With the hilly land not much good for row cropping, the bounty of the hardwood forest has traditionally been the mainstay for the inhabitants of the Pickett County region, with native trees – white oak, ash, beech, black walnut, hickory, cherry, chestnut and tulip poplar – playing an important role.
The earliest European industry was most likely hide tanning. Next came the making of whiskey, gunpowder and mills for the manufacture of furniture and for the grinding of cornmeal. Cordell Hull’s father, a colorful character known as Uncle Billy Hull, got his grubstake making moonshine whiskey in what is now Bunkhum Cave in the Cordell Hull Museum State Park. He paid a $50 fine and sold the rest for $1,000, which he used to buy a stand of timber for what was to become a very important industry for the area. Dr. Jonathan Hale, a native of New Hampshire, had a furniture mill on the Wolf River. Since Dr. Hale was a staunch Union sympathizer, Champ Ferguson’s men burned the mill during the Civil War.
Timber was used for firewood, fencing, furniture and buildings. Not until a short time after the Civil War did a market emerge as a few men, including Uncle Billy Hull, began buying and processing logs and shipping the lumber from Celina, the junction of the Obey and Cumberland rivers, to Nashville. As early as 1885 most of the local mills closed, finding it more profitable to float whole logs to Nashville mills than to ship sawn lumber by boat. In his book “Cutting, Rafting and Running Logs Down the Obey River” Jess Rich states that more than 100 million board feet of lumber was produced between 1900 and 1904, but getting the logs to Celina was an adventure that was not for the faint of heart.
First the timber had to be cut, a feat accomplished by at least two men and more often four with a large two-handled crosscut saw and axes. Gravity and resourcefulness were used to get the logs to a holding place close to the river. When the logging business first started the logs closest to the rivers or streams were cut. As time went on they had to go higher on the hillsides to access the finest timber. The trees were cut and after a heavy rain when the ground was muddy and slick the logs either rolled or slid to the bottom of the hills where they were snaked out by oxen or mules to a holding or skidding place.
The bluffs along the Obey and Wolf rivers made for some exciting action when it came time for the logs to go in the river. The navigability of the rivers depended upon the spring flood of “tide.”
In a story “How Grandpa Bought His Farm,” Joy Sisco relates that Millard Filmore Gunter paid for his 100-plus-acre farm, in large part, from timber that he and his boys cut and floated down the river. His son Ambers Gunter, then a teenager, helped cut and prepare logs for rafting. As the youngest he remained on top of the hill and pushed the logs down a 200-yard embankment into the Obey where others waited at a safe distance in a boat to “catch” the logs, transporting them to the other side of the river for raft construction.
Building a raft was an art in itself. Most hardwoods were “sinker” logs, so “floaters” such as poplar or ash were alternated in the raft, with large logs positioned in the front and the shorter logs in the back or stern and tied together with a perpendicular oak or hickory sapling about 6 inches in diameter. Holes were bored through this “whaler” at each log, and an 8-inch raft pin made of seasoned and hardened hickory was driven into the log below. The harder logs like oak required a metal chain with hooks on either end called a “chain dog.” Oars and poles, fore and aft, were used to guide the raft down the river.
The trips were dangerous and numbing, but Rich writes that at one time he had seen as many as 150 men and boys waiting at Eastport to make the trip. A trip from Eastport to Celina took at least two days rafting (it was too dangerous to raft at night) and a full day for the rafters to walk back home.
In the early 1900s the demand for railroad ties kept the market going until it slowly faded around 1920. The advent of roads and trucks ended the rafting.
With the River and Harbor Act of 1938 came plans for 11 dams along the Cumberland River for flood control, water storage and a cheap source of electricity. This was devastating to families who had built communities along the Obey and Wolf rivers. Graveyards had to be moved and in the case of Willow Grove, a whole town of more than 74 families was inundated. In 1943 Pickett County lost most of its best farmland and a quarter of its population when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Obey River, creating the Dale Hollow Reservoir.
The hardwood lumber industry still plays a role in the economy of Pickett County by adjusting to the needs of the market whether it be barrel staves, pallets, trusses or furniture. The moonshine making industry has nearly evaporated, and Dale Hollow Lake has turned into one of the top economic generators of Pickett County.