SouthBear's History of Laurel: Industrialization & The Founding of the City
SouthBear's History of Laurel, Mississippi

Industrialization and the Founding of the City of Laurel
Contributed by Tommy McGlothlin -- © 2008
Just as Jones County had escaped the worst of the ravages of the Civil War, it very largely escaped the consequences of Reconstruction. The military occupiers of the conquered state of Mississippi focused their attentions on the centers of government and finance. With the exception of the Knight/McLemore incident in Ellisville, there were few military excursions into Jones County during the war. These rare excursions were not military in nature, but rather were forays designed to flush out deserters and confiscate food and equipment from the county's civilians, a people who could ill afford to give it..  Because there were no battles in the county, the land escaped the ravages of war. Its people, however, were left more destitute than they were before the war and they harbored a deep resentment for their situation. The slave population in the county was low at the beginning of the war, and so the Reconstruction government in Jackson largely neglected the now freed slaves of jones County  in the postwar government of the state. They were left to settle into the sharecropping lifestyle that would identify life for Mississippi African-Americans after the Redeemers regained control of the state following Reconstruction. However, they became the targets of white anger and post-war frustration and resentment. This resentment on the part of the the white citizens of the county is the origin of the strong influence that the Ku Klux Klan would enjoy in Jones County through the Civl Rights Movement of the next century.  For all practical purposes, life in Jones County continued much as it had before the war. If the state's political system was of little consequence to the residents of Jones County before the war, it was just as inconsequential to them following the war.

