The King of the Forest

If you inherited a family tradition, a million-acre forest, and a business, how would you decide which one to preserve? Meet Arthur Temple…

Even in the summer, twilight comes early to the tall woods near the Louisiana border in deep East Texas. By the time the two men finished a late lunch and went out for an afternoon ride in the Sabine National Forest, shadows had already reclaimed the narrow clearing that contained the roadway. Their route was lined by unbroken walls of trees, green cliffs thick with oak and gum and hickory among the loblolly pine. This—not the neatly manicured, cut-over strips along the highways leading north out of Houston—was the real Piney Woods: old, tall, dark, deep.

For two hours the men drove through the forest, talking. They were father and son, and they were having the sort of talk fathers and sons have when the father is 52 and trying to decide what to do with the family business. In their case the family business was trees. The father’s grandfather had started it back in 1893, just one family lumber company among hundreds in East Texas. It had grown into an empire and outlasted them all, the last holdout against the big national timber companies. Now it was the son’s turn. But he had followed other ambitions, and the father was thinking about a merger, and so the moment of decision had come: did the son really want the company? Four generations of family, uncountable generations of trees, all coming down to two men and one afternoon in the forest. On a back road near the tiny sawmill town of Pineland, the son made his decision: no.

That drive in the woods took place ten years ago, but the results have a long tail. As conversations go, it deserves a place in Texas history alongside the deal H.L. Hunt made with Dad Joiner for the best leases in the East Texas oil field. The direct outcome of the decisions made in that car was the formation of Texas’ largest land empire, more than one million acres of land, easily surpassing the King Ranch. Eventually, the fate of one of the nation’s richest and most influential companies would rest with one of the men in the car. The other would become a prominent figure in Texas politics. And fifty years from now the forest itself will look very different as a consequence of that afternoon.

A little over an hour’s drive beyond the last of Houston’s northern suburbs, a road sign on U.S. 59 directs motorists to Camden. As late as the sixties, Camden was the seat of the vast Carter timber empire. Once there was a saying in East Texas that if the Carters began cutting their timber at the Trinity river, it would take them so long to reach the Sabine that the trees on the Trinity would be tall enough to cut again. Now Camden is gone—its houses bulldozed, its people moved, its leading family dispersed—and all that remains is a highway intersection, a sawmill, and a plywood plant.

Another 45 minutes down the road, a state highway leads off through Lufkin toward what was once the unchallenged domain of the Kurth family. The sawmill of the Angelina County Lumber Company was surrounded by a community called Keltys, where Kurth rule was so absolute that a preacher is said to have been fired just for mentioning Labor Day from the pulpit. Today Keltys too is gone, absorbed into Lufkin. All that is left of the sawmill is the old foundation.

Roughly midway between Camden and Keltys is Diboll, the headquarters of the Temples, the third of Texas’ three leading timber families. But Diboll’s thriving. Its sawmill still cuts logs into lumber. The mill is ringed by satellite plants using every part of the tree, from sap to sawdust, that escapes the blade. New housing projects abut the highway, and back among the pines sits a sprawling, odd-angled building of the sort that major corporations build for themselves as headquarters and monuments.

The survival of Diboll has a lot to do with the father and son’s drive through the Sabine National Forest, for the father was Arthur Temple, Jr., and the son was Arthur III, better known as Buddy, unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor earlier this year. The family company whose fate they settled in the woods now occupies the modern headquarters building in Diboll under the name of Temple-Eastex. When Buddy said he didn’t want to join the business, Arthur Temple went out and merged his company with the timber subsidiary of Time Inc.

Arthur Temple is patriarch of a family that holds about 15 per cent of Time’s stock, making the Temples the largest bloc of shareholders of a company that ranks 125 th on the Fortune 500. He is vice chairman of Time Inc. The representative he sent from Diboll to corporate headquarters in New York is in position to be the next head man at Time. As chairman of Temple-Eastex, Arthur Temple rules an empire of 80 million trees with 4 billion board feet of timber—enough to stretch from Diboll to the moon and back, with enough left over for ten earth orbits. Beyond a doubt he is the most powerful man in East Texas and one of the most powerful in the entire state.

In many ways he is made for the role in a timber baron. He stands over six feet, but the more lasting impression is that of a bulky sturdiness, with a low center of gravity like a bear standing upright. His dominant physical feature is a deep vice furrow etched into a high forehead, which, regardless of what the rest of his body is ding, creates the impression that his mind is permanently in deep thought. He prefers shirt sleeves to suits, Diboll to New York, and Aggie engineers to Wall Street analysts. He likes hunting and golf and the woods—he once shocked a national timber industry meeting by suggesting, half in jest, that the great Western fir forests were too beautiful to cut. He uses country boy aphorisms to make points, offering

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week