A Texas Bonanaza

Quiz time!

What was the leading industry in Texas at the turn of the 20th century?

Oil? – No, that came later.

Cattle? Cotton?

The answer: Lumber.


Lumber? Are you kidding? I live in Texas. There are no trees. Oh, we’ve got some scrubby little mesquite and an occasional oak, but nothing that this California native would call a tree. So how in the world did the lumber industry out-perform cattle and cotton, two Texas staples?

A virgin stand of longleaf pine in the East Texas Piney Woods region, 1908.

Well, as anyone who has ever driven across this great state can tell you, Texas is a big place. Yes we have desert regions and prairie and grassland and hill country, but over in the southeast is a lovely section called the Piney Woods. And as the railroad worked it’s way west in the 1870’s and 1880’s, lumber men from Pennsylvania like Henry Lutcher and G. Bedell Moore saw the virgin forests of east Texas as a gold mine. Local boys like John Henry Kirby got in on the action, too, buying up and consolidating individual sawmills into complete lumber manufacturing plants. Kirby rose to success so quickly, he became known as the “Prince of the Pines,” having become the largest lumber manufacturer in the state by combining 14 sawmills into the Kirby Lumber Company in 1901.

Not only did the railroad boom make travel to the Texas woods easier, it was also one of the biggest  sources of demand for timber. Railroads needed lumber to construct rail cars, stations, fences, and cross ties in addition to the massive amounts of wood they burned for fuel. Each year railroads needed some 73 million ties for the construction of new rail lines and the maintenance of old ones, estimated by the magazine Scientific American in 1890. From the 1870s to 1900, railroads used as much as a fourth of national timber production.

This combination of supply and demand fueled a “bonanza era” for the Texas lumber industry that lasted 50 years, from 1880 until the Great Depression. During this time, Texas became the third largest lumber-producing state in the nation.

Northern investors swooped in to buy up land, sometimes even taking advantage of “use and possession laws” to seize property from families who had owned it for generations. Corruption abounded as logging companies controlled their workers, paying them only in vouchers for the company store despite the incredibly hazardous working conditions. These “cut and get out” operations left acres of land decimated.

This is the climate in which my next book, Short-Straw Bride, is set. Travis Archer and his brothers own a prime piece of forested land that also happens to be the key to connecting investor Roy Mitchell’s holdings to the railroad. Mitchell wants the ranch and is willing to get it any way he can. But the woman he’s been courting (to get his hands on her inheritance, which just happens to be more piney woods land) overhears him plotting to take the Archers out. Meredith Hayes has secretly carried a torch for Travis since he rescued her when she was a girl of ten. When she hears the threat, she knows she has to warn Travis. Unfortunately, her good deed goes awry and she ends up with more trouble than she bargained for. She ends up a short-straw bride.

Short-Straw Bride releases June 1st. If you’d like to read the first two chapters, click here.

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For those who love to smile as they read, bestselling author Karen Witemeyer offers warmhearted historical romance with a flair for humor, feisty heroines, and swoon-worthy Texas heroes. Karen is a firm believer in the power of happy endings. . . and ice cream. She is an avid cross-stitcher, and makes her home in Abilene, TX with her husband and three children. Learn more about Karen and her books at: www.karenwitemeyer.com.

19 thoughts on “A Texas Bonanaza”

  1. Now, you see??? Every time I have something happen in Texas in my books I get someone from Texas saying, “There are no…fill in the blank…in Texas.

    I always say, Shame on you, Texas has EVERYTHING! Stop insulting your state.

  2. CateS – Clear cutting is murder on the environement, for sure. I’m glad we have restrictions in place now to protect and restore the natural resources we have left.

  3. Karen,

    I hate to admit, I’m one of those who don’t think of trees when I think of Texas. This is a really interesting post, and what an interesting tidbit of history to include in your books.

    I’m so looking forward to Short-Straw Bride!

  4. You’re not alone, Kirsten. I LIVE here, and I still don’t think of trees when I think of Texas. LOL. I drove through part of east Texas a few months back to attend a conference in Louisiana, and lo and behold – I actually saw them with my own eyes. Texas pine trees. They really do exist!

  5. I grew up in East Texas. I was unaware of the logging wars. Sounds interesting. Perhaps some day I sneak a read of that one too — when my wife and daughter are not looking…

  6. This sounds like this will be another good one. You have another cover perfect for the book.

    It is sad to say that in some areas, lumbering hasn’t changed much since the early 1900s. Roads are cut, prime lumber taken, and other trees and the slash are just left to rot. Someone cut a section of the mountainside not far from us last year, and there is not much other than a big scar on the side of the mountain left. The way cutting is done, it is usually too difficult or dangerous to go in and clean up what is left for firewood. Everything just sits there drying out and becoming tinder for a fire. The habitat is damaged for much of the wildlife. Reforestation is not always done, especially on private land. The land owner sees how much he’ll be paid for the lumber and often doesn’t realize what a mess the logging company will leave behind. Worse yet, they often don’t care.

    Off my soap box. I am not against cutting trees. It is a necessity and when done properly won’t damage the forest too badly. The picture at the top of your article is interesting. It looks like the forest has been groomed. That clear a ground usually doesn’t come unless the forest is dense or there has been controlled burning.

    I look forward to reading SHORT STRAW BRIDE..

  7. Hi, Patricia. I agree with you about the trees. There is nothing so sad as a strip of stumps unless maybe it’s a burned out section of forest. Thanks for sharing your heart.

  8. The first two chapters are wonderful!! Now I’m aching to read the rest! Can’t wait!

    I did a little research and apparently lumber was the leading industry in my “neck o’ the woods” during that time as well. And I’m in Mississippi! Very interesting.

  9. Great piece! I have also heard that area referred to as the Pine Thicket. Of course, we native Louisianians like to kid that those pines were really part of our state that got included in Texas…so they would have a few trees to call their own!

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