The naval stores industry, which distilled turpentine from pine sap (“gum”) and produced pine rosin, once afforded income to Franklin County landowners and laborers in forests from Tate’s Hell north and from Indian Pass and St. George Island to Carrabelle.
In 1917, the Apalachicola Times noted two naval stores operations in town (see “Apalachicola booming a century ago,” Feb. 23, 2017).
Because turpentine leases were recorded in county deed books and employment was listed in censuses, it is possible to track the rise and fall of the naval stores industry in the county, including the barrier islands. A state road map from 1936 shows the location of four turpentine stills operating in Franklin County, one owned by C.C. Land’s High Bluff Company east of modern State Road 65 (See Figure 1).
Turpentine before World War I
Around 1909, James McNeill Sr. purchased 13,000 acres of land near Indian Pass and established a turpentine operation. Indian Pass Raw Bar grew out of the old turpentine commissary after James McNeill Jr. combined turpentine with a seafood business. The McNeill family also ran a sawmill and after 1936 sold pulpwood to the paper mill that opened in Port St. Joe.
Pearl Porter Marshall, daughter of lighthouse keeper Edward Porter, recalled that all the pine trees on Little St. George were virgin forest until her father sold turpentine rights. A 1911 turpentine lease recorded in Franklin County deed books confirms that he conveyed the rights to cup and chip trees for turpentine to Mr. J. T. Bragdon, who operated a naval stores company in Apalachicola. The lease stated the work must begin the same year and would last for three years. The 1920 U.S. census lists John Bragdon and his son, Osceola, as turpentine workers.
Marshall also mentioned that she and her husband, Herbert, later leased rights to harvest turpentine to Martin Britt, who is also listed in the 1920 census as a turpentine worker. Both Britt and Bragdon had several sons who worked in naval stores and timber operations.
During the same period, Apalachicola businessman Homer L. Oliver leased turpentine rights on big St. George Island from George Saxon, a banker who purchased the entire island in 1910. Primarily a businessman, Oliver worked with Bragdon and in 1915 hired George Counts to manage his turpentine operations on St. George Island. The 1920 U.S. census lists George Counts, Sr. as a turpentine operator with his color listed as white. Several black men on the same page are listed as turpentine laborers.
Counts lived in quarters near Nick’s Hole and supervised a turpentine crew of mostly African-American hands until 1918. In 1920, real estate promoter William Popham purchased most of St. George Island from George Saxon, and Counts worked as his associate until 1938. The method of harvesting pine gum is shown in Figure 2 along with one of many pine trees on St. George Island that still has nails and metal gutters in its cat face.
Railroads and the export trade
The ability to export naval stores improved when the Georgia, Florida and Alabama Railroad acquired the Georgia Pine Railway connecting Thomasville to Carrabelle in 1895. Several sawmills were already operating in Carrabelle when Hampton Covington opened the Gulf Naval Stores Company at the wharf. Access by oceangoing ships was enhanced by a channel dredged from East Pass to the turning basin in Carrabelle harbor. Gulf Naval Stores was a major employer in Carrabelle up to World War II.
To the railroad industry, lumber and naval stores represented potential profits, and the Apalachicola Northern Railroad constructed a spur to Apalachicola in 1907, and two years later extended it to the deep-water harbor in Port St. Joe. Turpentine and rosin were used in the chemical, newsprint and paint industries, and Europe provided a ready market for products from the southern United States. Censuses conducted in Franklin County from 1910 to 1940 show sawmills and turpentine operations were major employers in the area before World War II.
Operators knew resin exposed on cat faces was very flammable. To prevent loss of timber and equipment, it was common practice to clear areas around the trees and conduct annual controlled, low-intensity burning. Workers also favored clearing areas to avoid diamondback rattlesnakes. In a study of wildfire frequency, Dr. Jean Huffman found fire scars on trees from 1866 to 1904, but no evidence of fires from 1904-1923. Her work suggests turpentine workers effectively suppressed forest fires.
From the Depression to World War II
After World War I, turpentine operations continued at McNeill’s still at Indian Pass, at Bayard Robbins’ naval stores company near Eastpoint, and along Highway 12 (present Highway 65) north through High Bluff, Creels, Beverly and Bucks Siding on the Apalachicola Northern Railroad. Robbins died in 1928, and his land at Green Point was leased for several years and then sold to Clifford Land in 1939. Land operated High Bluff Turpentine Company, but moved to Robbins’ former home at Green Point east of State Road 65. He managed a business focused on turpentine, a sawmill, and raising cattle.
In 1937, Popham still owned St. George Island, and had formed the Florida Goat, Sheep and Turkey Farm to try to generate money. C. C. Land signed a lease with Popham’s company to harvest turpentine for six years. In 1940, W.H. Wilson obtained title to the island, and Land continued to sublease turpentine rights on the island. During World War II, the federal government took control of St. George Island and turpentine work was halted.
In 1948, Land signed a turpentine lease with Herbert Marshall to work on Little St. George Island. This coincides with the second period of turpentine work that Dr. Huffman identified on Little St. George, spanning the years from 1948 to 1958. Most of the cat-faced scars were cut during the earlier years, consistent with being able to harvest gum from one face for several years by chipping higher up the face as production slowed from lower streaks. Again, there was no record of major fires during the years when turpentine operations were conducted, probably because workers cleared brush and suppressed wildfires.
End of the naval stores era
The turpentine industry continued after World War II, but new labor laws and the ability to extract naval stores from pulp made labor costs prohibitive in the face of declining demand. During the Great Depression, Edward Ball and Alfred DuPont began purchasing worked-over forests in the Florida Panhandle. They learned Dr. Charles Herty had developed methods to make wood pulp from slash pines despite their high resin content, and in 1936 they founded The St. Joe Company to convert slash pine logs into pulp for cardboard and Kraft paper. Particularly around Eastpoint, many woodsmen found work harvesting slash pines for pulp or working in the mill in Port St. Joe.
During the same period, the federal government began buying land from private owners, and in 1936, President Roosevelt proclaimed the formation of the Apalachicola National Forest. Tate’s Hell State Forest was not created until 1994. With most of the land in Franklin County managed by The St. Joe Company or the government, the prior system in which private owners would harvest naval stores or lease rights to turpentine and timber declined. During the ‘50s, most economic activity shifted from the forests to the coast, particularly with the development of St. George Island for tourism and vacation homes.
Dr. Julian Bruce St. George Island State Park contains the best public areas where visitors can learn about the history of fires and turpentine operations on the island. Old pines with scars, nails and metal gutters are abundant along the trails next to East Slough and the camping area on Gap Point. In particular, numerous chipped and charred trees line the path that leads from the playground area past the interpretive center to the bay, and tools used in the turpentine industry are displayed next to the washroom on the campsite loop. Many old pine trees with cat-face scars can be seen in yards along Pine Avenue, and guests with passes to the Plantation can see these survivor trees along the bike path next to Leisure Lane.
James Hargrove is a retired scientist who lives on St. George Island and has authored books including “The Oyster King, The Man Who Bought St. George Island,” and “Cape St. George Lighthouse and Apalachicola Bay.” He may be contacted at email@example.com.