Five miles west of Cleveland, on Hwy. 105, there stands a marker pointing north to the sawmill town of 'FOSTORIA' in Montgomery County. There is nothing there now, except a few concrete foundations covered with pine needles and an old abandoned cemetery. There is no evidence that the friendly, productive town of Fostoria ever existed. It was once a prosperous sawmill, the largest yellow pine mill in the southwest.
Now...But for the annual reunions, held by former residents of Fostoria and their families on the first Sunday in May, even memories of the town might have completely faded away!
In 1890, seven Foster brothers from Kansas City, Missouri, operated 24 large retail lumber yards with an insatiable appetite for lumber. About 1895 they turned to Montgomery County to satisfy their demand. At first the Company operated in Texas as the Trinity River Lumber Company, and contracted with sawmillers at Conroe, Beach, Leonidas, New Caney, Clinesburg and Pocahontas for the entire output of their mills. These commercial mills had replaced the small pecker-wood mills, built to handle the needs of the local residents. In 1897 H. H. Everest bought an old sawmill at Clinesburg, and changed the mill's name to the Texas Tie and Lumber Company. Everest's sawmill had no planing mill, so Foster Lumber built one to process all of Everest's rough lumber. Foster consistently loaned Everest money to upgrade his mill, and when the latter defaulted, Foster Lumber took possession after a bankruptcy sale. The next action, about 1903, was to change the town's name from Clinesburg to Fostoria. Almost immediately Foster dismantled Isaac Conroe's old mill at Beach and moved it to Fostoria, thus adding two bandsaw headrigs and a gangsaw. At the time of its construction, the mill was said to be the fastest one in the South. Foster revalued its Fostoria investment at $700,000, but most of that figure included 130,000 acres of timberlands that the company had just purchased in Montgomery, Harris, Liberty and San Jacinto counties.
In 1904 Foster already owned 140 tenant houses in Fostoria for its planing mill employees, but by 1910 the company had built 100 more. One author observed that, "...Fostoria was clean and better-equipped than the average mill town. Its buildings were regularly painted, and it presented a pleasing, prosperous appearance..." Workers could rent a house for $1 a month per room. Even workers in the "front camps", where the trees were cut, lived with their families in temporary towns made of tents or box cars. Between 1910 and 1920 the population was reportedly 1,000, most of who were employed in the mill. The town reached its peak population of 1,500 between 1915 and 1925. In 1941 the mill produced 20 million board feet of lumber and was one of the largest providers of Southern pine in the United States.
In 1938 the "Gulf Coast Lumberman's Magazine" reported that, "When they started the Foster mill they thought they might have timber for fifteen years. At the end of fifteen years they were wondering how much longer they could run. And now, at the end of 32 years the mill still is cutting away full blast, and they are wondering if it will ever quit. The chances are that it won't. It's that way with Short Leaf Pine timber in East Texas. Anyway, at the end of 32 years they have enough of their own timber left to last them for many years, they are being offered commercial logs by small loggers in almost unlimited quantities, and there are other timbered lands available. So the Fostoria mill not only has a long record behind it, but it has a long life ahead of it."
Fostoria was a "company town" and was almost completely self-sufficient. There was a company generator, fueled by scrap lumber and sawdust, which provided free electricity during established hours. At 10 p.m. every night but Saturday the generator was shut down. Saturday it ran until midnight. A pneumatic type tube ran from the planing mill and cutting sheds to the furnace to carry all of the sawdust created. Employees were paid in company script. The company store sold all of life's necessities, including clothing, groceries, furniture, and saddles, for which company scrip were accepted. The scrip was redeemable only in company owned businesses. Ice was made in Conroe and delivered by train to Fostoria for residents to use in their ice boxes.
The post office was the only thing not run by the company. There was a barber shop, school houses, churches, a theater, community hall, and train depot. The baseball team, the Fostoria Lumberjacks, played other area teams and was often rivals of the Strake Wildcats. Fierce loyalties existed and both the Black and White teams played in real ball parks. A combination hospital and pharmacy was also part of the commissary. In the early 1900s, Doctor T. S. Falvey, was the Company doctor and the first major surgeon in Conroe. He made house calls in a Model T or with horse and buggy if the roads were muddy. He often operated on a kitchen table assisted only by his nurse. Doctor Leslie Davison was the last Company doctor in Fostoria before it closed.
