Arkansas Historic Preservation Program
Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company Manager's House
Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company Manager's House

POINSETT LUMBER AND MANUFACTURING COMPANY MANAGER'S HOUSE, TRUMANN, POINSETT COUNTY

SUMMARY

The Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company established a manufacturing plant and veneer mill in Trumann in 1911.  The company quickly established itself at the center of daily life in Trumann.  Over half of the population of Trumann worked for the company at the mill and in the woods.  The company whistle ordered daily activities and the company provided the town’s electricity, water, school, and fire service.  Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company (PL&M) employees sat on the city government.  PL&M was Trumann and the people of Trumann often referred to the company as “Ma Singer.”

When constructed in 1935, the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company manager’s house was the finest home in the city of Trumann.  Built as both the home of the plant manager, in this instance akin to a company president, and a public relations tool, it was designed in one of the most popular styles of the time.  The interior featured elaborate finishes common to the finest homes.  The expansive grounds, the sculptural concrete work, the garage, and care taker’s quarters, reflected the home of a person of wealth and importance within the community.  The location of the home and its orientation reflected a home that was subservient to the needs of the company and a home that was closely tied to the manufacturing operations of the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.

As one of the few houses in Trumann with a known connection to PL&M, the home is a good example of the company’s role in dictating the layout and organization of the town of Trumann.  Though it has lost, through the addition of vinyl siding, important architectural detail, it is still the only known form of Tudor architecture in Trumann.  Constructed during the depths of the Great Depression, the home reflects the company’s wealth and the company’s efforts to survive the Depression as well as revealing architectural modifications made in the name of economy.  The Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company Manager’s House in Trumann, Arkansas, is being submitted for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A with local significance. 

ELABORATION

Prior to the arrival of the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company, the small, unnamed spot hidden in the deep woods of Arkansas’s Mississippi River Delta was the home of the sawmill of G. R. Minnick and Company.  The mill and village came into existence as the location of a spur on the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Memphis Railroad in 1883.  Interestingly, what we now see as thousands of acres of cultivated, treeless land was heavily forested.  By the early 1890s, these swampy woods of East Arkansas became attractive to northern and mid-western lumbermen looking to replace cut-over lands in other parts of the country.  In 1889, a writer for Goodspeed Publishing Company wrote, “the lumbering industry of Poinsett County is and will be a great source of income.”[1]

As early as 1894, there was a lumber mill in the vicinity of what would become Trumann.  The Springfield Cooperage Company bought up timberlands and used a tram railroad to bring lumber to its barrel manufacturing operation.  At that time the place was colloquially known as Mosher; named after one of the company’s managers.  Two years later the town applied for and received a Post Office in the name of Mosher.

In 1902, Mosher sold his interest in the company and left town.  The local population lost interest in celebrating Mosher and changed the name of the town to Weona—a lumber company in the area.  The post office took the new name but the railroad did not and the town was known by two names.  Not surprisingly, there was a good bit of confusion.  It took two years but in 1904, the Postmaster and the railroad compromised and the name was changed to Trumann.[2]

In 1903, the Singer Manufacturing Company acquired the mill and timber holdings of the Minnick Company.  It continued to acquire timberlands in Poinsett, Cross, and Lee counties in Arkansas as well as some timberlands in Louisiana.  By 1911, the Singer Manufacturing Company held over 150,000 acres of land.  Singer Manufacturing Company formed a wholly owned subsidiary, the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company, in 1911 to begin harvesting these timberlands.  Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing was, like its parent company, chartered in the state of New Jersey.  Operations began in 1912 and were primarily concerned with the initial stages of raw material preparation.  Logs and unfinished lumber were brought to the mill at Trumann by the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad or by the company’s own Arkansas Short Line Railroad.[3]

Certainly, there was a lively town prior to the establishment of the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.  With the cooperage mill there was sufficient local income to support the Dry Goods stores of the Mitchell Brothers and Wood and Warren.  At the beginning of the twentieth century the town saw a number of business additions including the general store of Robert S. Lady and the Trumann Ice and Coal Company.  While this early business development grew in association with the success of the cooperage mill, it was not directly connected.  However the first doctors in town were company physicians for the Springfield Cooperage Company.  Dr. George O. Campbell arrived in Trumann in 1902 and served as the doctor for both the sawmill and the town.[4]

Trumann grew into a company town.  After PL&M began operations they gradually made additions to their operations and to the city of Trumann.  Throughout these early years of operation the plant and its associated buildings grew rapidly.  The Singer sewing machines were immensely popular not only in the United States but around the world.  Production at plants in South Bend, Indiana; Cairo, Illinois; Elizabeth, New Jersey, and others, numbered in the thousands of units per week.  Like all traditional company towns, Trumann became Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company’s.

