Soulé Steam Feed Works, Company History
Soule’ Steam Feed Works was founded in 1892 by inventor and industrialist George W. Soule’. The products manufactured at this factory complex mainly served the booming lumber industry. His first product, the Soule’ Rotary Steam Engine was invented and manufactured for nearly 30 years. This engine was used in sawmills to “feed the log and carriage through the sawblade” hence the name “steam feed”. Soule’ also invented the first automation used in sawmills. His automatic lumber stacker efficiently stacked lumber on carts that would transport the rough lumber to the dry kilns. The largest series of lumber stackers was installed at the Great Southern Lumber Company in Bogalusa, Louisiana in the early 1900s.
Through the years the Soule’ made very few improvements to the factory. As long as things were operating correctly, there was no real need to update the equipment used in manufacturing. The belt-driven machine shop saw one major upgrade in the 1950s when modern lathes replaced half of the belt-driven units. The company modernized the foundry in the late 1970s, but the original cupola furnace and core-making shop was left undisturbed in the building.
The company remained in the Soule’ family until July 2002. At that time, it was scheduled to be auctioned off. Jim McRae, a local businessman, hated to see this site lost and worked with Bob Soule’ to purchase the site and preserve it for future generations. McRae and a group of preservationists founded a 501(c)3 non-profit and the Soule’ site was donated to this organization to preserve and interpret it. Historic Soule’ Steam Feed Works is an industrial time capsule that allows the visitor to experience how things were made and how people worked in the early 20th century.
Greg Hatcher researched and wrote the following history in 2005 as a study for potential nominations to the National Park Service and Historic American Engineering Record.
The product line of Soulé Steam Feed Works focused on serving the lumber industry from 1892 until the mid-1950s. The products are listed below:
- Soulé Rotary Steam Engine: Patented 1896 and 1902
- Simplex Automatic Lumber Edge Stacker: Patented 1897
- Simplex Lumber Hand Stacker
- Simplex Lumber Flat Stacker: Patented 1905
- Soulé Spee-d-twin Steam Engine: Patented 1923
- Steam Operated Timber Unloader
- “St. Bernard” Saw Mill Dog
- Lumber Stacking Truck: Patented 1899
- Success Cotton Seed Huller: Patented 1899
- Soulé Single Cylinder Mechanical Log Turner
This product line was manufactured at the subject location. The company’s most successful products fulfilled the needs of the large sawmill market that boomed from 1885 until the 1930s. The building boom that started in the large U.S. cities at the end of the 19th century and continued until the Great Depression created a great demand for lumber. This demand made Soulé’s product line viable and kept the company profitable for many years.
Because steam was the only portable and dependable source of power during this period, the patented Soulé Rotary Steam Engine was used in several types of lumbering operations from 1892 until 1922. The rotary engine was used to drive a sawmill carriage or “feed” and was a dependable means for the sawmill operator to move the log into the spinning saw blade to cut the lumber. These rotary engines were also used to power winches that could drag and lift the logs onto railroad cars, wagons or into the sawmill. Ads that appeared regularly in The Tradesman through the 1890s announced, “The Soulé Steam Feed is the best on Earth, because it is the most durable and most easily controlled.” The ad further proclaimed the engine as “The quickest, simplest and cheapest, can be attached to any mill. Will save cost in one month run.” That was an extraordinary claim for a product during this period. A total of 2,300 rotary engines were built and sold across the U.S. and internationally. A few of these engines are still in operation in Australia and India. Over a period of years the Soulé rotary steam engines became known as “steam hogs” because they consumed a great amount of steam during operation. By 1905, Soulé had made another improvement in the rotary, but more efficient feeds were available. Soulé started developing a more efficient engine to operate sawmill feeds and log winches.
By 1922 the Soulé Spee-d-twin, which was a two-cylinder reciprocating steam engine, was designed and patented. This engine became the favorite feed engine among the sawmill operators due to its efficiency, power and dependability. This engine featured a unique valve that allowed the engine to have a considerable amount of control both forward and reverse. Its configuration and size allowed an easy retrofit for any Soulé rotary engine or to the friction carriage feeds that were supplied with sawmills and were often difficult to maintain. The company built and sold 4,301 of these engines between 1923 and 1984. This number does not include all the engines that were returned to the factory, rebuilt and then resold to other customers. Records indicate that some of these engines were factory rebuilt three times. Company records show the ship date, purchaser and original end-user for each and every engine built. The durable engines were sold in all 50 states and internationally. The steam “shot-gun” sawmill carriage at the larger sawmills eventually replaced the reciprocating steam feed engine. The advent of gasoline and diesel engines and electric power to operate sawmills rendered steam an energy source of the past.
The other important product patented and built by the Soulé Steam Feed Works was the automatic lumber stacking system. Lumber industry historians agree that without the automation introduced at the turn-of-the-century for the large sawmills, the steady supply of cheap, standardized lumber that fueled the building boom in America’s large cities would have not have been available.
