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.