The timber industry has become a major economic driver of the Cumberland Plateau and has had a significant impact on the people and their culture. Its story is told in Gallery Eight. There was a major harvest of timber on the plateau from 1880 through 1920. Lumber mills were established and provided employment for people who began clustering in community centers. Isolation of the people began to disappear but their independent spirit remained. Dinky narrow gage trains were run from the coves to transport timber to the mills. Large tracts of land were acquired by timber interests. Most of the large or virgin timber was cut; only timber in the most remote areas was spared. Salvage Gulf in Grundy County was one area that was not cut over.
One of the largest lumber mills in Tennessee, complete with carpentry shop, was Sam Werner Lumber Co. in Tracy City. It was owned by a family that had originated in Switzerland. 15,000 acres were under the ownership of the family at the height of the company’s operations, including 3,400 acres in Savage Gulf, 500 of which were with virgin timber. In 1974 the grandchildren of Sam Werner, Sr., the immigrant founder of the lumber mill that bore his name, sold the Werner holdings in Savage Gulf to the State of Tennessee to enable the forest to be conserved as a part of the newly created South Cumberland State Recreation Area (South Cumberland State Park). This launched an era of land conservation on the South Cumberland Plateau that preserves substantial areas of the plateau for conservation and public benefit. This same family in 1997 extended their concern for conservation through a sale of 1,200 acres adjacent to Grundy Forest State Natural Area for incorporation into the Fiery Gizzard Trail portion of the State Recreation Area.
Another timber/lumber family in Grundy County, the Greeters, aided the conservation efforts of the State of Tennessee by selling lands owned by them for inclusion in the newly formed South Cumberland State Recreation Area.
The trees cut throughout the 1880 – 1920 period were by manned cross cut saws and snaked out of the coves and hollows with mules and teams of horses or oxen. Thirty years later the chain saw had been developed which facilitated clear cutting of the forests with removal of the cut timber with tractors and other machinery. This process often impaired the landscape with significant ground impaction and attendant soil erosion. Persons employed in the industry fiercely defended the accelerated timber cutting practices but others living within the plateau culture abhorred it and began protests movements.
Paper companies established pulp mills in the 1970s and thereafter became the principal consumers of the timber harvesting. This was now secondary growth timber harvesting. The paper companies further acquired vast land holdings on the plateau. After clear cutting the hardwood, pine plantations were planted. The fast growing pine was harvested for pulp in the paper mills. At the beginning of the 21st century a pine bark beetle infested the pine plantations. The paper companies began divesting themselves of their land holdings on the plateau and the State of Tennessee has acquired some of the former paper companies’ land incorporating it into the state park system. These timber land owners have been much less generous with the divestment of their holdings for public use conservation purposes than were the Werner and Greeter families before mentioned. They tend to favor sale for development or for investment by large pension funds.
The South Cumberland State Recreational Area has grown to 23,386 acres with ten parts. It is managed by a Park Manager with a staff of park rangers. They lead hikes and interpretative programs for the public.
The histories of families on the plateau are a major focus of the Heritage Center. Its library and research center provides the means for the public to learn about themselves. One such case involved a family with Native American heritage. They thought their grandmother of Native American heritage had been abandoned by her biological father. Using the facilities of the Heritage Center library, they found that the father of the grandmother had not abandoned her but had made arrangement for her adoption into a well to do family. An adoption certificate and photograph of the adoptive parents was found. Through the research the family was able to accomplish at the Heritage Center, the spirits of the family were uplifted to learn that their ancestral great grandparent had made a good effort to find a proper home for the child he could not care for himself.