The great endeavor that I am currently undertaking is the research and writing of a book on Michigan’s lumber history, tentatively titled “Green Gold: The Rise and Fall of Michigan’s White Pine Lumber Industry.” In the research for this, I am currently reading Geroge W. Hotchkiss’s “History of the Lumber and Forestry Industry of the Northwest” an 1898 publication of the lumber industry in Michigan, Wisconisn, and Minnesota. Hotchkiss, who besides being the editor for “The Lumber Trade Journal” in Chicago, had been a Saginaw lumberman and Chicago lumber dealer, and knew most of the important men in Michigan’s lumber industry. His book has been a great addition to my research library. So it was with great interest when I read the biographical sketch that he included on Frank W. May, hardwood dealer in Detroit.
The scope of my book is the pine lumber industry and not the hardwood industry, but regardless, the story of Frank W. May is unique as he was an African American born into slavery in Kentucky in 1854 and rose to own his own sawmill in Detroit and operate a forty-man logging crew in Otsego County, Michigan in the 1890s. Frank May’s early life was spent in slavery, first in Kentucky, then in 1861 he was sent to Louisiana and then to Texas. He remained in bondage until 1866 when the slaves were finally told by agents of the U.S. government that they were free as the plantation owner never let them know. May continued working as a farm laborer in Texas and Lousiana for two years before he moved back to Kentucky. Not being able to find work on farms, he went to Louisiville and worked in the car shops of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad for threee years. After crushing his hand and quitting his job, he moved to Detroit in either 1871 or 1872. Frank May found work in Detroit with J & T Hurley coal dealers as a teamster and after a year with them was hired as a teamster by a lumber dealer.
While working for this lumber dealer (name unknown), Mr. May developed an eye for the different grades of lumber and “in the course of a couple of years he was promoted to the poistion of inspector, to the satisfaction of the firm and of its customers.” (Hotchkiss, page 85) May figured out that a lot of lumber stock, especially hardwood was being lost when some of the lower, courser grades could be salvaged out of waste stock. May bought his own team and began to salvage these lower grades from sawmills and cutting them into smaller portions for furniture stock for table legs, spindles, bannisters, and other pieces. This led to him building his own mill in Detroit in 1890 and purchasing and cutting this less desirable stock. In 1895 he was able to afford to remodel his mill with a gang saw and a band saw, then the most technologically advanced type of saw in the lumber industry. His output rose to three million boardfeet cut a year. By 1898 he employed twenty-five men in his mill and in the winter he had forty men employed in the woods cutting oak and pine on a tract he owned in Otsego County.
Frank May, although he was involved with cutting lower grades of lumber, was still unique in Michigan’s lumber industry. Until I came across him, the only African Americans that I had found in the lumber industry were as common laborers in the sawmills of Bay City, Saginaw, and Muskegon, and a few isolated woodsmen in camps in Emmet County and in Crawford County. In the nineteenth century, even in Michigan, it was a segregated society for African Americans. In the sawmills the men may work side by side with white men, but they would live in a segregated neighborhood. In the woods, this was much more difficult and the few African Americans who did work in the woods would by necessity, live in the same men’s shanty with the other loggers. But whether in the mills or in camps, these men rarely rose above the height of being commn laborers. Frank May, not only moved from being a teamster, a socially acceptable position, but then to lumber inspector, and then to owning his own business and sawmill. Frank May clearly demonstrated a knowledge for lumber and a good head for business. These were rare traits for any man, regardless of the color of his skin.
I don’t know how I will work the story of Frank W. May into my book yet, but I will find a way. His is a unique story, although one that is still incomplete at this time. My knowledge only goes to 1898 at this point. I need to get to Detroit and explore toe Burton Historical Collections at the Detroit Public Library to find out more on Mr. May and to see what happened to him after 1898. And a photograph of him would be a great find. At times I feel like a detective uncovering clues to a great mystery!
Resource: Hotchkiss, George W. “History of the Lumber and Forest Industry of the Northwest.” Chicago: George W. Hotchkiss and Company, 1898.