By Pat Rand
(Author’s Note: Material for this article came from the archives of the Sacramento Mountains Historical Museum and interviews with Bill Dees, Phil Fuller, and Mark Hare.)
The national economic depression hit the area in 1930. By June, the entire operation of Breece Lumber Company was shut down for an indefinite period. As a result of the shutdown, there was an immediate stoppage of the waste-wood fuel supply for the power plant. The company was forced to use more expensive fuels, and finally installed diesel generators in December 1932, at which time the steam plant was shut down permanently. The power company unsuccessfully sued Breece for breach of contract, and then went into receivership.
Southwest Lumber Company continued to operate, but at a loss, for three years, at the insistence of Louis Carr. Thousands of feet of lumber were piled in the yard without a buyer. Then urgent calls came from CCC (Civic Conservation Corp) camps all over southern New Mexico, requiring lumber as quickly as possible. Contracts were given for lumber in 11 camps, and Southwest sold 2.6 million board-feet of lumber in 30 days. Louis Carr’s kindness had paid off.
In January 1935, Southwest was the successful bidder on almost 30 million board-feet of lumber in what was called the Agua Chiquita Unit. Rail lines were run up Wills Canyon and over the summit into Scott Able Canyon and finally into the Agua Chiquita. By this time, Southwest had over 30 miles of rail lines. About the same time, the company purchased the timber rights on the Cloudcroft Reserve from the Southern Pacific Company. After considerable controversy, they built a line around the south and east sides of the Village of Cloudcroft, and logged under highly restricted conditions.
In an attempt to get back on its feet, Breece Lumber Company sold its logging railroad for scrap in 1939 and then, in the summer of 1940, sold its Mescalero timber contracts to the Prestridge Lumber Company, which then shipped the material by truck to the Southwest Lumber Company Mill in Alamogordo. In 1941, Breece sold the balance of its assets, including its sawmill, to Prestridge, which reopened the mill on June 3, 1941.
M.R. Prestridge, president of the company, grew up in the lumber business. His father was an early day timber man in Louisiana and East Texas who came to New Mexico in the 1920s and had a lumber business in Albuquerque. His son went to work for him in 1931 in the Albuquerque and Grants areas before forming his own company.
In addition to handling Prestridge’s Mescalero lumber, Southwest purchased an estimated 30 million board-feet of lumber from the C.M. Harvey holdings located between James and Cox Canyons. Special agreements protected the scenic and watershed qualities of the tract, and logging was done under strict Forest Service rules and supervision. Southwest continued its railroad operations into the war years but, by late 1942, it was determined that trucking was cheaper and more practical than running trains over the tortuous railroad, which now extended more than 30 miles and required four locomotives. All equipment was stored at Marcia, and the spurs were taken up, with the rails being sold as scrap. Only the main line from Marcia remained.
By 1945, it became obvious that Southwest, with its long timber hauls and aging sawmill, could no longer compete with Prestridge. Carr shut down the sawmill but continued with his planing mill until September of that year, when Prestridge Lumber Company purchased all the assets of Southwest Lumber Company, including the largest stand of private timber in the Sacramento Mountains. Southwest had operated for 25 years – longer than any of the major companies in the area. Carr then returned to his native North Carolina, where he continued in the lumber business until his death at 94 in 1953.
Prestridge operated in Alamogordo until moving its operations to El Paso in September 1960. This was quite a blow to the city, since more than 200 men had been on its payroll and the mill had averaged a production of 20 million board-feet of lumber per year. A fleet of diesel trucks had brought the timber to the mill, which was powered by its own sawdust and waste scrap. In the opinion of other loggers, Prestridge operated until all the fine material had been used up, and then decided it was unprofitable to continue with its operations.
The plant sat idle until it was purchased by the La Luz Lumber Company in May 1968, with a contract to provide lumber to Sears, Roebuck and Company for the making of their line of unfinished furniture. After only three years of operation, the mill was sold to Allied Forest Products Company of Portland, Oregon.
Allied’s subsidiary, White Sands Forest Products, took over and continuously operated the plant from 1971 until it shut down in 2000, mainly due to the lack of accessible lumber. Forest fires in the area greatly contributed to this situation, but the primary cause was the actions of environmentalists who, in their attempt to protect the Mexican spotted owl and its habitat, had the Forest Service set aside 65,000 acres of forest for this purpose in 1993.
White Sands Forest MFP, which had successfully operated a mill on the Mescalero Reservation, took over the plant in April 2001, and began operating on a reduced scale with material brought in through the thinning of the reservation’s forests and private land cutting.
Small operators have had sawmills in the area over the years. The Mershon Lumber Company operated in the Mayhill area from 1937 until 1941, when it was dismantled and taken to the Weed area. The Jackson Lumber Company opened in 1962 in Alamogordo after Prestridge had moved out. The Otero Mill also operated in Alamogordo during the 1970s. Another company was the Valley Lumber Company, operated by Charlie Denton, which had a mill in Mayhill, and supplied lumber to the surrounding towns and to Ruidoso.
Two lumber mills are still operating in the mountains. One is Chippeway Lumber – located near Weed and operated by Phil Fuller, a third generation lumber man – which began operations in 1952 and produces 600 to 800 thousand board-feet of lumber per year. The second is Dees‚ Sawmill – which began its operations at the present location just east of the James Canyon Cemetery on Highway 82 in 1960 and produces about 400 thousand board-feet of lumber per year. It is owned and operated by Bill Dees, whose grandfather began the business in Pietown, New Mexico – located between Socorro and Quemado – before the turn of the century.
In 2001, after years of finger pointing and serious disagreements over how the forests should be managed, cooperation between the Forest Service, Congress, Federal, State and Local officials from a dozen agencies, plus private citizen representatives, came about with the forming of the Lincoln National Forest Program Working Group ( LNFPWG ), which hopes to thin the forests and bring them back to a state of health within a 20 year period.
It is hoped that common sense rather than emotions will take control of this situation, and the Sacramento Mountains will return to having a healthy environmental condition and be enjoyed by everyone.
(c) 2001 Mountain Monthly