The Forgotten Town of Pine Valley
Eastern Oklahoma's Pine Valley was a company-owned lumber town. The picturesque town paralleled the Kiamichi River to the south and was surrounded by the Kiamichi Mountains. Founded in 1926, the entire town was constructed and ready to be occupied by the time the first of the workers arrived. It was just one of such sites owned by the Dierks Lumber Company.
Before the first people arrived, thousands of dollars went into surveying, platting lots, building streets, and establishing businesses. The center of the town consisted of a large intersection with a main road coming from Muse, and the main street running east and west. A compete grade school and high school was also constructed for the community. The grade school was located across from the superintendent's house and served 12 grades out of 4 rooms, with three grades per room. The businesses included a large commissary, a 72 room hotel, a barber shop, drug store, ice plant, jail, post office, and an early movie theater. Tickets to the theater were 10 cents and showed primarily Wild West movies. The theater also doubled as a church on Sundays.
To connect the town for shipping, the company built a railroad from Pine Valley to Page. At Page, the Oklahoma and Rich Mountain Railroad connected with the Kansas City Southern. All of this was done for lumber. During the 1910s through the 1940s, lumber was a big industry here. They had established one of the largest sawmills and finishing plants in Oklahoma. From Eastern Oklahoma, lumber was sawed, cured, planed, and graded, then shipped to Page. This was done from the company’s one steam locomotive. This locomotive would haul rough cut lumber from the forests to the mill and then finished product out to Page. From there, it could be transported anywhere in the United States.
The lumber mill was one of the finest for that period. It was fully electric with the exception of two steam-powered carriages. The mill would move the logs through massive band saws which would cut the timber into boards. The electric was supplied by steam turbines, which used the wood scraps for fuel. This was so efficient that there was enough electricity to supply the entire town.
In total, the town also contained 380 homes. Since this was before desegregation, 100 of those homes were set aside for the black population, which made up one-quarter of the total labor force. Most of the black workers came from Louisiana. The remaining homes were for the white workers, which mainly came from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Between 1928 and 1940, the town population hovered around 1,500 people. Of those, around 800 worked in the mills while the remainder worked in the shops and other businesses. A water treatment facility near the steam turbines also provided water to the town. This was limited, with only one tap between houses, but it was plenty for this small lumber town.
Origins of the Town
In the 1800s and before, the Ouachita Mountains was home of the largest shortleaf pine forests in the world. This forest covered over five thousand square miles and was the last large virgin forest east of the Rocky Mountains.
This lumber was highly prized throughout the country. By the late 1800s, several new lumber mills were set up to harvest this timber. The Mountain Pine had a soft, almost silky texture and a very fine grain. The logs generally measured 12 to 28 inches in diameter. It was prized for doors, ceilings, and sash, and the heartwood was perfect for pine flooring.
By the time that the Dirks Lumber Co. began looking at the area in the early 1900s, much of the virgin timber was cut. The second growth had come in and was starting to thrive; however, new trees had been damaged or killed by area wildlife.
The Dirks Lumber Company established a campaign with the U.S. Forest Service to help monitor and control the wildlife. This campaign gave the pines an opportunity to survive, which helped to restore the balance with the shortleaf pine forest. Much of their success was developed on faith in the future. According to a statement by DeVere Dirks made in 1928, the family “don’t know yet if the reforestation will pay for itself.”
Working at Pine Valley
Pine Valley was built, owned, and managed by a subsidiary of the Dirks Lumber Company, known as the Pine Valley Lumber Company. Overall, the company town ran like a well-oiled machine. All of the residents worked for the company, lived on site, and even shopped at the company stores. Worship was held at the theater on Sundays, followed by basket dinners along the creek bank. They even had staff doctors that kept everyone healthy. There have been only two incidents worth noting; twice, the company office was robbed by outsiders, but beyond that, there were never any major issues in town.
Work was pretty straight forward. The logs were hauled in from the forests by the steam locomotive and delivered to the mill pond. From there, they were pulled from the pond onto an inclined chain that carried the logs to the carriages. Once on the carriages, they were sawn into rough-cut lumber.
There were two working carriages. The logs would be laid on the carriage and they would move back and forth as the massive band saws split the logs into lumber. A steam piston pushed a long rod that would drive each carriage along the track on each pass. To help guide the logs, three men manned the carriage. This included the block setter, who would determine the thickness of the board, as well as two “doggers” that operated the claws that secured the log. The three men would ride the carriage back and forth for hours at a time. With each pass, a steam-powered claw would turn the logs as needed. This was overseen by a “sawyer”, who sat in a pit beside the carriage. He was in charge of both operating the carriages as well as turning the logs as needed.
Once the boards were cut from the logs, they fell on to a conveyor chain. This moved the lumber down the line. While it was cut to the correct widths, it still needed to be cut into the right lengths. An operator working in a cage near the middle of the conveyer chain would manipulate the lumber and would lower a saw to cut the pieces to the correct lengths.
Further down the line, the boards would then be graded, stacked, and moved to the drying kilns. Once fully cured, the rough lumber was sent to the finishing plant. There, workers would remove imperfections, cut off bark edges, remove knots and other flaws, and so on.
The lumber was still considered rough even though it had been cut to approximate dimensions and the major imperfections removed. To finish out the lumber, it was sent to the planer mill, where the rough lumber was sanded, planned, and shaped. Once complete, it was moved for storage or loaded on to the railroad cars to be shipped out.
Views of Pine ValleyClick thumbnail to view full-size
The End of a Town
The company town of Pine Valley began to see a decline around 1936. At that time, the Dierks Lumber Company had declared bankruptcy. To regroup, the owners consolidated the Choctaw Lumber Company located in Arkansas and the Pine Valley Lumber Company.
Previously, there were two separate companies; the Dierks Lumber and Coal Company, which operated out of Arkansas, and the Choctaw Lumber Company, which operated out of Oklahoma. It is believed that they did this for tax reasons. Each company had the same owners but kept two separate sets of books. After the bankruptcy, both companies and their subsidiaries were consolidated into one company. The corporation was then renamed Dierks Forests.
The mill at Pine Valley was closed in 1942. By this time, most of the desired trees had already been cut. That, in combination with the recent bankruptcy, caused the closure. By 1953, most evidence of the town was gone as the buildings were removed. Those structures that could be salvaged were moved to their operations in Wright City.
The company ceased operation as Dierks Forests, inc. in the 1960s. While still profitable, they didn’t have the strength that they once did and eventually became a division of the Weyerhaeuser Company.
Pine Valley was located near where Muse is now. Today, virtually nothing remains. A number of concrete foundations remain, as well as the rise from the old railroad bed. The land where the town was is now inaccessible as it is privately owned.
Showing that history repeats itself, the land is owned by a logging company. From the early 1900s through today, this shortleaf pine forest still produces much of the most desired pinewood found in the United States.
Remnants of Pine ValleyClick thumbnail to view full-size
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Eric Standridge