What Lumber Brought Us

By Stephen D. Bowling

Between 1900 and 1923, Breathitt County was the undisputed lumber capital of the world.  Fred Mowbray and E. O. Robinson owned and operated a massive lumber mill in Quicksand on the present site of the University of Kentucky Experiment Station.  By 1923, a significant portion of the large oak, poplar, hickory, and walnut trees that Mowbray-Robinson Lumber Company prided itself on were few in number. 

A view of the Mowbray and Robinson Lumber Company at Quicksand shortly before it ceased operations.

Mowbray and Robinson slowly began to limit operation and finally stopped production altogether.  Over-forestation and poor land management resulted, in effect, in suicide by the Mowbray-Robinson Lumber Company.  The lack of high-quality standing timber forced the world’s largest operating sawmill to close.

The following is an article from in the April 17, 1923 edition of The Louisville Post which describes what became of the grounds and possessions of the Mowbray-Robinson Lumber Company.

Frankfort, Kentucky-- April 17, 1923

Development of the mountain sections of the state along educational and agricultural lines is made possible by E. O. Robinson, of Ft. Thomas, who has donated $1,000,000.00 to help the mountain counties of the state.  Gilt-edge securities of the value of $1,000,000.00 have been turned over by Mr. Robinson to the E. O. Robinson Mountain Fund and will be spent in the establishing agricultural and model schools in the mountains and for the reforestation of the mountains by the trustees of the fund in conjunction with the University of Kentucky.

Announcement of the gift was made here today by Judge Edward C. O’Rear, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the E. O. Robinson Mountain Fund, the other members of which are Mr. Robinson, Leland G. Banning, Fred W. Mowbray of Cincinnati, William H. Hyden of Clay County, Charles N. Manning of Lexington, and Menifee Wirgman of Louisville.  In addition to the gilt-edge securities, Mr. Robinson has turned over, to the trustees of the fund, 16,000 acres of land in Breathitt, Perry, and Knott Counties, practically all of which is timberland.  Only young timber is on the land, but at maturity, Judge O’Rear estimates it will be worth at least $1,000,000.00.

Under the arrangements made by the board of trustees with the University of Kentucky, the university will use 15,000 acres of land for exploitation in reforestation and two 500-acre farms for agricultural extension work.  Definite arrangements for starting the schools will be made from President Frank McVey and Dean Cooper of the University, Mr. Robinson, and  Judge O’Rear when they go to Breathitt County, which they expect to do sometime next week.  According to Judge O’Rear at least $20,000 of the fund will be spent this year for equipment and machinery for the schools.  

Several conferences between the trustees of the fund and officers of the University culminated in the University agreeing to conduct one model school, a farm extension school, and carry on experimental horticulture experiments in addition to which, it will act with the federal government in restoration work.  Robinson and Mowbray own a $1,000,000.00 lumber manufacturing plant at Quicksand in Breathitt County.  It is surrounded with several clubhouses and a great many modern cottages.  Mr. Robinson told the trustees that this gift includes any and all of the machinery in the lumber plants that the university needs “and if you need any of the clubhouses or cottages,” Mr. Robinson said, “help yourself.”
Fred W. Mowbray and Edward O. Robinson at Quicksand in the 1920s.

Today, the influence of E. O. Robinson and Fred Mowbray can be seen and felt throughout the county.  The Robinson Forest, Quicksand Experimental Station, and several other organizations prosper from the gifts of these wealthy lumber barons.  More importantly, E. O. Robinson, through his Mountain Fund, has made it possible for people of the mountains to attend lumber, agricultural, and other specialty schools as well as assisting hundreds in their education at the University of Kentucky. 

Our schools and civic organizations still benefit from these men who tried to give back to the people just a little of what they took.  Clearly, E. O. Robinson’s money has brought much more, I think than even he ever anticipated but there is more that can be accomplished.

© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling


About sdbowling

Director of the Breathitt County Public Library and Heritage Center in Jackson, Kentucky.
This entry was posted in Breathitt County, Businesses, Education, Industry and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Lumber Brought Us

  1. appalgal says:

    What an excellent read! I’ve never seen so much info about that company packed into such a concise but complete bit of space. Thanks so much for sharing this.


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