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Uncovering and Preserving the Aldridge Sawmill Legacy

photo of Aldridge Sawmill letterhead
The Aldridge Sawmill in its heyday circa 1905, as depicted in the lumber company company letterhead. Click to see original.
photo of grafitti
USDA forest workers continue to search for chemical compounds that will remove graffiti painted on the porous concrete walls of the mill ruins.
map of Aldridge Sawmill and Township site
The Aldridge Sawmill and Township site (circled in red, lower right) is located in the longleaf pine woods of the Angelina National Forest in East Texas. It sits on a high terrace adjacent to a scenic bend of the Neches River in the extreme northeastern portion of Jasper County. Click to see full image.
photo of a flatboat ferry
A driver maneuvers a flatboat ferry across the river at Aldridge.

Recollections of Mittie Mae Blake Dykes, age: 102 1/2

Mittie was born in 1894, in Angelina County, Texas. She had 5 brothers and sisters, most of whom died early on of pneumonia. She recalled that Aldridge had "nice houses and a nice big school," with many children going to it. Everyone around worked in the mill, whites and blacks together. "There was a big kitchen at Aldridge where you could buy dinner" (the noon meal). They also had a doctor's office, drug store, barber shop, and a kitchen—"a big, long house with big, long tables and benches on each side." The main cook was a man, and about 10 women worked with him there from daylight until dark. According to Mittie, she didn't ask to work in the kitchen; they "just came and got her." Someone had told them she could cook.
Mittie's husband Jess was a carpenter who worked outside the mill. He made furniture and also worked at the blacksmith shop. Jess played the fiddle for the dances at Aldridge and other places, and Mittie liked to dance. They were married in May, 1918. Jess died in 1940 at age 50, from pneumonia.
--(Interview by Faye Green, October 16, 1996.)

photo of company houses
Company houses provided for both white and African -American workers were described as "comfortable,"and likely resembled those in this photo of the "colored quarter" in an unknown milltown. Photo courtesy Stephen F. Austin State University Forest History Collections, Thompson Photo Collection.
photo of a scene at Aldridge
A tranquil scene of the Aldridge millpond. Click to see full image.
photo of a fishing scene
A fishing scene at a muddy river in East Texas, near the turn-of-the-20th century. Photo courtesy of Texas Tides digital collection (TXK p86n2).

There is no sign of residential structures, school, churches, commissary or hotels—only second—growth timber now stands where a community once thrived.

Forest workers, historians, and East Texas residents have long been aware of the slow cycle of destruction occurring at the Aldridge Sawmill site. Hidden deep in the Angelina forest, the high-walled ruins are a magnet for "artists" wielding spray-paint cans and artifact hunters seeking items left behind by millworkers and townspeople nearly a century ago. Nature has taken its toll as well; vines crawl over the porous concrete walls, and shrubs and trees have invaded the building interiors.

Measures to stabilize, investigate, and protect the Aldridge site—one of the few remaining sawmill ruins left in East Texas forests—have been in the works for over a decade, although lack of funding and manpower continues to slow progress. Volunteer efforts have helped turn the tide. During a two-week period in 1995 and 1996, the USDA Forest Service, National Forests and Grasslands of Texas, hosted a Passport In Time (PIT) project focusing on the Aldridge Sawmill and Township. Volunteers from across the United States came to help with the investigations at the site. During that time, visitors coming to view the ruins told of their family members who had lived or worked at Aldridge.

The following "snapshot" of the Aldridge Sawmill and community—as it appeared in the past and as it appears to visitors today—is based on information collected from these efforts as well as historical research and oral history interviews conducted by the USDA Forest Service staff.

Boom and Bust

Hal Aldridge was a young entrepreneur from Rockland, Texas, where he first gained experience as a sawmill owner and operator. He bought the Rockland sawmill in 1890, and as this mill prospered, he began to purchase lands with "high quality" timber (undoubtedly longleaf pine) in Angelina and Jasper counties. With a vision of building a mill closer to his new timberland holdings, Aldridge sold the Rockland Sawmill in 1898. He chose the site for his new mill carefully, locating it on the east bank of the Neches River at a bend downstream from what was once known as Boon's Ferry crossing.

At that time, the river-bend site already had a logging history. Since the 1840s, it apparently had been a gathering and shipment point for rafting logs down the Neches River to the coastal city of Beaumont. The river would continue to be an important factor in the new sawmill—the water was used for boilers, train engines, and for fighting fires. The river channel provided transportation and storage space: logs were floated downstream, and log booms could be set up to store logs for future production. There were two other important resources to be exploited in this area; the lumber produced from the pines and the rocks from the nearby quarries. After the great hurricane nearly destroyed Galveston in the early 1900's, rock from the quarry near Aldridge was used to build the long barrier jetty.