Life in Jones County was destined, however, not to remain the same for long. Because the county escaped the ravages of war, its natural resources likewise remained unscathed. And the resources of the county was in extremely high demand. The huge longleaf pines growing in massive virgin groves provided much needed lumber as the South was rebuilding itself. The problem would be extracting the timber from the forest and delivering them to the mills and market place. For this, Jones County would have to rely on help from the outside.
Jones County After the Civil War
The Northern Capitalists
Following the Civil War, Southerners had little if any resources to invest in industrial projects. The local inhabitants of the Piney Woods never had such resources even before the War and other Southerners had lost most of their capital financing the Confederacy and its war effort. The few Southerners who managed to hold on to their antebellum wealth after the war  quickly had it taken from them by extremely high punitive taxes levied against them by the Radical Republican Congress or by the puppet Reconstruction governments it set up in the former Confederate states.  Because of this, the South, including Jones County, was ripe for exploitation from capitalists from the North who were willing and eager to come South in search of lucrative financial investments. These capitalists were not the carpetbaggers that so notoriously plagued the South and its people during Reconstruction. Whereas the carpetbaggers took advantage of the vulnerable condition of the war-ravaged South by illegal and dishonest means, the northern capitalists that would eventually found Laurel were much more benevolent. Some of these were lumbermen who had been told of the vast virgin forests of the South just as the timber resources of their Northern states were vanishing. Though they began to travel throughout the South in search of these forests shortly after the end of the War, they were largely prevented from entering them because of a lack of passable, maintained roads. Furthermore, even if they could find their way to these great timber stands, they were prevented from transporting them to distant markets because of a lack of railroads. The South had lagged behind the North in the construction of a viable railway system before the War. During the war, either the Union or the Confederate armies, to prevent their enemies from quickly transporting ordinance and troops, had destroyed most of what had existed. Regardless, railroads were simply too few or non-existent throughout the Piney Woods of southeastern Mississippi.
Laurel's First Economic Boom: The Arrival of the Railroad
This photograph of the Cohay Camp in Jones County was taken shortly after the turn of the century. It illustrates the lumber camps' reliance on the railroads as a link to civilization. Lumberjacks and their families lived in cars on the trains. When necessary, the entire camp moved to a new location without abandoning homes.
Cohay Camp
One of the  first jobs that had to be accomplished in order to rebuild the South after the war was the repair of war damanged railroads and the construction of new lines. The first railroad to be built through the Piney Woods was the New Orleans & Northeastern Railroad. The surveyor for this venture was Captain William Hardy, and important figure in the history of southern Mississippi who would go on to found the cities of Hattiesburg and Gulfport. The N.O & NE literally opened up the outside world to the Pine Belt. It was completed in 1882. Once the N.O & N.E was built, other lines were able to connect from it. The Mobile Jackson and Kansas City Line connected Jones County with Mobile and and to points north of the county via Jackson, Tennessee. Captain Hardy also built the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad that ran between Gulfport and Jackson, Mississippi. This line provided direct access for the Pine Belt to Mississippi’s only port in Gulfport. Once the main lines had been completed, several spur lines were added. This enabled the future industries of Jones County to extract its resources from the forests and deliver them to the mills. They included the Bonhommie & Hattiesburg Southern Railroad (a Hattiesburg company that provided service to Jones County) and the Laurel and Tullahoma Line built by the Eastman Gardiner Company to link their lumber camps with the mill. Remnants of these spur lines (or dummy lines) can still be seen today, especially in the urban areas of Laurel.
Spur Line Railroad Locomotive
A model of the type of engine used on th spur (or dummy) lines of Jones County. This is a model of a steam engine used by the Eastman Gardiner Company's Laurel & Tullahoma line.
Laurel's Second Economic Boom: Lumber
After the railroads arrived in Jones County, the second economic boom was allowed to begin.  The only real economic resource that Jones County could boast was the massive forests of virgin pine that covered the land.  This forest existed not only in Jones County but carpeted the entire countryside of southern Mississippi.  The only thing that prevented the exploitation of these resources was the inability to transport timber to mills, either local or in cities outside of the county.  The railroad made this possible.  The first mill operation in Jones County was established in 1882 by John Kamper, a local businessman who saw a lucrative opportunity by providing lumber for the railroad construction through the county.  Kamper built his business around two mills, one located close to the present location of the Laurel Depot and another further north in what was then known as the village of Kingston. This mill was located on the site of Crumbley Paper Company on First Avenue.  With these two mills, Kamper and Louin (his business partner) provided all of the lumber needed to complete the railroad.
Kamper Mill
Kamper's Mill, ca. 1880, at a site just east of the present site of downtown Laurel on the east side of the railroad.
The Naming of Laurel
There are several versions concerning the manner in which Laurel received its name.  The one thing that is clear is that the city was named before it was built.  The first version of the story is that it was named by Kamper and Louin. The United States Post Office desired to establish a post office at each of the mills and stops along the railroad and requested that the partners submit a name for the office that would be located at their mill settlement.  The story goes that Kamper wanted to name the settlement
"Louin" after his business partner, but Louin wanted the town named for Kamper.  Neither man wanted to give the settlement his name. Some locals joke that neither wanted the honor because it was such a ramshackle, miserable place that each considered it a dishonor rather than an honor to give their name to it.  More than likely, however, each protested out of a sense of humility.  Regardless, they decided to compromise and name the city after the mountain laurel that used to grow in the underbrush of the pine forest.

Another version states that name was chosen by Captain Hardy who helped build the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad and who also built Hattiesburg and Gulfport.  This version states that the railroad company was responsible for naming scheduled stops about every ten miles along the route.  Hardy and his colleague, a man by the name of Whinery, were riding along the route and measuring out 10 mile intervals.  When the arrived at the spot on which the Kamper mills were located (which was only about seven miles from the previous stop at Ellisville rather than the standard 10 mile interval), Hardy suggested naming the depot "Whinery."  Mr. Whinery also declined to have his name given to the settlement and suggested naming it after one of the species of local plants.  They searched the woods and found a mountain laurel shrub and decided that Laurel should be the name.

