FROM THE VAULT: On a Roll for 80 years

Published 8:00 am Saturday, February 4, 2023

By the Late Gordon Cotton | Originally published in The Vicksburg Post on Feb. 13, 2017

OAK RIDGE – “I don’t keep up with time,” Louis Walton said. “I don’t have no date on nothing.”

His brain is not muddled with times and dates, but it is filled with facts and stories, for he has a lot to remember, being “Closer to 94 than I am to 93.” 

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His birthday is June 2. All he has ever done in life, he said, “was fool with logs. Really the first woodwork I done, I was about 13. I was a little ole boy, always prowling around and was into everything.”

He was watching Toodlum Clark — “His wife was Margie Henry, a schoolteacher — Toodlum Clark, he bought a truck and was logging. He had a big chain, but when he loaded the truck he couldn’t throw the chain over the logs.”

Louis watched, then he took the chain, balled it up and threw it over the logs, and “from then on, he hired me for 50 cents a day and my dinner to help him.”

That was 80 years ago, Louis said, “and that was the start of my logging.”

At 15, he went to work for his uncle Dave Lewis, who was a logger. Then he went to work for Dr. Jim Austin. Felix Austin had a truck and was supposed to be logging. There was a sawmill in the bottom on the other side of the Brick House (the old Harris home), and Felix Austin had the job of hauling logs. Back then you had to work, Louis said, but Austin couldn’t load the truck, so he hired Louis to load and unload it for a dollar a day “to do what he was supposed to have been doing.” Louis not only worked for his uncle and the Austins, but also for Tom and Jim Harris “in the woods at the Brick House.”

“The first big job I ever had,” he said, was cutting trees with a crosscut saw.

He was so good at it — “I could drop that tree where it needed to go” — that he got the reputation of being the best at that job. He went to work for Dolly King. He had boats on the river, so Louis did his logging for him.

“He didn’t know nothing about how to log, so I run his job. I run around through the woods with nothing but an ax on my shoulder telling them fellows what to do,” he said.

Times were tough and there were always several men trying to get a job, trying to show that they were better workers than those who were on the job.

“They were hoping one of (the workers) would slip up so he could get the job. I got a whole lot of work out of ’em. They worked harder then than I can pay a man to work now,” Louis said.

Finally, Louis went into business for himself, buying a used truck from his uncle and a tractor, saws and everything he needed. He always had good equipment — never kept a log truck for over a year and a half. One job he had was hauling logs to the stave mill for a white man who would often get drunk and stay drunk for a week, so there would be no logs to haul. Finally, the stave mill owner asked Louis to take over the operation — and he did. There were no skidders back then, he said, just crawler tractors and a loose tractor with a blade on it.

“I made a little money,” he said. “But not too much. The stave mill finally went out of business and I went out of business with them. A few months later, I got me a tractor or two and went back to work.”

He’s seen many sawmill operations shut down, Louis said. He made the last haul for the mill that was at Cary, the last for the stave mill, was about the last to haul for Houston Brothers and worked for a mill in Yazoo City until it closed.

“I’ve seen many of ’em come and go,” Louis said, but he’s still in business and has had just about every piece of equipment from the crosscut saw to the chain saw, “but now everything out there is in a cab with air conditioning — skidders, loaders — reckon I’m going to have to put air conditioning on top of their heads.” 

His company, Walton Logging, employs about seven or eight men, but Louis runs the business end of it and also does most of the dozer work, making roads for the skidder.

“Sometimes I get on that dozer at 8 o’clock in the morning and stay on it all day long, over them hollows and hills, don’t even stop to get a drink of water,” he said

Logging is a dangerous business, and Louis has had a few close calls. When he was about 20, a log fell off a truck and broke his leg. Once he turned a truck over “and my foot went out of the cab and put my heel around where my toes was and my toes right where my heel was.”

It was on a Saturday night and he was pinned in the cab for about half an hour. He couldn’t slide out from under the steering wheel — the only way out was for some of the men to pull him up and out through the back window, which had been broken, He didn’t know anything was hurt, he said, until he tried to stand up. His leg had gotten back into place when he was being pulled through the rear window, then it came out again but Louis twisted it around, put it back in place, and it wasn’t hurting. He was carried to the hospital where a doctor looked at it, shook it — “It was plumb solid, you know, back in place” — and the doctor said there was nothing wrong.

He even accused Louis of being drunk. Back in the car, the leg kicked out again and someone brought the doctor to the parking lot.

“I ain’t never seen nothing like that,” Louis said the doctor said. Louis put it back into place, “and that’s the last time it’s been out — nothing never was done to it. I stayed a week in the hospital, got a crutch and hopped on out of there. The knee hasn’t been out since. I’ve done everything a man can do on that knee, and it stays there.

“That’s been about 65 years ago.” 

About three years ago he suffered an aneurysm. It was life-threatening, and the doctor told him to stay away from his job for six months, “but in about six weeks I was back on that dozer.”

His son Kevin pretty much runs the logging operation now, but Louis is still on that dozer just about every day. Last year he alarmed both family and friends when he didn’t come home, and all kinds of terrible scenarios were imagined. Sheriff Martin Pace and his deputies were looking for him along with game wardens and others.

Louis was all right. He had gone to look over the logging operation, was in his car and took a road that was still muddy. He got stuck, night was coming on and his cellphone wouldn’t work. The best thing to do was settle down for the night, which he did, starting the car occasionally to run the air conditioner.

“It was no problem to me,” he said and laughed. “Now everywhere I go somebody tells me, ‘Don’t get stuck in the woods.’”

Louis lives on Oak Ridge Road only about six miles from where he was born, on the Harris place not far from the Brick House. He had little schooling, only to the sixth grade. He was from a large family as was his wife, who died two years ago.

Louis has seven sons and seven daughters — “14 head of kids” — and he has about 23 grandchildren and about four great-grandchildren.

“I can’t remember all their names; I can’t even remember all my children’s names” he laughed. “They’ll be sitting around and I’ll call three or four before I call the right name.”

Last year they all came at the same time, some with their children and their children’s children “and I just had to get in my truck and go down in the woods somewhere.”

From the use of the crosscut saw, he said, “I’ve done some of all of it — drug logs, drove tractors, all different things. Did a lot of loading with mules, rolling logs up, all my life, from one place to another.” Louis has no thought of retiring and plans “to work til I can’t.”

Gordon Cotton (1936-2021) was a Vicksburg and Warren County icon who spent a lifetime learning and sharing history.