This is a short recital of the long history of the Foster Lumber Company. The writer, who has written plenty of them, thinks it one of the most colorful and interesting lumber histories he has ever encountered. Read it. and judge for yourselves.
The Foster Lumber Company, which, as will be shown, goes back to 1879, is located in Kansas City, Missouri, and Houston and Fostoria, Texas. It operates about seventy retail lumber yards in the Middle West, a Yellow Pine manufacturing plant at Fostoria, Texas, and owns large timber growing acreage just North and East of Houston.
The executive head of the Foster Lumber Company is Benjamin E. Foster, of Kansas City. He is assisted by his brother, James Foster, also of Kansas City, who is Secretary of the company. These two remain of the father and five sons who organized and built the company. The Texas end of their operations is managed by I. R. Palmer of Houston, who has been associated with them continuously since 1909.
The founder of the Foster lumber empire was John McCullough Foster, who was born in Beallsville, Pennsylvania, January 5, 1832, and died in Kansas City, Mo., December 22, 1899. In his early youth he was a carpenter. He moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he worked as a carpenter until 1854. Leaving St. Paul, he settled, after a few short stops, in Leavenworth, Kansas. Here he engaged in the building contracting business in a small way. Abuut 1860, he went into the freight hauling business, transporting Government supplies from Fort Leavenworth to Denver, Colorado. He had a freight train of twelve teams of oxen, and it took sixty days for a round trip. He remained in various enterprises until he started in the retail lumber business.
Mr. Foster went to Kansas City in the spring of 1879, where he won the confidence of Jay Coatsworth, of the large wholesale lumber firm of Henry, Barker & Coatsworth, and they agreed to give him a $5,000 line of lumber credit to start a yard with at some point he should pick. This was a mighty big credit in those days, and showed their interest in Mr. Foster, whose personal capital consisted of about one thousand dollars.
Arrives In Covered Wagon
Now Benjamin B. Foster enters the picture. Although he had two older sons, his father took Ben, who was 16, along with him when he started out of Kansas City in a covered wagon, seeking a likely place to make his fortune in retail lumber. They passed through many new towns, and finally arrived at Randolph, Kansas, 17 miles off the Union Pacific lines, where he decided to open up. They did, hauling the lumber and other materials in from the railroad. And here started one of the nation's most successful retail lumber enterprises. They called the busi¬ness John Foster, and they opened their books on April 22, 1879. They had their stock of lumber and about one thousand dollars working capital.
In 1880, the Kansas Central Railway was extending its line, and a new town of Olsburg was established on the road, just seven miles from Randolph. So John Foster and his son Ben opened another yard there. Another town opened by this road was Leonardsville, and the Fosters soon had a third yard at that point. At this time the two oldest sons of John Foster, Samuel and Thomas, joined forces with the father and Ben, and on January 1, 1885, they changed the firm name to John Foster & Sons. A few years later when they finished school, two younger sons, James and George, joined the company, so that John Foster and his five sons were active in the company. The business grew steadily. In addition to lumber, these yards handled coal and grain. They made a lot of money on grain particularly.
A new town was laid out on the Kansas Central Lines, and they called it Fostoria, and the Fosters put in another yard there. That was 1884. They then bought a yard at Belleville, then opened new yards at Courtland and Munden, then bought a yard at Concordia. Then they moved into Western Kansas, and in 1887, they bought a string of lumber yards from Howell Bros., of Atchison, and a yard from McGonigal & Son, of Colby. Rapidly they added more yards in Western Kansas. After more than fifty years, these yards are still nearly all alive and operated by the Foster Lumber Company.
Open Yards In Other States
As years went on they opened yards in other states, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming. In 1889, the general office of the company was moved to Kansas City, Mo., and the name was changed from John Foster & Sons to the Foster Lumher Company. At this time the eldest son,'Samuel, sold his interest in the family concern to go in business for himself. The other four sons remained, and when John Foster died in 1899, they continued the business; continued to enlarge it, in fact. Thomas Foster died in Kansas City, Missouri, October 30, 1913. George Foster died in May, 1944. Ben and James Foster still remain.
A colorful incident in the life of the Foster Lumber group took place in 1893, when the Government opened the Cherokee strip for settlement, and the famous land rush that has been featured in song and story took place. Two of the Foster boys decided to join the rush and stake claims for lumber yards in the new territory. Thomas Foster made the run from one point in a tallyho coach. Ben Foster drove from another point in a light spring wagon, drawn by a fast team of young mules. It was a wild event, as readers of history will remember, and Thomas Foster was successful in staking his claim. Ben Foster failed to make it. The point where Thomas Foster staked his claim and built a lumber yard was called Perry. That same year the company opened yards at Ponca City and several other Oklahoma points along the Santa Fe Railroad.