Either way, it is clear that the name submitted to the Post Office was spelled incorrectly.  When the submission arrived in Washington, the Postmaster General, John Wanamaker, realized that the name was misspelled as "Lawrell."  As the Postmaster General, he took it upon himself to correct the mistake and officially posted the name as "Laurel."
The Eastman-Gardiner Company
Eastman-Gardiner Mill
Upon the completion of the railroad, production at Kamper-Louin mills slowed down considerably. Soon the mills became a burden to the two men and both sought to divest.  Louin and Kamper dissolved their partnership and Louin took sole possession of the Kingston mill. Kamper began to look for a buyer for the mill in Laurel. Here, our northern capitalists reenter the story. In 1891, a group of them happened to be in Slidell, Louisiana (just outside of New Orleans along the route of the newly completed N.O & N.E. railroad). Their names were George S. Gardiner and his father, Silas B. Gardiner. Their cousin, Charles Eastman, was also scouting out property with them but he was scouting on the Illinois Central line. The Gardiners and Eastmans were lumbermen from Clinton, Iowa and had come south in search of new timberlands to replace the depleted timber resources of their native state.  They were one group of many "Timber Cruisers," venture capitalists who scoured the southern landscape for the best timber groves to buy and develop. The Gardiners were on the train headed to New Orleans following an unsuccessful foray through Mississippi and Alabama. John Kamper was also on the train trying to interest someone willing to buy his mill. Their train had stopped in Slidell as it waited for a northbound train to pass on the Illinois. During the stop, they took advantage of the pause to get off the train and stretch their legs. While waiting to re-board, they overheard Kamper bragging about his mill to some other men. The Gardiners asked more questions of Kamper, who willingly and enthusiastically described his operation. Finally, they agreed to travel with him to Laurel to inspect it. What they found was a ramshackle. They were not impressed at all, but realized the enormous potential of the surrounding forest. Therefore, they agreed to buy it along with 16,000 acres of land at the price of $4.00/acre. Within weeks, in April 1891, the newly
A later photograph of the Eastman-Gardiner Mill, located at the current site of the Sawmill Square Mall area.
formed Eastman Gardiner Company was in operation. George S. Gardiner was its president, his brother Silas W. Gardiner was its treasurer, and Charles Eastman's brother Lauren Chase Eastman was its vice president. Realizing that the run-down mill that they had just bought was in desperate need of repairs and upgrading, Charles Eastman and Silas B. Gardiner had gone back to Iowa in order to secure more capital.

