Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Was James Henry Winkler Lost in a Texas Sawmill Fire?

I'm stumped. My third great-grandfather James Henry Winkler disappeared and left few clues to his whereabouts.

While I concede it probably wasn’t deliberate, his periodic gaps in the paper trail have made it difficult to follow his movements. In late 2019, I recounted the little I knew about his life: Whatever Happened to James Henry Winkler?

Born September 29, 1862, he was enumerated as J. H. Winkler in his parents’ 1870 household. A decade later, however, he was gone. At the age of 18, he had struck out on his own. There are a couple contenders in the 1880 census that may be him, but I can’t identify him with certainty.  

In 1883, he married Pauline Brickey (my third great-grandmother) in Newton County, Missouri. The record trail quieted down and I mistakenly assumed they were enjoying wedded bliss until Pauline suddenly - without any sign of turmoil in their relationship - remarried in 1891. 

What happened to James?! Did they divorce? Had he died? I couldn’t find an answer. The record trail was silent, and James was subsequently MIA for 17 years.

I finally found J. H. Winkler in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census. I was excited to see his birth month and year matched those in the Winkler family bible. I was doubly excited when I saw that the birth states for his parents were also a match (Indiana and Tennessee). I was back on his trail in hot pursuit and, to my surprise, in new geography - the Lone Star State!

Emporia Logger Camp

Seven months after they married in Liberty County, Texas, J. H. Winkler and his new wife Cora (Shelton) Doors, were enumerated on June 14, 1900, in the Emporia Log Camp in Angelina County, Texas. 

Run by the Emporia Lumber Company, Emporia was a company town established in 1893 that harvested yellow pine and processed the timber for transport along the nearby Houston East & West Texas railway lines to meet the growing industrial needs of the United States (The Pine Bough, December 1999).
Excerpt of 1900 Texas railroad map detailing Emporia
Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98688561/

In 1896, a fire destroyed the sawmill but was extinguished quickly and spared the planing mill and 5.5 million feet of lumber. 

Fort Worth Gazette, March 24, 1896

The following year (1897), business was booming. Emporia’s new sawmill produced 85,000 board feet per day, which provided lumber primarily for railroad cars and timbers for bridges (Old Emporia). New machinery was installed in 1900 that expanded the mill's daily production capacity to 100,000 board feet.

The camp’s population climbed to 155 residents in 1900. Among these men was J. H. Winkler who worked as a logger in the sawmill. In fact, he was one of only two enumerated loggers (the other was a man named John M. Cravey). Both men worked alongside dozens of day laborers – most of them African American.
Excerpt of the 1900 US Federal Census for J.H. Winkler
His occupation was logger in the Emporia Log Camp sawmill

James and Cora rented a house like every other person enumerated at the camp. Emporia offered a no-frills existence. Most employees lived in houses built of “unpainted clapboard construction with outdoor toilets.” The cottages were without modern conveniences because this was intended to be a short lived mill. Water for household needs came from shallow wells. Amenities included a “commissary store, a community church and meeting hall, and a small school” (Old Emporia, The History of Angelina County).

Just as quickly as I discovered James’ whereabouts, the trail went cold. For six years there was little information on his activities. Was he still at the Emporia log camp in Angelina County? 

The silence was finally broken on April 30, 1906 when “Mrs. Cora Winkler” was united in marriage with W. T. Reed in Jefferson County, Texas. Again, without any warning signs, J. H. Winkler was out of the picture. Cora's marriage record provided no clues as to whether she was a divorcĂ©e or a widower.

Fire scorches Emporia

As I dug deeper into Emporia’s history, I learned about a disaster that nearly wiped it off the map. Was James among the victims of what's been called “one of the most enduring mysteries in East Texas”?

In March 1906 (one month before Cora remarried), an explosion and fire struck Emporia's sawmill. The fiery blast reportedly killed more than thirty sawmill workers (many of whom were black). Their remains were burned beyond recognition and buried in a mass grave; the location of which is unknown but believed to be somewhere on the Emporia town site (Old Emporia).

Historian Bob Bowman speculated the magnitude of the fire's damage was exacerbated by an inadequate water supply. A newspaper in 1904 wrote, “water is so scarce that, in order to operate the mill, water has to be hauled from the Neches River” which was a mile away (Old Emporia). Holding ponds stored water that supported the mill, but clearly, when disaster struck, the need exceeded their capacity (The History of Angelina County).

After the fires died down, the logging mill (what remained of it) was sold and Emporia faded until it was a ghost town that was eventually absorbed by the growth of neighboring Diboll.

Today, there is no evidence of the Emporia log camp except for a historic marker denoting its general location. Local legend speculates that the mass grave lies east of U.S. 59 in Diboll’s south meadow area.

Was James Henry Winkler killed in the sawmill explosion and fire? Was he laid to rest in the mass grave? That would certainly explain the uncertainty about his final whereabouts. But is it too easy of an answer? His fellow logger in the sawmill in 1900, John M. Cravey, lived to be enumerated on the 1910 census. Sure, it's possible that John no longer worked at Emporia when the disaster occurred or, if he did, he was spared fatal injury. Bottom line, I don't have any evidence to conclude James suffered a fiery end.

Questions remain and more research needs to be done. Maybe clues are hiding in newspaper accounts or, if I'm really lucky and they exist, surviving Emporia Lumber Company employee records. The search for James continues. Will Texas yield answers?


  1. Your research and storytelling have shed light on the life he might have led. While the mystery remains unanswered, your exploration of his potential experiences in the workplace through the articles you've discovered is captivating.

    1. Thank you, Cathy. Hopefully by keeping the research pressure up I'll finally bust through the brick wall. This one has been up for too long!