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Hardin County TX
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Texas | Columns | "Cannonball's Tales"

Hardin County

An Extinct Sawmill Town
the Olive-Sternenberg Partnership
That Built It

By W. T. Block

Three miles north of Kountze, in Hardin County, Texas, where once the burly and towering pine trees shaded the forest floors beneath them, the town of Olive thrived between 1881 and 1912. It took its name from Sidney C. Olive of Waco, who was one-half of the partnership of Olive, Sternenberg and Company, the owners of the large Sunset Sawmill, which spawned the community. And everywhere in town could be heard the shrill blasts of the steam whistles, the whir and shotgun exhaust of the steam-driven log carriage, the whine of the circular and gang saws, and the screech of the big band saw, sure indications that mechanization and industry had finally reached "the land of the pineys."

In 1876, while Beaumont was celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the United States, the same owners built the Centennial Sawmill on Brake's Bayou, Beaumont's first large lumber mill, and operated it until 1883.

By 1915, the town of Olive, where once some 1,200 people lived and prospered, had disappeared, having shared the same fate as a hundred other early East Texas sawmill towns, all of which died when the timber was cut out and the mill and housing were moved away. Soon, only "cutover" stump lands scarred the areas surrounding it, and today, its site having returned to forest, only the abandoned and thicket-covered Olive Cemetery remains to bear mute testimony to the town's erstwhile existence. Likewise, all knowledge of the town of Olive has disappeared, except among a few people of very advanced years who may have been born there.

 Hardin County TX 1907 Postal Map
Hardin County 1907 postal map showing Olive
between Kountze and Village Mills
From Texas state map #2090
Courtesy Texas General Land Office

In 1875, John A. Sternenberg of Houston teamed up with Sid Olive of Waco to found the lumber firm, which was capitalized at $56,000. And although both men would maintain at various times residences at either Beaumont or Olive, they continued to own their permanent abodes elsewhere, Olive at Waco, where his retail lumber business was concentrated, and Sternenberg at Houston, where his other business interests were located.

In 1876, Olive, who was born in Tennessee in 1833, moved his wife Amerika and two children to Beaumont. Sternenberg, however, boarded at Beaumont's old Telegraph Hotel, but visited his wife and four children in Houston whenever possible. J. A. Sternenberg, who was born in the German principality of Westphalia in 1837, immigrated to Texas in 1849, where he settled with his parents at New Ulm, Austin County, Texas.

Following his and his six brothers' service in the Confederate Army, Sternenberg moved to Harris County, where he built a steam sawmill on Green's Bayou in 1868. In 1882, after their Centennial Sawmill in Beaumont had been dismantled, Olive moved back to Waco permanently and expanded the Central Texas retail lumber outlets of the Waco Lumber Company, owned jointly by himself and A. J. Caruthers, to about thirty-five. Thereafter, operation of the sawmill at Olive, including all machinery and logging operations, became entirely the domain of J. A. Sternenberg, as outlined in the partnership indenture recorded in 1885.

Van A. Petty, who began as company bookkeeper in 1881, soon became secretary-treasurer of the firm, and was charged with control of finances as well as the company store and saloon. Petty, who was born at Bastrop, Texas, in 1860, was Olive's nephew and the son of a Confederate captain, killed at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, Louisiana. Later, one partner's oldest son, G. Adolph Sternenberg, became the active manager of mill activities, and both he and Petty acquired a quarter interest in the business. Around 1900 and after, two other sons of J. A. Sternenberg and four of his nephews became associated with the mill, by which time Petty and G. A. Sternenberg owned the firm outright.1

On October 10, 1876, Gilbert Stephenson, as executor of the Nancy Tevis Hutchinson estate, transferred the Beaumont townsite's "steam mill square," located where Brake's Bayou intersects the Neches River, and bounded as well by Mulberry and Cypress Streets, to Olive and Sternenberg for $450.2
Early in 1876, while visiting the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Olive "purchased the prize engine of E. P. Allison and Co. [sawmill manufacturers of Milwaukee], shipped to Beaumont, [where] it was the first [sawmill] engine south of the Mason-Dixon line that had a capacity of 50,000 feet a day."

