Texas Forest Country Retreat Preserves Manning History

Story by Sarah Naron

Walking through the spacious acreage surrounding the Mansion on Sawmill Lake at Texas Forest Country Retreat, it seems surreal to realize that the area was once home to Angelina County’s second-largest town. That town, which was  named Manning in honor of Dr. W.W. Manning, began with a population of approximately 700 residents that eventually increased to 1,500.

The heartbeat of the town was its sawmill, which was built in 1903 by W.T. Carter of Houston and G.A. Kelly of Lufkin.

“In its heyday, it was one of the largest Southern yellow pine sawmills in the South,” said Bob Flournoy, a Lufkin attorney who now owns the property. “Manning and the Carter-Kelly Lumber Company was a bustling industrial complex that was built in the heart of huge long-leaf pine forest lands owned by the company.”

Bob’s father, the late Morgan Flournoy – who came to Manning in 1929 to serve as the superintendent of the school – wrote a history of the town which was featured in a 1980 publication titled ‘Were You At Manning?’ which detailed the town’s existence from 1906-1936. According to Morgan, the town possessed several businesses, including a barber shop, a drugstore, a general store, a Masonic Lodge, an office building, and a theater.

“All the houses were pretty much the same; they were all shotgun houses,” Bob said. “They were called that because you could fire a shotgun, and it would go all the way from the front of the house to the back. They had hardly any windows or doors; some of them had a dogtrot down the middle and things like that.”

Bob added that none of the houses had painted exteriors, with the exception of the white, two-story house occupied by the mill manager and his family.

“The church was used by several different denominations, and it was painted,” Flournoy said. “The train depot was painted, and I believe the schoolhouse was painted.”

Bob’s brother, Tom Flournoy, explained that Manning relied heavily on immigrant labor and sent representatives to New York to find prospective employees.

“They recruited people coming in on the boats sailing into New York Habor, and they would pay their passage to come down here, provided they would work here,” Tom said. “They brought mainly Italians. A lot of the ones coming over – they just came to America, you know. They jumped at the chance to have a job and a place to go.”

In addition to having their expenses associated with traveling from New York to Texas covered, the employees were obviously also given salaries. However, Tom said, they were limited on how they could spend the money they earned.

“It was kind of a closed money system; the money they paid them with was kind of a company script, and it was redeemable for goods at the company store,” he said. “So, they paid them, but they had to use the money at the store. It was kind of a captive audience.”

The sawmill was thwarted by fire in 1916, but was rebuilt. Twenty years later, in January 1936, fiery tragedy struck again. Morgan recalled the experience in ‘Were You At Manning?’

“I was on the spot, in fact, in the building soon after it started,” he wrote. “But nothing I or anyone else could do would stop the fire.”

According to Bob, the sawmill was not reconstructed following the blaze.

“Most of the houses were torn down and the lumber moved to other locations,” he said. “The sawmill equipment that could be salvaged was shipped to Camden. Some of the iron dollies were apparently shipped to Japan and may have been used to make bullets to fire back at us later on.”

While the hustle and bustle of the old mill town is long over, reminders of what was once there are plentiful throughout the grounds.

“Evidence of the railroad that serviced this town is obvious from many of the railroad trams that remain,” Bob said. “The railroad – the Houston, Shreveport, and Gulf Railroad, better known as the Shove Hard and Grunt Railroad – connected to the Cotton Belt and the Texas and New Orleans Railroad at Huntington.”

The concrete structure that was once the sawmill still stands in part today, and foundations and bricks from many of the houses exist as well. The brothers have also identified the bases of the town’s three water towers.

The town was racially segregated, and among the remnants of the African-American portion are a cemetery.

“Mostly all that’s there now are sunken-in graves,” Bob said. “most of them just have a rock for the tombstone. There’s two of them that have a strange-looking figure on them; it almost looks like an alien of some kind. I don’t know what that represented. It looks like it’s maybe got wheels; it’s really an odd thing. To just kind of find that off in the middle of nowhere was kind of intriguing.”

The house which is now referred to as the Mansion on Sawmill Lake is another leftover from Manning and once belonged to W.M. Gibbs, the mill manager and builder of the house. It was the childhood home of the Flournoy brothers and their other siblings – two more brothers and one sister – and purchased by their parents in 1941 from Leannah, Gibbs’s widow, along with 1,200 acres of land, the reservoir, the mill pond, and the old mill itself.

“When we moved to the house in 1941, it had electrical fixtures and switches, but no power, because all the power had been generated by the sawmill as DC electricity,” Bob recalled. “So, we had no electricity or running water until about 1950, when the Rural Electrification Association brought a power line all the way to Manning.”

Following the death of his mother in 2009, Bob purchased the mansion from his siblings, and he and his wife, Genie, realized their dream of opening a bed and breakfast and wedding venue.

“This gives us a ministry to provide rest, relaxation, and renewal to weary folks and a great place for a man and a woman to begin a wonderful life together,” Bob said.

The house consists of four guest bedrooms, three of which were given names with sentimental meaning.

“My mother and father met at Stephen F. Austin State University when the doors were opened for the first time at the university,” Bob explained. “When Mother died in 2009, she was the oldest living graduate of SFA. We named one of the rooms in the house the SFA Room and one of the rooms as Miss Ruby’s Room in their honor. We also named one of the rooms after Leannah Gibbs.”

In addition to the mansion, Texas Forest Country Retreat consists of the two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bathroom Beaver Creek Lodge and the 20×24-foot Carriage House, which is available for events such as birthday parties and family reunions. There are also a variety of locations on the grounds where wedding ceremonies may take place.

Regardless of what purpose they intend to use the retreat for, Bob is eager to welcome visitors to the old sawmill town.

“I love Manning, and you will, too,” he said. “I am anxious to share it with all who will come and experience this place that I call home.”

Texas Country Retreat is located 156 Grimes-Flournoy Rd. in Huntington. For more information, please call 877-829-2422 or visit www.texasforestcountryretreat.com.

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