Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Look See Tree
Look See Tree

LOOK SEE TREE, COLEMAN, DREW COUNTY

SUMMARY

The Look See Tree, which was utilized between c.1930 and c.1940, is a rare surviving example of a lookout tree.  Lookout trees were used by Arkansas Forestry Commission rangers to supplement the small number of fire towers that the Commission operated.  Equipped with climbing pegs, lookout platforms, and telephone lines, lookout trees allowed the rangers to survey surrounding lands for fires, something that was especially important in the timberlands of southern Arkansas.  For its associations with conservation efforts in Arkansas during the first part of the twentieth century, the Look See Tree is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with statewide significance.

ELABORATION

Drew County was formed on November 26, 1846, approximately ten years after European settlement began in the area.  The early settlers of the area migrated from a variety of other states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Louisiana.  The population of the county grew fairly rapidly, and by 1850 Drew County’s population was 3,276.[1]

The earliest industry in Drew County was agriculture.  The main crops in the area were corn and cotton, although oats, peas, sorghum, and millet were also extensively farmed.  In addition to crops, some farmers raised stock, including short-horn and Jersey cattle and Norman and Clydesdale horses.  However, by the 1880s, because of the county’s extensive forests, the timber industry began to develop.  According to the Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Southern Arkansas:

"Just in the infancy of their development are the timber resources of the county, the cypress received first attention, and much of it has been sawed up, but there are large bodies of cypress timber yet intact.

"About 250 square miles of pine grows in the county, very little of which has been cut, the remaining area is covered with hardwood forests, including differed varieties of white and black oaks, hickory, gum, elm, sycamore, beech and holly.  Along the bayou the oak is converted into barrel staves, in which work many men are engaged.  The gum is largely being logged and shipped to England."[2]

In order to successfully log forested land for a long period of time, it was imperative to manage the trees wisely, and one of the people who was at the forefront of forest conservation in Arkansas in the first part of the twentieth century was William L. Hall.  Hall’s first involvement in Arkansas forestry occurred in 1907 when, at the request of Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled through the Ouachita region of the state to inspect the unappropriated public land.  He found that the land was unsuitable for farming but could be used as a source of timber.  As a result, Hall recommended that the land should remain publicly owned and managed, which led to the first national forest created in the south.  On December 18, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt “reserved from settlement or entry and set apart as a public reservation, for the use and benefit of the people” much of the public land in the Ouachita Mountains.  The newly created area was originally known as the Arkansas National Forest and renamed the Ouachita National Forest in 1926.[3]

Hall would return to Arkansas in the 1920s at the request of the Dierks family to help develop a forest management plan for their land holdings.  Dierks began a forestry program in 1925 as a result of Hall’s recommendations, and because of the profitability of Dierks to his consulting, Hall relocated to Hot Springs from Chicago.  The key to forest management in Hall’s opinion was fire protection, something that flew in the face of conventional wisdom of most people in Arkansas and across much of the South.  Although setting fires killed off ticks and chiggers and allowed grass to grow for cattle, it also killed off saplings, which would eventually lead to the depletion of the forests.[4]

In order to help prevent forest fires, Dierks hired two foresters who were to work specifically as fire prevention supervisors.  One supervisor would be located in Arkansas while the other would be located in Oklahoma.  Kenneth Smith writes in the book Sawmill:  The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies about the duties of the foresters:

"They were to locate and build fire lookout towers, and set up a telephone system to connect the towers, the homes of fire wardens, and logging operations with the central office.  They were to hire and supervise sixty-two local fire wardens, each of whom was to oversee fifteen to twenty thousand acres and educate his neighbors about damage caused by fires and the advantages of growing more timber.  The foresters were also to organize fire fighting crews among those who worked in the woods, including brush pilers, railroad section gangs, and steel gangs.  All of this they were to do as soon as possible."[5]

Even though some of the earliest conservation and fire prevention practices were put in place through the efforts of private companies, the government was not too far behind.

As the government became involved in the protection of forests from fires, the lookout tree developed.  The Multiple Property Listing “National Forest Fire Lookouts in the Southwestern Region” describes two different types of lookout trees:

"Ladder Trees:  Access to the tops of these trees is provided by wooden ladders or by spikes (or lag bolts) driven into the side of the tree.  The limbs are removed from the ladder side, and some limbs are also removed from the tree top to provide a view.  These lookouts were meant only for short-term transitory use, as they have no associated features in them such as telephone line, fire finder, or platform.  Simple and inexpensive structures, these lookouts were scattered through areas with low relief.  Fire crews would use these lookouts to monitor the progress of a fire or during routine patrols.  These points would supplement permanent lookout vistas.  Occasionally, ladder trees are located next to a platform on the ground which held a map board for a fire finder (or its predecessor, the alidade and protractor) to aid in locating the fire on the map.

"Platform Trees:  Wooden ladder or spikes (also known as “lag bolts” provide access to a platform built into the top of the tree.  The top ten feet or so of the tree is sawn off (and often found near the tree base) and a wood frame platform measuring about six to eight feet on a side is built into the top of the tree.  The platform usually had a railing around it and a hatchway leading up to it.  Features in the platform included a seat and a map board for the fire finder.  Telephones were often located in the lookout tree for quick communication with a ranger station.  Lightning protection and guy wires were often installed.  Remnants of these features can still be seen today in these trees.  Often, a nearby tent provided housing for the fire lookout."[6]

By 1905, the Forest Service’s first manual for rangers, which was called the Use Book, indicated that the “…Officers of the Forest Service, especially forest rangers, have no duty more important than protecting the reserves from forest fires.”  The use of fire lookouts to help rangers protect areas from forest fires began around 1900, and often the earliest form of lookout was just a mapboard located on top of a mountain that ranger dropped his official tone to add:  “John, it looks like it’s in that little glade where Ferguson killed the wildcat last winter.”

