.

            Bastian landowner, Johnson Bruce had what geological engineers called a pure-water aquifer with sufficient reserve to accommodate a community of at le4ast 2,900 people. Bruce also had land suitable for housing, a sawmill and tandem mill requirements including a dry kiln, log pond, lumberyard, and it met sanitary requirements.

            One more hurdle, perhaps as essential as all other combined, had to be cleared. What about transportation? Old U.S. 21 & 52 were in adequate. But wheels were turning toward a new Lakes-to-Florida Highway. That would be fine highway travel, but rail facilities for shipping the product and receiving supplies had to be arranged.

            All Virginia Hardwood rail rolling stock, locomotives and cars, were narrow gauge- 38.5 inches between the rails. N & W had the only acceptable roadbed headed west into Poor Valley and Crab Orchard where stood vast virgin timber tracts. The N & W “standard gauge line – 56.5 inches wide ended at Suiter. Bastian-to-Suiter, six miles was a problem – a big problem.

            Regional general manager and vice president for N & W operation, William Obediah Tracy came up with the solution. If Virginia Hardwood would arrange its Bastian-to-Suiter traffic so that it did not conflict with Norfolk and Western scheduled runs, a “third rail” could be laid along the six mile run wherein the lumber company would then lay its own tracks into the back country. The “third rail” also entailed a mileage and tonnage levy payable to the railway. It was agreed and work began.

            Bluefield to the North, just inside West Virginia; Bland, the county seat, six miles South, a place for banking and vital records filings; and Wytheville farther South opened avenues of communication seldom seen in earlier lumbering operations.

            Just when everything appeared to be falling into place, a board of review came to the conclusion that one bandmill would be located at Bastian, but what about the second mill? Nothing really comparable to Bastian could be found.

            What about a double bandmill?

            Weyehaeuser had at least three doubles in the Northwest, and Gordon had one in Oregon along with several single band operations. The double-mill idea gained momentum, came to a vote and passed with one dissenting vote. It was said that the lone objection was raised by a representative of a New River landowner – perhaps looking to retrieve the mill which Giles had rejected earlier.

EDITOR’S NOTE— The following is off the top of my head and certainly open to debate and correction where needed.

            Many early arrivals in Bastian were people involved in the Clinchfield operation. (Garrett, you would know more about this than I. The Lloyd Quillen family was at Fort Blackmore and I’m sure preceded my family to Bastian. My dad’s duties involved much of the Scott County mop-up before making our move to Bland County shortly after January 1, 1927.

            My father (O.E.) was for a number of years superintendent of the Crab Orchard and Hunting Camp Creek logging and camp operations. Crab Orchard petered out in a few short years when the Smyth and Campbell families, holders of most timberworthy properties in the Southwest quadrant that reached into Smyth County failed to agree on tracts and rights-of-way. The Great Depression put Crab Orchard “on the stump and it slipped into the slab pile” never to rise again. (END NOTE)

            Hunting Camp timbering and hauling by narrow gauge rail stretched out of Poor Valley, from Bland into Tazewell County. It meandered along Bear Creek, set a campsite in a place called Beartown and cut Garden Mountain on the fringes of Burke’s Garden, 38 winding narrow gauge miles from the timber stand to Bastian.

            Practically all timber was cut by men swinging doublebit axes and pulling crosscut saws – just as it had been done of more than a hundred years. Trees were topped to avoid splitting, limbs left on the fall side to lessen the impact and dropped on a line to keep from damaging adjacent timber marked for later cutting. Horses, Belgians and Percherons, weighing up to 2,200 pounds, pulled logs along a skid track to a landing – sometimes to a steam donkey which skidded them to landings. By 1936 diesel engine-powered tractors began to replace the steam donkey, but the big horses were used right up to the end. Main log landings were located at thee rail spurlines where double decker loaders cable-and-tongued them onto narrow gauge bunkered rail cars for the long haul to the Bastian mill.

            Men who did the work lived in camp railcars that included sleeping, sanitary facilities, dining and commissary office units. This rolling stock was standard equipment for a lumberjacking operation of the Virginia Hardwood size. Once an area was “logged out,” the mobile camp was hitched to locomotives and moved to a new site for continued tree harvest.

