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Arkansas Properties on the National Register of Historic Places: Three States Lumber Company, Burdette, Mississippi County

Arkansas Historic Preservation Program - Monday, January 21, 2019

The Three States Lumber Company Historic District at Burdette in Mississippi County was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 28, 2001. 

SUMMARY

The Three States Lumber Company Powerhouse/Burdette Plantation is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with state significance for its association with the development of the Delta region of Arkansas from a heavily forested wetland to the agricultural center of the state. It is also being nominated under Criterion C as the only known example of a large industrial building associated with the early deforestation of the region. Since most timber mills were made to be, and were, disassembled after the completion of operations, a building of this permanence is quite rare. The fact that it later served as a plantation headquarters makes it even more significant, because it shows a clear transition from logging to agriculture as the eastern half of Arkansas’s chief economic provider. Constructed in 1909 to house the powerplant of the Three States Lumber Company Mill, the building was the only part of the complex that was not disassembled and moved upon completion of the company’s logging operation in Mississippi County in 1922. Although windows have been boarded up the building appears much like it did at the time of its construction and at the time of the mills disassembly in 1922.

ELABORATION

In Arkansas, Mississippi County was one of the last areas in state to be developed. The county was formed in 1833, three years before Arkansas became a state. Early European settlers were hunters and trappers or small subsistence farmers. Because its topography and environment did not encourage immediate widespread settlement; nor did the state government have the means or the inclination to improve conditions, the population of Mississippi County grew very slowly. In the 1800s, like many other Delta counties, Mississippi County was swampy and insect infested; humid in the summer and cold and damp in the winter; and home to wild animals including bears and panthers. The county generally lacked the attractions other areas of the state had to offer. It had a history of natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, and in fact, the first of the three large quakes that became known as the New Madrid earthquake of 1811-1812 occurred near the present town of Blytheville, which is only a few miles north of Burdette. The eastern border of the county was the untamed Mississippi River where river overflows were annual events. The roads that existed were frequently impassable and there was no railroads making transportation difficult, therefore the Mississippi River was the county’s lifeline.

What the area did have to offer was thousands of acres of virgin hardwood timber and amazingly fertile alluvial soil. The last decade of the nineteenth century saw national expansion and a nation-wide building boom. A number of northern lumber companies saw the opportunity to expand and purchased large tracts of timber throughout the south. One of these companies was the Three States Lumber Company, an Eau Claire, Wisconsin corporation.

The Three States Lumber Company
Three States incorporated in Arkansas in 1894, shortly after it purchased approximately 35,000 acres of land in Mississippi County. Three States also owned land in south Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi. For a number of years it contracted with local timber and lumber operators to cut and mill, and ship the lumber to its Cairo and Joppa, Illinois yards. In 1905 Three States Lumber Company purchased a mill from one of its primary contractors in Luxora, closed it down, and relocated to Burdette. Parts of the Luxora mill were transported by company railroad to Burdette, and framing was shipped down river from an earlier Three States operation at James Bayou, Missouri.

The Burdette operation was quite large. The Burdette mill opened in 1906 and was operated by the company until it closed in 1922. In 1917 the company had on hand 1,201,138 board feet of logs. It cut 22, 500,848 board feet of new logs and produced 21,973,799 board feet of lumber. It marketed 17, 118, 742 board feet of lumber in the same year. Property assets of the company were listed as $1,497,581.98 at the end of 1916. As was the case with many logging/lumber operations, the company built a town to support its facility. It also operated the Blytheville, Burdette, and Mississippi County Railway to transport logs to the mill and then to transport lumber to river ports or to connect with other railroads to ship the lumber north.

Burdette was incorporated in 1905 after being chosen as the site for the Three States Lumber Company’s mill. The town was named Burdette in honor of Alfred Burdette Wolverton, who was the first superintendent at the mill. Transportation was still primitive and caused the town to be relatively self-sufficient. The company provided a store, doctor’s office, hotel, bathhouse, ice cream parlor, pool hall, open air movie theater, and a
park with a bandstand where concerts and lectures were held. William Jennings Bryan spoke there on the Chatauqua circuit, and W.C. Handy played at the town’s honky tonk. There were also a jail, baseball diamond, community garden and canning kitchen, and schools for both white and black children. The town had sewage and water systems and as a result of the generator used to power the mill, residents had electricity.

