Mewshaw State Sawmill and Maydelle CCC Camp

Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865, but for many the plantation was merely replaced by the chain gang. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many southern states participated in convict lease programs. Texas was no different. The state provided prisoners for cheap labor and used the income to help feed and house the convicts. Companies wanted the most amount of work for the least amount of money, and often convicts were overworked and abused. The prisoners lived in work camps and often worked in chain gangs. One such work camp, located near present day Maydelle was Camp Wright, which housed convict laborers from the Rusk Penitentiary.

The prisoners at Camp Wright built the Mewshaw State Sawmill in 1908 and cranked out 35,000 feet of East Texas lumber a day. Much of that wood was hauled on the newly-built railroad and used as as charcoal for the prison's iron foundry. However, the sawmill was destroyed by fire in 1912 and was never rebuilt, and then Rusk Penitentiary closed five years later.

In 1910, the village of Maydelle developed near the rail line west of Rusk. Then in 1933, a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established near Maydelle on the old Mewshaw camp site. Like sixteen other CCC camps, Maydelle was assigned to the Texas Forest Service. Company 883 was stationed here and assigned forest conservation projects. Maydelle CCC jobs included planting trees, clearing scrub brush, fighting fires, controlling pests, and digging ditches. The men constructed a variety of structures and land projects, from flood barriers and lakes to fences and lookout towers. By 1936, they had finished 132 miles of forest roads, 800 flood drains, 162 bridges, and 45 miles of telephone lines.

In an oral history interview conducted in 2008, Jane Purtle of the Cherokee County Historical Commission talked to two brothers, Rubien and Forrest Barrington, who both served in the CCC in Texas. Rubien worked in Maydelle, and Forrest worked in Jacksonville. The brothers remembered their time in the CCC as formative. They described the full-time work as hard, but enjoyable. The brothers cleared fields and built roads. To the Barrington boys, the CCC was their first taste of military life. Their camp also offered recreation and education opportunities. Rubien remembered basketball and baseball teams, and that every weekend they would drive to Jacksonville for a twenty-cent movie.

The Maydelle CCC camp was closed in 1937 due to budgetary constraints, but it made a lasting impact on the area.

Audio

CCC Memories: Like the Army On January 4, 1983, Becky Bailey interviewed Jack Rowe about life in Texas during the Great Depression. Jack describes life in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Source: The History Center at Diboll
CCC Memories: Paychecks On January 4, 1983, Becky Bailey interviewed Jack Rowe about life in Texas during the Great Depression. Jack describes life in the Civilian Conservation Corps and wages. Source: The History Center at Diboll

Images

Convict Laborers from Rusk Penitentiary As part of the convict lease system, Camp Wright was established in 1906 to house convict laborers, near present-day Maydelle, Texas. These chain gangs built the Mewshaw State Sawmill in 1908 and worked there until 1912 when the sawmill burned down. Convicts cut lumber to be used as charcoal for the iron smelting furnace at Rusk Penitentiary as well as for railroad ties. The sawmill was named for Captain J.T. Mewshaw, state penitentiary supervisor. Notice the measures used to prevent prisoner escape. Source: The History Center at Diboll
Historical Marker This Texas Historical Marker was dedicated on September 13, 1992. This is the site of the former Mewshaw State Sawmill and the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps Camp near Maydelle, Texas. This marker can be found near the intersection of US Highway 84 and Farm to Market Road 747. Source: MKGentry, www.panoramio.com/photo/89835235
Maydelle Campbell (1891-1967) In 1910, three men bought several hundred acres of land near Camp Wright for a new town. Texas Governor Thomas Mitchell Campbell had been influential in extending the railroad to the area. The locals named the new town Maydelle after the Governor's daughter. Maydelle sang at the town's dedication ceremony. Governor Campbell ended the convict lease program in 1912. Maydelle Campbell Allen is buried with her husband Major General Roderick Random Allen at Arlington National Cemetery. Source: Cherokee County Historical Commission
Map of Cherokee County In 1900, a Texas State Railroad was built between Rusk and Palestine. This motivated people and businesses to settle near the rail line in new towns like Maydelle. This 1920 map of Cherokee County shows the railway line ending at Rusk. Heading west there are stops at Maydelle, Java, Mewshaw, Jarvis, and Crystal Lake. This area became part of I.D. Fairchild State Forest. In 1933, Cherokee County was selected for a Civilian Conservation Corps Camp in Maydelle. Source: Texas Land Grant Office
I.D. Fairchild State Forest The Forest was acquired in 1925 from the Texas Prison System and was named in honor of State Senator I.D. Fairchild after he died in an automobile accident in 1928. I. D. Fairchild State Forest covers more than 2,600 acres of land in Cherokee County, and is the largest of the Texas state forests. During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps reforested much of the area that was deforested through earlier logging. Today, I.D. Fairchild State Forest is a wildlife sanctuary. Source: The History Center at Diboll
Texas Forest Service Fire Chief William White A 1933 bill allowed the Texas Forest Service (TFS) to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Chief William White led the TFS efforts with the CCC, supervising the fieldwork of seventeen CCC camps in East Texas, including the CCC Camp at Maydelle. Source: Texas A&M Forest Service
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Workers Build a Bridge CCC Company 883, stationed at Maydelle, built more than 160 bridges in East Texas, including this one spanning the Neches River. Although the Maydelle CCC Camp had a bathroom building, most of the enrollees used the Neches River to bathe. Source: Texas A&M Forest Service
Selwyn Rayford Burgin Selwyn Rayford Burgin was interviewed in 1990 for an oral history project. Burgin recalled lying awake at night, near Tyler, Texas, wondering how his family would survive the Great Depression. In 1934, at the age of eighteen, Burgin found a way to earn some money. He hitchhiked into town, signed up for the Civilian Conservation Corps and went to Maydelle. Burgin earned $30 a month and was required to send $25 of that to his family. Burgin went on to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Source: www.rootsweb.ancestry.com

Location

Metadata

Rachael Larkin, “Mewshaw State Sawmill and Maydelle CCC Camp,” East Texas History, accessed September 30, 2022, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/99.