A long history

Max Kutz (left) and John Pysh (right) work at the Matson Lumber Yard in Pleasantville. The yard serves as a physical sign of the lumber industries revival, in Northwest PA.

While Titusville and the surrounding area is today best known for oil, this was not always the case. Long before Drake Well first began extracting black gold from the ground, Titusville and the surrounding area was dedicated to lumber harvesting.

And, thanks to recent economic upswings, northwest Pennsylvania may be coming back around to its original industry once more.

Clear cut beginnings

The lumber industry first came to Crawford county in the late 1700s, according to Pennsylvania Lumber Museum Site Administrator Joshua Roth. These early lumber workers had been gradually moving west across the state as they cut down acres of trees, moving on once an area was cleared out.

There was plenty to go through. Pennsylvania was covered in trees. The name of the state even translates to “Penn’s woods” in Latin. However, the Northwest region was exceptional, having very high quality trees and many species that only grew in that area.

According to the book “History of Cawford County,” Titusville became a central trading hub as mills popped up all over the place. The harvested trees would be floated down tributaries and streams to Pittsburgh, where they sold for a high price.

Even as the oil industry began to sprout up, lumber did not go away. Wood was needed to construct derricks, and the two lived side-by-side for quite a while.

However, lumber did not come without its downsides. Violence was frequent in the many towns that would spring up around lumber mills, especially when alcohol was concerned.

“A tavern in a lumber town was typically called a pig ear,” Roth said. “And there are accounts of those places being kind of rough and tumble.”

The fall of lumber

Unfortunately, the lumber industry would become a victim of its own success. As operations became larger, the once mighty forests of Pennsylvania declined.

“When William Penn got here, Pennsylvania was about 95 percent forested,” Roth said in an interview with the Herald. “By the time the early 20th century rolls around, Pennsylvania is down to about 35% forested; most of it was not suitable for lumber production.”

Early lumber industries were unconcerned with sustainability practices, such as replanting or monitoring how much was harvested. Soon, there were very little trees left, and just as before, the lumber jacks packed up and moved on, leaving behind a myriad of ghost towns.

The lack of trees quickly became a problem. Stumps and branches left behind dried out and became staging grounds for wildfires. Without roots to hold the ground in place, mudslides became more commonplace, often blocking canals as soil piled up near waterways. Large animals, such as deer and elk, either vanished or went almost extinct in Pennsylvania without their natural habitats.

Conservation comeback

These mounting environmental issues served as a wake up call to Pennsylvania. In 1895, the PA Department of Forest and Waters was founded, dedicated to renewing Pennsylvania’s wild-lands once more.

The DFW began to establish nurseries and protected land, where trees were able to regrow without the threat of being cut down. However, while these nurseries marked the start, regrowth initiatives “got a real shot in the arm” when the Civilian Conservation Corps was created in 1933, according to Roth.

The CCC was part of President Franklin Rosevelt’s New Deal, and hired jobless men to perform labor on government owned land. Pennsylvania took a big advantage of the CCC, having the second most camps in the county, next to California, totaling 153 through the programs nine years of operation.

New trees were planted across the state by the CCC, literally laying the seeds for the lumber industry’s revival.

Furthermore, sustainable business regulations were put in place to ensure the same clear cutting PA suffered would never happen again. Replanting was made mandatory, and limits were placed on how much and where trees could be cut down.

Returning lumber operations took to these regulations well, according to Roth. Constantly having to change location due to trees running out was expensive, making sustainable forestry a financially sensible idea.

Gradually, Pennsylvania regrew, now having 65 percent of its surface forested.

Lumber poised to take over

Today, lumber is in a very good spot. Following a downturn that coincided with the housing crash, Pennsylvania has reinvented itself as the world leader in hardwood, which is used for things like flooring, tables, and chairs.

Local companies are certainly feeling the effects. According to Titusville Facility Plant Manager Bob Holcomb, Baillie Lumber, a hardwood supplier, has been steadily growing in size for the past 30 years.

“We went from a mill 30 years ago that could produce 500,000 feet (of lumber) a month to about 2 million feet a month currently,” Holcomb said in an interview with the Herald.

While foreign demand has always remained high, according to Holcomb, the domestic market has seen the biggest resurgence, especially as more companies centered around lumber and tree harvesting are founded.

“We are seeing more availability of lumber out there than we’ve ever seen before,” He said.

Perhaps no company is more emblematic of lumber’s return than Matson Timber-Land Company, which opened a log yard in Pleasantville four months ago.

“The timber in that area is some of the best, not only in the country, but in all of North America,” said Matson President Paul Sorek. “It’s a natural place to build a saw mill and have a lumber facility.”

Chief among the advantages Northwest Pennsylvania enjoys is the variety of species. Red Oak, White Oak, Hard Maple, Soft Maple, Yellow Poplar, and the elusive Black Cherry all grow in the region’s forests.

Sorek said that demand numbers have doubled since the recession, and that the company is on track to break the hardwood exports record for 2017.

The lumber yard exports around 10 to 15 containers a week, according to Yard Co-owner and Head of Timber Purchasing John Pysh, each container holding between 4,000 to 5,000 feet in wood boards.

“When people come to Matson, they’ll be treated fairly by professionals,” Pysh said. “It’s so the community has a place to sell their logs. We’re excited to be here.”

Ray can be reached by email, at sray@titusvilleherald.com.

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