Another critical factor was veteran lumberman John H. Kirby's plan to build an east-west railroad to the site of Aldridge Mill. As a landowner in the area, Kirby had an eye on future business development. By building the Burrs Ferry, Browndell and Chester Railroad (BFB&C), he could ensure that products would reach their markets.

Hal Aldridge, however, did not wait for the railroad to be built. He began building the wooden sawmill in 1903, completing construction by 1905. A Herculean effort then ensued to outfit the remote site: hundreds of men and tons of machinery were brought in. Four massive boilers were hauled by oxcarts with huge wooden wheels through the forests to the Aldridge Mill. Concurrently, work proceeded on building the railroad. By 1906, the BFB&C Railroad extended to the rock quarries just northwest of Aldridge and, a year later, finally reached the sawmill. This 11-mile tram line ran from Rockland, to Aldridge, to the Neches river.

The sawmill enterprise at Aldridge got underway successfully, with production reaching 75,000 board feet of lumber daily. But the wooden mill buildings were crowded, unsafe, and proved to be a fire hazard. On August 25, 1911, the mill burned to the ground.

At this time, the Aldridge mill was the only sawmill operating in the vast timber region. Other mills had already closed, and the decision to rebuild seemed a wise business strategy. To ensure greater safety and avoid increased insurance rates, the layout of the mill was changed to provide adequate spacing between the buildings. By 1912, the mill had been rebuilt, with buildings to house the engine, boiler, fuel room, and dry kiln constructed primarily of concrete reinforced with iron beams and furnished with state-of-the-art machinery, including a single-cutting band saw and a resaw.

With the new improvements, the Aldridge Lumber Company once again saw success. In a short time, the mill was producing 125,000 feet of lumber a day. Hal Aldridge employed 500 workers, some harvesting timber in the woods, others working at the mill—the largest roster of any lumber company at the time. And as the mill rose from the ashes, so did the town. By 1913, some 1000-1500 folks lived in 200 company houses in the quiet, neatly arranged community of Aldridge.

Segregation in towns and cities was common, and Aldridge and other sawmill communities were no exception even though black and white workers often worked side-by-side in the woods. Accommodations in both the "colored" area (the area reserved for African Americans) and "white" area were described as simple frame houses with wide front porches. (Mill owner Hal Aldridge, however, built what is described as a rather "palatial mansion" for himself.) Although some descendants of former residents recall that homes rented to white workers were somewhat nicer than those for blacks, no one interviewed recalled racial tension or labor disputes in the small community.

A central focus of the town was the company commissary, where workers could purchase food and furnishings with discount tokens provided by the mill. There was also 20-room hotel for travelers, a post office, blacksmith shop, train depot, two schools, shops, saloons, and other typical enterprises found in small towns. A large community vegetable garden provided free produce for the workers.

But success and prosperity at Aldridge again were to be fleeting. On October 22, 1914, the mill was struck by an arsonist. Twice hit by misfortune, Hal Aldridge elected to quit the lumber business and move to EI Paso, leaving his operation in care of company Vice President F. W. Aldridge (assumed to be Hal Aldridge's brother.) Fortunately, the October 22 fire had been discovered shortly after it started, and only minimal damage was done. Nonetheless, business at the mill began trending downward, most likely due to the depletion of the pine forest in the area. And in 1919, yet another fire delivered the final death blow to Aldridge.

By 1920, the town of Aldridge was nearly abandoned. Kirby Lumber Company eventually bought the mill, and a few loyal and faithful Kirby employees kept the mill operating. During the next decade, they built houses using wood from the mill houses, fenced the living areas, and farmed the land, according to 1990s interviews with residents. But in 1927, the railroad spur from nearby Rockland to Turpentine was closed, further blighting efforts to rekindle enterprise at Aldridge. The U. S. Forest Service eventually took possession of the property, and it was annexed into the Angelina National Forest.

In 1941, the Forest Service replanted the area immediately next to the sawmill. In subsequent years, staff have taken measures to document the historic site, replant trees, and manage and abate insect infestations (the general practice was to cut and leave on the ground those pine trees infested with the southern pine beetle). The pine forest to the north of the sawmill, where the "white" residences were, was cut a second time, and the land is currently producing a third (historically) generation of pine. The last planting took place in 1984, and the resulting pine plantation is nearly impenetrable.

