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Noble Barker and the Old Piney Days of the Big Mill

On the evening of May 21, 1996 I went to Noble Barker Sr.'s house on Brush Creek. There he told me the story of the Big Mill and the pine of the Alford Forest. That night Noble told me that his grandfather had come to this country in the 1830's. This was the time of the first White settlement.

The span of Noble's generational memory through his grandfather goes back to the time of transition from the Indians to the new settlers. The Barker family's story is also the story of the recent history of the forest.

In Noble's words, "Landers and the Barkers got together in 1917 and formed the Landers and Barker Lumber Company. In 1922, the company built the Big Mill which included a sawmill, dry kiln, and planing mill." The Big Mill was located right on Alford Forest land, where the Cane Bottom spring branch comes out from the property and runs along Highway 95.

The mill was the center of a small town, including a company store and office, blacksmith shop, horse and mule barn, and 27 sawmill "shacks." In one of his old colorized pictures of the mill town Noble pointed to the sawmill shack where he lived with his family.

Between 1905 and 1910 John Landers bought the large tracts of land that include at least some of the present Alford Forest. The reason for buying it was to harvest the great pine stands of the area. Pine lumber was the prime marketable commodity of the forest at that time, worth the grand sum of $12 per thousand board feet, with the logs themselves going for $5 per thousand.

The mill and settlement thrived from 1922 to 1929, until the merchantable pine stands were gone. Then they packed up the mill and moved it to Texas County.

One of the most remarkable things about the mill is that it was powered entirely on gravity, water, and sawdust (and other wood waste from the mill operation). The whole operation was built to land the logs at the highest point of the bottom and roll them down to the mill. The mill ran on steam power generated from the waters of the Cane Bottom spring branch and the burning of the wood wastes from the mill itself. Waste steam from the engines was used in the dry kiln to dry the lumber. Steam power also ran the engines that planed the lumber. All from renewable biomass energy, making some serious production, from 20,000 to 30,000 board feet per day!

A number of people around the Brixey area have memories of the Big Mill, or have parents or relatives who worked there. In his fine article "The Big Mill" (from the publication The Old Mill Run), Noble tells the story far better and in more detail than I have done here, and lists all the people who worked at the mill during its brief history.

--David Haenke