            Virginia Hardwood Lumber Co. was one of the nation’s bigger operations that specialized in hardwoods. The bigger companies in the Northwest were softwood millers that dealt in fir, pine, spruce, hemlock, and redwood. The Bastian mill cut plenty of softwoods, but they were unmatched in processed oak, hickory, ash, maple, and chestnut. An average double mill cut per day at the Bastian mill topped 100,000 board feet.

            The firm’s principal markets ranged across the upper Middle Western United States, the Great Lakes region, New England and Middle Atlantic States. Ritter held much of the Southeast. Overseas shipment went to the ports of New York, Boston, Balitmore and Norfolk. Most of this shipping was destined for the European port of Liverpool, Rotterdam and Le Harve.

At the peak of logging in Crab Orchard and Poor Valley, Virginia Hardwood employed 450 to 520 men in the combined woods operations. This, of course, was in addition to some 350 people to Bastian mill payroll. Bland County had its first industrial breakthrough and a solid tax base.

            The new lumber company had been under a full head of steam barely three years at Bastian when the stock market came tumbling down in 1929. new construction, commercial and residential, shut down almost overnight. Furniture plants went our of business all over. But the new company barreled ahead – far faster than prudent judgment would dictate. Early 1931 found the lumber yard bulging with more than 29 million board feet in stacks and other great lots of footage lying on docks or wherever it was pulled when a halt was called. Fires were banked and business was dead. The “Great Depression” settled in on every household in “the camp.”

            Not a wheel turned for almost two years. Equipment fell into disrepair and rust ruled the roost. People searched in vain for work. They grew vegetable gardens, patched clothing and charged life’s necessities at the company store. The company issued scrip in paper bills and coins that was used in exchanged at the company store. Metal scrip cam to be known a “doo-ga-loo.” Recipients of this scrip agreed in vague terms to repay from future wages all such monies on face value as appeared opposite their names on loosely kept books that too often bore largely untraceable signatures.

            In June 1934 one side of the mill resumed cutting three days per week – usually Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. It was a lean operation, but new signs of life had begun to show. Orders were trickling in from some of the northern furniture manufacturers. Poplar oak and maple were being shipped. North Carolina, Indiana and Michigan industries came back into the fold. Lincoln Furniture of Marion, Damascus and Galax, Virginia resumed production. Standard Oil of New Jersey had taken control of Gilbert and Barker in Springfield, Mass., and changed the name of the old pump maker to Gilbarco, located a new factory site in Springfield and was buying all the framing and hardwood flooring Virginia Hardwood could produce. A railroad carload destined for Springfield left Bastian every 10 days.

            The slow revival was anything but a boom, but more people went back to work in 1936-1937 than any period since 1928-29.

By 1938 an Austrian paperhanger and a nervous, bumbling British prime minister had managed red to destroy a continent’s balance of power and it sent Europe reeling. Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain were busy starting a new world was. Hitler’s legions roared across the continent in 1939, Britain fired Chamberlain, hired Winston Churchill and Europe was burning. In the United States factories reopened, tools of were in demand, and wood products were high on the list.

“The Battle of Britain” probably more than any other one factor helped put Virginia Hardwood back into full production. While German bombers pounded London, Coventry, and Liverpool, the British Was Office pleaded for guns and other tools of was. England had barely enough fighter planes – Hurricanes and Spitfires- to make the Luftwaffe pay a price. They had a very few Mosquito bombers – the sort fighter- bombers able to hop the English Channel at low altitude and hit German installations and fight their way back home. The Mosquito was plywood, twin-engine craft that was fast. Maneuverable and deadly as a low-level bomber. It turned in respectable figures as a fighter, but had almost no armor to protect crewmen. Losses in personnel and aircraft and aircraft were heavy.