Ruins in the Woods

In this section:

photo of volunteers
Working with a USDA Forest Service staff person, volunteers from the Passport in Time project dig shovel tests in the Neches River terrace adjacent to the Aldridge sawmill ruins. The soil is sifted through screens for small artifacts.
photo of a school at Aldridge
School at Aldridge, date unknown
photo of the Neches River
The Neches River near the Aldridge site. The river was a critical factor in siting the sawmill, providing water for the mill boiler engines and a route for boat transportation in its deep channel.
photo of lumberyard
Flanked by piles of pine lumber stacked high on each side, a worker walks through the Aldridge lumberyard.
newspaper clipping
"Mill Goes Up in Smoke." News account of the first Aldridge sawmill fire, of unknown cause, as reported in the Beaumont Journal, Aug. 26, 1911. Click to enlarge.
photo of excavated tokens
Tokens excavated by PIT volunteers during Aldridge site investigations. The "punch outs were paid to Aldridge Lumber Company employees and could be redeemed for a 10 to 20 per cent discount on merchandise in the huge Aldridge commissary. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service.

Recollections of R.Z. Hinson, age 79

R.Z was born in 1917 in Aldridge Sawmill Town. He recalls that he and his family lived in a frame board and batten house with four rooms, a wood heater, and a front porch. The houses were fairly close together, and there was a well between every second house and the next. They had "colored" quarters and white quarters. For Fourth of July at Aldridge, they would spend the week before fishing in the river, and kept the fish alive in a box in the water. Then they would have a big fish fry behind grandpa's house on the river. His grandpa once caught a 49-pound cat fish with clabber milk for bait, tied up in a rag in a net.
-- Interview by Fay Green, May 22, 1997.

Photo of the dilapidated concrete walls that once enclosed the Aldridge boiler engine room
Sunlight streams through dilapidated concrete walls that once enclosed the Aldridge boiler engine room. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service.
map of Aldridge Saemill
A 1911 map of the Aldridge sawmill and community, prepared for lumberman J.H. Kirby, was used by USDA Forest Service archeologists investigating the site to help identify features and foundations. The map denotes the segregated sections where dwellings for "colored" and white residents were located as well as the various mill and town structures. Click to see full map and key to buildings.
photo of wildlife
Wildlife among reflections of trees on the Aldridge millpond. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service.
photo of an historic road
A historic logging tram road through the forest near Aldridge is still visible. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
photo of slag and ash
Slag and ash uncovered in a shovel test pit guided archeologists to the probable location of the blacksmith shop on the river terrace. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
photo of doll parts
Uncovered by volunteers, these doll parts, now yellowed with age, are poignant reminders of the children of the Aldridge community. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
photo of the cover of Passport in Time manual
Cover of the Passport in Time planning manual.
photo of dogwood trees
A stand of dogwood in bloom near the Aldridge site. Photo courtesy USDA Forest Service.

The Aldridge Mill and Township has sat dormant for decades. The remains include four massive concrete structures that held the boiler room, engine room, fuel room and the drying kiln. Nearby is what was once the sawmill pond. There is no sign of residential structures, school, churches, commissary or the hotel. When the mill closed down, the houses were sold and removed as salvage. Only second-growth timber now stands where a community once thrived.

The Aldridge Mill and Township were recorded by Forest Archeologist John Ippolito in 1979 as part of a general heritage inventory of the National Forest Lands and to begin the National Register of Historic Places evaluation. In 1989, forest service archeologists mapped and surveyed the site. In spite of increased attention, the site has not escaped vandalism, graffiti, and the effects of metal detector enthusiasts searching for artifacts.

One recent offense prompted the U. S. Forest Service archeological staff to begin an in-depth study of the damage that has been done and to recover some of the artifacts which were taken from the site. For example, numerous tokens (the form of payment from the mill owner to the worker) have been recovered through investigations of such incidents. These "punch outs" could be used at the commissary or redeemed elsewhere at a 10 to 20 per cent discount. Staff have also tested various chemical compounds to remove the graffiti on the structural ruins, but with only mixed results.

Volunteers with the PIT project helped Ippolito and then-assistant forest archeologist Velicia Bergstrom assess site destruction, both human and natural, and document what remained of the mill and community. Some helped with initial archeological testing in residential sections of the townsite as well as industrial areas, while others tested the terrace of the nearby Neches River. A third group surveyed the area to establish the site perimeters. Volunteers compared the 1911 map and more-recent site map, then swept the area with metal detectors to establish probable areas of interest. They dug shovel tests in various areas to learn more about the structures that once stood there and their functions, based on artifacts or other evidence. (The area where the "white" residences were located is currently in a young pine plantation, so testing could not been done there.) A volunteer team also was responsible for cleaning, labeling, sorting, and dividing the artifacts recovered from the testing into broad categories: ceramics, glass, metal, and lithics (prehistoric chipped stone).

