Ghost Towns of The Piney Woods

Wiergate memories live in photographic history

By Bob Bowman
Special to the Journal

The best of what's left of Wiergate in Newton County, Texas, isn't found on the grassy grave of the town's old sawmill, but in a moving, nostalgic collection of photographs carefully tended by Wiergate's postmaster.

The faces of the past--eternally frozen in flashes of history--reflect the good times and tragedies of a community ruled for 25 years by the whine of a sawmill.

It is one of the most complete photographic collections of its kind in East Texas--a loving tribute to what Wiergate was and could have been.\par }{\plain While most of old Wiergate is gone, parts of the town somehow live on--the last vestiges of a community that once had hundreds of homes.

The post office is new, there's some modern aspects of the town, and the remaining residents tenaciously cling to a pride rooted in the town's past when living in Wiergate was a distinction among East Texas sawmillers.

At its height, the town of 2,500 to 5,000 was one of the most progressive of the old lumbering era. Its sawmill was one of the largest in the state (with an hourly capacity of 20,000 board feet) and its high-roofed commissary store, forerunner of today's department stores, stocked everything from pins to caskets.

There were also schools, churches, a community center, a movie theater, two swimming pools, an ice plant, a uniformed baseball team, two doctors and other niceties seldom found in other sawmill settlements.

Wiergate was destined to be different from the beginning. Harry Eaves, who worked in the mill, recalled in his memoirs in l982:
"The Wiers, who founded the mill, had strong feelings about labor efficiency. They said they were going to hire men and pay them more than anybody else...but they must be efficient. And they were because the mill was built efficiently and the people were supervised efficiently."

The Wiers--brothers Bob and Tom--started building Wiergate in l9l7 when they built a small sawmill on Little Cow Creek in northern Newton County. Early Newton County records reflect there was a mill at the site, known as Field's Mill, as early as l847 and later another known as Elkin's Mill. Bill Downs also operated a small mill at the site, along with a gristmill and gin powered by water from Little Cow Creek.

Wier's first mill was apparently built to cut timber for a larger, more extensive mill built in 19l8, along with a commissary store, a post office, barber shop and doctor's office. Wiergate (the name means Wier Town or Wier City) began to grow, and the company built hundreds of homes to house its 400 workers and their families.

To ship out the lumber produced by the Wier Long Leaf Lumber Company--whose corporate offices were located in Houston--the Orange and Northwestern Railroad constructed a line from Wiergate to Newton, where it connected with other lines to Orange and the Texas coast. There, lumber from the Wiergate mill made its way into hundreds of U.S. cities, oilfields and other places where timbers and boards were needed.

Wiergate remained one of the most prosperous sawmill towns in Texas from its inception to the Depression, when, in the words of Harry Eaves, "everything changed."

He said the lumber company always made money until the Depression, but when the economic crisis swept the nation, the Wiers choose to operate the mill only three days a week. "They tried to keep the people alive.

To my knowledge, that's the only place and only time that ever happened. But that's the kind of people they were. And that's why people were proud to work at Wiergate."

Lumber sales began to improve some after the Depression, but in the l940s it became apparent that the Wiers' timber leases--which had not been replanted or regenerated following harvest--would not last long.

On Christmas Day, l942, the sawmill's giant saws were stilled.

With the jobs gone, there wasn't much to keep Wiergate alive. The entire town was dismantled, wrecked or sold at bargain prices to anyone interested. Chester Smith, Jr., was interested in a l0-room home built for one of the town's two doctors. He bought it for $225 in l943 and retired there after working 20 years in the Weirgate commissary store.

Smith once said that Wiergate's durability evolved from the close-knit fraternity of its old sawmill families. "There's something about Wiergate's people you don't find in a lot of other places. I can't describe it. But I can see it in the faces of the oldtimers when they come back. They talk like they left behind an awful big hunk of their lives."

And perhaps they did.

Bob Bowman of Lufkin, Texas, is the author of more than 35 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bobb@consolidated.com

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