Immediately, the proprietors began building the Centennial Sawmill into the largest lumber manufactory then in Beaumont. Unlike Long and Company, whose product was limited solely to cypress shingles, the Centennial Mill installed one steam-driven shingle machine and three lumber saws, and it took its name from the centennial anniversary of American independence, which at that moment was still being celebrated in Beaumont. Sadly, however, the Allison sawmill depended on an out-of-date, friction-feed log carriage, and it was 1882 before another Beaumonter, Mark Wiess, invented the steam-driven, "shotgun-exhaust" log carriage that revolutionized Southern sawmilling. By December, 1877, one newspaper noted that "the Centennial mill of Messrs. Olive and Sternenberg cut 805,000 feet of lumber last month in 26 days."3
A month later, the same newspaper recorded that "the Centennial mill of Olive and Sternenberg 'chaws' up logs at the rate of 40,000 feet a day and employs 20 hands."4 For the year ending in August, 1878, the six Beaumont sawmills shipped a total of 21.1 million feet of lumber, of which more than two-fifths (8.85 million) was shipped by the Centennial mill.5

In September, 1878, the Galveston Daily News observed:

Another firm, Olive and Sternenberg of the Centennial mills, are among the prominent and reliable lumber manufacturers of Beaumont. They turn out nearly 10 million feet annually. Their planing mills are located in Houston, and the dealings of this firm are always prompt. Their mills in Beaumont turn out 34,000 feet a day at present.6

The 1880 Products of Industry census schedule added a great deal of information about Beaumont's principal lumber facility of 1879, as follows:

Olive and Sternenberg's Centennial Sawmill, Beaumont, Texas. Capitalization, $56,000. Employees, maximum, 160; average, 60 men and 6 boys as shingle bundlers. Work hours, daily, 11 winter and summer. Daily wages, skilled, $3.00 daily; unskilled, $1.50. Annual wages paid, $22,000. Months mill in operation, 10; shut down for logging, 2. Equipment: one 5-gang saw, 2 circular saws, two 75-horsepower steam engine, 3 boilers. Raw materials: saw logs worth $50,000; mill supplies worth $3,400. Products: lumber, 9,000,000 feet; shingles, 4,000,000. Value of products, $88,000. Origin of logs: Neches River and its tributaries - mill did 80% of its own logging.7

One Jefferson County archival document, indeed, reveals that the Centennial mill was rafting logs down the Neches River as early as 1879. Because saw logs in the river belonged to different owners, the lumberjacks and raftsmen branded logs in the same manner that ranchers branded cattle, and upon reaching Beaumont, the logs were 'corralled' and sorted out for each owner.
There was a code of honor among sawmillers that if a log were delivered to the wrong mill, the log would be sawn, but it would be measured and proper disbursement made to the rightful owner. The county's Log Brand Book reveals that the Centennial mill registered its log brand 'S' on August 4, 1879. 8

Another news article recorded that the Centennial Sawmill had installed its own planing mill at Beaumont by 1881. Early in March of that year, A. P. Harris, editor of the Orange, Texas, newspaper, visited Beaumont and reported everything he had witnessed in the "Sawdust City," as follows:

We visited next the great Centennial mill of S. C. Olive and J. A. Sternenberg, extensive indeed, and employing more machinery, we thought, than any other in the City of Beaumont making lumber, shingles, etc., and also running planers. We met Mr. Olive on the yard… We found the yard crowded, with material ready for shipment, and two circular saws, the 5-gang saw, the planers, and the other mass of machinery were in full operation.9

Generally, the decade of the 1880s presented an unprecedented demand for lumber, and mill men everywhere made handsome profits, whereas the subsequent decade saw years of financial depression and limited money for expansion, depressed lumber markets and curtailed profits. By 1881, a Centennial advertisement confirmed that the firm was branching out to other lumber manufactures, mainly fence pickets and cypress cisterns.10 During the early 1880s, however, periodic low water in the Neches River created perennial log shortages that adversely affected all of the Beaumont sawmills. In addition, the infant Texas and New Orleans Railroad, for many years, was unable to supply sufficient box ears to the Beaumont mills equal to their lumber output, and the railroad rationed available ears to the mills daily, each according to its lumber capacity. This was the principal cause for the organization of the East Texas and Louisiana Lumbermen's Association, based at Beaumont, in 1881.
In 1880, the Augustus Kountze banking interests of New York, Denver, and Sabine Pass, who owned the Sabine and East Texas Railroad from Beaumont to Sabine Pass, announced their intent to complete the railroad to Rockland, Texas, a decision that would enable the Kountze Brothers to market their 250,000 acres of virgin timber lands in nearby counties. Both Olive and Sternenberg began considering the building of a new sawmill in Hardin County, an area where a thousand square miles of virgin saw logs, most of them between three and five feet in diameter, would be available. Logging via their own narrow-gauge tram railway would alleviate the seasonal shortages of saw logs, which the Centennial mill endured in Beaumont. They hoped that the Kountze Brothers, with almost unlimited capital to invest, could break the stranglehold of the box car shortages, once their railroad was completed. However, as soon as Olive and Sternenberg began planning their new Hardin County sawmill, the Kountze interests sold out their railroad, its new right-of-way through "the pineries," and its rolling stock to the Texas and New Orleans Railroad, which for so long had failed to supply the mill men with enough rail cars. As a result, the proprietors made no attempt to sell or dismantle the Centennial mill until such time as they could determine for certain how profitable the new Hardin County mill would be. In fact, they continued to improve and enlarge the Centennial mill at Beaumont during all of the year 1881.

