Relics of turpentine mill survive at Emden

Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

The first call came from Leo Shelton, who grew up in the Atlanta community and visited as a schoolboy at the former Emden farmstead established by William Edenborn in the late 19th century in southern end of Winn Parish. The Edenborn career, and a particular aged cypress tree located in what was identified as "Edenborn Brake," was featured in a Piney Woods Journal article last month. Leo, who is now 90, was a schoolmate of Willard Tison, one of ten children of the Tison family that farmed the Edenborn place after the death of the founder in 1926. Leo vividly recalls going home with his friend when they were ten or eleven years old, and visiting the large barn to shuck corn to feed the animals.

The conversation first spilled out of the coffee room at the First Baptist Church in Winnfield, where Leo has been a member for more than 60 years. When he attends, he holds court from a chair by the door in his favorite corner of the room, as early arrivers for Sunday School drop by for a sip and a chat. One frequent participant is J.C. Ward, who took some joshing from the coffee crowd after being identified as "one of the longest practicing foresters" in this area, and a source in our search for information about the aged cypress tree in what was identified in a 1920's New York newspaper as one of the oldest living things in America, if not the world. (The word "old" never appeared in that story in connection with forester Ward.)

In researching the story which appeared last month, the only immediately tangible evidence of Emden turned out to be the Phillips School house, on the site of New Bethlehem Baptist Church, relocated to that site in 1918 from its original location as part of the Emden compound where it served as a school for the African-American farm workers. The school continued to serve the New Bethlehem community, and was marked in the National Register of Historic Places in 2000. I expected that to be as close as I would get to actual physical contact with Emden and the storied history of its founder, William Edenborn.

However, history being what it is, always waiting to be discovered, one of the next calls resulting from the Emden story came from Tommy Harrison, 83, the retired former principal of Verda High School, near the Winn-Grant Parish border. Both Mr. Harrison and Sonny Lashley, 78, of the Verda community, had personal knowledge of the area post-Edenborn, and offered to show me surviving artifacts of the former plantation and its manufacturing facilities. So it was that I drove on the morning of August 18 to the spot where Elmer Jones road and Buford Lashley road intersect Louisiana Highway 471, south of Atlanta, not far from Verda, Louisiana. There I met Mr. Harrison and Mr. Lashley, dressed in bush clothes and strong shoes, and followed them eastward on Elmer Jones road a short distance to a site they identified as the former homestead of the late Leroy Willis, the father of Leroy Willis, Jr., from whom I had gotten directions last month to the Phillips school when inquiring about the location of Emden. From there the three of us drove in our separate vehicles another mile or so on the narrow, winding, barely graveled Elmer Jones road, where we stopped and dismounted. The scenery on both sides of the road was unremarkable, consisting of 12 or 15-year old plantation or second-growth pines with an understory of brush, brambles, and briars. Mr. Harrison and Mr. Lashley each crossed the shallow road ditch into the tangle of stickery vegetation, whacking with a brush hook, looking at the ground. Mr. Lashley made first contact. "Here it is," he said, and I pushed my way through the wall of brush, where he pointed to three or four huge concrete pillars, probably three feet square at the base, tapering slightly toward the top, standing several inches taller than our heads, with rusted threaded bolts probably one inch in diameter, anchored in the concrete.

"This is the turpentine mill," one of them said. And from the site of the pillars, a small v-shaped ditch lined with concrete slabs led away to a concrete pit in the brush where other parts of the process were carried out. Mr. Lashley said he recalls seeing the tall pine trees on this site with the v-shaped slashes in their trunks, channeling the rosin into containers to be processed into turpentine.

At about this time, another pickup truck pulled up and stopped. Not to be left out, another Mr. Lashley, James, 73, a brother, joined the expedition, and the three of them pointed out spots they remembered, way back when.

One artifact, invisible from view unless you knew it was there, is the railroad tram, the road bed for a rail line built by Edenborn that ran from Aloha, near the Red River between Colfax and Montgomery in Grant Parish, to Winnfield, by way of Emden. Mr. Harrison remembers once long ago shooting a deer which he spotted walking down the then clear tram road bed, which is now overrun with young saplings and a variety of brush and vines, invisible from the roadway. In pre-automobile days, the train was the mode of travel and for hauling goods.

Like a scavenger hunt, the story now begins to branch out, some threads leading to blind alleys, others to the recollections of 70, 80, and 90-somethings from years past, which don't always quite connect.