From these meager beginnings, Laurel began to grow. The Eastman Gardiner Company first made much needed repairs and expansion to the mill. Much of it was moved from the eastern side of the railroad tracks to the western side. The plant reopened in January 1892. It achieved marginal success until the Panic of 1893, which brought production to a near standstill as demand for lumber came to a halt. The mill survived these hard times, however, through an ingenious cooperative agreement between the management and labor. With this agreement, the laborers agreed to take a severe cut in pay. In return, management promised that when prosperity returned, they would receive increases in their pre-depression rate of pay as well as back pay lost during the crisis. The company made good on their promise, and the mill and its community emerged from the crisis stronger than ever.
A Southern City Built With Yankee Money
Following the Panic of '93, Lauren Chase Eastman, the company's vice president, and Catherine Marshall Gardiner, the wife of the company's president George S. Gardiner, envisioned the development of a proper town in which to house its workers. Unlike other Northern lumbermen who came to the South, the founders of Eastman Gardiner Company were not content to just get what they could from the land and people before moving on. They intended to invest all that they had in the region, including their families. The Gardiners, Eastmans, and Rogers moved their families from Iowa to Mississippi and began building a proper city in which they could live. When it was clear that the company's mill was up and running and on firm footing, Lauren Eastman began to lay out the streets of the modern city. He first laid out streets that paralleled the railroad in a northeastern-southwestern direction for several blocks from the tracks. These were to be used by commercial businesses. Beyond these streets, Eastman adopted a north-south and east-west grid system to be used as residential thoroughfares. In the residential section, Eastman laid the streets out so that he created broad boulevards flanked by oak saplings that he knew would be the great towering trees that they are today. The map below is of the modern downtown area of Laurel. On this map, you can see how Eastman laid the streets out using two different grids, the commercial grid that followed the
Fifth Avenue at the Turn of the Century
A view of 5th Avenue around the turn of the 20th century.  This broad street was the show piece of the residential section of the new city of Laurel  It was on 5th Avenue that the Eastman Gardiner Lumber Barons built their stately mansions. First and Second Avenues, closer to the raiload tracks, were the sites of the homes built to house white mill workers and their families.  Third and Fourth Avenues were where the mill foremen and other mid-managers lived. Sisth and Seventh Avenues housed the merchants and other entrepreneurs of the community.  The black community was built on the east side of the railroad tracks.
tracks, and the residential grid oriented to the primary compass points. Since the railroad tracks were in diagonal positions, the streets of the residential grid that ran east to west and the avenues that ran north to south could be numbered according to their positions from the tracks. The commercial streets however, were named while the residential streets and avenues were numbered. The first street from the west side of the track, which would have been 1st Street, was named Ellisville Blvd.  The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th streets became known as Magnolia Street, Beacon Street, and Sawmill Road respectively.  Across Sawmill Road was the residential district and the streets retained their numerical order from the tracks beginning with 5th Street. With such obvious thought to the logical plan of the city, it is to see how the City Beautiful Movement that was so prevalent in these early days of urban planning influenced Eastman. It has been said that Eastman intended Laurel to be grand enough to become the new capital of the state: a new city symbolizing a new and industrialized state that was emerging from the ashes of war.
A modern map of the City of Laurel's downtown area.  The dual grid system that was laid out by Lauren Chase Eastman is still visible on the map.  The streets of the commercial district are laid out in a diagonal pattern that is parallel to the railroad tracks.  These streets are named rather than numbered.  Central Avenue provided a direct route from the homes of the mill workers through downtown (so they might shop for goods on their way home) to the offices of the Eastman-Gardiner Company mill where they reported to work.  The streets of the residential section of the white community are numbered according to their positions from the railroad tracks.  The East to West thoroughfares are designated as streets while the North to South roads are designated as avenues.  The residential district of the black community, which was required to be separated by law, was located on the east side of the railroads.  On this map, residential areas are in green.  Government and cultural buildings are identified in gold, green spaces are in light green, churches are in orange, and schools are in red. 
Enlightened Philosophy
The lumber barons of Laurel differed from other mill owners in the region in another quite important manner. Whereas many of the other mill owners were content to rely on currently accepted managerial techniques in their relations with their employees, the owners of the Eastman Gardiner Company insisted on a more progressive management policy. They distributed enormous sums of money to their employees in the form of bonus payments. They financed the construction of the bungalows in which they lived and provided credit to them in order that they might buy them instead of pay rent. They built a modern school system and staffed it with qualified teachers, headed by a superintendent from Bristol, Tennessee named R.H. Watkins. They sent Dr. Watkins to Chicago to study education at the University of Chicago, so that he would bring back with him the latest and most modern educational techniques to Laurel. In matters of race relations, they refused to accept the prevailing system of segregation as much as they were legally allowed to do so. They paid African-American employees of the mill a wage that far surpassed any wage that they could make in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. They created and financed a black educational system, surrounding the Oak Park Vocational School, the state's first municipal agricultural and vocational school for blacks. As a result, Laurel's progressive leaders spawned an environment that enabled black Laurelites to create one of the first African-American middle class communities in the South. African-American entrepreneurs were able to secure enough capital to open small businesses and companies targeting the black community.
In 1921, Laurel was planning to celebrate the wedding of one of its favorite sons, Lauren Eastman Rogers, the grandson of the man who laid Laurel's streets out, Lauren Chase Eastman.  Lauren Rogers was an extremely popular man in Laurel.  After going north to receive his education, Lauren had come back to Laurel to claim his place in the lumber dynasty created by his grandfather and his colleague/in-laws.  However, before this bright future could be realized, Lauren suffered an attack of appendicitis and died.  The Gardiners, Eastmans, and Rogers went into mourning.  Two years later, they emerged determined to make a lasting legacy for their fallen son, a legacy that he had not been allowed to make for himself.  At the time of his death, Lauren's family was in the process of building a home for him and his fiancee which was to be their wedding gift.  The practice of builidng homes as wedding gifts was very popular among Laurel's capitalist class at the time.   Many of the fine homes that are listed on the inventory of Laurel's historical district were built as wedding gifts.  Lauren's home was located on Fifth Avenue at the corner of Seventh Street, among the fine homes that his father and grandparents had built for themselves.  The home was still unfinished when Lauren died and work was halted as a result.  When Lauren's extended family emerged from their period of mourning, they all decided that they would create a library and museum in his honor.  The building that they had begun to build for him as his home was torn down and a new building suitable for its new purpose was begun.  In 1923, the Lauren Rogers Museum opened its doors.  Since then, it has served as a cultural mecca for the entire city.  At one time, the builidng housed not only an art museum, but the public library and a local genealogy collection.  Today, it houses the renowned Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.  
Lauren Chase Eastman (L) and his grandson Lauren Eastman Rogers
The Golden Age and Decline of Laurel's Lumber

