James Greeley McGowin was a self-made man. Early in life, McGowin began assisting his father in cutting timber, the industry in which he would make a career.
McGowin opened a mercantile business in Brewton in 1892. While developing the successful business, McGowin met and fell in love with Essie Teresa Stallworth. The couple married in 1898. In 1903, McGowin sold his interest in the mercantile store and moved to Mobile to join his brothers in the lumber exporting business. Two years later, McGowin joined with his brothers and a brother-in-law in purchasing the W.T. Smith Lumber Company in Chapman, Alabama. The early period of McGowin’s management of the company was one of intense competition. “Cut out and get out” was a dominant philosophy, but McGowin stayed with the land, purchasing and merging with neighboring mills. In 1925, McGowin became president of the company, a position he held for the rest of his life. Many southern timber industries began to suffer as old timber began to run out, and reforestation had not yet produced new timber. Diversification and the use of all possible timber were the ways McGowin met the problem. McGowin’s main avocations were his farm south of Chapman and the development of a wildlife conservation area. He was active in trade organizations such as the Southern Pine Association. He devoted much of his time to the Universalist Church. One of McGowin’s sons described his father: “Truly, James Greeley McGowin was one of the mightiest pines.”