Heart of Louisiana: Longleaf Sawmill

Published: Oct. 2, 2013 at 1:17 AM CDT|Updated: Oct. 9, 2013 at 1:17 AM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

It started as one of many sawmills that was harvesting Louisiana's longleaf pine trees in the late 1800's. And along the way, the sawmill in Longleaf, Louisiana played a critical role in World War II. Today, the town is gone. But the mill remains almost as it was the day it closed 45 years ago. FOX 8's Dave McNamara takes us to Longleaf in Rapides Parish and the Southern Forest Heritage Museum in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.

"They nicknamed it the doodlebug," said tour guide Brian Stanley. "It's an M-4. That's a passenger vehicle - they used it to bring the workers to the woods and back to the mills."

Railcars like this criss-crossed the forested Louisiana landscape in the 1930s as dozens of sawmills, like the one here at Longleaf, harvested the massive virgin longleaf pine trees. The rail bus travels an oval track around the sawmill site, opened in the 1890s, that cut timber until 1969.

"My daddy actually worked in here," Stanley said. "He started in 1963 and worked until '69 when they closed."

Stanley now helps maintain the sprawling sawmill complex and gives tours. He explains that trains were used to haul equipment and logs between forests and the mill. The oldest engine has been here for more than 100 years.

"That's 106 in the shed up there," he said. "Then you've got 202 in the machine shop. And then the 400 brought the last load in here Dec. 9, 1952. Brought the last load and that's where they park in at right where it sits."

Almost everything at the Longleaf saw mill is still the way it was the day the mill closed. On Valentine's Day 1969, a hand on this control panel pushed the red "stop" button for the last time. The giant saw blade stopped spinning. Equipment was parked. The lumber stacked. The yard fell silent with a final puff of smoke. And up to 300 employees went home, never to return.

"The story is that they just came in and said 'boys go home, we're closing,'" said Southern Forest Heritage Museum Director Claudia Troll. "That's it. And it was such a shock that we even have places in the sawmill where the lunch pail is still sitting there where it was left."

During its heyday, the Longleaf sawmill played a role in world history. The heart of the longleaf pine was a tough wood. It didn't splinter and it could withstand salt water. And because of that, the timber was used in World War II to build thousands of Higgins landing craft.

The sawmill museum has letters from sawmill owner R.D. Crowell to Andrew Higgins and a telegram sent to President Roosevelt that states:

"This company and it's stockholders, motivated only through patriotism and loyalty to our country are daily depleting their scant resources of virgin longleaf yellow pine timber, which cannot be replaced."

"T hey were called the boats that won the war," Troll said. "So when you think of it like that, we were very instrumental in winning the war."

Longleaf was a company town, with company housing for several hundred families who worked the mill. A commissary, a doctor and a post office. Nearly all of the houses were moved off the property, but the mill is surprisingly intact

The machine shop still functions, its tools driven by a series of pulleys and belts. The heavy equipment, some of it one-of-a-kind, avoided the scrap yard.

"It's like a time machine," Troll said. "You can actually go back and see how people lived."

And you can see how they worked at a time when this area was rich with virgin longleaf pine, and the sawmill and town were a thriving community.

The Southern Forest Heritage Museum is located about 25 miles southwest of Alexandria, La. If you visit, you can take a ride on the old M-4 passenger car.