Poinsett Lumber constructed a number of four room houses for its employees with families.  These four-room houses were once so ubiquitous that the road now known as Speedway was once called 4-Room Row.  In addition to the single family homes or duplexes, PL&M built two boarding houses for unmarried employees and visiting managers.  An employee who began work at the company in 1947, remembers that there was one boarding house for female employees and one for males; each of these were furnished with “Western Stickley Furniture.”[5]  They were nicknamed the Boy’s Clubhouse and the Girl’s Clubhouse.  The Girl’s Club was on South Main at the end of the extension of Gum Street.  The Boy’s Club was in the middle of the block on Elm between Harrison Avenue and South Main Streets.  Each were adjacent to the mill on its southwest corner.[6]

These four-room houses were in three additions to the city of Trumann platted by the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.  Each of the three additions were adjacent to the mill and included much of the company housing and company buildings.  Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company’s 1st Addition to the city was bounded by Front Street on the east, South Main on the north, Poinsett Avenue on the west, and Harrison Avenue on the south.  The 2nd Addition was larger than the first and triangular in shape.  It was bounded by Poinsett Avenue and the mill on the east, Harrison Avenue on the south, and the city limits at Pine Street (originally West Avenue) on the west.  The 3rd Addition is located on the northwest side of the mill and is only four blocks, bound on the east by Parkway Avenue, on the north by Speedway, and on the west by Pine Street (originally West Avenue).  Each of these additions to the city of Trumann had been plated by 1926.[7]

Poinsett Lumber company’s first addition was directly across from the railroad freight house on Front Street.  It included much of the non-company related growth in the city, including several commercial buildings.  It was here that the drug store, auto mechanics, movie theatre, and grocery stores were located.  This addition also included the Methodist Episcopal Church.Each of the additions are similar in housing stock; small four-room houses with porches front and back interspersed with long shotgun houses.  Lots in the first and second addition are larger than those in the third; the third being the most densely populated addition and the most industrial addition.  The third addition was the only Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing addition with integral, company-maintained fire hose stations. In 1926, PL&M’s second addition was largely empty with company houses along Poinsett Avenue and along West Avenue.  The north portion of the addition where the Manager’s House would later be located is empty. [8]

Aside from designing and platting several large portions of the town of Trumann the lumber company provided a number of community services.  From the start of operations in 1912 to the installation of a municipally owned water system in 1951, Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company provided water for the town of Trumann.  It was not cheap, the company charged $2.00 a month regardless of how much water was used.  PL&M also provided electricity to the city, prior to the arrival of Arkansas Power & Light.  In 1912, the company provided the funding for the construction of a new brick school building.  In 1925, the company built the Poinsett Community Club which was open to all the citizens of Trumann with an annual membership of fifty cents per year.  In a town where approximately half of the people worked for one company it is not surprising that many of the city’s officials also worked for Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.  One man strongly encouraged his employees to take active roles in city government and making the town of Trumann a great place to live.  In fact, this man, as superintendent of the mill, was largely responsible for many of the decisions that defined Trumann.That man was Alfred Carlson.[9]

Alfred Carlson was called by many the Count because of the control he had over the town.  Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company was referred to by most people in Trumann as, and remains to this day nicknamed, Ma Singer.  Carlson came to the plant about 1922 as an engineer hired to supervise the installation of new veneer finishing equipment.  He was born in Bear Lake, Michigan, in 1885, and received his degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Michigan in 1912.  After joining the Singer Manufacturing Company in 1919, at South Bend, Indiana, he was quickly promoted.

In 1925, Carlson was promoted to General Superintendent of the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company and in 1935 was promoted to Works Superintendent.  Both of these promotions put Carlson at the head of the company.  The later placed him in charge of all the company’s operations in Arkansas and Louisiana.[10]

Carlson was an active man who apparently took genuine interest in the quality of life in the town of Trumann and his employees.  He actively fought corruption within the company and within both city and county government and urged his employees to take an active role in local government.  Yet, he was a company man and was anti-union.  When the union went on strike at the plant in South Bend, he began manufacturing cabinets in the plant at Trumann to show the union that the company could continue operations without their plant.  His work was once rewarded with an assassination attempt that left a bullet wound in his chest.  It is unknown if it was his anti-union stance or his fight against local corruption and lawlessness that won him this unwanted award.[11]

