You can find a model of sorts for today’s Wal-Mart superstores by looking back to the 1880s and early 1900s in East Texas.
In those days, successful lumbermen decided that if their employees were to live and work in sawmill towns like Diboll, Keltys, Camden, Wiergate and Groveton, they needed a place to purchase life’s necessities.
So they came up with the forerunners of today’s Wal-Mart: commissary stores. Under one roof the early lumber companies like Southern Pine Lumber Company and Wier Long Leaf Lumber Company provided everything from cornmeal to coffins.
With a single visit, a sawmill worker and his family could cash a paycheck, buy the family’s groceries, pick up feed for their cows and pigs, purchase clothing or sewing goods, pick out furniture, and visit a doctor.
The commissary also became the center of the community. The prices were usually reasonable and in some sawmill towns employees paid for goods with tokens issued on wages earned. At first the tokens were metal and later became wax-coated coins of various denominations and colors.
During the Great Depression in the1930s, T.L.L. Temple kept many of his employees at Diboll on the payroll, even though they earned only a few dollars a day. They spent most of their wages on food at the commissary, buying dried beans, cornmeal and flour--ten cents for two pounds.
The availability of cheaply priced food was one of the reasons Temple kept his hands while other sawmills were losing men.
With the demolition of the Diboll commissary (the only one with a Texas Historical Marker), East Texas has lost most of its old commissaries. One of the last I am aware of was the is the old Trinity County Lumber Company store at Groveton, which was built in the late l800s.
Standing in the downtown area, the commissary was fondly remembered as having the atmosphere of a big happy family. A long front porch across the front of the two-story building was often used as a stage for local entertainment and traveling performers.
Some other commissary stores which have disappeared include:
• The Angelina County Lumber Company commissary at Keltys, near Lufkin. Built in the l880s, the store was demolished in the 1960s when the lumber company was sold. During its heyday it served as a supermarket, post office, and drug store.
• Wier Long Leaf Lumber Company built its commissary in 1917 when the Wier family started harvesting timber in Newton County. The sawmill ceased production in 1942 and the commissary was torn down two years later. However, a good collection of old photos from Wiergate’s boom years, including some of the commissary, is on display in the town’s post office.
• W.T. Carter and Brother Lumber Company built a commissary when the lumber company was founded in 1898. The store operated a unique system of pulleys and canisters for carrying sawmill tokens and cash from the first floor to a cashier’s cage on the second story. The store was razed by Champion International when it purchased the lumber company in the 1960s.
Even though most of the old commissaries are gone, they will remain an entrenched part of the memories of anyone who has ever lived in a sawmill town.
(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of over 50 books about East Texas. He can be reached at bob-bowman.com)