            Virginia Hardwood had the dry kiln capacity, tools and spruce timber to make extremely tough laminate plywood that met Royal Air Force requirements for Mosquito aircraft. The first shipment left the port of Norfolk, VA in July 1940. A stream of freighter-laden plywood followed. Much was lost when ships were sunk by Nazi U-boats. But many thousands of plywood board feet made it across, went to war as Mosquito bombers and played a prominent role in winning “The Battle of Britain.” Estimates placed the lumber company plywood supply total at about 45 percent- certainly a huge factor in swinging the air war in Britain’s favor.

            Virtually all plywood the company could produce in 1943 and 1944 went into airplane production, Mosquito’s and troop-carrying gliders. Glider-borne infantry played a major role in landing United States and British troops behind German forces in France’s hedgerow coastal region from Caen in North to Cherbourg about 50 miles to the South on D-Day, June 6, in the 1944 invasion, and two weeks following the landings.

            Virginia Hardwood also exported vast amounts of heavy timber that went into docks and piers at many port cities in the British Isles and finally at Le Harve, Dunkirk and Rotterdam on the continent.

            Worthwhile virgin timber, both soft and hardwood, tracts were cut and consumed in Crab Orchard, Poor Valley and Bear Town. Logging operations again turned East with Wolf Creek, Kimberling and Giles County to echo the ring of the cutter’s ax and saw. Most of these areas and all of Giles, involved log hauls to the mill by truck.

            Most principal investors, lost heir appetite for the long, hard pull of timer-sawmill demands, many died out and left uninterested heirs who sold out. Those let were not driven toward replacing or repairing worn out equipment. Small operators turned from steam to diesel engine power. The big bandmill in the eastern United States was giving way to circle saw mills that moved to that timber rather than expensive transportation requirements of getting the product to a permanent site. The Bastian plant shut down in 1944, stock was sold off in 1944 and ’45, the mill was dismantled and sold. The company was dissolved in 1946.

            O.E. Elliot, Charles Pepper Gillespie and John W. Gillespie bought up remaining Virginia Hardwood tracts and finished Bland County timber and lumber operations as the Kimberling Corp. Kimberling entered agreement with Jim Belcher of Bluefield, W.Va. to sawmill the Kimberling cut. Virginia Hardwood had sawed out and slipped into history after barely 24 years at three mill locations – Fort Blackmore, South Clinchfield, and Bastian. No sufficient virgin timer tracts left in the Appalachian forestry belt remained that would justify an operation that could approach the magnitude of that plant on the banks of Hunting Camp Creek.

            Elliott and the Gillespie acquired a mill finishing plant in Bluefield, VA – Keyes Planing Mill Co. which had been in the Keyes family for some 60 years.

            Elliot later left Keyes and established machine shops in Doran, VA and Big Stone Gap, VA his aim was to offer coalmine operators adequate heavy machinery service. Unable to come to grips with the reality that he was no longer in the finished lumber business, Elliot bought timber in Harlan County Kentucky and set up a fair size circle mill. All three operations fell short of expectations. Elliot took leave of the business world and made no other effort toward a comeback.

            EDITOR’S NOTE – Now that you have more of this than you bargained for, I’ll try and answer a few questions.

            Yes, my father was one of the three brothers who came out of Ashe County, North Carolina who worked at one time for Virginia Hardwood – O.E., Bob and Smith. Such nepotism generally is not allowed today. O.E. was with the company about 22.5 years, Bob, something of a soldier of fortune, about five years and Smith you know about.

My dad, before entering the Army in 1917, had taken Department of Interior courses in Forestry at the College of Boone, now Appalachian State University. What did he do following army discharge in 1919? He went to work for United States Steel at Gary, W. VA as an assistant mining engineer – flunkey to engineer, I guess. After about a year he left U.S. Steel for a timber cruiser’s job with W.M. Ritter Lumber Co. in Dickson County. A timber cruiser goes into tracts that are on the market, scans, measures and estimates board feet. Offer to buy are based on cruiser evaluations. I’ve told you earlier about his switch from Ritter to Virginia Hardwood.

            I’m not sure, but in the late 1930s Dad was made vice president and general manager of the company. E.R. wanted less responsibility.

            I’m not sure they did him any favors. The company never really recovered from those tremendous depression losses. He wound up overseeing the second dismantling of a big lumbering operation – Fort Blackmore and now, Bastian.

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