Long term operation of the plant in Trumann was one of Carlson’s key objectives.  At its peak the company employed 2,500 people in Trumann.  Indeed, this was fewer than the 3,000 people employed at Singer’s South Bend Plant and not even half of the 7,000 at the Elizabeth, New Jersey, plant but these positions were immensely important locally.  During slow periods in production Carlson would begin updating the mill facilities to keep employees at work.  He was known to receive permission to repair a building and in the process would completely rebuild the structure.  In the 1940s and 1950s when sales slowed Singer called for company wide layoffs including at Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.  Company managers were called to New York to present their lay-off plans and cost saving plans.  Carlson went with a plan to update facilities, reduce labor costs, and maintain employees.  A new assembly plant, veneer drying building, and shipping plant followed.[12]

It was under Carlson’s direction and with his modernization efforts that in 1930 the work of the Cairo, Illinois, Singer veneer mill was moved to Trumann.  Manufacturing of finished cabinets began in 1937.  A second modernization program began in 1949 that culminated in winning the production of cabinets from the South Bend plant in 1954 (the South Bend plant was subsequently closed).  In 1959, the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing plant at Trumann became the only Singer woodworking operation in the United States.

PL&M never reached the capacity of the South Bend plant, which at one point had a capacity of 10,000 cabinets per day, but it did produce a respectable 750 cabinets of the 40 and 56 models per week in the late 1940s.[13]

Though it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Singer Manufacturing Company, the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company operated as its own company.  With manufacturing plants in Trumann and Helena, Arkansas, and timberlands in Arkansas and Louisiana it was a sizable operation.  Carlson was in many ways equal to a company president and the home the company built for him in 1935 reflected that position.  A portion of PL&M’s second addition was re-platted as Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company’s 4th Addition.  Third Street was removed and a number of lots in blocks 12 and 13 were consolidated to give the home a large lot.

The lot on which the house sits is a three acre parcel to the east of the former Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company plant.  Indicative of the importance of the manager’s position within the company and in an attempt to convey that to all who saw the home, it is set like a large English cottage well away from the road.  This setting, back on a wooded lot, gives a sense of privacy and seclusion, it exaggerates the size of the lot, and imparts a slightly imposing mystery.  The expansive grounds, the sculptural concrete work, the garage, and care taker’s quarters, reflected the home of a person of wealth and importance within the community.  Employee housing, frame houses on small crowded lots, provided by the company would not have this same feel or setting.  However, the location of the home and its orientation toward the plant reflect a home that was subservient to the needs of the company and a home that was closely tied to the manufacturing operations of the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.

It is no surprise that architect Edwin B. Phillips chose this style to construct a modern, high-style home.  Edwin Brewster Phillips received a B. S. in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 1913.  He worked in Pennsylvania and North Carolina before moving to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1919.  Much of his work in this period was commercial and he was a partner in the firm of Allsup and Phillips from 1919-1921.  That partnership dissolved and Phillips joined the firm of Spence and Williams from 1925-1927.  In 1937, Phillips assisted in the design of the Lauderdale Courts and the Dixie Homes housing projects in Memphis.  This six million dollar project is considered as one of the first Modern style projects in Memphis.[14]

The Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company Manager’s House was apparently one of many projects completed in Arkansas by Phillips.  Though only this home and the First Presbyterian Church in Helena are known by the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

Built at a cost of $16,000, the home was of a thoroughly modern Tudor, or Tudor Revival, style.[15]  As is typical of Tudor Revival style houses it has varied eave-height lines, overlapping gables, the use of multiple materials in exterior cladding, arched entryways, and patterned brickwork chimney.  When constructed, the home had false, half-timbered gables.  The original home is clad primarily in brick, set in both common and English row-lock bonds.  Ashlar, square-cut stone with natural face and set in irregular courses dominates the main form of the home.

Multiple overlapping gables exaggerate the height of the home with their steeply pitched rooflines.  The roof is covered in asphalt, architectural shingles.  Windows in the home appear to be a concession to economics and highlight the realities of construction during the Great Depression.  Though in ribbons, the width and mullion material is incongruous with more correct Tudor window forms.  However, this highlights the eclectic and sometime vernacular nature of this popular architectural style.  Phillip’s choice of casement windows was both a concession to climate and economics while at the same time attempting to maintain the style.

