Maxwell highlights area history

By Tom Kelly
Editor and Publisher

They say that in the newspaper business you meet interesting people. Not every day, of course, but often enough to make the work a pleasure, mostly.

One of the "Good Guys" who stands out among those who have populated my career list of Interesting People is Jimmie P. Maxwell, whom I knew while working as reporter and managing editor of the Jennings (LA) Daily News from 1960-62. Jimmie was District Conservationist with the USDA Soil Conservation Service at Jennings, the position from which he retired in 1972. During those years, the economy of Jennings and Jeff Davis Parish, as well as most of Southwest Louisiana, hinged on agriculture, primarily rice and cattle, along with oil production. My news reporting on issues and personalities in the local agricultural community brought me into close and frequent contact with Mr. Maxwell. We "used" each other, he to promote public awareness about conservation issues, I to provide my newspaper readers with interesting and up to date news on locally important issues from an authoritative source.

Jimmie Maxwell was an ardent conservationist before The Environment was cool. Timber management. Clean water. Best Management Practices for farm and ranch. Stewardship of the land. All this as far back as the early Sixties. And for him it was no act; he was for real, for sure.

I also came to know Josie Amy Maxwell, his wife, and himself on a more personal basis through community committees, civic club connections, church, fraternal and other events, and I came to appreciate them both as committed citizens and patriots.

One thing, however, that I don't recall knowing during those years was that we shared a common connection to the Piney Woods of North Louisiana, he having been born at Urania, and grown up on a farm outside of Olla, LaSalle Parish, Louisiana, no more than a good stone's throw from my own birthplace at Old Joyce in neighboring Winn Parish.

The connection came full circle several months ago when I met Finis Prendergast, who teaches vocational forestry subjects at the Louisiana Technical College at Oakdale. We met at the Cenla Forestry Forum down at Woodworth, and again at the Ark-La-Tex Logging Extravaganza at Natchitoches. Finis, it turned out, is married to Amy Maxwell, only daughter of Jimmie and Josie. Further, Finis and Amy are now the custodians of a huge collection of photographs and writings that Jimmie accumulated during his career with USDA-SCS, plus a book of his newspaper columns which he published after his retirement.

Finis recently provided us with a copy of Jimmie's book, "Writings of the Chickasaw Scribe," which we are finally able to feature in "Piney Woods Bookshelf" this month.

The title refers to Jimmie's childhood home on Chickasaw Creek in LaSalle Parish. The book contains almost 250 short essays in its 438 pages, a large number of which were originally published in the Jena (LA) Times and Olla-Tullos Signal. They are absorbing local history about dozens of personalities, and about many of the scenes and customs of the Piney Woods of the early and mid-20th century.

From Maxwell's opening essay, "Early Life in Chickasaw Community Recalled," he writes "This section of the state is a heavily wooded area. The forests were something to behold. The greater part of the parish, probably 85 percent, was in forest. The original growth of short-leaf and long-leaf still covered a considerable portion of the upland. Nearly all of the southern alluvial part of the parish is timbered with various species of oak, pecan, some cypress, ad other trees. In 1914, Louisiana led the nation in the production of softwood lumber; the whistles of several large sawmills could be heard from our place on Chickasaw. The height of the trees making up large areas of this vast woodland was often alluded to by hunters who said that a wild turkey resting on the uppermost branches resembled a much smaller bird."

As a piece of regional history, "Writings of the Chickasaw Scribe" is invaluable. And to fans of local history, the book is difficult to put down. A limited number of copies are still available from Maxwell's daughter, Amy Maxwell Prendergast. (See "Piney Woods Bookshelf," Page 5, for address.

Jimmie Maxwell was born at Urania, when that community was still a part of Catahoula Parish, later LaSalle Parish, October 22, 1908. He was one of seven children of Louise and Charles Clark Maxwell. After attending LSU, he became a teacher in LaSalle Parish from 1932-34. In 1934 he began his career as a Soil Conservationist with U.S. Department of Agriculture, and continued until his retirement in 1972. He graduated from LSU in 1943 with a degree in agriculture. He continued to live in Jennings following his retirement.

Following is one of the essays from the book.

Early Logging Camps

Logging camps were common in Central Louisiana when the virgin timber was being harvested. Sawmills located at Standard, Urania, Trout, Good Pine, Tall Timber, and Rochelle, had logging camps. These outposts extended operations into the hinterlands some distance from the mills.

Simple but sturdy type shotgun houses were constructed for families who lived for varying lengths of time at these logging camps. A typical house is one that is now the home of Mrs. B.C. Culp. This house is one of many that made up the old Tremont Lumber logging camp located east of Winnfield on Hwy. 84.

Mrs. Culp's house contains two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and dining room. The water supply depended on the availability at the location. At the Tremont Camp a shallow well for each house supplied the water. Each house had its own privy.

Mrs. Culp's husband was a logger and she has spent the greater part of her married life where she now lives, having moved to the camp some fifty years ago. Some camps were composed of boxcars converted to living quarters and were on a spur or siding of the tram road. A commissary, post office, drug store and doctor's office were a part of each camp. This kind of arrangement supplied the needs of those living in the camps. Some of the later camps had electric current. Early camps had coal oil lamps.

The folks living in these camps were not given to many social activities. This is not to say there was no social life. Stories told of happenings at the camps are colored by encounters among residents arising from their social activities.

The men in these outposts were burly. Their women, of necessity were hearty and courageous. It can be said that these people had a lingo peculiar to their occupations. The men who cut the trees were called flatheads. The loggers used oxen and mules to haul the logs to the tram. The men driving the oxen were called bull punchers, and those who drove mules were called mule skinners. Saw filers and blacksmiths were also a necessary part of these operations.

Q.T. Hinton who now lives in Lake Charles was born in 1915 at the Curry Camp in Winn Parish, an early outpost of the Urania Lumber Company. Hinton said during a recent interview, "My grandfather, J.T. Hinton, was an early surveyor for the Urania Lumber Company. My father, Grady Hinton, ran the commissary and post office. Dr. O.F. Mathewes was the company doctor. Dr. Mathewes sometime made his calls at the camp by way of the motor car on the tram road. He also went by car when the roads were good."

"Francis Smith was a labor foreman. I helped my father in the store when I was a youngster," Hinton concluded.

Curtis Hatten, an early resident of the camp said, "Francis Smith was a labor foreman who rode a big white horse when he visited the crews. He would ride up and eyeball the workmen and those not performing as he thought they should would get a notice that they were no longer needed. This notice would follow his visit by a day or two."

Mrs. Culp, mentioned earlier, during an interview said, "I like my little house and it is not for sale. I like living out here in the woods. It's quiet, cool, and no one bothers me." Mrs. Culp lives alone some distance from her son, who is an employee of the plywood mill in Winnfield.

It is felt that Mrs. Culp is typical of the women who braved the wilds while their men logged the mills.

The romanticism connected with the early timber industry of Central Louisiana would be incomplete if it failed to include the happenings associated with the logging camps.