Walk a new trail, turn a lathe at Hardwood Tree Museum Day Nov. 8
The new Herman Udouj Trail has tree identification signs.
On Nov. 8, visitors can experience some of what the museum wants to share in its permanent home someday – the smell of freshly cut wood and the high whine and buzz of woodworking machinery as craftsmen demonstrate the skills that once sustained Fort Smith’s economy.
With founding members as diverse as veterans of Fort Smith’s furniture industry, forestry scientists, architects and woodworking craftsmen, the museum plans to encompass all aspects of the significance of the hardwood tree in nature and in human use.
How trees built a town
From Fort Smith’s founding in 1817, the abundance of hardwood forests surrounding the little military fort and city on the Arkansas River supplied the raw materials used to accelerate its growth into a manufacturing powerhouse, at one time the largest center of furniture production west of the Mississippi River.
While Riverside Furniture and several other manufacturers still operate here, the furniture industry dominated Fort Smith’s economy for more than 100 years from the 1870s through the late 20th century. In 1965, the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce noted, about a third of local workers were employed by furniture manufacturers.
The presence of nearby, abundant hardwood trees as a natural resource encouraged the development of the entire supply chain for furniture-making, from lumber operations to sawmills, furniture assembly and finishing and the related manufacturing of other components such as hardware, glass and mirrors.
In addition to furniture, local factories produced wooden wagons at the rate of 18,000 a year, made wagon wheels, wooden barrels, burial caskets and even glider aircraft during World War II.
The museum acquired and is still collecting Fort Smith-made furniture, historic photographs, product catalogues and the oral histories of industry owners and workers. University of Arkansas-Fort Smith history students are assisting with the recording of interviews.
At the Nov. 8 exhibition, visitors can do some hands-on cross-cut sawing and wood-turning on lathes to get an idea of the processes involved in lumber harvesting and furniture-making.
Enjoying and understanding hardwood trees in nature
On the Hardwood Tree Museum’s new Herman J. Udouj Memorial Trail, visitors can walk through the forest and learn to identify native hardwoods. Dedicated last month, the walking trail has a 4-foot-wide gravel surface and is dotted with wooden signposts identifying specimens of oak, cherry, winged elm and other species of trees. The signs were made by students at Northside High School.
Labor to clear and lay the trail out came from Boy Scout Troop 4 of Fort Smith with the guidance of naturalist and museum board member Larry Lowman and others. A clearing along the trail will have an ADA-accessible trail and outdoor classroom.
Speakers at the Nov. 8 event can use the forest at hand to explain the effects of former non-sustainable hardwood logging, tell of the conservation actions that helped to restore Arkansas’ hardwoods and discuss today’s “best practices” for sustainable, healthy forests.
Living in, and making a living in, the hardwood forest
The abundant hardwoods of Arkansas provided the raw materials for pioneers to build rough-hewn homes and to burn wood for heat and cooking. Hand tools also were used to shave wooden shingles and to cut notches to fit walls together.
Museum member Gene Hardgrave has taken down an 1840 barn, numbering each piece for reconstruction, that the museum hopes to erect again to show the craftsmanship used to build from hand-sawn lumber.
Arkansans also harvested wood to earn a living by logging and milling lumber. One of the acquisitions of the museum is a “peckerwood” sawmill. What’s the “peckerwood” mean? It is a slang word, derogatory, indicating a backwoodsman whose mill could operate little faster than a woodpecker.
Insignificant to a commercial sawmill, perhaps, but hundreds of the simple, steam-powered or gasoline-powered, portable sawmills operated in Arkansas, turning raw trees into board lumber, allowing for homes and buildings to be upgraded from log cabins into structures made of planks and clapboard. These slow, cruder sawmills could supply the lumber for barns, fences and wagons. The growth of railroads also demanded a huge supply of wooden crossties and workers at the little family-operated sawmills could earn a living providing them.
The peckerwood mills earned their place in history. Some family sawmills grew into lumber empires.
“We’d like to someday demonstrate how trees were skidded out of the woods by mule teams and put the sawmill together to show the whole process,” said James Reddick, an architect and museum board member.
Sharing now and building for the future
With the establishment of the Udouj Trail, the Hardwood Tree Museum has made its first mark on the forested acres where the group plans to construct a museum building someday. But outside is where the trees are. Hardwood Tree Museum Day will demonstrate that learning about trees is naturally fitting beneath a canopy of leaves.
This article appears in the November issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.