Louisianians and others had recognized for many years that cypress was a fine, long-lasting building material, and it had been harvested regularly since settlement began in south Louisiana. But most of the lumber was in swamps that were flooded for a good part of the year, making them difficult to get to and expensive to cut and to mill.
That began to change when the Timber Act of 1876 made large tracts of swampland available for less than 50 cents an acre, and leapt forward in 1891 with the invention of the pullboat that snaked cables far into the swamp to drag cut timber into places where logs could be rafted and towed to mills.
Mills along Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya River were soon turning handsome profits, but none of them made the money that Frank B. Williams did.
Williams came from a line of lumbermen. His grandfather operated mills in the northeast and his father, Charles Williams, was running two mills in Alabama at the time of his death in 1861, when Frank was 12 years old.
His father's death and the beginning of the Civil War played havoc with the family's finances, and Frank, still a teenager, went to work at the war's end in the construction department of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad.
Working by day and studying at night, he learned surveying and a bit of engineering, and in 1869 became a contractor, building bridges and trestles for Charles Morgan's Louisiana & Texas Railroad, which was working its way west from New Orleans. He and the line reached Patterson when the railroad ran into money problems and had to stop work. Williams was owed thousands of dollars but couldn't collect from the railroad. He was left with some building materials and tools, a riding horse, and $25 in his pocket.
To keep his head above water, he used his skills and building materials to repair bridges on the sugar plantations nearby and began to act as a middleman, buying cypress lumber from area mills and selling it at a profit in Galveston.
In 1872 he formed a partnership with John N. Pharr, who owned several sugar plantations and a fleet of steamboats. They bought a small mill at Centerville and moved it to Patterson. It was making good money when, two years later, it burned to the ground.
Undeterred, they built a bigger mill and were soon operating a fleet of 16 schooners that transported cut lumber to Galveston, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, and Mexican ports. Within a year or so the mill was also shipping lumber to New York, Philadelphia, and other eastern cities.
In 1892, some 20 years after the partnership was formed, Williams bought Pharr's interest in the mill for $350,000, and continued to expand the market for his lumber.
Indeed, it was said at the time, and history confirms, that one of Williams's chief contributions to the industry was the development of a national market for cypress lumber.
He continued to make money. Lots of it, for a long time. He celebrated his 50th year in business by distributing $100,000 in bonuses among his employees.
By the 1920s, the Louisiana cypress industry was in trouble. Most of the good timber was cut and many of the mills were shutting down. The Depression hastened the end of the era.
The first of four Williams mills shut down in 1929, the year Frank died at the age of 79. But that wasn't the end of the empire. Williams, unlike most of the other millers, kept his cutover cypress land -- and the right to the oil and gas that was found beneath it. He also had a few other interests, not the least of which was substantial stock in Whitney Bank.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.
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