Jackson timber products a vital commodity during World War II


By Jim Buchanan


As the years roll by memories of the importance of the timber industry to Sylva and Jackson County are fading away.

Not without coincidence, so are memories of how vital the timber industry was to the American victory in World War II. Used for everything from shipping containers to planes, ships, barracks and hangers, wood was such a necessity that loggers were exempt from the draft.

Back in October of 1943, the Sylva Herald carried two front-page stories that went into detail regarding the value of specific woods in the county: black walnut and oak.

Black walnut was prized for making gun stocks, such as for the M1 Garand rifle, because of its density, durability and beauty. Larger black walnut trees were in demand, and the wood for the stocks came from the bottom of the walnut, which is denser from supporting the tree’s weight. The grain definition of black walnut is attributed to temperature and weather changes, meaning places with temperature extremes generally product the best grades. Jackson County is a good fit for that requirement.


Thus the 1943 story, “Jackson Walnut Logs Help In Fighting War.”


“By furnishing black walnut logs that can be made into gunstocks to carry the fight to Hitler and Hirohito, Western North Carolina farmers have found a new way to contribute to the war effort. James Ray Orr, assistant farm agent in forestry for the State College Extension Service, reports that farmers in Jackson County have already cut and sold 131,879 board feet of black walnut logs for this purpose. This record production was made between May 29 and Sept. 25, and Orr believes that it will reach the 200,000 mark before Christmas. Their harvest has given the farmers a return of $48,886, or an average of $67.37 per thousand board feet for the logs they have already delivered. The farmers cut the logs on their own land and delivered them at a central receiving point in Sylva where they were measured and purchased every Friday by the Wood Mosaic Company. The logs were then cut into flitches by the local mill and shipped to a plant that cuts out the gunstocks. Orr is helping the men in this work by visiting their farms, aiding them in selecting the trees of commercial size, and advising them as to how these logs should be cut to give the best quality of timber and the highest price. The Wood Mosaic Company has a local office in Asheville and has established other walnut-purchasing yards.”

Below that story was a feature on the use of the county’s oak. A Herald reporter interviewed W.C. Hennessee, a major player in the county’s timber history. Hennessee described the use of oak trees for staves in barrel making – and appeared to have a bit of fun with the reporter. As there was no byline to the story, the reporter’s name is lost to the ages.


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This Locality Ideal For Making Of Staves


Among the many enterprises for which Jackson County has been found ideal, there is one which has received little publicity, “but which is important and far-reaching. That is the making of staves, cooper’s supplies and equipment. W.C. Hennessee, manager of the firm of Hennessee and Welch, with its plant one mile east of Sylva, says that, after inspecting many locations, he finds this point the perfect hub for cutting and fashioning staves. He explains that oak is the one wood that should be used, and that the oak of this section is right both as to quality and quantity. Asked if his outfit’s activities could in any way be harmful to preservation of Western North Carolina forests, Mr. Hennessee smiled at The Herald reporter’s ignorance. “Harmful,” he chuckled, “that’s exactly what we are not.” He went on to show how most of his cutting is on government forest service lands, and that only trees squaring 16 inches or upward are ever hewn. Every safeguard, said the stave man, is thrown around the present forest and that of the future, with mature growth the only stage considered. “Harmful!” Mr. Hennessee laughed once more; “Man, that word sticks in my craw. Why, the average tree we use is 200 to 300 years old, though occasionally, when in reckless mood, we may take a century-old infant if it squares the right inch-measure and forest welfare seems to warrant the cutting.” Mr. Hennessee says that the acute metal shortage is drawing heavily upon his production for oil containers of oaken staves, supplanting the once popular metal drum. The utmost care is necessary, he explained, in choice of wood, especially for hogsheads designed for penetrating liquids. The staves then must be not only oaken, but each one must be of the same species. “Yes,” he concluded, “we are busy now, trying to do our bit, trying to supply our regular customers as well as furnish wooden containers in place of steel and aluminum drums. Whatever the future holds for our industry, there will always be an insistent demand for the oaken stave, found at its best right here in our own mountains.”