Even after the completion of the railroad bridge over Pine Island Bayou and the first rails entered Hardin County in January, 1881,11 Olive and Sternenberg were already planning the building of their new Sunset Sawmill and the new Hardin County mill town it would spawn. At first, they enlarged their partnership, granting a one-third interest to A. B. Doucette, a well-known Village Creek logging contractor, who years later, would lend his surname to another mill town in Tyler County. By 1882, the original proprietors released Doucette from the agreement, presumably at his request, and bought back his interest for $5,600.12

In March, 1881, their Hardin County plans were set back somewhat by a fire that seemed so prophetic of conflagrations of the future, described as follows:

The shed of the [Beaumont's] Centennial Sawmill caught fire… Wednesday, but by the exertions of the employees of that mill, what might have been a flaming inferno was averted…13
* * * * *
Even before the rails of the Sabine and East Texas reached the new railroad camp at Kountze, Olive and Sternenberg began shipping cars of lumber to Hardin County and freighting it by wagon over the remaining miles to the new mill town of Olive. Mill machinery and supplies followed in August, 1881, and within a few weeks, one newspaper observed that:

Messrs. Olive and Sternenberg's new Sunset Sawmill in the Hardin County pineries, on the East Texas [rail] line is being pushed ahead to completion. This is an enterprising firm and deserves every success.14

Three weeks later, the same editor added: "A few miles farther [north of Kountze], the Sunset Sawmill of Olive and Sternenberg will cut its first lumber on next Monday morning."15 No description of that earliest mill machinery at Olive survives, but it probably was a duplicate of the Centennial mill's machinery, capable of sawing 40,000 feet daily. Cutting equipment installed at three other new sawmills at Beaumont (although one less circular saw than the Centennial had) between 1878 and 1880 were identical, a single 5-gang saw and one circular saw.16

Another early description of the proprietors' two mills survives, as follows:

In 1876, they [Olive and Sternenberg] built the Centennial mill at Beaumont, at that time the largest sawmill in the South, and they operated it until 1883. In 1881, they built the Sunset mills at Olive, which they operated in connection with the Centennial mill until the latter was dismantled. Since then, they have turned their whole attention to the Sunset mill, which they have continually improved and enlarged until it is a first class mill in every respect and second to none in the state…17
In 1880, before the rails reached Hardin County, heavily-forested pine lands, with virgin timber of four or five feet in diameter, were a drag on the market at 25 cents an acre. As soon as the rails and mills began to arrive in 1881, the price of timber lands advanced, but there was quite a variation in price that the proprietors paid, probably because of the distance from the mill and the amount of tram trackage to be laid. In 1887, they paid from 50 cents to $6.00 an acre for four tracts of land, as follows: to U. M. Gilder, $150 for 320 acres; to S. B. Turner, $100 for 160 acres; to P. A. Work, $450 for 640 acres; and to East Texas Land and Improvement Company (the real estate arm of Kountze Brothers, bankers), $1,000 for 160 acres.18

Beginning in 1881, Olive and Sternenberg faced an unknown facet of the lumber industry not previously encountered by them - the need to operate a logging tram railroad. Although they had previously logged the southeast Hardin County forests for the Centennial mill, all timber removed by them had been so near to the Neches River and its tributaries that only mules and oxen had been needed. Hence, after building the Sunset mill they purchased a locomotive, five flat cars, and railroad iron. By 1889, the Sunset tram was five miles long.19

By 1887, however, Olive and Sternenberg had grown weary of the logging end of the lumber industry. On December 31, 1887, they signed an indenture with two logging contractors, Gustav Linderman and J. S. Davis, to supply logs to the mill for $2.20 per thousand feet, log measure. The sawmillers agreed to furnish supplies and maintenance for the tram, and the contractors agreed to buy for $7,200 all of Olive and Sternenberg's forest equipment, including 29 mules, 22 yokes of oxen, as well as harness, saws, axes, cant hooks, and sundry items.20