The first Soulé Simplex Edge Stacker was placed in operation in the mill of Camp & Hinton Co., at Lumberton, Mississippi in July 1895. From the beginning, Soulé’s method was a demonstration of the practicality of this method of stacking lumber on kiln cars and carrying it in that shape through the kilns. The method he used was to stack the lumber on edge rather and stacking it flat or horizontally. Kiln-dried wood, as compared with air-dried wood, was important in both the lumber industry and the building industry. The process created dimensionally stable lumber that provided better standardization and greater quality in building practices. Soulé received a patent on the lumber-stacking machine on June 29, 1897. More than 100 of these stackers were installed in the largest sawmills in the United States. In 1919, it is estimated that 65 percent of the lumber production of this country was manufactured in a relatively few large mills, which represented less than 5 per cent of the total number of sawmills in the country according to Professor Ralph Clement Bryant in his 1922 book, “Lumber: Its Manufacture and Distribution.” Bryant also stated that 32 percent of the large mills were located in the southern states; 8 percent in the North Carolina pine region; 4 percent in West Virginia; 25 percent in the Pacific states; 12 percent in the Lake States; 4 percent in the Rocky Mountain region (Idaho and Montana); and 2 percent in New England. Thus, 44% of the large mills were located in the southeast region of the U.S. and readily serviced by Soulé. During 1919, there were 792 large mills cut more than 10 million board feet of lumber.
The original design plans for the Soulé stackers are on file in the company vault. The list of installation plans reads as the “who’s who” of large sawmills. Some of the most notable mills included the Great Southern Lumber Company in Bogalusa, Louisiana, Grays Harbor Commercial Co. in Cosmopolis, Washington and Potlatch Lumber Company in Elk River, Idaho. Both the Great Southern Lumber Company and Grays Harbor Commercial Co. issued postcards illustrating the lumber stacking systems designed and built by Soulé.
Charles Waterhouse Goodyear II, heir to the Goodyear timber company fortune, wrote the book “The Bogalusa Story”. This book relates how the Goodyear family of Buffalo, New York purchased vast amounts of timberland in the South and developed the Great Southern Lumber Company. They also built the mill town of Bogalusa, Louisiana. In the beginning they hired a seasoned lumberman, Will Sullivan, who set out to build a sawmill plant designed to output a million board feet of lumber every twenty-four hours. According to Goodyear’s account, Will Sullivan could visualize ingenious improvements in manufacturing practices that could be applied to the mechanization of lumber operations. Sullivan kept a mental blueprint of the mill in his mind supported by a notebook filled with data and sketches. The engineers who had designed mills from coast to coast offered little encouragement in building such a mill. Fortunately the Goodyear brothers believed in the plan and the mill was built. Goodyear calls this mill design the start of the machine age in the lumber industry. Mr. Sullivan told the engineers to utilize sorters and automatic stackers throughout the mill to keep handling to a minimum. The mill used the Soulé Simplex Automatic Stacker in every practical application. In April 1938 the last of the Great Southern Lumber Company's virgin timber was harvested and manufactured into lumber in the Bogalusa sawmill. After 30 years of operation the company was dissolved and the assets sold. It took nearly three years to liquidate the company. The mill was cut up and the scrap metal was sold. The destruction of this mill was a great loss considering the groundbreaking technology the mill embraced. The city of Bogalusa still exists, testament to the profitability of the lumber mill.
Other products that were manufactured and marketed by Soulé include the “St. Bernard” Saw Mill Dog, a device used on the mill’s carriage bolster. It fulfilled the sawmill owner’s need for a cheap, simple and reliable dog, which would effectively hold small logs. This allowed the mill to utilize more small logs, thereby increasing lumber productivity from the forest. At the beginning of the 20th century, log utilization was roughly 50%. Through improvements such as the Soulé Simplex Stacker and the mill dog, productivity increased until now approximately 75% of the log is utilized.
There were few direct competitors to Soulé Steam Feed Works products. Companies such as Filer and Stowell focused on building and marketing sawmills sold with or without feeds. Most sawmills of the day used “friction feeds” which were often difficult to maintain and had a multitude of exposed parts, which could break or hang-up due to a build-up of sawdust, shutting down the mill until repairs were made. Several attempts were made by other manufacturers to develop a dependable steam feed. Wheland’s Machine Works in Chattanooga, Tennessee attempted to market a two-cylinder steam feed at the turn-of-the-century, but all indications show that it was not a great success. Clark-Peerless, another sawmill equipment manufacturer tried to market a steam feed during the 1890s, but it was not a popular choice and only one ad appears for this unit. By 1916, Lane Manufacturing of Montpelier, Vermont started selling a steam feed with their sawmill setup.
The Soulé automatic stackers were patented in 1897 by the company and were fiercely protected. The law firm of Mason, Fenwick and Lawrence of Washington, D.C. handled the company’s infringement research, complaints and lawsuits.