Three States Lumber had finished their logging operation by 1922. Like most timber mills, the setup was meant to be temporary so the mill could disassemble and move elsewhere upon completion of each operation. The powerhouse was more permanent due to its solid brick and concrete construction. The rest of the components of the mill were sold to the R.J. Darnell Lumber Company and were shipped down the Mississippi River to Louisiana. Citizens of Burdette that had relied on the mill for employment would have to find new occupations.

With timber being harvested in increasingly large numbers, both the landscape and economy of Mississippi County begin to change. Large areas of land were opened up as the timber was harvested; however, the land was still not suitable for farmland. Although the trees were gone stumps still remained throughout the recently cleared land. There was also the problem of drainage. Much of the county remained under water for large periods of the year. The rich alluvial soil, a result of an almost yearly overflow of the Mississippi River, would remain useless until stumps were cleared and a drainage system was in place. Three States Lumber Company President W.A. Gilchrist saw the potential of the land and was a strong supporter of early drainage efforts in the county.

Burdette Plantation
As early as 1914 the company had a farm manager to oversee the cutting of drainage ditches, clearing of stumps, and the sale of the improved agricultural land. When the Three States Lumber Company left Burdette, the company’s farm manager James Tompkins formed Burdette Plantation Incorporated and purchased a 3,200acre block of this land. Since the powerhouse could not be moved, Three States also sold it to Tomkins. The building was converted to the plantation headquarters and company store. The building, though deteriorated, appears much the same as it did when Burdette Plantation purchased it in 1922.

Residents of the town who decided to stay after the mill left went to work for Burdette Plantation. The town, though smaller in scale, continued to be essentially a company town. The economics of the area had shifted from timber to agriculture, and the landscape had also changed. What had been swamp and forest less than a quarter of a century before was now some of Arkansas’s finest farm land.

Burdette Plantation was a typical agricultural operation of its time and place. The lumber company had cleared the land but much of it was still very rough, filled with stumps and with little drainage. The combination of mule and man power resulted in the clearing of the “wild lands”, digging of ditches that drained the swamps, and planting and harvesting of crops that made Mississippi County one of the state’s leading agricultural producers. The Plantation offices and store occupied this building through the 1960s when mechanization, migration and population shifts, and modern transportation made its mode of operation obsolete. During its heyday it exemplified both the good and the bad of the twentieth century plantation system. It stands today as a symbol of a way of life experienced by many citizens of Mississippi County and the Arkansas Delta.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Three States Lumber Company Powerhouse/Burdette Plantation is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with state significance as the most extant resource associated with the deforestation of the Arkansas Delta. The building’s transition from part of a timber operation to a plantation headquarters and company store shows the transition from an economy based on timber to one based on agriculture. It is also being nominated under Criterion C as the best example of a large industrial building associated with the deforestation of the Arkansas Delta. Constructed in 1909 as part of the Three States Lumber Company Mill, it is the only surviving building of the mill complex that was disassembled and moved in 1922. Although windows have been boarded up the building appears much like it did at the time of its construction.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fischer, Duane Dale. The John S. Owen Enterprises. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1964.

Fischer, Duane Dale. Notes for and unpublished draft of manuscript on Three States Lumber Company, ca. 1965-2001.

Fox, J.A. The Garden Spot of the Mississippi Valley: Mississippi County in the St. Francis Basin of Arkansas, Osceola, AR, published by the author, 1902.

Blytheville Courier News, Mid-Century Edition, Oct. 10, 1950, Section E, p. 11 and Section D, p. 16.

Map of Burdette, AR up to 1922 as Remembered [by] Charles Ramey and Emily Tompkins Sullivan in 1995. Privately printed, 1999.

Real Estate Record Card, Mississippi County Courthouse, Osceola, AR.

Interview with Jim Tompkins, County Assessor, Mississippi County, and legal representative of Burdette Plantation, October, 2000.



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