In 1889, the proprietors signed a new partnership agreement, admitting two new members, each with a newly-acquired one quarter interest, and detailing the duties of each member. Olive would continue as outside financial agent, buying all lands and timber and selling all manufactures, much of which went to his retail outlets around Waco. Sternenberg would continue to oversee operations, maintenance of mill machinery and the tram road. V. A. Petty, the secretary-treasurer who had just acquired a quarter interest (half of Olive's half), would continue to keep the books, accept and disburse funds, supervise the company store and saloon and make their purchases, and provide for the payroll, inventories, and profit and loss statements.
Sternenberg's oldest son, G. Adolph Sternenberg, who acquired half of his father's interest, became his Father's understudy in the operations of the mill and tram road. The partners set each of their monthly salaries at $125.21.

Apparently, the four partners established the value of all equipment, timber, and lands in 1889 at $90,500. In his indenture with V. A. Petty, Olive valued his half of the business at $45,223, and Petty agreed to pay him $22,611 in four equal, annual installments, beginning in 1890. No indenture between J. A. Sternenberg and his son is recorded in Hardin County.22

There also appeared in 1889 the first newspaper description of the town of Olive and its sawmill, as follows:

The mill is located in the very heart of the long leaf yellow pine section, has a capacity of 65,000 feet daily, and the lumber turned out is of an excellent quality. Among the improvements recently added is a large dry kiln, with a storage capacity of 80,000 feet… Olive has a population of about 500 and is supplied with schools and churches for both white and colored [people]. Mr. [J. A.] Sternenberg spends most of his time in a house surrounded by trees, flowers, and vines, which at this time are laden with all the finest varieties of grapes, and the company is taking advantage of this fact and now planting a fifty-acre vineyard, from which good results are anticipated.23

A year later, the same Galveston News correspondent was back on a tour of the East Texas sawmills, and he visited Olive during August, 1890. A noticeable improvement had taken place on the tram road, which by then had reached seven miles in length and employed two locomotives and 18 log cars. However, mill employees were back logging the forest, the previous method of contracting the logging having apparently proved unsatisfactory. The correspondent added:
Within the past year, many new improvements have been made at this place, among which may be mentioned a neat little passenger depot for the convenience of the public, one room of which is a post office, nicely arranged and well kept.

Messrs. Olive, Sternenberg and Co.,… have just added to their other improvements a large and commodious business office, nicely furnished with every convenience. Mr. V. A. Petty, a young man of sterling business qualities, who has been with the company for eight years, is now not only secretary-treasurer, but also a member of the firm, giving his attention to the onerous affairs of the office. Mr. G. A. Sternenberg, the accomplished son of Colonel J. A. Sternenberg, is another new member of the firm, and keeps a watchful eye on the business of the plant, which is one of the largest and best-equipped on the line of the Sabine and East Texas Railway.

The commissary, which does a large business, is in charge of A. B. Hall, while the orderly and well-stocked saloon is presided over by W. A. Brooks. The large force in the woods is under the direct supervision of Mr. Joe Payment… one of the most important men connected with this enterprise.

Olive itself is quite a little burg, and is supplied with school and church buildings, a hall of the Knights of Honor (a fraternal order), also one for public entertainments. Moreover, it has a newly-organized brass band, consisting of twelve young men of culture and refinement. The members are Sam Barnett, the band leader; V. A. Petty, who plays the B-flat cornet; U. A. Sternenberg, C. F. Sanders, W. Brooks, Arthur Furby, J. Melancon, A. Miller, and J. Miller. The boys, rigged out in their dress suits and beaver hats, look charming, and when they go out to play . . . they become the heroes of the hour and the admiration of the ladies. [For years, the Sunset band played for Beaumont's annual firemen's masquerade and leap year balls.]… One always finds here Colonel J. A. Sternenberg, who in his vine-clad home, always extends to his guests that generous hospitality that makes a visit to Olive an unforgotten pleasure.24

Throughout 1890, there was great demand for and an increasing shortage of lumber in East Texas, which forced up the price by $3 a thousand feet, and left the Sunset mill with a very low inventory of two million feet on its yard.25 The market, however, was soon to turn sour as the nation entered a disastrous depression. Luckily, the decade of the 1890s, due to major expansion of the American railroads, brought unprecedented demand for railroad crossties, bridge timbers, and depot materials, which kept many East Texas sawmills free of bankruptcy as demand for lumber for housing plummeted.

