Homer Marks recalled that many families in Apalachicola kept a milk cow and chickens when he worked as a delivery boy in 1914. In that era when families kept livestock and owned a butter churn, St. George and St. Vincent Islands both harbored herds of cattle, pigs, and even goats.
Now, the only artifact that remains on St. George Island is a cattle dipping vat found near Nick’s Hole when homes began to be built there in the 1970s. This article recalls a time when beef and dairy cattle contributed to the economy of Franklin County.
Taxes on island owners
The reason livestock were released on the barrier islands was simple: Owners needed to pay land taxes. During the 19th century, most owners needed to earn money through some combination of harvesting turpentine, timber, or selling lots. Although owners talked about the potential of oystering, ownership of the oyster bars offshore was legally murky.
The three barrier islands had all been part of the Forbes Purchase, and became property of the Apalachicola Land Company in 1835. Due to difficulties in paying land taxes, the company went into receivership in 1853. Thomas Orman obtained the title to Little St. George in 1861, and George Sinclair bought the title to St. George Island. However, Sinclair sold his interest to Horace Humphries in 1881.
Because of the need to raise money for taxes, in 1889 island owner Horace Humphries contracted with William Neel of Apalachicola to land 100 head of cattle on St. George Island. Lighthouse keeper Edward Porter faced the same situation because he had purchased Little St. George Island. For extra income, he brought 200 head of cattle to the island. Both Neel and Porter also decided to raise hogs, and by the turn of the century, hundreds of hogs, cattle and goats roamed around St. George Island.
Porter had an advantage in these transactions because he earned a salary and was provided living quarters for his work at the lighthouse. He had to travel to Apalachicola for supplies, pay and mail, so every few weeks he and the assistant keeper, Walter Roberts Sr., would butcher a cow to sell in town. Porter also kept milk cows and Leghorn chickens for meat and eggs. With no refrigeration, fresh milk and eggs were needed for his six children. Porter also raised a vegetable garden with melons, corn and tomatoes. The guest cottage that he rented near the bay was the first viable real estate venture on any part of St. George Island
In 1900, Paul and F. R. King bought “big” St. George Island. To help pay taxes, they signed a lease with George McCormack, who also released hogs and goats on St. George Island. The income was not sufficient, so they sold St. George to W.F. Farley and W.E. Montgomery in 1905. Farley probably built the first home on St. George Island, which was located near Nick’s Hole.
Either Porter or a subsequent keeper must have released goats on Little St. George, because a herd was grazing on Sand Island at the western end of Little St. George by the 1920s.
Little St. George rejoins St. George Island
In 1910, banker George Saxon purchased big St. George Island from Montgomery and Farley. Captain Andy Wing had already built a wharf and boardwalk across the island, and in 1911, Saxon’s St. George Island Company built a small hotel called the Club House facing the beach.
Sometime after 1913, the year keeper Edward Porter died, the channel called New Inlet filled in, rejoining Little St. George to the rest of the island. We know this because H.L. Oliver purchased turpentine rights from Saxon, and George Counts killed a large alligator near the inlet while directing turpentine operations that year. By 1930, it was possible to ride a horse the entire length of the island without swimming.
After lighthouse keeper Edward Porter died, his daughter Pearl Porter married Apalachicola resident Herbert O. Marshall, and the couple regained title to Little St. George (by then reattached to the rest of the island). Due to concern that cattle raised in the South would infect northern herds with Texas tick fever, an eradication program began in 1906, and brought a new way for the couple to earn cash on St. George Island.
After Florida mandated cattle must be treated for ticks beginning in 1923, Herbert Marshall built three cattle dipping vats on St. George and St. Vincent Island. One was located near Nick’s Hole inside the St. George Plantation, one was on the former Little St. George, and the third was on St. Vincent Island. The vats were filled with a poisonous solution of arsenic obtained from local pharmacies, and livestock would be driven in single file for a soaking.
“We would pack a lunch and go to East Pass, opposite Carrabelle, and drive the cattle to our dipping vat, dip all of them, including our horses, and next day go to St. Vincent and dip their cattle,” Pearl Marshall recalled.
After patent medicine tycoon, Dr. Ray V. Pierce, bought St. Vincent in 1907, he used it primarily as a game preserve for Sambar deer. However, he maintained a herd of cattle for his guests. Hogs had been released by St. Vincent’s first owners, George Hatch and Gen. Edward Alexander. Herbert and Pearl Marshall would have worked with the heirs of Dr. Pierce, who kept title to St. Vincent Island until 1948. The tick eradication program ended in the 1930s in most of Florida.
A multi-use island
George Saxon and his successor, William Popham, were both entrepreneurs who saw no conflict between raising livestock, harvesting turpentine, and developing tourism. Because there were no bridges in Franklin County until 1935, visitors had to travel by railroad, steamship or river boat and then charter an excursion to the island.
In 1931, Clifford C. Land moved his turpentine operation from High Point to Green Point near the modern junction of Highways 98 and 65, where he built living quarters, corrals, a commissary and turpentine still. He also leased the rights to raise livestock and harvest turpentine on all of St. George Island from Popham and the Marshalls. Land built a pier at Green Point where he docked a barge to haul turpentine hands, livestock, and barrels of pine resin to and from both islands.
Sullivan White and John Montgomery were the last official lighthouse keepers at Cape St. George before the Coast Guard took over in 1939. Mr. Land allowed both of the keepers to pick milk cows from his herd for milking and making butter and cottage cheese. Also, in a last attempt to retain title to St. George Island, Popham founded the Florida Goat, Sheep and Turkey Farms, Inc. When that venture failed, Popham and his family departed for California.
End of the livestock era
World War II and changing economics ended turpentine and livestock operations on St. George Island before island development for tourism really began. When the federal government leased the island in 1942 to train troops for amphibious landings ahead of D-Day, the cattle, hogs and goats were removed. Turpentine operations simply halted and equipment was left where it had been used, with clay cups under many of the pines on St. George Island.
In addition, labor laws changed and made it illegal to pay workers in company scrip and force them to buy provisions at commissaries, which had been standard practice in turpentine and seafood operations in Franklin County up to 1960.
When the St. George Island Plantation was developed in the 1970s, the remains of one of Herbert Marshall’s cattle dipping vats was found. A few blocks made from coquina and oyster shell concrete from the vat are still hidden in the cat briers on the Gulf side near Nick’s Hole. Visitors used to report finding blue bottles that once held the concentrated arsenic solution. This vat is mentioned in a history of the St. George Plantation that can be found at www.stgeorgeplantation.com