By the 1920s, the lumber industry had made Laurel the lumber capital of the South and one of the largest lumbering centers in the world. Four large mills and several smaller companies produced hundreds of millions of board feet per year. In 1907, considered to be the peak year of production in Jones County, the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad alone transported 800,000,000 board feet to market. The four large mills, all financed by northerners, were the Eastman Gardiner Company, the Gilchrist-Fordney Company, the Wausau Southern Lumber Company, and the Marathon Lumber Company. All of these were founded in the first decade of the 20th century and continued to be the basis of the Laurel economy for the next 25 years.

The Stock Market Crash of October 29, 1929 spelled the end of the lumber empire of Laurel. A fire had destroyed the Eastman Gardiner mill in 1928 and the company was struggling to rebuild it when the bottom fell out from Wall Street. Though several attempts were made to keep the company afloat during the Depression, by 1937 it could no longer do so. The Eastman-Gardiner group divested itself of its several holdings throughout the country and the lumber interest in Mississippi was created as a separate entity known as the Green Lumber Company. The Green Lumber Company would never operate on the scale of the best years of the Eastman Gardiner Company. Once the pine forest was completely depleted, the company turned to the hardwood stands left in the river bottoms. This meager resource, however, never provided the revenue of the days gone by. During the Second World War, using these hardwood resources, Green Lumber Company was able to provide products needed in the war effort. It was merely a final swan song, however. The end of the war spelled the end of the company and the company ceased to exist in 1956. The other three companies that had made up the "Big Four" of the Laurel industry each closed their doors in the early years of the Depression.

During the Depression, it became painfully apparent that the landscape of Jones County had been completely denuded by the lumber industry. Miles upon miles of the county were said to resemble a barren moonscape, pockmarked with the stumps of the once-towering pines. Conservation and reforestation efforts came with F.D. Roosevelt's Work Projects Administration. In conjunction with state and local authorities, most notably the Mississippi Forestry Commission, thousands of acres of denuded forests began to be replaced with seedlings. Though the majority of the funding for this effort came from public funds, the newly founded Masonite Corporation in Laurel contributed significantly, as it had a vested interest in replenishing the forests that provided the necessary wood to create its product. Local farmers were encouraged sign up in the project. The effort paid off, for today forestry-related industries, including Masonite, remain an important part of the Laurel economic base.



Thanks to Tommy for this excellent contribution to the Jones Co. MSGenWeb site!

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