As an example, in September, 1891, Beaumont's Reliance Sawmill signed the largest sales contract, for 100,000,000 feet with the Omaha, Kansas City, and Galveston Railroad, ever recorded for a Southwestern sawmill, an amount so large that it would have required the entire output of five sawmills for more than a year. During 1892-1893, about one-half of the Sunset mill's output was sold to the Reliance Sawmill to enable the latter to meet the terms of its contract.26
No information has been located concerning the Sunset Mill's conversion from the obsolete circular saws to a double-cutting band sawmill, but the writer believes that probably occurred in 1898. The first band sawmill in Southeast Texas that the writer has knowledge of was installed in the new Cow Creek Lumber Company mill at Call, Texas, in 1895. The following article, although not specific in mechanical detail, describes the overhaul of Sunset mill during the summer of 1898, as follows:

Messrs. Olive, Sternenberg and Co., Olive, Texas, have started up their new sawmill after a shutdown of six weeks, and now have one of the best sawmills on the Sabine and East Texas railway. When they shut down on July 15 they put about thirty mechanics and laborers to work repairing and remodeling; in fact, they have almost built a new mill out and out… Old machinery has been overhauled, and modern machinery has been added. The capacity of the mill has been increased by about 30,000 feet daily… While the mill was being fitted up, a large force of men, under the management of J. S. Davis, ran some five or six miles of new tram road to their large tracts of long-leaf, yellow pine timber…27

By the fall of 1899, both Olive and J. A. Sternenberg decided to retire from the sawmill business. The latter sold his undivided one-quarter interest to his son, G. Adolph Sternenberg, for $1.00. Olive released to V. A. Petty his remaining one-quarter interest in the mill and in 6,670 acres of timber land owned in common, as well as individual tracts Olive owned outright. By 1901, Olive, Sternenberg and Company was appearing in deed records as "a corporation composed solely of V. A. Petty, president, and 0. A. Sternenberg, vice-president and general manager."28

The 1900 decennial census of Olive, Texas, reveals that the town's population was 976 persons, of whom 804 were White and 172 were Black. In both the 1880 and 1900 censuses, J. A. Sternenberg was enumerated separately from his wife Emilie, but his son 0. A. Sternenberg and daughter Emma, both single, were living in his household. J. A. Sternenberg had already retired in 1900, listed himself as a "capitalist," and reported that he had been married for 37 years.29
The Sunset Sawmill suffered its worst misfortune after midnight on May 1, 1904, when the sawmill caught fire from unknown sources and burned to the ground. The fire was so advanced when discovered that it was only with great difficulty that the planing mill and lumber yard could be saved. The estimated loss of the sawmill, which had a daily cutting capacity of 75,000 feet, was $40,000, a part of which was covered by insurance. The company soon announced that the mill would be rebuilt, and to the extent possible, company employees would be used to rebuild it. Nevertheless, as usually resulted from a disastrous sawmill fire, many employees found it necessary to move elsewhere when their livelihoods were severed.30

Two months later, a Daily News correspondent returned to Olive and left what is perhaps the best published record of the town and its people. A new 100,000-foot mill was at that moment being built, and "employment is given to 200 men." The company also took advantage of the shutdown to stockpile logs and repair and extend the main tram road, as follows:

The company has nine miles of tram road in operation and is adding more when needed… In bringing the logs to the mill, four large locomotives are used and Mr. [M. P.] Hargraves is engineer on the main line. Shay engines are used on the spurs to bring the logs from the skidways to the main tram… Mr. G. A. Sternenberg is superintendent; Mr. A. G. Boudreaux, mill foreman; Mr. Jules Berg, planer foreman; Mr. Arthur Sternenberg, yard foreman; and Mr. J. F. Alexander, woods foreman… There are 5,000,000 feet of lumber on the yard, and enough timber land is available to last five more years.31

Alas, the correspondent was already predicting the town's ultimate fate when the available timber had all been cut, and only "stump land" surrounded the mill. He also left the following excellent description of Olive, as follows:

The town has a current population of 700, of which eighty are pupils of scholastic age. Public school is maintained eight months in the year, and the school building is modern in all its appointments. A nice church in which all denominations have the privilege of worshipping… The company store closes at 6 o'clock each evening, and the saloon closes at the same hour… Somebody said it is the only saloon in Texas that observed regular business hours.32
The reporter wrote most about Olive as a Farming, orchard, and stock-raising community. He recognized that the town could not always rely on lumber manufacturing, but seemed to think Olive could always survive as a farming center, as follows:

When the lumber interests have gone and boll weevils have made it impossible to raise cotton, fruit and vegetables will have to be raised as a matter of self defense… It is a fact that peaches ripened… this year two weeks earlier at Olive than at Jacksonville and the Bell Commission Co. at Beaumont… said emphatically that the Olive peaches are the best that come to Beaumont… Mr. Rufus Harrington raised five acres of sweet potatoes… [worth] $80 an acre.

