Enoch: J. R. Buckwalter, lumberman

Published 3:00 pm Saturday, June 17, 2023

By Harry Enoch

Contributing Writer

Sometimes, when looking into the history of an interesting house, one finds an owner with a fascinating story. So it was with the Buckwalter House at 457 South Maple Street. The so-called “Blue Book”—”Survey of Historic Sites in Kentucky: Clark County”—provides a description of the two-and-a-half-story brick residence:

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“The house was built by the local contracting firm of Slack and Crone for J. R. Buckwalter in 1893. The architect is unknown, although John W. Crone, who later designed several of the downtown commercial buildings, might have been responsible. The pyramidal-roof house makes an elegant attempt at style through the use of stonework, particularly in the Richardsonian gable, the stonework of which extends before the roofline. The interiors are original and primarily of natural oak.”

Buckwalter was a lumberman, and the ornate wood paneling, doors and molding in the house came from his mills. After Buckwalter left Winchester, he would become one of the most prominent lumbermen in the country and was regularly featured in their trade journals—American Lumberman, National Lumberman, Lumber World Review and others. John R. Buckwalter was born near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1846. When his father and two older brothers drowned in the Schuylkill River, sixteen-year-old Buckwalter had to go to work to support his mother and six siblings. The only interruption came when he enlisted in the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the Civil War.

After the war, he went to work in a sawmill. Showing a knack for the business, he was rapidly promoted, and in 1872 he married Amanda Cassel, his employer’s daughter. He built his own sawmill just as the Panic of 1873 hit the country. By “working fourteen to sixteen hours every day, and my wife doing the cooking for as high as fifteen to seventeen hands, we together finally paid out.” He hit pay dirt by securing contracts in Erie, Pennsylvania, and Buffalo, New York, to supply oak timber for railroad construction and boatbuilding.

In 1884 Buckwalter bought into a mill manufacturing poplar lumber in Rowan County, Kentucky. Then in 1892, he left Pennsylvania and moved to Winchester. He and Amanda purchased two adjoining lots in Thomson Subdivision and built their new home. Buckwalter acquired a large tract of timber in Rowan County and erected a new mill on Licking River near Farmers. There he “is credited with building the first all-steel sawmill building in America.” As his home and business were both located on the C&O Railroad, we surmise that Buckwalter commuted to work by train.

Area newspapers frequently described happenings at Buckwalter’s mill. Among the clippings are reports of large timber purchases, accidents at the mill, the breach of a log boom with the loss of thousands of logs, and a strike by his workers for a ten-hour work day and biweekly pay.

In 1902 Buckwalter sold his Licking River mill and purchased about 5,000 acres of shortleaf pine near Union, Mississippi, and another large tract near Hattiesburg. He soon after removed to Union. There he built one of the largest and most modern sawmills in the state. He also constructed a private railroad—five locomotives and fifteen miles of rail—to transport logs to the mill. Incoming logs were dumped into a log pond, then guided to an underwater chain that carried the logs into the mill. Finished products were shipped out via the Gulf Mobile & Northern Railroad. He added to operations with a planning mill and veneering plant.

The J. R. Buckwalter Company saw its peak in the 1920s when the Union sawmill had 500 employees. He built a commissary and company store adjoining the mill. In addition to their paychecks, employees could get advances in the form of tokens that could be used to buy merchandise at the company store. Called bronzines, these coins are now collector’s items. Buckwalter continued buying large tracts of timber and purchased several additional sawmills.

Buckwalter died in 1925. His son Abram took over management of the company, which managed to stay in business in Union until 1962.

Back to 457 South Maple, oral tradition also has it that Buckwalter sold the house because he was mad at his new neighbor at 449 Maple, who built a house about ten feet closer to the street, obscuring the view of the Buckwalter House. While this may have irked Buckwalter, he was on his way to Mississippi in 1905 when he sold the house to Winchester optometrist Oliver R. Venable and his wife, Frankie.