Ozan Lumber Company

The Ozan Lumber Company operated a number of mills across southwestern Arkansas from the late nineteenth century to its sale to the Potlatch Corporation in 1964. Two distinct companies owned by members of the Bemis family operated under the Ozan name.

James H. Bemis and Benjamin Whitaker opened a sawmill in Prescott (Nevada County) in April 1891. In July, the owners incorporated the business as the Ozan Lumber Company. The name was apparently taken from the nearby town of Ozan (Hempstead County). Whitaker remained a part of the business for only a short period before selling out and embarking on other ventures. The lumber business proved to be successful, shipping timber on the company-owned Prescott and Northwestern Railroad. The company opened a wholesale lumber office in 1901, under the control of Bemis and his sons, William N. Bemis and J. W. Bemis. The company continued to grow and began harvesting timber in the southern Ouachita Mountains in 1905, building a railroad extension into the area, one known colloquially as the Pea Vine.

Thomas Rosborough began working for the company around 1905. The brother-in-law of William Bemis, Rosborough had experience in the lumber industry, holding positions in Kansas and Louisiana. The company owned timberland in the Ouachita Mountains, but the terrain made it difficult to access. With the support of the Bemis family, he organized financial backers from Kansas City, Missouri, and founded the Caddo River Lumber Company. Rosborough built a mill about four miles northwest of Amity (Clark County) for the Ozan Lumber Company and began harvesting timber in the area. The area surrounding the mill was named Rosboro (Pike County) in honor of Rosborough. In 1908, the Caddo River Lumber Company purchased the mill and associated timberland from the Ozan Lumber Company.

In an effort to expand into new markets, the mill merged on December 15, 1915, with the Grayson-McLeod Company, forming the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Company. This marked the end of the first Ozan Lumber Company. James Bemis died in 1918, and his sons continued to operate the company together until J. W. Bemis died in 1922. J. R. Bemis, the son of William Bemis, joined his father in a partnership to operate a new company as a wholesale lumber company in St. Louis, Missouri, under the name Ozan Lumber Company.

This company moved to Prescott in July 1929 and formally incorporated. Starting as a wholesale lumber business, the company expanded into manufacturing the next year with the Corley Tractor Mill. This mill was replaced in 1933 by a two-story mill on the same site; it burned in 1936. A second mill operated during the same period in Whelen Springs (Clark County), and a third was constructed in Delight (Pike County). The Delight mill opened in 1937, delayed by the fire that destroyed the Prescott mill. The Whelen Springs mill shut down in 1938, and a mill opened at Rosboro the following year. Rough lumber from the Rosboro mill was placed onto flat railcars and transferred to the Delight mill, where it was dried and finished.

With the death of William Bemis in 1935, the Ozan-Graysonia Lumber Company and the Ozan Lumber Company merged under the latter’s name. Four retail lumber yards and about 52,000 acres of land were transferred to the new company. The lumber yards were sold by 1941, but the company continued to purchase additional land. The company focused on selective harvesting of timber, moving away from large-scale clear cutting. By 1956, the company owned more than 132,000 acres of timber. The company focused on cutting smaller, second- and third-growth timber, as the large virgin forests had almost entirely disappeared. This business model led the company to invest in education programs in nearby schools to teach children the importance of replanting trees after a harvest.

The mill located at Delight was destroyed by fire in March 1952. In order to continue to supply other operations of the company, including a planing mill located in Delight, the Rosboro mill moved from one shift to two shifts. This second shift remained until November 1953.

The company focused on other businesses outside of the timber and railroad industries. The Ozan Lumber Company owned two car dealerships, with one located in Prescott and the second in Smackover (Union County).

The company continued to operate until 1964, when the Potlatch Corporation purchased the enterprise from the Bemis family shareholders. This marked the end of Bemis family control of the timber business in the Prescott area.

For additional information:
Nevada County Depot and Museum. http://www.depotmuseum.org (accessed August 2, 2019).

Smith, Kenneth. Sawmill: The Story of Cutting the Last Great Virgin Forest East of the Rockies. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1986.

David Sesser
Henderson State University

Last Updated: 08/02/2019