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 Texas : Features : Columns : Bob Bowman's East Texas

Living in sawmill towns

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman

While some sentimentalists may disagree, living in East Texas’ early sawmill towns was no bed of roses.

My parents lived in four such towns in East Texas and western Louisiana, and I still remember those days vividly, but not always pleasantly.

We didn’t have refrigerators; our food was kept cool in what we called “the ice box.” Even today, I still find myself calling refrigerators “ice boxes.”

A delivery truck made its way across town each week, delivering ice, but only if a family had hung an “ice card” on the front door. Depending on which side of the card was up, an amount of ice was dropped off.

The kid who failed to put out the ice card was certain to receive a lecture from his father, especially if the father had to drive to the local ice house and pick up a block of ice.

Most sawmill houses didn’t have bathrooms in the early years. Baths were taken in the same tubs used to wash the family clothes. And outhouses, were usually located far from our house because of the odor.

When Southern Pine Lumber Company installed bathrooms in its employee housing at Diboll in the 1940s, the four kids in our family were elated over having a real bathtub.

But my father commandeered the tub for the first week or so to mix up a batch of home-made beer. We considered pouring out his beer, and taking real baths, but couldn’t work up the courage.

Air conditioning was another rarity and nights were miserable, even with fans.

My dad, a creative genius who invented one of the first power lawn-mowers in Diboll, found a way to install a box containing a block of ice so a large window fan would blow across it. But the cool air vanished as soon as the ice melted.

My mother once saw in Lufkin a pond where goldfish were swimming among water lilies, and persuaded dad to build one for her in our front yard, using large stones he picked up on our vacation trips and goldfish bought at a Perry’s store in Lufkin.

It was the only pond of its kind in our neighborhood and any kid caught fishing in the pond faced the wrath of our Mom.

Most sawmill towns had commissary stores owned by the company. There, paychecks were passed out to the sawmill workers and they walked down the store’s porch to cash their checks and buy goods at the company store.

In some mill towns, sawmill tokens--made of wood, cardboard and metal--were used instead of money until they were made illegal by the government.



Bob Bowman's East Texas May 30, 2010 Column
A weekly column syndicated in 70 East Texas newspapers
Copyright Bob Bowman

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of 43 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)
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