can find a model of sorts for today’s Wal-Mart superstores by looking back to
the 1880s and early 1900s in East Texas.|
In those days, successful lumbermen decided that if their employees were to live
and work in sawmill towns like Diboll,
Keltys, Camden, Wiergate
and Groveton, they needed a
place to purchase life’s necessities.
So they came up with the forerunners
of today’s Wal-Mart: commissary stores. Under one roof the early lumber companies
like Southern Pine Lumber Company and Wier Long Leaf Lumber Company provided everything
from cornmeal to coffins.
With a single visit, a sawmill worker and his
family could cash a paycheck, buy the family’s groceries, pick up feed for their
cows and pigs, purchase clothing or sewing goods, pick out furniture, and visit
The commissary also became the center of the community. The prices
were usually reasonable and in some sawmill towns employees paid for goods with
tokens issued on wages earned. At first the tokens were metal and later became
wax-coated coins of various denominations and colors.
During the Great
Depression in the1930s, T.L.L. Temple kept many of his employees at Diboll
on the payroll, even though they earned only a few dollars a day. They spent most
of their wages on food at the commissary, buying dried beans, cornmeal and flour--ten
cents for two pounds.
The availability of cheaply priced food was one of
the reasons Temple kept his hands while other sawmills were losing men.
the demolition of the Diboll
commissary (the only one with a Texas Historical Marker), East
Texas has lost most of its old commissaries. One of the last I am aware of
was the is the old Trinity County Lumber Company store at Groveton,
which was built in the late l800s.
Standing in the downtown area, the
commissary was fondly remembered as having the atmosphere of a big happy family.
A long front porch across the front of the two-story building was often used as
a stage for local entertainment and traveling performers.
Some other commissary
stores which have disappeared include:
Angelina County Lumber Company commissary at Keltys, near Lufkin.
Built in the l880s, the store was demolished in the 1960s when the lumber company
was sold. During its heyday it served as a supermarket, post office, and drug
Long Leaf Lumber Company built its commissary in 1917 when the Wier family started
harvesting timber in Newton County. The sawmill ceased production in 1942 and
the commissary was torn down two years later. However, a good collection of old
photos from Wiergate’s boom
years, including some of the commissary, is on display in the town’s post office.W.T.
Carter and Brother Lumber Company built a commissary when the lumber company was
founded in 1898. The store operated a unique system of pulleys and canisters for
carrying sawmill tokens and cash from the first floor to a cashier’s cage on the
second story. The store was razed by Champion International when it purchased
the lumber company in the 1960s.
Even though most of the old commissaries
are gone, they will remain an entrenched part of the memories of anyone who has
ever lived in a sawmill town.
29, 2005 Column | Modified 9-23-12
Bob Bowman's East Texas
column syndicated in 109 East Texas newspapers
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