Two years ago, a canning factory was put up at Olive… The factory is owned by a stock company composed of local people, and has a daily capacity of 5,000 cans… The company that owns the canning factory also owns a 25-acre fruit and truck farm one mile from town… Mr. J. S. Davis had 500 head of sheep and recently he shipped 900 pounds of wool… Mr. John Holland has 500 head of fine cattle, and others are engaging in hog and poultry raising… Mr. Guy Work has 300 head of goats… Mr. Alvin Jones raised eighty bushels of corn to the acre last year… Mr. V. A. Petty has a nice fruit and truck farm and will set out more trees soon. As a fruit and truck growing proposition, Olive deserves liberal consideration…33

Despite the correspondent's plea for a rural farm economy for Olive to replace that of lumber, such was not to be, and the town died with the timber and sawmill. The reporter's statements indicate that much time and effort at Olive must have been devoted to blasting and removing stumps in order to procure the cleared land necessary for farms and orchards, but in 1904, no sawmill in East Texas practiced the concept of reforestation, which belonged to a much later time period.

In November, 1904, a Beaumont newspaper observed that "the big mill of Sternenberg and Petty at Olive is now ready to commence work. It has a daily capacity of 100,000 feet."34
The same editor noted that Olive, Sternenberg and Company cut all of its logs on the east side of the East Texas Railroad. Although no details of mill machinery survive, the writer believes that two double-cutting band saws were installed at Olive in 1904, and that any experienced mill man would agree that nothing less than two such band saws could cut 100,000 feet daily.

By 1907, all members of the Sternenberg family except G. A. Sternenberg, his wife, and two children, had departed permanently for Houston. Although only 38 years of age, he was already entertaining the idea of retiring from active management of the sawmill so that he could spend most of his time in Houston, and he soon moved back there as well. To complicate further the problems of mill management, V. A. Petty moved his family to San Antonio about the same time. To compensate for their leaving, Petty and Sternenberg brought into the business five of the latter's first cousins, Charles A. Sternenberg and Emil P. Sternenberg, brothers of San Diego, California, as well as Frederick W. Sternenberg of Paige, Bastrop County, Texas, and the latter's two sisters (who were twins), Paula and Annie Sternenberg. The young women were to be trained as bookkeepers, and at intervals, the three young men were to be sent to Houston to attend Massey Business College and acquire some background in business management.35

In April, 1908, G. A. Sternenberg, while he and his wife were building a new home and residing at Houston's Tremont Hotel, contracted typhoid fever and died after an illness of two weeks.36 Immediately, his young widow became half owner of Olive, Sternenberg and Company and active in the company's management. For some unknown reason, the new proprietors became dissatisfied with the original firm name, and one of their first actions together was to deed all community property to the new "Olive-Sternenberg Lumber Company."37

For years the writer has believed (with no known documentary proof that he could cite) that the sawmill at Olive had shut down in 1907. A faction of people at Kountze believed that all the buildings there except one had either been torn down or moved away in 1909. Still others there believed the end of the town came in 1914.
* * * * *
It is now evident to the writer that the Olive sawmill's demise came in March, 1912, with most of the people deserting the town within the next few weeks. The lone, abandoned building which survived the town by 55 years was burned as a high school athletic prank in 1968, and is supposed to have contained all of the Olive-Sternenberg Lumber Company books and records.