As a home constructed by a manufacturing and veneer company the interior is well appointed.  The home was designed to be a show place, and as much a public relations tool as the home the plant manager.  Therefore the interior finishes are all elegant and in keeping with the English manor house theme.  The breakfast room is finished in Maple and the dining room in Oak.  The living room walls are full-height Cherry panels with exposed beams on the ceiling.  The library is finished in an elegant, dark Walnut paneling.

The grounds of the home were as much an investment as the home itself.  A unique, and still operating, irrigation system was installed to water the grounds.  However, the most unique of the objects placed on the grounds are a set of concrete sculptures and one fountain and grill.

Two cast concrete objects can be found on the property.  The first is a picnic bench with two chairs and two benches.  The second work is a bar for serving drinks complete with foot-rail.  Designed to look as if they were made of trees, both are proportionally correct to be constructed of logs and both have extensive bark relief to accentuate their rustic form.  This natural style has examples that date to 1780 in France and is most commonly referred to as rustic, trabajo rustico (rustic work), or faux bois (imitation wood).  In the United States, it was popularized by A. J. Downing as early as 1840 with published examples by George Woodward in 1869.  Landscape architect Calvert Vaux had designed shelters and bridges in the rustic style for New York City’s Central Park in 1854.[16]

The concrete works designed to look like wood are highly detailed.  The wood grain, bark, and structural forms are often quite lifelike.  Though made of concrete the sculptures often have the appearance of being very delicate.  Rustic work became very popular in Arkansas and the Memphis, Tennessee, area in the 1930s.  It was during this time that a highly skilled Mexican artisan by the name of Dionicio Rodriguez was constructing sculptures in North Little Rock, Arkansas, Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.  It is unknown if Rodriguez or one of his assistants completed these sculptures and barring further examination by experts in Rodriguez’s work we will not know.  However, these works are very good examples of what in Arkansas is a rare art form.

The picnic table set includes a bench anchored on each end by a large stump.  Two chairs designed to look as if carved from a single log are at each end of the table.  The table itself has bark edging and is supported on two log supports.  The bar is slightly U-shaped and has the appearance of being made from a series of vertically placed logs.  The top of the bar has the appearance of being made of two hand-planed boards.

The water fountain and grill are of substantial size and scale.  Both are made of rough-cut stone set in irregular pattern.  The grill is on the east end of the structure and the fountain is in the middle.  The fountain is approximately six feet tall and features three pools through which the water cascades, the last emptying into a kidney shaped pool that covers almost 40 square feet.  The fountain and grill structure is slightly L-shaped and is approximately thirty-five feet long.  These outdoor gardens served well for the company picnics and company gatherings held on the grounds by Carlson and his family.

In the late 1930s Arkansas Power and Light brought commercial electricity to Trumann.  In 1948, the four-room and shotgun company houses were sold to the employees.  In 1951, the city of Trumann began operating its own water and sewer system.  For the next few decades the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company gradually became just a manufacturing plant in the town of Trumann.  In 1963, the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company was formally merged with the Singer Company, becoming The Singer Company—Wood Products Division.[17]

Certainly, the plant continued a very successful and important operation employing 1,700 and making approximately 23,207,550 square feet of veneer in 1968 alone.[18]  By the early 1980s the Singer Company was more focused on diversification and the electronics field.  No longer convinced of the necessity of the Wood Products Division, the Singer Corporation closed the plant at Trumann in 1982.



[1] Goodspeed Publishing Company, The Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas (Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1889; reprint, Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1978); 575.

[2] Poinsett County Historical Society, Poinsett County History and Families (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Co., 1998); 143.  Hereafter referred to as PCHS.  See also,Russell Pierce Baker, From Memdag to Norsk: A Historical Directory of Arkansas Post Offices, 1832-1971 (Hot Springs: Arkansas Genealogical Society, 1988); 153, 221, 233.

[3] Ray Knight, Edward Mitchell, and John Sadler, “Poinsett Community Club,” 8 September 1986, TD, National Register of Historic Places nomination on file at the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.  Also, Bettye Sue Boyd, “The Singer Company – Wood Products Division, How it Began – How it Grew,” Craighead County Historical Quarterly Volume VI, No. 4 (Autumn 1968); 12; and PCHS, 143.

[4] PCHS, 143.

[5] Ibid., 144.

[6] Sanborn Map Company, Truman June 1926, Sheet 2 [map]. 1 inch=50 feet. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1926.

[7] Sanborn Map Company, Truman, June 1926 Sheet 1 [map], 1 inch=600 feet. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1926.

