Southern Forest Museum rates raves, visit

By HOPE J. NORMAN
Journal Correspondent

Even native New Orleanians will admit that most Crescent City residents have a tendency to be unaware of life in Louisiana above Baton Rouge - if, indeed, the state capital itself is included in their realm of consciousness. Thus it was especially delightful to read in the March issue of Preservation, a publication of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, Donna Fricker's enthusiastic words about the Southern Forest Heritage Museum and Research Center 22 miles south of Alexandria.

Calling it "one of the nation's most important museums", Ms. Fricker, architectural historian with Louisiana's Division of Historic Preservation, described the site's industrial machinery that exists nowhere else in the United States as "mind-boggling... stuff that the Smithsonian drools over"; cited the museums "remarkable progress" since its establishment a decade ago; and concluded, "A national treasure is waiting, right in your own back yard."

The museum was established in 1992 at the site of the Crowell Sawmill in Long Leaf, in southern Rapides parish, a century after the mill's initial construction in 1892. When closed in 1969, the Crowell mill was the last survivor of some 200 large sawmills in the state - 60 in the Alexandria area alone. Rather than being dismantled, the sawmill and its logging equipment were left intact "right where they were when that last whistle blew," Ms. Fricker wrote, describing its discovery as cutting through the forest to find a "time warp".

The museum's subsequent development in its first decade has demonstrated remarkable success in achieving its stated mission of preserving the cultural and natural history of Southern forests, increasing understanding of Southern forestry industry's heritage, promoting awareness and pride in the forestry history and encouraging public involvement in the museum.

The South's great sawmill boom, from 1890 until well into the 20th century, provided Louisiana and other Southern workers with "their first opportunity to participate in the industrial revolution," museum executive director Don Powell said in a recent interview at the old commissary, now the museum's headquarters, gift shop and interpretive center.

If anything, Powell's enthusiasm for the museum even surpasses Ms. Fricker's. "I've never seen anything like it," he said. While working as a forester for International Paper Company, Powell saw many old sawmill sites. "Most were a pile of bricks and concrete, showing where old foundations had been. But this place is unique because of what's here, and that's because the Crowells never threw anything away."

A Mississippian who received his forestry degree in 1950 from the university of Michigan, Powell worked for IP for what he described as "135 years" - give or take a century, that is. Since retirement his activities have included serving as president of the Louisiana Forestry Association, of which he and his wife Marinelle are lifetime members. He became the museum's executive director four years ago.

When first established a decade ago the museum scene was exciting but somewhat daunting. After inventory and assessment of the holdings, workers had the tasks of removing invasive vegetation and habilitating abandoned structures. Two years later the Crowell Lumber Industries donated a 57-acre parcel of surrounding land, further protecting and enlarging the site. By May 1, 1996 the museum was readied for the public.

Many visitors since have viewed such rarities as the 1919 Clyde log skidder, the only one known the exist of 2,000 manufactured; two vintage McGiffert log loaders (very few are anywhere else in the world); three 1913-1923 steam locomotives; and a shop containing numerous early 1900s steam-driven machines. The commissary, built in 1948 to replace the previous one destroyed by fire, had been Long Leaf's shopping center and cafe; it was converted to become a welcoming area and to house forestry related merchandise, educational exhibits and displays of the early 19th century artifacts. The mill manager's 1920 house, one of about 160 of Long Leaf's former residences, was repaired to become the museum office. Other projects both large and small were gradually added; a nature trail, a railroad motorcar tour; an interpretive film.

All the while, new developments were ongoing. Unlike some stuffy institutions, nothing is static about the museum; visitors must return periodically to keep abreast. Among activities so far in 2002, for example:
-On Arbor Day, January 12, 36 volunteers planted over 70 plants representing nearly 50 native species to create a Native Grove Trail, a new walkway between the commissary and the old planer mill. Funded by the Urban and Community Forestry grant from the state's Department of Agriculture and Forestry, the project required local matching donations which were met by the volunteers' hours by planting- cypress, Louisiana iris, pawpaws, spruce pine and the like- donated by area nurseries and individuals.
-On March 16 the museum hosted Machine Shop and Sawmill Day in support of nearby Forest Hill's annual Nursery Festival. Visitors watched demonstrations of logs turned into lumber (with a portable hand-mill), mules at work and the use of cross-cut saws, as well as the reactivation of machinery in the machine shop.
-On April 27 the tiny Long Leaf Post Office across from the commissary was the scene of a celebration of the newly issued Longleaf Pine Forest Postal Stamp, the latest addition to the Nature in America series of U.S. commemorative stamps. Some 157 visitors including postal service dignitaries, area public officials, and members of Congress were present. Although the pine forest stamp had been formally unveiled the day before in Tallahassee, Florida, site of the Tall Timbers Research Center, the Long Leaf Post Office's second day celebration was engineered at the instigation of an alert museum member and stamp buff.

