Middle Tennessee was covered with forests when the white man arrived in the late 1700s … but, it didn’t stay that way long.
The first settlers took axe in hand and began chopping.
Logs were needed for the construction of their cabins. Shingles for their roofs were split from cedar logs. Logs were split from cedar, chestnut and black locust to make the rails for fencing. Hollow sycamore trunks were turned into containers for food and to make simple chicken coops. Oak trees were used to make handles for tools and for chair-making.
The best woods — maple, cherry and walnut — were used to make furniture.
It is surprising to say, but there were so many trees that those early farmers were forced to make huge piles of them at the edges of their fields. The piles would then be burned just to get them out of the way.
The first sawmill in Hartsville used a labor-intensive method to cut a tree into usable lumber … the pit saw.
That required the digging of a deep pit, where one man would stand while another fellow stood on the ground level. The log that needed to be cut was then placed across the pit. A long, two-man saw was then pulled back and forth to cut each log into boards.
The difficulty of making lumber meant that most homes were made of log construction.
The invention of a circular saw blade led to the mass production of boards from trees and eventually the construction of homes using regular dimension lumber, such as 4-by-4s, 2-by-4s, etc. That didn’t take place until the early 1800s.
But, with that invention, suddenly sawmills sprang up everywhere, creating a demand for the raw material they needed ... trees.
The hills and hollers of the Cumberland Plateau were rich with hardwood trees, and soon, Hartsville was a shipping point for logs from here — as well as Macon, Jackson and Smith counties — to the sawmills and lumber yards of Nashville.
Because these trees came from old growth forests — that is, they had been growing since the end of the last ice age — they could be quite large.
“How large,” you ask.
An article in the Hartsville Sentinel, from October of 1881 says, “The hauling of walnut logs and lumber through town, though somewhat abated, still continues. Wagons frequently are able to accommodate three logs now, instead of one, as before.”
A few years ago, a family in Nashville, with Hartsville ancestry, gave the Trousdale County Historical Society an old, faded photo taken on the Main Street of Hartsville around 1880. It shows one huge walnut tree log being pulled by a team of eight mules.
The street and buildings won’t be recognizable, because our downtown burned down several years later and was rebuilt differently, but you can tell that was one mighty-big walnut tree by looking at the photo with this week’s article.
Local businessmen were benefitting from the thick forests of the Cumberland Plateau as is shown in this quote from an article in the Nashville Banner from 1906 ... “Hartsville continues to be a leading lumber point, the town having four large lumber yards, and in addition to these some ten or twelve mills from Macon County ship their entire output of lumber from this place. Perhaps no town in Tennessee of equal size has a larger lumber business than Hartsville.”
So much lumber was being brought down from Macon County that when the first turnpike between Hartsville and Lafayette was built in 1906, it was written up in another Nashville newspaper ... “This pike will be of untold benefit to the people of Macon County, as it will enable them to haul their lumber to Hartsville for shipment — something which cannot be done during the winter months owing to the miserable condition of the roads, they often becoming almost impassable, making it difficult for teams to pull a wagon, putting a stop to lumber hauling altogether for three or four months out of every year.”
The builder of that turnpike was Elmer White, the same engineer who built the impressive concrete sundial on Halltown Road as you leave Trousdale County and enter Macon County.