The dispatcher pulled a button from the Blue Mountain location on a map and stretched a string through the number 190 on a graduated scale.  Just then a second tower reported a wisp of smoke and gave an alidade reading.  After a moment’s calculation the dispatcher telephoned a Civilian Conservation Corps camp, told the fire warden where the blaze was, what roads and trails to follow, and how many men were needed.  In less than eight minutes after the ranger in the first tower had reported, a pick-up truck with a “hotshot” crew aboard was racing toward the fire.  The pick-up, which skidded around curves in a manner that would have delighted a motion picture director, was followed by a slower and larger truck filled with youthful fire fighters.  In two hours the blaze was out.

Except for the soil, timber is the most valuable resource of Arkansas, and the protection of more than 22,000,000 acres of trees is a major conservation task in the State.[7]

Lookout trees could work just as well as later fire towers in fighting forest fires, especially if equipped with a telephone line as was the Look See Tree.  The key element in responding to forest fires was speed, which telephone service allowed.

The Look See Tree was used by the Arkansas Forestry Commission rangers during the 1930s as a way to supplement the few towers that they had at the time.  Since the surroundings of the Look See Tree were much more open at the time and it was one of, if not the, tallest tree around, it was an inexpensive solution to providing a fire lookout in the area.  It is reported that the buildings in downtown Dumas, approximately 20 miles to the northeast, could be seen from the tree’s platform.  The fact that it was immediately adjacent to a county road (now AR 83) meant that it was easily accessible by the rangers as they made their patrols.[8]

However, the Look See Tree was only used for a short period of time, likely only about ten to fifteen years.  A lookout tower (since demolished) was eventually built approximately 0.25 miles to the southeast, making the Look See Tree unnecessary.  (As in other states, the CCC erected some towers in Arkansas during the 1930.  One example is the Crossroads Fire Tower in nearby Ashley County, which was built by the CCC in 1936 [NR-listed March 2, 2006].)  Even so, the climbing pegs and platform, at least, were left in place, although the telephone line was likely removed.

Since the Look See Tree was last utilized, most of the lookout platform has deteriorated and disappeared.  However, a portion of it remains, as does the porcelain insulator for the telephone line.  In addition, the two rows of iron climbing pegs, which are slowly being engulfed by the tree, remain on the west side of the tree.  The Look See Tree represents a rare and early form of fire protection for the forests and timberlands of southern Arkansas.  The significance and rarity of the Look See Tree has been recognized by the Arkansas Forestry Commission, which registered the tree in its Arkansas Famous and Historic Tree Program on August 18, 2006.  It is not known how many lookout trees were utilized in Arkansas, but the Look See Tree is the last known example of this type of lookout.  As a result, it represents an important tangible remnant of Arkansas’s early forestry and conservation efforts.



[1] Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Southern Arkansas.  Chicago:  The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1890, pp. 927-928.

[2] Ibid, pp. 934-935.

[3] Smith, Kenneth.  Sawmill:  The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies.  Fayetteville, AR:  The University of Arkansas Press, 1986, p.46.

[4] Ibid, pp. 116-117.

[5] Ibid, p. 118.

[6] “Amendment to National Forest Fire Lookouts in the Southwestern Region, USDA-Forest Service.”  National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form, 1991, pp. 7-2 and 7-3.Found at http://www.nr.nps.gov/multiples/64000046.pdf.

[7] West, Elliott.  The WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas.  Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1987 reprint of 1941 publication, p. 18.

[8] Information on the Look See Tree found at http://www.arhistorictrees.org/historic_trees_details.php?id=30 and Tucker, Olin.  Conversation with the author.  8 August 2007.

SIGNIFICANCE

The Look See Tree, which was utilized between c.1930 and c.1940, is a rare surviving example of a lookout tree.  Lookout trees were used by Arkansas Forestry Commission rangers to supplement the small number of fire towers that the Commission operated.  Equipped with climbing pegs, lookout platforms, and telephone lines, lookout trees allowed the rangers to survey surrounding lands for fires, something that was especially important in the timberlands of southern Arkansas.  For its associations with conservation efforts in Arkansas during the first part of the twentieth century, the Look See Tree is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with statewide significance.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Amendment to National Forest Fire Lookouts in the Southwestern Region, USDA-Forest Service.”  National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form.  1991.  Found at http://www.nr.nps.gov/multiples/64000046.pdf.

Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Southern Arkansas.  Chicago:  The Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1890.

Information on the Look See Tree found at http://www.arhistorictrees.org/historic_trees_details.php?id=30.

James, Elizabeth.  “Crossroads Fire Tower, Hamburg vic., Ashley County, Arkansas.”  National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.  From the files of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 2006.

Smith, Kenneth.  Sawmill:  The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies.  Fayetteville, AR:  The University of Arkansas Press, 1986.

Tucker, Olin.  Conversation with the author.  8 August 2007.

West, Elliott.  The WPA Guide to 1930s Arkansas.  Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas, 1987 reprint of 1941 publication.