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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: An industry on the move
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

This is the third in a series on turpentining in Georgia.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, many naval stores (turpentining) producers moved their operations, including laborers and distilling equipment, from North Carolina to Georgia, sometimes Florida or points west. In fact, Georgia was not devoid of turpentining operations before that time, case in point being John Cobb's at a site near the present town of Cobbtown. Steamboat traffic on major rivers, reliable ferries across streams and improved roads had made marketplaces like Savannah more accessible. However, the coming of the Carolinians marked a huge expansion.

Three major factors contributed to Georgia's becoming the new "tar heel" state. First was the exhaustion of natural resources in North Carolina and adjacent areas in South Carolina. The problem lay in "boxing," the decades old method of extraction of raw gum from pines. A narrow, long-bladed ax was used to cut a hole (box) near the base of the tree into which the fresh tar drained. Above it, the bark and some wood were cut away to produce a flow of gum and direct it into the box. An iron tool shaped like a ping-pong paddle was used regularly to remove accumulated gum.

Boxing was limiting because a tree could sustain only so many such injuries before it was in effect girdled and died. (In truth, I have seen a huge stump that had seven boxes on it.) Boxed trees were also susceptible to destruction by fire, wind and insect infestation. Once a tree had been "worked out" it could only be cut down and used for lumber. It took a long time for a seedling to grow large enough to be boxed. After nearly two centuries of this practice, North Carolina's pine forests had passed their peak.

The second factor was the pull of vast pine forests available in Georgia and states to the south and west. Certainly, there had been significant timber removal in Georgia, particularly along the Altamaha River and its tributaries from the fall-line to the timber port of Darien. Beginning when the Creeks still occupied one side of the river, intrepid river people took rafts of timber downstream for sale and large scale timber companies from outside the South used that mode of transport to harvest countless trees after the Civil War.

However, such river systems touched only a small part of Georgia's piney woods where millions of acres had never seen an ax except when settlers built houses or cleared land for farming. Bounteous resources awaited the era of systematic timber cutting and turpentining.

Transportation was the key to change and the years between 1880 and 1910 were a period of almost feverish development of railroads in South Georgia. It was an era of economic speculation during which many of the new railroads and plans for others failed. Where they succeeded, they redrew the economic and political map of the region. Their developers, sometimes people from outside, were driven by visions of money to be made in timbering, turpentining and the expanding cultivation of short staple cotton (as opposed to the finer quality but less productive long staple of Sea Island cotton).

George M. Brinson was identified as a railroad man, but he was more. He more or less established Stillmore and built the Stillmore Air Line to Collins, where it could shift cargo to the Savannah, Americus and Montgomery Railroad. His keenest interest was in his huge sawmill from which he could ship lumber to Savannah. The line was then extended north to Wadley to reach the Central of Georgia Railroad and that company acquired the line, renaming it the Wadley Southern Railroad. In the process, Stillmore became a thriving town with banks, retail stores and an academy.

Manassas Foy set up operations in southern Bulloch County, mainly timber at first, shipping lumber out on the SAMS. The entrepreneur developer of the SAMS even named one of its coal-and-water stops for him. He also set up a turpentine still and later brought in Lumbee Indians from Robeson County, North Carolina, to grow tobacco on his land.

Rail transportation was key, especially the many short lines that linked isolated areas to one another and to large population centers. Narrow-gage "tram" roads were driven into deep woods to transport trees but could be used for barrels of gum. Markets expanded for lumber, turpentine and rosin. Typical features of new coal-and-water stop towns were saw mills and turpentine stills. There was money to be made from pine trees.

Some of the transplanted North Carolina turpentine producers took their camps deep into the woods where it was possible to buy or lease large tracts of timber so that they would be set for several years of operation. Transportation to and from a railroad stop could be a challenge but not something they had not faced before. The patterns of work and of life in general were replicated across the piney woods all the way to Texas.

By the turn of the 20th century, turpentining had become a driving financial force in Georgia. Bulloch County, blessed with railroads and easy access to others, was deeply involved.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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