For many years there were no competitors for this product line. In 1916 Hilke Stacker Co of Middletown, New York devised a stacking system using a cable system, but Soulé was too well established for such a product line to be a success. Pawling and Harnischfeger of Milwaukee, Wisconsin marketed monorail hoists to move lumber and Matthews Gravity Conveyors marketed conveyors to move lumber, but neither devised or marketed an automated means of stacking lumber. When the patents eventually ran out in the late 1920s, such companies as Filer and Stowell began building stackers based on the Soulé design.
The majority of products invented by George W. Soulé and manufactured and marketed by his company served the lumber industry. Soulé also patented the “Success” Cotton Seed Huller. This unit used a single knife to do the hulling instead of the twelve to sixteen knives or serrated crushing surfaces that the competition used. This allowed easy replacement and retargeting of the knife. This huller was introduced in 1897, but unfortunately there was a limited market for such a small-scale cottonseed huller and the line never took off. It was also hard to compete with companies such as Bauer Brothers of Springfield, Ohio and the Chandler Company of Bridgewater, Massachusetts who were the leaders in nut and seed oil extraction.
Marketing and Advertising
From the very earliest day, Soulé Steam Feed Works advertising focused on the national market. The company’s existing advertising logbook, which runs from 1906 until 1974, records the names of trade and business publications, dates of issues and the amounts paid for promoting their products. This logbook shows that Soulé advertised exclusively in national and regional trade publications until March 1948. The earliest known instance of advertising by Soulé Steam Feed Works dates to 1892 in The Tradesman, published by Adolph S. Ochs in Chattanooga, Tennessee beginning in 1879, with more than 10,000 subscribers from across the U.S. This publication promoted industries and manufacturing in the South and had the reputation as a fair and honest publication during the period of “yellow journalism.” The company advertised in such influential industry publications as Iron Age, published by David Williams Publishing of New York and Manufacturers Record published in Baltimore.
Soulé also published ads in lumber trade magazines such as the nationally distributed American Lumberman Weekly, Lumber Trade Journal, Lumber Review, Lumber World Record, and regional publications such as St. Louis Lumberman, West Coast Lumberman, Southern Lumber Journal, Mississippi Valley Lumberman and the Dixie Lumberman. They advertised monthly in American Lumberman from 1906 until 1944 and in the Southern Lumberman from 1906 until 1974. Soulé advertised in the West Coast Lumberman from 1930 until 1941.
Soulé’s primary advertising emphasis was on the steam feeds, beginning with the rotary steam feed in 1892. This product was advertised until the introduction of the Spee-d-twin steam engine in 1923. There were several ads for the automatic lumber stackers, but they were inserted less frequently since these expensive units were designed for use in the largest capacity mills.
After World War II most of the advertising focused on the local and regional market. Even though Soulé continued to manufacture the Spee-d-twin steam engine, the majority of advertising promoted the mill supplies, machine shop services, foundry casting and machine repair business.
Soulé Steam Feed Works trained and employed a number of individuals that worked their entire lives at the factory. These people became “fixtures” at Soulé and some were known by colorful nicknames. One memorable character, William “Hot” Sellers, assembled and repaired the Spee-d-twin engine until his retirement in the 1980s. The company continued to receive requests for his services decades after his retirement. There was also a steady flow of other workers who would train and work in the machine shop, then move on to other jobs. An excellent example is Richard Wiggins, a long-term employee who left to teach machine shop skills at Ross Collins Vocation School when the school opened in 1942.
Soulé Steam Feed Works was a steady and dependable employer. The company paid employees an average of 50 to 70 cents per hour and the foreman and supervisors receiving a weekly cash stipend of between seven and nine dollars. According to the records the company operated six days per week with employees working an average of nine hours per day. These were the highest paying jobs in the Meridian area. In October 1907 Soulé employed 23 people in the foundry department and 23 machinists. By May 1917 the number had dropped to 31 employees due to the shortage of manpower brought on by World War I. Between 1922 and 1945 the company averaged 50 employees with 60 percent of the employees working in the machine shop and engine assembly shop.
The company also encouraged an inventive spirit among their employees. Several employees went on to invent important items used today. A.D. Hunter invented and crafted a plane-to-plane air-refueling device in the Soulé machine shop. This unit was used during the Key Brothers’ successful endurance flight in 1936. The U.S. Air Force continues to use this same basic device to refuel fighter jets today. Another Soulé employee, David L. Stephenson, fabricated and welded the aluminum catwalk around the front of the the Key Brother's plane named the "Ole Miss". This modification was necessary for performing maintenance on the plane during the flight. The “Ole Miss” is now displayed in the National Air and Science Museum in Washington.
James Keeton, who was married to George W. Soulé’s daughter and was a part owner of Soulé Steam Feed Works, modified his airplane as a refueling “tanker” and flew the refueling missions.
Other former employees became inventors and businessmen. One of these notable individuals was Lawrence Secrest who patented a line of fabricating machinery and founded Secrest Machine Corporation of Alexandria, Virginia.