When my daddy graduated with an accounting degree from Mississippi State, he moved his young family from the red clay hills of northeast Mississippi to the flat delta town of Greenville where he had taken a job with Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. Here is young James Luke Robinson standing outside the company's local office building, probably around 1962. Chicago Mill moved into the area to take advantage of the diverse hardwoods that populated the Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas deltas in the early 1900s. Like most timber companies of the time, they bought up vast tracts of land, harvesting the timber and transporting it to company-owned mills before manufacturing the lumber and shipping it out to lumber yards, either by barge or rail. Located in a port town, the Greenville location played an important role in transporting timber and lumber up and down the Mississippi River.
Hermann Paepcke, a German immigrant, started the lumber company in 1892. Headquartered in Chicago with its major operations at Cairo, Illinois, the company located the mill at Greenville sometime before 1927, the year of the Great Flood. The mill's 110-foot high smokestack was partially destroyed by flood waters that year. After a long life, the Greenville location closed its doors at the end of 2008, having already shut down most of the mill's operations some time before. The building pictured above has been long gone, although the tall smokestack in the background was still standing during my last visit to the Delta town.
Perhaps the most well-known story surrounding the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company involved its role in the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Or, I should say, near extinction, because after after a sixty-year period, this species of bird was discovered alive and well in a remote part of the Arkansas delta in 2005. You may remember the media coverage surrounding the discovery.
The ivory-billed woodpecker disappeared after its habitat was destroyed by the logging frenzy in the early twentieth century. In 1943, a small population of these birds, perhaps seven pairs, was found in the Singer tract (so-called because it was once held by the Singer Sewing Machine Company), an old-growth forest in Louisiana owned by Chicago Mill and Lumber Company. Despite pleas by the National Audubon Society, four Southern governors and numerous federal agencies, the lumber company refused to halt its logging operations, and within a year, the forest disappeared and with it, supposedly the last ivory-billed woodpecker. Go here to the Smithsonian Magazine's website to read more about this fascinating story.
There are estimates that nearly 17 million acres of forestland were lost in the lower Mississippi River floodplain, primarily due to timber harvesting by companies such as Chicago Mill and from the conversion of forests to farmland. Efforts are underway today to reclaim and reforest as much of the delta floodplain as possible. Can you imagine our Mississippi delta full of trees instead of fields of cotton or corn or rice?