From contact with the concrete--literally--remains of the Emden enterprise, to standing in the tram road bed where the trains ran, to touching and photographing the Phillips school building which once stood as a part of the operations at Emden, the search for the Edenborn cypress tree, or trees, touted as being three times older than the apocryphal Methuselah, becomes a Captain Ahab adventure, searching for a Great White Whale. At this point, details of the Edenborn Cypress could be of Biblical character, an Epic of Gilgamesh legend trying to be Noah's Flood.

First, there obviously was a gigantic cypress tree. It and its mates stood in what was virtually certain to have been today's Coochie Brake--called by an earlier writer Edenborn Brake, since Edenborn did in fact own at least a major portion of the Brake--a swampy forested area southwest of Atlanta community in Winn Parish. The Brake is known first-hand to some duck hunters and a few others, and to most of the rest of us by reference only, having never been to the fairly isolated environs which lie not all that far from the Emden colony.

Was the Big Cypress tree really diagnosed by scientists as being 2,500 years old? A detail not proven. The New York Herald article from 1923, reproduced in the 1985 Winn Parish Historical Society's Winn Parish Louisiana History, has the sound of a "good story" dug up by a writer with a vivid imagination and a world history encyclopedia, who may or may not have ever met the legendary William Edenborn.

As reported in the original Piney Woods Journal article last month, local historian Greg Davies said unequivocally that "Edenborn Brake" was, of course, today's Coochie Brake. He also said that the tree--of whatever age it may have been--was killed by a lightning strike, and was subsequently felled by his uncle, whose name I did not catch, and Greg is difficult to find when you want a quick fact.

Back to Leo Shelton: he pointed me to Orville Spikes as a source for information on the tree. Spikes directed me to Lon Poole, 70, whom Spikes said had a picture of the tree after it was felled and loaded onto a railroad flat car.

Well, not quite. Poole said his brother, the late Eulas Poole, told him that he had seen the tree loaded onto the flat car. Or was it the picture he saw? And as the story went, when the flat car came into the sawmill, the log was too big to go under the mill chute, so it was unloaded and cut up into sections which people got and made into shingles for roofing.

Another thread to the story had the tree being hauled by train to the World's Fair in Chicago, which was in 1933-34. Again, not quite. According to the Poole version, one vertical slice cut from the 11-foot diameter log was sent "somewhere up around Chicago," and it may have made it to the World's Fair. A fact not proved, or disproved.

A call came early in the recent hunt for new facts from Charles Tannehill of Ruston, a former professional associate of mine and a long-time friend. Charles, a son of the late Murphy Tannehill, grew up in Urania, where his father operated the Urania Lumber Company store and post office. (Murphy was one of 18 children of the late Richard Lafayette Tannehill, an early Sheriff of Winn Parish from 1874 to 1884, and a candidate for Governor on the Populist party ticket in 1892.)

Charles, who is also a past president of the Louisiana Forestry Association, tells the story that Henry Hardtner, generally credited as being the founder of Urania Lumber Company, and an early promoter of reforestation in the South, met up with William Edenborn on a train bound for New Orleans. Hardtner was going to New Orleans to raise money to acquire the sawmill which became Urania Lumber Company, and spawned the town of the same name. Edenborn, being obviously a man with an eye for business, offered to advance the money--which came to $5,000, and for which Edenborn became a five percent partner in the venture.

If you are into your Greek mythology, you would know that Urania, the name chosen for the sawmill company and town, was--and still is if she ever was--the Muse of Astronomy, one of the daughters of the great god Zeus, and Mnemosyne. Their other Muse children were/are Calliope, for epic poetry; Clio, history; Erato, love poetry; Euterpe, song; Melpomene, tragedy; Polymnia, hymns; Terpsichore, dance; Thalia, comedy; and finally, Urania. And if you were wandering the area of old New Orleans along the river, here the Garden District meets the edge of downtown above Lee Circle, you'd find the nine Muses honored with their names on the street signs.

I've got to wind this thing up somewhere, and this seems a good spot. I'll get to Charles Tannehill's other tree story next month, along with Alexandria Consulting Forester Donald Baker's efforts to find a long term home for the Urania "Set Aside."

I'll be surprised if I don't meet someone before long who knew a man who met a fellow who shook hands with Julius Caesar 50 generations ago.