It is necessary to go somewhat into the history of yellow pine, particularly the longleaf variety, in order to show what lumber pioneers such as John Nathan Gilbert, of Beaumont, Texas, had to overcome in order to achieve success. Nearly every yellow pine manufacturer whether he operates in the longleaf districts of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, or in the shortleaf regions of Arkansas, Missouri and the northern belt of that timber who reads this work knows that Mr. Gilbert's struggles were largely a duplicate of his own.
The Texas-Louisiana lumber district contains huge saw mills at Lake Charles and Westlake, Louisiana, and Orange and Beaumont, Texas, and at other isolated points in that general district, and in this area longleaf yellow pine is found in its highest forestal development. The valleys of the Calcasieu, the Sabine and the Neches rivers contain tracts of timber lands unequaled for stumpage results and unexcelled for timber of a superior quality; and it is these lands that Mr. Gilbert and other pioneers have ransacked for the supply of the great mills in that country.
The work began only a few years ago, comparatively. Twenty-five years ago the Southern Pacific railroad system was not the unit it is now, in 1905. Westward from New Orleans the road stopped before Orange was reached. Eastward from Houston, Texas, also, it was uncompleted. The lumber pioneers rode or toilfully walked through the valleys of the Sabine, the Neches and the Calcasieu rivers, up one bank and down the other, penetrating miles of unbroken forests. The size and quality of the timber amazed them. The question of logging was solved by the presence of the three rivers and their tributaries. Lands were purchased and mills were erected at Lake Charles, Orange and Beaumont. Those of the mill companies that did not invest in lands purchased logs from the many tram companies which began operations simultaneously with the mills. To the farseeing lumberman the section was ideal for milling operations. It has proven so, as exemplified in the success of the fifteen or more great plants in the district.
Among the Beaumont, Texas, mill men John Nathan Gilbert is conspicuous as a lumberman. His father, a native of Connecticut, went to Texas, where his son, John N. Gilbert, was born in 1855 near Kosse, a small town, which, however, is one of the oldest in the state. It is on what is now the Houston & Texas Central railroad, in Limestone county. When John Gilbert was six years of age his father moved from that point, going to Sabine Pass, where he engaged in general merchandising. Beaumont, now a prosperous city of 15,000 people, then contained a population of only 300. When young Gilbert was about seventeen years of age he went to work in Beaumont as a clerk in the store of Long & Son, which firm built the first saw mill there. Having by nature a leaning toward the lumber industry, he decided to learn this business from the foundation, and began in the mill commissary. He gradually but thoroughly learned the intricate details of manufacturing lumber. Having been saving of his money, he invested it in the mill when it was rebuilt in 1877. The plant was then cutting about 40,000 feet daily and was the largest mill in Beaumont.
Soon afterward Long & Son went out of the saw mill business and started a shingle mill, the saw mill becoming the property of the Beaumont Lumber Company, which was a co-partnership. The firm became a corporation in 1882, and was operated under a charter with the following officers : F. L. Carroll, of Waco, Texas, president; George W. Carroll, of Beaumont, vice president; John N. Gilbert, secretary, treasurer and general manager, and L. B. Pipkin, assistant secretary and treasurer. The capital stock, originally $100,000, was afterward increased to $300,000. An offshoot of the Beaumont Lumber Company was the Nona Mills Company, Limited, of Louisiana. Its location is at Leesville, Louisiana, on the Kansas City Southern railway. The two companies together owned about 200,000 acres of longleaf timber. This was the status of the Gilbert interests when in 1901 the Beaumont plant, with the timber tributary to it, was sold outright to the Kirby Lumber Company, which was organized in that year, for the round sum of $1,200,000. While, therefore, Mr. Gilbert's lumber and timber interests are less than they were, he is still at the date of this publication heavily interested in yellow pine and its products.
One of the most remarkable events in the commercial and industrial history of the country was the discovery of petroleum in enormous quantities at Beaumont, Texas, in 1900. Many of the lumbermen of that city being land owners, participated in the profits that accrued from that ownership or from the operations of oil properties. Among them was Mr. Gilbert. Furthermore, he had inherited from his father, in conjunction with other heirs, a large piece of landed property in the Sourlake district, which afterward developed into one of the most prolific oil fields in the United States and succeeded in the public attention the Beaumont field. A considerable portion of the property falling to the estate was sold at that time at a large profit, although enough was retained to serve as the basis for successful operating companies. In the various transactions resulting there from Mr. Gilbert and his associates realized large sums of money.
Returning to Mr. Gilbert's lumber career : When he became associated with the Beaumont Lumber Company its trade was confined to Texas. White pine was then a fierce competitor of the native product. Nevertheless, as long ago as 1882, prices for yellow pine railroad ties went as high as $14 a thousand feet. The mill sawed railroad stuff exclusively at that time. The other Beaumont operators were the Wiess brothers, Captain W. A. Fletcher, the Longs and the Keiths.
Timber lands were then selling at fifty to seventy-five cents an acre, and Mr. Gilbert and others were wise enough to anticipate the certain profit to be realized from investment at such prices. As stated previously, Mr. Gilbert's companies had acquired title to 200,000 acres of magnificent longleaf pine, and the combined capacity of the mills was about 230,000 feet a day. There remains still the Nona Mills Company, with a producing capacity of more than 100,000 feet a day, with a large timber acreage back of it.
Mr. Gilbert has been living at Beaumont continuously for twenty-five years. He owns a beautiful home in that city, where he is a respected and honored citizen. His family, consisting of three sons and a daughter, is his especial pride. He married a Texas girl Miss Willbarger, of Bastrop. Mr. Gilbert stands high in Masonic circles. He is a stockholder and director in the First National Bank of Beaumont, and a director of the Texarkana & Fort Smith railroad. Among his brother manufacturers he is greatly esteemed for his business ability and for his social qualities.