Here comes an interesting turn in the life of the Foster Lumber Company. About 1890, White Pine from the North began to get scarce. The Kansas yards had always handled White Pine. But now Yellow Pine from the South began pushing its way in, and shoving White Pine out. It was plentiful and it was comparatively cheap. Ben Foster recalls what a battle they had to get the carpenter trade in their towns to accept Yellow Pine, even the virgin lumber that was then to be had in great quantity. Having handled the soft, white, light Pine from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan always, the carpenters gave the heavier, more resinous, more fibrous Yellow Pine all the black eyes they could. But the change was not to be stopped, and soon the Foster yards were stocking Yellow Pine exclusively.
Seek Lumber Supply In Texas
So it became necessary for them to find a good source of supply. They sent men into Texas, and began buying lumber from the several mills located on the former branch of the "Katy" Railroad that ran from Trinity to Colmesneil. The Thompson & Tucker Lumber Company had a fine mill at Willard, on that line, and liking the product of that mill the Foster Lumber Company purchased an interest in the Thompson & Tucker Lumber Company, which they retained through the life of that concern.
The Fosters went farther. John Foster himself came to Texas and visited sawmills along the Santa Fe Railroad. He contracted for the output of the William Conroe mill at Beach, Texas, three miles from Conroe. He opened a purchasing office in Conroe. He bought a mill at Leonidas, on the Santa Fe near Conroe. and operated it for a number of years. At Clinesburg (now Fostoria) Cline & Oliphint operated a sawmill on the Santa Fe lines. Mr. Foster built a planer near by, bought the output of the Clinesburg mill, and dressed and shipped it. He began
buying Texas timber lands, the first being in the vicinity of what is now their plant at Fostoria, and they kept on purchasing land with virgin timber until they had secured 130,000 acres of land in Harris, Liberty, San Jacinto, Montgomery, Polk, Hardin, and Angelina Counties. They got a lot of hardwood, but mostly Short Leaf Yellow Pine.
Build Fostoria Mill
In 1896, Thomas Foster, having established their line of yards in Oklahoma, moved to Houston, where he took charge of the affairs of the company, and remained there until his death. The next year, 1897, they moved their office from Conroe to Houston, where it has since remained, being now in the Neils Esperson Building. In the spring of 1905, Thomas Foster began building the mill at Fostoria, formerly Clinesburg. They built the best mill that money could buy, equipped with two double-cutting band mills, and every other modern device known to mill, planer, and kiln manufacturers. The mill cut forty million feet of lumber a year. Changes have since been made in the mechanical equipment of the mill, which now uses one of the original double-cutting bands, and a big gang. Like many others, the Fostoria mill was supposed to be through about 1922, when it exhausted its original holdings of virgin timber. But it started on a new program of logging and cutting, and today is prepared to run for many years to come. The entire plant has been modernized in various ways, and is highly efficient even to the latest type of cross-circulation Moore dry kilns, and lots of ingenious equipment and methods for handling logs and lumber.
In 1895, the Foster Lumber Company created the Trinity River Lumber Company to act as its sales department and also to wholesale the products of other mills. In 1917, they incorporated this concern. It is still going strong, occupying the same offices as the Foster Lumber Company. Mr. Harry G. Dean has been in charge of sales for Trinity River since November, 1911.
Palmer Becomes Manager
During the life of the Foster Lumber Company in the Southwest, two brothers, Morris L. Womack and Frank J. Womack played prominent roles in the management of the operations of the company. Frank Womack succeeded Morris Womack as Houston Manager many years ago. Morris Womack had been placed in charge of the business when Thomas Foster died in 1913. When Frank Womack died, February 15, 1936, he was succeeded by I. Russell Palmer, who had been his assistant since 1909.
And so it seems that the Foster people have been successful in several very important ways. First, they have been successful as retailers in a large way for more than two generations; they have been successful as lumber manufacturers for 51 years; they have successfully conducted a wholesale lumber business for practically 50 years. Through all these decades their method of operations and philosophy of business has won for them the entire respect and confidence of their contemporaries in general, and their competitors in particular. They have operated all three branches of their business in a clean, high-minded, cooperative way, that has been beneficial to themselves, to their competitors, to the industry they serve, to their wealth of business contacts, and to the nation itself.
The story of the Foster Lumber Company is the story of a family group endowed by their Maker with high intelligence, practical ability, courage, and proper ambition. They thought hard and worked hard for what they got, and gave the other fellow a square deal all the way along the line. Their record shines.