Cypress lumbering was Louisiana’s first prominent manufacturing industry. The industry grew rapidly with the need to rebuild America after the ruinous Civil War. Americans wanted homes and furniture made of waterproof, long-lasting cypress, and the ever-expanding railroad industry needed railroad ties that were near-weatherproof and would not rot quickly. After the war, cypress was in strong demand throughout the country.
In celebration of the lumber’s history, the Cypress Sawmill Museum in Patterson is now open. The museum’s expansive collection of exhibits showcases the history of the red cypress lumber industry in Louisiana between the years 1872 and 1930.
Pulled by Two
Swampers cut the trees with axes and a saw called a “passé-partout,” which means “pulled by two,” a saw that is pulled by two swampers standing on either side of a tree. Quite often the two swampers would each stand in a pirogue, a shallow boat, while they pulled their passé-partout back and forth across a tree trunk for hours. The swampers’ two pirogues would be loosely tied together around a cypress tree trunk to give the swampers some sense of water-resistant stability while they sawed.
When a worker died on the job, the high-pitched squeal of a loud steam whistle on a nearby boat could be heard throughout the swamp to signal the loss.
The largest cypress sawmill in South Louisiana was owned by Frank B. Williams, who resided in Patterson. Giant cypress trees were cut down and extracted from muddy, shallow swamps using the latest steam-powered turn-of-the-century technology, all of which can be seen in the Cypress Sawmill Museum. The logs were towed upriver by F.B. Williams’ steamboat Sewanee on the Atchafalaya River to sawmills where the timber would be milled into boards for homes and furniture and shipped by train in large quantities throughout the United States.
One of most entertaining and interesting exhibits in the Cypress Sawmill Museum is a historic black-and-white silent movie that shows scenes of the arduous cypress-harvesting process in the swamp during the summer of 1927. The silent film was shot by Kemper Williams, the second of four sons of F.B. Williams.
The Kemper Williams movie has two parts. The first part shows how timber was cut and extracted from the swamp with long chains and lifted by cranes out of the muddy water and onto boats that traveled through man-made canals, pulling the logs behind. Logs were also carried out of the swamp by small trains to various sawmills located throughout the area. The early-20th-century machinery and equipment used to cut and extract fallen logs are exhibited in the museum. The second part of the film shows how timber was pulled upriver by steamboat to be milled at the F.B. Williams Cypress Co. and depicts the company’s efficient milling process that transformed logs into boards that were shipped from the mill countrywide via railroad.
Other fascinating items in the Cypress Sawmill Museum’s collection are the pirogues, boats, saws and machines used by timber industry swampers who worked for a variety of cypress industry business owners during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. An exhibit of antiquated F.B. Williams Sawmill Co. office equipment is on display, which makes one marvel at how such a thriving enterprise was sustained with such dated technology. Cypress knees and stumps are also on display, with a timeline etched across the length of one stump to illustrate how long cypress trees can live: This particular one is 800 years old.
You can also see period photographs in the museum that depict unique cypress industry life in the swamps of South Louisiana and maps that show evidence of how extensive boomtown life had become for millers throughout the Patterson area; Americans arrived in town with families in tow looking for a steady job in a thriving industry.
The Cypress Sawmill Museum is part of the Louisiana State Museum system, which was founded in 1906 to preserve Louisiana cultural history. Also housed in the Cypress Sawmill Museum building is the Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum, which features many 1930s-era racing aircraft built and raced by ace mechanic and aerial daredevil Jimmie Wedell, a Texas native, and wealthy Harry Williams of Patterson, the fourth son of F.B. Williams, who it is said “loved fast cars and fast boats.” The Wedell-Williams team won scores of aviation racing trophies, set world records and made their indelible mark on aviation history.
The Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum and Cypress Sawmill Museum are located at Kemper Williams Park in St. Mary Parish, 118 Cotton Road in Patterson on Highway 90. The museum can be reached at 985/399-1268.
Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free. For more information online, visit lsm.crt.state.la.us/wedellex.htm