The writer likewise believes that Olive acquired its greatest population, probably as many as 1,200, about 1905 because a 100,000-foot mill would have required a work force of 250 or more men to log and operate it. He likewise believes that the mill operated at full capacity for the next three years, or at least until the death of U. A. Sternenberg in 1908. Certainly, by then the scarcity of available timber was growing critical, perhaps necessitating a reduction in the number of logs processed daily, and requiring the owners to allow the employees to seek other sawmill employment before their jobs were severed. Between 1908 and 1910, the proprietors bought up every available tree that was within reach of their sawmill tram road, either as timber rights or land bought outright. And certainly, one purchase of June, 1909, was to extend the mill's existence for perhaps two additional years. The owners paid Creighton-McShane Oil Company of Nebraska $18,000 for timber rights on their 3,580 acres of land (5½ square miles) and were also granted a five-year option, if needed, to complete the logging.38

The census of 1910 also confirms that life was fast ebbing from the old mill town of Olive. The census enumeration did not identify the town by name, as in 1900, but only as "Precinct No. 1," making it' somewhat more difficult to determine exactly where the town of Olive began and ended. However, the writer recognizes the names of many of the old-time Sunset mill employees, who were scattered out among the 120 houses left in Olive, and a census total of about 450 persons (nine pages).39
The last Sternenberg family members recorded at residence 263 in Olive were Fred W. Sternenberg, "lumber manufacturer," and his wife; the former's cousin, Charles A. Sternenberg, "lumber manufacturer" and boarder; and the former's two sisters, Paula and Annie Sternenberg, each age 26 (twins), who were two of the four company bookkeepers." In that age of male dominance in the business world, they must have been the subject of much conversation, even if they were the superintendent's sisters.40 Emil P. Sternenberg was attending Massey Business College in Houston when the census was enumerated. No division of duties has been found for Fred and Charles Sternenberg, but it appears that they shared equal responsibilities for running the sawmill.

Apparently, many of the old Sunset mill employees planned to remain until the last whistle blew, as well as others such as Dr. Lee Selman, physician, and Amos Rich, attorney, both of whom had been in private practice in Olive for many years. Other employees in the census with long company seniority included John Holland, locomotive engineer; August J. Boudreaux, mill foreman; B. S. Fitzgerald and Hugh McDonald, bookkeepers, Jules Berg, planing mill foreman; J. F. Alexander, woods foreman; Robert Bunkley, yard foreman; A. Bean and Frank Harper, sawyers; J. F. Richardson and Joe Hargraves, blacksmiths; W. O. McKennon, store manager; M. P. Hargraves, locomotive engineer; and George B. Welch, lumber salesman. J. T. Preston ran a boarding house.41

During the closing years of the town, it appears that the railroad may have chosen Olive as its southern headquarters for track repairs and perhaps repairs of rolling stock as well. Among others enumerated there were J. N. Reed, "section foreman, railroad," and E. V. Collins, "builder in ear shops."42

The author noted a few other items of interest during those closing years of the sawmill town of Olive. In 1907, a lodge of the Improved Order of Redmen was organized there.43 A Hardin County local option election in March, 1910, generated 94 votes at Olive, 54 votes for and 37 opposed, and that at a time when electors were limited to white males, age 21 or older, who had paid their poll tax.44 During the same month, the entire town chartered a train and visited Port Arthur while the huge sperm whale was on exhibit there.45
In May, 1911, during a Southeast Texas survey to determine the volume of wood waste products being generated daily, the Olive Sternenberg Lumber Company reported that it cut 37 tons of such by- products (log slabs, shavings, etc.) each day, an indication that the mill was still cutting timber at about half-capacity.46 Perhaps the last thing of local interest to occur there was the marriage of Charles A. Sternenberg, mill superintendent, on March 1, 1912, a date by which he was surely aware that the mill would be closing down in three weeks.47

It is indeed ironic that the beginning days of Olive and the Sunset Sawmill are better chronicled than the closing days thirty years later. The Hardin County Deed Records, which usually had bestowed so much information for the writing of this story, become suddenly silent and especially vague about the last days of the mill and town. Likewise, there are no recorded contracts, bills of sale, etc., involving the purchase of mill machinery or its disposal in the Deed Records. Nevertheless, other sources confirm the closing of the sawmill in 1912, and one factor in particular suggests that it shut down in March of that year.

The long obituary of John A. Sternenberg of Houston in May, 1914, states that "this [Olive] mill operated for 31 years." And that figure added to the founding year of 1881 adds up to 1912 as the year of the mill's demise. The obituary also stated that J. A. Sternenberg "had acquired large property holdings in Beaumont, Houston, and San Antonio." Earlier, Sid Olive, who had amassed quite a respectable fortune, died at Waco on August 4, 1906.48 A Beaumont tax list of 1908 verifies that J. A. Sternenberg was a substantial owner of business property there, rendered for taxes at $31,000.49