A large two story hotel was built to house company executives who visited from Saint Louis. An aerial view of Fostoria from the 1930s also shows a tennis court. Tennis was the equivalent of golf today for executive relaxation. When tennis lost its luster, a large storage shed was built to take advantage of the smooth cement slab. Tracey Burke, a local man, who as a youngster wore out several pairs of roller skates on that cement slab, said it was the smoothest cement in East Texas.
The superb interracial relations with labor at the Fostoria mill was due to the Foster family's commitment to generosity and fairness regardless of the race of the worker. Some of the employees were third and fourth generation Foster workers. For every amenity offered in the White Community there was a separate but equal offering in the Black Community, a concept well ahead of its time. The mill employees put on a program honoring Mr. and Mrs. B.B. Foster, one of the principal speakers was Landy Parham, a black man who had spent a lifetime loading logs. Parham eloquently reduced race relations to the basic things of life, spoke of the depression years when the Fosters operated the mill at a loss to provide life-giving jobs, and reminded his listeners of the auditorium, the churches and the other things that were built by the company for good living in the town. According to former residents, Fostoria was an idyllic place in which to raise a family. There was plenty for everyone to do - young and old alike. While the men worked at various jobs in the mill and lumber yard, the women stayed busy keeping house, taking care of children and gardening. The social activities, which were family oriented, included Christmas plays in the school auditorium; 4th of July picnics with real open pit barbecued meat; a baseball team; a recreation hall; swimming in Peach Creek; ice cream socials; games of 42 for the grown-ups; and sunrise breakfasts on Peach Creek for everyone.
Alba Coleman, whose father delivered logs for the mill, remembers the large Christmas parties for employees and their families. She said every child received a bag with fruit, nuts and candy in it. This was a rare treat for all of them and for many it was the only fruit they had all year.
The worst prank remembered at Halloween was having a few pickets pulled off picket fences. The town was dry and everyone kept track of the kids, so there was not much trouble. A former resident remembers there were only one or two killings in all of those years, and those were by drifters. J. L. (Pat) Telford was the Justice of the Peace, a Montgomery County Deputy Sheriff, Special Texas Ranger as well as Fostoria's security officer.
G. F. Dalton, superintendent of operations in Fostoria in 1938, was an old-time sawmill man, proud of the Fostoria mill and the lumber it produced. It was reported to be a highly efficient mill and in many ways was unique. "The double cutting band mill was one of the few left. It sliced the log both going and coming, and was considered highly efficient for their operations at that time. Dalton welcomed visitors. He liked to show them the mill, its cleanliness, freedom from dirt and waste lumber, its veteran crews of trained men, and the splendid lumber they loaded out to the trade. They handled each board at Fostoria as though they were proud to be the authors of it."
The crew at Fostoria was mostly made up of men who had worked there a long time, some of them all their lives. In 1938 it was reported that the sawyer who pulled the levers had been there thirty-one years. Many other employees had been there practically as long. Fostoria was not only their place of employment, but their home, and they evidenced their satisfaction in their loyalty, and in their sticking to the job year after year.
Mill workers were transported to the forests on a small train called "Old Smokey" and logs were brought back to the mill on a log train called "the Dinky". The company's 25 miles of tram road connected with the Santa Fe railway at Fostoria and with the Houston East and West Texas rails at Midline. Logging was done in four counties, using four locomotives and 60 log cars, with 150 loggers employed in the forests.
Fostoria was very much ahead of its time in timber conservation, reforestation and logging practices. About 1950 the mill reduced its daily cut to 80,000 feet and even when the sawmill closed in July 1957, "its second growth timber was still plentiful..." One of the reasons given for the closure was that the equipment had become obsolete. It was also reported that the Foster Company descendants had simply decided to quit the sawmill field.
Families who had lived in Fostoria since the early 1900s hated to see it close. It had been a very satisfying and enjoyable way of life, albeit not exactly easy. The mill fixtures were either sold or dismantled, as was the business district. The homes were also sold, many to their original residents, to be moved away. Several of these old mill homes are still to be found around the local area. Jack Watson said that local house movers had enough work for two or three years. The large storage shed built over the tennis court was bought by a Tarkington man and had to be cut into three pieces to be moved. Although it is still sheltering hay, its useful days are numbered and like the once prosperous mill town will soon became only a memory.
"Perhaps on some still, clear day, provided one's nostalgia is set to fever pitch and one's ear is cupped to wind, you might still hear the big bandsaw's screech, begging the pine needles to cover once more the concrete foundations that today mark the mill town's grave."