Oklahoma is widely known for its oil and gas industry, cattle ranching, and of late the music talent that comes from this great state. What most do not know is Oklahoma was at one time a major producer of lumber. Yes, Oklahoma had many saw mills. As my late grandmother told it there were numerous “mill towns” in the southeastern part of the state.
The great state I live in is Oklahoma. Before it was Oklahoma it was known as Indian Territory. I know quite a lot about Oklahoma, but I did not know it was called The Choctaw Nation prior to being called Indian Territory. When we study history in school we are taught the basics about The Trail of Tears and the pilgrimage of Native Americans to reservations set aside for them. http://www.digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/M/M1028
In southeastern Oklahoma you will find a lot of small towns. One in particular has special meaning to me as well as the state, Atoka. My ancestors are from that area so I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about all kinds of things. My granny, Thelma Boling Bonham Cooper would tell me about her family and the trials and tribulations they endured. They were working class people and it was often a struggle just to survive. I am sure that was the case for many others as well. Granny also told me about some of her family working in the saw mills. I never thought too much about it when I was a kid. However, as I get older I want to know more about where my family came from and what they did.
When I think about the westward movement in this country I am familiar with the mining towns. There have been numerous movies made about the West and what happened during the gold rush. I know, you are not supposed to believe everything you see in the movies or read in the newspaper. However, there is some basis of truth to the storylines. I suppose there were numerous reasons why people wanted to migrate from the East to the West. Recalling history class teachings, when gold was discovered people headed west in droves. I have traveled our country from east to west, but I was in an air-conditioned vehicle. Having done that, I cannot imagine doing it in a covered wagon. Many of the folks did not make it to their destination due to the harsh conditions. Some made a stop on the way because they found another way to make their fortune. They discovered a gold mine of another type. They were not taking their riches from below the surface of the earth, they were taking it from above.
The timber industry in Atoka previously only provided timber for use in the immediate area. Several factors instigated the change from local usage to that of “company towns” which shipped timber to places outside the state. Atoka and a little town called Stringtown were along the path of the MK&T (Missouri, Kansas and Texas) railway. Government allotments began to give land to individuals taking it away from The Choctaw Nation. This was the beginning of the mill towns. (www.digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/M/M1028)
Two brothers, Hans and Herman Dierks were in on the allotment. They had been milling in other parts of the country and were looking for new resources. They realized the profits to be made in The Choctaw Nation. Their new endeavor was christened “The Choctaw Lumber Company”. They built a railroad and proceeded to build towns rather than camps to accommodate mill workers. It seems to me they were greedy in that they did not actually pay the workers “money”. Instead workers were paid with what was known as “scrip”. This form of money was only accepted at company owned facilities. The company controlled workers almost as if they were in prison. They lived in company housing, shopped at company stores, and ate at company restaurants. Apparently this was not any different than the way mining towns operated. They were known as company towns. That means the mill owners in essence owned the workers as well. This was of course prior to the industrialization of this country which created the necessity of establishing laws to protect workers. From the late 1800’s to 1929 there were ninety-five saw mills in Oklahoma. (www.digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/M/M1028)
Timber is a renewable resource for Oklahoma. Fortunately laws were passed to help regrow what gets taken away. According to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry Department Oklahoma still has in excess of 8 million acres of forests today.
The next time you hear about the oil and gas industry in Oklahoma, the cattle ranches, or famous people from Oklahoma-remember this, Oklahoma is more than that and then some. I am proud to be an Okie.
Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry, November 2007, The Early Years of Forestry in Oklahoma.