Additional oral history interviews were conducted for the project, providing greater knowledge of what life was like during those days. Old timers recalled the different types of mill jobs and divisions of labor, how the houses were kept up, games the children played, and allusions to places at Aldridge that previously were unknown, such as a saloon and a boarding house. Some information confirmed locations of buildings and roads.

As shown in the 1911 map, there were three areas for "white" residences and three areas for "colored" residences. Oral accounts have suggested that these houses were four rooms and placed on wooden piers. Each house had a wood heater and a cook stove, and every two houses shared a shallow well. Each house had an area for a milk cow and a picket-fenced garden area behind the house. The more-affluent mill operators lived on a street known as "Silk Stocking," set apart from the smaller cottages. When the mill closed down, all of the houses were sold and removed as salvage.

In their survey of the area, archeologists located a series of concrete foundations on the river terrace which may be the remains of housing for two pumps which were denoted on the 1911 map. Tar-splotched sandstones were exposed just below the surface near the concrete foundations along with metal barrel loops and other industrial type debris, the likely remains of one of the pump houses or the round house. Concrete pads also were uncovered in some of the testing and most likely were associated with the blacksmith shop. These areas were also mapped, photographed and then backfilled for future work.

The investigators found a wide range of domestic and industrial items from the early 1900s including fragments of decorated and plain ceramic tableware, stoneware vessels, glass bottles, lamp shades, ceramic doll parts, writing slates, buttons, buckles, bullets, and other items. Not surprisingly, heavy metal objects were in abundance, ranging from construction items such as nails and pipes to tools and parts of heavy machinery from the mill operation.

Several examples of ceramics date to the early to mid 1800s. This was not totally unexpected; historical research conducted in 1992 by then-forest archeologist Bob Skiles hints at the presence of an early 19th-century occupation at the site.

Brief History of Passport in Time

Passport in Time (referred to as PIT) is a volunteer program that invites the public to help with heritage resource management projects within the national forests across the nation. These projects are designed to offer experience and introduce a conservation ethic to the public. Volunteers are given the opportunity to work with professional archeologists and/or historians. There is no fee for participation; however, some volunteers in the past have been known to travel great distances to participate in a PIT project. Their participation directly contributes to the understanding of the human story in North America and to the preservation of the fragile sites that chronicles this story. They share in new discoveries, learn the science of archeology and meet many new friends.

Passport In Time was started in the Great Lakes State of Minnesota in 1988 and was initiated by the Forest Archeologist on the Superior National Forest. By 1991, there were 50 projects planned on 27 forests in 19 states; this equaled 23,283 hours by 537 volunteers, at which time PIT became known as a national program. By 1992, 53 national forests in 24 states had projects planned equaling 82 projects with 1161 volunteers giving a total of 53,043 hours. In 1994 there were 113 projects planned with 1255 volunteers donating 57,001 hours.

PIT is a grass roots program where volunteers are learning about conservation from a new perspective, the Forest Service is gaining help with our Heritage Resource Program, and a strong base of public awareness and support for preservation of historical resources is nurtured. The National Forests and Grasslands of Texas had 35 volunteers for this project (some who returned again in 1996), who provided over 1000 hours of work that could not have been funded otherwise. These projects were the first steps towards the development of a cadre of skilled and devoted volunteers dedicated to the preservation of their heritage resources on public lands. Today, the U. S. Forest Service has incorporated the Aldridge Mill and Township into an environmental and interpretive trail system that has allowed visitors to view the ruins and speculate upon the past.

river features
Concrete foundations were discovered by archeologists between the river terrace and the mill. The structure does not appear on the 1911 map, although two pumps are marked in the vicinity. Although the function is unknown, the ruin became known as the "River Building."
photo of dry kiln building
A circa 1934 view of the dry kiln building. Stacks of milled lumber planks were cured and dried in this building. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
photo of engine buliding
A large hole in the side of the engine building was not the work of vandals, but rather was deliberately knocked out in 1932 after the mill closed in order that the huge Corliss steam engine could be removed and reused in a sawmill in another location. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service.
map of site
Site map drawn by forest service archeologists, showing building locations and areas where shovel tests were dug. "Bug Spot" denotes the area where pine trees were sprayed for beetle infestations, then felled and left on ground.
photo of ceramic tableware
Colorfully patterned ceramic tableware brightened the lives of some Aldridge mill families, judging from these examples. The majority of ceramic fragments found during testing, however, was plain white ware typical of the early 20th century. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service. Click to see full image.
photo of Passport in Time volunteers
Volunteers and staff in the 1995 PIT project. Forest service staff estimate that during the two-week 1995 and 1996 project, volunteers provided more than 1000 hours of labor that could not have been funded otherwise. Photo courtesy of the USDA Forest Service.