[8] Sanborn Map Company, Truman, June 1926 [map], 1 inch=50 feet. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1926.

[9] PCHS, 144.

[10] Dallas T. Herndon, Ed., Annals of Arkansas, 1947 (Little Rock, AR: The Historical Record Association, 1947), 1333.Also, PCHS, 144.

[11] Herndon, 1333; PCHS, 144.

[12] PCHS, 144.

[13] Ibid.; Boyd, 12, 13.

[14] Judith Johnson, “The Art of Architecture: Modernism in Memphis, 1890-1980,”Memphis Heritage, Memphis Heritage, Inc. Available on the internet at http://www.memphisheritage.org/MHIHost/Read-ModernismInMemphis.html.  Accessed 23 October 2009.

[15] National Council of Architectural Registration Boards Application for Certificate of Registration, Edwin B. Phillips, DS [photocopy].  Architects Files, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.

[16] Patsy Pittman Light, Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2008), 3-5.

[17] Boyd, 13.

[18] Ibid., 14.

SIGNIFICANCE

Plant manager Leon Massey purchased the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company Manager’s House in 1968.  From that point it has been a private residence and the Massey family owned the home into the early twenty-first century.  Though it lost its connection to the mill in 1968 many people in the community continued to call it the Singer House.  To this day the home is referred to locally as the Singer House or Singer Manor and many still associate this home with the prosperity felt during the height of company operations. 

A manufacturing operation still exists on the site of the old Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.  The success of PL&M and the Singer Company in keeping the mill at Trumann operating for almost a century meant a continuous process of modernization.  There are no known structures associated with this current site that date to the historic period of the PL&M operations in Trumann. 

In 1986, the Poinsett Community Club was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NR listed 10/09/1986, NRIS 86002847).  This Craftsman influenced building was purchased by Arbor Incorporated in 1983 as part of their acquisition of the plant.  Listed for its significance in community recreation and entertainment it helps to complete the story of the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing in Trumann.

There has been no comprehensive survey of houses in Trumann.  It is unknown how many four-room and shotgun houses built by PL&M still exist and retain integrity.  This manager’s home though is still associated by the community with the company.  Its location in PL&M’s 4th Addition and its orientation toward the factory (a factory remains in that location) reveal a history intimately connected to, and subservient to the needs of industry in Trumann.  Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Additions all remain intact.  Though housing patterns and commercial patterns have changed slightly, the historic pattern set in place by the company almost a century ago continues to define land use patterns in the city.  Indeed the operations of the company continue to define land use patterns well outside of Trumann as well.  Land use patterns defined by the company’s Arkansas Short Line Railroad can be seen as far south as McDonald in Cross County.  Here the wye and connection tracks with the Missouri Pacific Railroad created a curved land use pattern evident today.      

This home is only known home in Trumann of the Tudor style.  Additionally, it is the only known home to have a connection with the Poinsett Lumber and Manufacturing Company.  The home retains its original setting and ancillary structures in good condition and therefore it can not be as easily dismissed as a significant property in Trumann’s history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Architects Files, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Baker, Russell Pierce. From Memdag to Norsk: A Historical Directory of Arkansas Post Offices, 1832-1971. Hot Springs: Arkansas Genealogical Society, 1988.

Boyd, Bettye Sue. “The Singer Company – Wood Products Division, How it Began – How it Grew.” Craighead County Historical Quarterly Volume VI, No. 4 (Autumn 1968): 12-14.

Goodspeed Publishing Company. The Goodspeed Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Northeast Arkansas. Chicago: Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1889. Reprint, Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, 1978.

Herndon, Dallas T. Ed. Annals of Arkansas, 1947. Little Rock, AR: The Historical Record Association, 1947.

Johnson, Judith. “The Art of Architecture: Modernism in Memphis, 1890-1980.”  Memphis Heritage, Memphis Heritage, Inc. Available on the internet at http://www.memphisheritage.org/MHIHost/Read-ModernismInMemphis.html.  Accessed 23 October 2009.

Knight, Ray, Edward Mitchell, and John Sadler. “Poinsett Community Club.” 8 September 1986, TD, National Register of Historic Places nomination on file at the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program.

Light, Patsy Pittman. Capturing Nature: The Cement Sculpture of Dionicio Rodriguez.  College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2008.

Poinsett County Historical Society. Poinsett County History and Families. Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Co., 1998.

Sanborn Map Company. Truman, June 1926 [map]. 1 inch=50 feet. New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1926.