For seven years, beginning in 1905, some one at Olive had contributed a weekly or semi-monthly social or "gossip" column, published in the Beaumont Enterprise and captioned "Olive, Texas." Ordinarily, the columns contributed very little to the town's history, usually documenting on the activities, visits, etc. of a few prominent families. Although the columns appeared three times in March, 1912, they ended abruptly with the issue of March 25, and did not resume at any time thereafter.
An Olive-Sternenberg document in the archives of the Olive Scott Petty Company of San Antonio reveals how quickly the mill, town, and business enterprises (which belonged to the company) disintegrated during the spring and summer of 1912. The lumber company published a 14-page list of equipment offered for sale and dated July 15, 1912. Since no band saws, circular or gang saws, or planers appeared on it, it is assumed these items had already been purchased by another company, probably Kirby Lumber Corporation. However, such diverse items as one barber chair and razors (from the barber shop), lots of prescription and patent medicines, unused corks and bottles (from the drug store), saloon equipment, and a huge volume of surplus hardware from the company store and sawmill, typewriters and safes from the company office, and other items were offered for sale.50

After 1912, there are other indications that the Olive residents disappeared rapidly until only a ghost town remained, an expected occurrence whenever livelihoods were severed. According to Mr. Clyde See of Kountze, chairman of the Hardin County Historical Commission, all buildings were quickly removed or torn down until only the single building that housed the final office and books of the Olive-Sternenberg Lumber Company and burned down in 1968, survived. By 1913, Fred W. Sternenberg, Jr., had moved to Austin (although he remained secretary of the lumber company for several years thereafter), and Charles A. Sternenberg had moved to Beaumont.51 Instead of buying more timber after 1912, the Olive-Sternenberg Company began to sell their limited marketable trees to logging contractors at $5 per thousand feet of "stumpage" (log measure), to be cut elsewhere.52

By 1915, however, the lumber company was basically a real estate firm, leasing tracts of land to oil drillers who contracted to sink an oil well within thirty days.53 In 1917, the Olive-Sternenberg Lumber Company, still owned by V. A. Petty and Emma B. (Mrs. G. A.) Sternenberg, leased 9,962 acres of cutover stump land to Charles Mitchell for the purpose of oil drilling, and that lease agreement noted that Olive, even if limited to a single building, was still headquarters of the lumber firm.
Obviously, some local person was still in the employ of that company as a land agent, but any number of deed records checked has failed to disclose his identity.54 As late as 1920, Petty, who subsequently died at San Antonio in 1929, and Mrs. Sternenberg still owned the firm. And by 1918, V. A. Petty, Jr., who with his father operated as the Olive Petroleum Co., was also dealing in Saratoga oil field leases, one of which he sold to Texaco for $2,500.55 As of recent date, much of the forest land where Olive once stood still belongs to 95-year-old Olive Scott Petty of San Antonio, a son of the proprietor, who has graciously furnished the writer with much information and many pictures of the town of Olive, the sawmill, and proprietors.

For many East Texas oldsters of mill town vintage, the passing of the sawmill meant the passing of the quieter, simpler, and friendlier days when life was less complicated and lumber was king of the forest. A stroll, however, through the brambles, underbrush, and infant tombstones in Olive Cemetery would quickly remind some passer-by that life in that frontier "sawdust city" had its share of sorrows as well - an age when only one of two American children ever lived to reach adulthood. The best-preserved tombstone, still surrounded by its original wrought-iron fencing, carries the lament in the German language of a young, immigrant widow, grieving for her husband, Johannes Nikolaus Paulsen, who died in 1897. And on any still, clear day at sunset, that same passer-by, provided he has captured the nostalgia that the graveyard emits, might still hear the faint murmurs of yesteryear's sobs and laughter, or catch the distant echo of the big band saw's screech, as he silently tiptoes through the pine needles where once the town of Olive stood.
© W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" › July 3, 2006 column

Note of Thanks

The writer acknowledges with gratitude the help of Mr. Clyde See, Chairman, Hardin County Historical Commission.
(The writer is grateful to Mr. Lee Larkin, archivist/historian of the Scott Petty Company in San Antonio, for biographies, documents, and copies of numerous Olive, Texas, photographs a century old and beautifully preserved.)

Recommended Book

East Texas Mill Towns & Ghost Towns ›

Related Article:

The Legend of the Olive Ghost Train by W. T. Block, Jr.
"That's the old Olive ghost train and it makes one round trip every Halloween Eve. Ain't nobody but you seen it in recent years though. And there ain't no tracks or crossties on the old Olive tram road anymore 'cause they were all torn up years ago..."

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