After spending two years at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park doing research and collecting artifacts, a group from West Virginia University unveiled the completed exhibit “Timber/Timbre: Falling Trees and Rising Voices – Logging and Music in West Virginia, 1880-1930” at the Cass Museum on June 5.
The exhibit includes photographs and quotes from the timber boom in Cass and the town of Spruce, as well as lyrics and musical clips from area musicians from the time period.
In conjunction with the opening of the exhibit, WVU’s associate professor of history Hal Gorby and associate professor in the school of design and community development Chris Haddox, joined by local historian Bill McNeel, held a round table discussion about the timber boom in Pocahontas County and the music created during that time.
Gorby began the discussion by giving a history of the timber industry in the county.
“Between 1880 and 1920, West Virginia rapidly industrializes… and this rapid change takes a rural way of life – people who lived off the land for many years – and slowly but surely begin supplementing their income either working on the construction of railroads to access the timber reserves in the region or eventually, ending up in places like Cass,” he said.
“Obviously, the development of this timber industry and other manufacturing industries in the state is wrapped up in the sort of post-Civil War boom and need for lumber,” he continued. “Trying to also convince rural West Virginians that industrial development was going to be the best thing for them. It’s going to make everyone’s lives better. It’s going to bring new opportunities, which it does.”
The larger cities in West Virginia industrialized first, and, slowly, the industries made their way into the more rural areas such as Pocahontas County, thanks to the efforts of two major captains of industry, Johnson Newlon Camden and Henry Gassaway Davis.
The development of industry in Pocahontas County was one of the most rapid to take place during this time. Gorby explained that prior to the 1890s, a lot of timbering in the area was done by individuals in small amounts and the timber was floated down the river to larger sawmills.
“When the railroad finally reaches most of Pocahontas County around the turn of the twentieth century, it brings a mass of growth and development in the county,” he said. “From 1900 to 1910, the county’s population nearly doubles from 8,572 to 15,000 people, which doesn’t sound like a lot if you’re not from the region, but a rural mountainous place like this – it’s a massive development.”
The developers who came in trying to attract workers, as well as investors, used local newspapers to help boast the benefits of the new industry. The Pocahontas Times itself was vocal about the changes the industry could bring to the county.
“As noted by the editor in 1891 of The Pocahontas Times, ‘Pocahontas County will undergo the greatest development and prosperity of any county in the state in the next five years,’” Gorby read. ‘“She will have a railroad and the industries that will spring up from it will furnish employment to thousands of families. She has iron and coal, untold millions of feet of timber which speaks for itself. Ex-Senator Johnson Newlon Camden says that Marlinton will become in no distant day the largest manufacturing city in the interior of the state.’
“That didn’t really pan out, but you can see there were a number of things that did obviously pan out,” he continued. “This rapid development will take place throughout the 1890s, early first decade of the twentieth century – mainly dominated, of course, by the West Virginia Paper and Pulp Company.”
Prior to the industry coming to the area, Gorby said that in 1879, West Virginia cleared about 200 million board feet of lumber a year. By 1909, the state was producing a half billion board feet of lumber a year.
“At its peak, there were 83 large band mills, many small mills throughout the state and at its height, employing around 26,000 workers,” he said.
When seeking employees, the industry first turned to the local farmers who were timbering their own land, but found they were less than reliable. Their farms were their first priority, so timbering suffered when it was spring and summer.
The industry found more reliable workers in European immigrants.
“Most employers, particularly those here in Cass found [locals] to be very unreliable,” Gorby said. “They would work for a short period of time – often timbering in the fall and winter – but going back to their farms in the spring and summer.
“So increasingly, the timber companies and West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company began hiring a large number of immigrant laborers,” he continued. “It’s hard to imagine West Virginia or even in this part of the state that there’s a diverse workforce, but in the 1900s, 1910s, this area sees a massive influx of European immigrants. Many of them are recruited by independent labor agents known as Padrones who recruited them out of Ellis Island or other port cities.”
By 1910, five percent of Pocahontas County’s population was foreign born, with timber employees hailing from Italy, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere.
Because the men could not speak English, and the foreman couldn’t understand them, they went by numbers instead of their names. The men had to wear tags with their numbers stamped on them as their identification.
As the timber industry grew, so did the timber camps. Pocahontas County had many small towns crop up, named for the industry boss or for a beloved female in his family.
One of the largest timber towns to exist at this time was the town of Spruce near Cass.
“Spruce developed around 1902,” Gorby said. “It was along the Shavers Fork of the Cheat River. West Virginia Pulp and Paper built and expanded it and built a pulp mill there in 1904 when it really began to take off. There was a mill, there was a store, a hotel. Thirty-five houses were built initially, according to The Pocahontas Times.
“In September of 1904, The Pocahontas Times noted the following, ‘A village of 500 or 600 people was sprouting up in what was once an impenetrable wilderness at the head of the Cheat River,’” he continued. “The nationally produced Manufacturers Record went even further the following year when it described this new community of workers in the mountains, ‘Spruce is a camp chopped out of the forest on Cheat Mountain. The town’s location is probably the highest in the south, having an elevation of four thousand feet. The snow that falls there in November usually remains until April and sometimes even later, but the hearty lumbermen do not mind and the energetic company that employs them pushes right along at all seasons and in all weather.’”
As quickly as it sprouted, it seemed to disappear just as fast. By 1925, when the pulp mill closed, the town was left behind and, to this day, only a few building foundations remain on the site as a reminder.
“When the mill closed in 1925, the town fell into decline,” Gorby said. “You can look Spruce up on your Google maps and you will find it is in the wilderness.”
After Gordy concluded his summation of the timber industry boom, Haddox spoke about the music of the time and shared several songs he wrote in the old-time fashion with lyrics addressing the effect of the timber industry on the natural beauty of West Virginia.
The first song he performed, accompanying himself on fiddle, was “The West Fork is Heaven No More,” which was inspired by a quote from Cal Price in which he stated the West Fork was a fishing stream no more.
“From the fisherman’s perspective, the timber industry was devastating to the fisheries and so this song is kind of written from the fisher’s perspective,” Haddox said.
Haddox performed two more songs, one of fiddle and one on banjo.
After the formal presentation, the floor was opened to questions for Gorby, Haddox and McNeel.
The timber industry exhibit will be at the Cass Museum until October 15.