The sheet of stamps, which includes ten 34-cent stamps, beautifully depicts a longleaf pine forest ecosystem. Pictured are birds such as the red-cockaded woodpecker which receives protection in the Southern forests; elusive native plants - the hooded pitcher plant and rosebud orchid, for instance; reptiles, amphibians, grasses and, of course, the longleaf pine. (If unavailable at one's post office, the stamp sheet can be ordered over the internet.)

-That same day, the recently completed panorama of 135 exhibit panels housed in a 1500-square foot hall of the commissary was officially opened. Based on research by the museum staff, and built and installed by Exhibits Etc. of Scott, Louisiana, the panels chronicle both historic and contemporary forestry data ranging from basic information on estimating a tree's age by counting rings to updates on sophisticated new forest technology.

Perhaps the most exciting development going on this year is the major work underway to repair and preserve the 1910 planer mill, the sawmill's last step in lumber production where rough dry wood was dressed to become market-ready lumber. The oldest example known to exist in the South, the planer mill in 2000 had been on the list of Louisiana's Ten Most Endangered Structures. Now it is being rescued thanks to the help of funds from Louisiana philanthropy. Restoration involves basic stabilization, reroofing, replacing broken windows and installing 2-inch tongue-in-groove pine flooring.

Avid volunteers play a major role in all of the progress at the museum, Powell said. Such hobbyists as John Weiss of Houston, a systems analyst of Chevron, and engineer David Hamilton of Elton have devoted hours to numerous repairs and renovations; rebuilding the ancient water cooler, repairing work benches, and even replacing all broken windows in the machine shop (of which there were many). The men are working with museum staff in the planer mill reflooring, expected to be completed this summer.

On the agenda for later this year is the relocation and reconstruction of the former post office building, a diminutive 1910 structure now sitting abandoned across the railroad tracks which served as post office until its replacement by the 1965 building presently in use.

Awaiting the project's completion is the former post office general delivery window and mailboxes which will be installed and put into active service again. An antique dealer bought the unit at a Texas auction and found a scrap of an envelope inside of one of the boxes with the Long Leaf Post Office cancellation dated 1963. Contacting the Long Leaf postmaster, the dealer offered to sell the unit to the museum for his purchase price of $1400.

Although at first not totally convinced of the window's origins, Powell said, the museum administration agreed to buy it. Not long after, two sisters in their 70s, Long Leaf residents of long ago, came to visit the museum. When shown the purchase, they recognized it at once and pointed out their family's box - No.51.

"It had been too high for the little girls to reach, they said, so their box had been moved lower," Powell said. One of the women remembered the combination, which she told to the site manager Henry Taves. Taves looked inside the box where the combinations are revealed. It was the correct combination.

"That removed all traces of doubt from our minds that this indeed had come from Long Leaf Post Office," Powell said.

One of the fun things to do in the commissary area is to look back at the menus served in the cafe's last year of operation. On May 2, 1969, for instance, the midday dinner fare was steak and gravy, mashed potatoes, butter beans, strawberries and D.W. (A.K.A. Dream Whip).

Considering the energy and effectiveness of this museum staff and supporters, it would hardly be surprising if the old cafe might be serving butter beans and strawberries again one of these days. New Orleans, keep your eyes on developments in Long Leaf.

Tax-deductible membership fees, from $20 up, entitle members to free admission to the museum, store discounts, subscription to the quarterly newsletter "Edgings and Trimmings" and notification of special events.

The museum is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thanksgiving and Christmas.

To reach the museum from Interstate 49 South of Alexandria, take exit 66 onto Louisiana Highway 112 and travel west to Forest Hill; turn south at the sign on Louisiana Highway 497 in Forest Hill and drive approximately three miles to the museum entrance. From U.S. Highway 165 in Glenmora, turn east one block and follow Louisiana Highway 497 north less than two miles.

Entrance fee for the basic walking tour is $6 for adults and $3 for children. If the motorcar tour through the woods is included, the price is $8.50 for adults and $4.25 for children. Groups receive a discount; school classes and other group tours are welcome. (Reservations must be made in advance.) Telephone 318-748-8404; write the Southern Forest Heritage Museum, P.O. Box 101, Long Leaf, LA 71448-0101; e-mail the museum at longleaf@centurytel.net, or visit the website at www.forestheritagemuseum.org for further information.

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