In the Logging Woods: Conversations with Bud Rector and J.L. Martin

Logging in Harkey's Valley. Image donated by Freda Martin Cossey.

Logging in Harkey’s Valley. Image donated by Freda Martin Cossey.

Logging has long been an important industry in the state. The timber industry developed rapidly after the Civil War, expanding in all directions from the hardwoods and pines in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains to the hardwoods growing in the river bottoms of the Delta, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

In the days before the railroad and, later, paved roads and semi trucks, logging operations consisted of men with mule teams, saws, and numerous small, mobile sawmills that dotted the forests. Many of these sawmill operations existed in both Pope and Yell Counties and offered one of the few employment opportunities. As Bud Rector of Harkey’s Valley in Yell County explained, “In those day everybody was going around with a chopping ax and a cross cut saw.”

In a recent visit with Bud Rector and my father, J.L. Martin, they discussed life in the timber woods and recounted the numerous sawmill operations in the Yell County region, including mills owned by Arthur Tillman, Roy Yarber, Ernest Choate, and Thomas V. Jones, who also ran a store in downtown Dardanelle.

Few men owned these larger operations, but countless men found employment with the sawmill owners working as skidders, loaders and haulers. Others, like Martin’s father, John L. Martin, worked as muleskinners, operating a team to help haul out the logs. While many men logged in the woods, others found employment working on site at the roving sawmills. Mr. Arthur [Tillman] they explained “employed a log tumbler, a sawyer and an edger. There was also a man that carried the slabs and then a man that stacked the lumber.”

Both men recalled the late 1950s as a time when the mills “left out.” Advances in transportation erased the need for small, local sawmills and men soon began hauling to the larger mills in Dardanelle and Russellville. Machinery led to larger operations and various forms of clear cutting, and there was no longer a need for muleskinners and mule teams.  Larger corporations and companies began purchasing the timberland and operating their own mills and processing plants, and by the 1960s the nature of the logging industry had changed drastically.

Much has been written about Arkansas’s timber industry, but most of it focuses on the larger operations and companies, rather then the everyday men (and perhaps sometimes women), who traveled the woods with their portable sawmills, mule teams and cross cut saws.  But these stories of everyday men and women are equally important and make up the history of our region.

Did you work in the logging woods when you were younger? Did you work with a mule team or was someone in your family a muleskinner? Have you heard your grandparents tell stories about the timber woods? Perhaps you have family photos of sawmill operations. I’d love to hear your stories and, if you allow me, possibly share them in upcoming columns.

Click here to read our past column featuring Bud Rector and his amazing stories of life in Harkey Valley as well as hear portions of the recorded interview. Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your stories!


The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.