Sawmill production peaked in Clay County in the 1880’s. By 1927, there were just eight mills, and by 1937, only two were left. (FL Commissioner of Agriculture: Florida, An Advancing State, 1907-1917-1927, pg 29.)
Timber required mechanical processing. During British and Spanish colonial times, many land grants were awarded in areas where streams of sufficient flow could service cutting and grinding operations. Later, operators took advantage of steam power and eventually mills were converted to electricity. At the peak of this industry, dozens, possibly more than one hundred, of mills dotted Clay County. Here we highlight the information gathered about each location.
Logs were transported to the mills by either floating them down a creek or by railroad. Several short line railroads came and went as the timber cutters moved around the County. Many sawmills were destroyed by hostile activities by 1865.
Timber has been cut in the Clay County area at least since British Colonial Times. Francis Fatio wrote in 1785 that there is “an abundance of timber of superior quality, suitable for shipbuilding, lumber [and] staves”. The timber industry continued uninterrupted into Territorial Times when John Audubon saw live oak cutters in the White Sulphur (Green Cove Springs) area in 1822 [see Parade of Memories, pg. 65] In the same year, Robert Cowan illegally cut trees on government land [pg. 33]
By 1881, a forestry map shows that, while some virgin long leaf yellow pine remained in Clay County, most of the timber had been clear cut. Logs were floated down Black Creek to sawmills, or cut at upstream mills and barged out. Logs and lumber were transported on the east-west Green Cove Springs & Melrose Railroad to clear the southern portion of the county. Take note of two small white areas along Black Creek — these are likely cypress which, by 1881, had also been harvested. The large green area of virgin timber in the northwest of the county was harvested when the Middleburg, Highland and Lake Butler Railroad was chartered in 1888.
We don’t have much detail on many lumbermen, but copies of the letters of Ambrose Hart, available at the Archives, make interesting reading.
By 1929, a promotional brochure “North and Northwest Florida” indicates that two forestry associations were in operation to encourage replanting and to protect against fires: The Black Creek Protective Association, and the Leno Protective Unit.
Other than Duval County, no Florida county had more timber clearing and sawmills operations than Clay County.
Large Timber Holdings
As soon as the Florida Railroad (top SW of map) was given land grants just prior to the Civil War, lands were quickly purchased to secure virgin timberlands to feed the saw mills. Ozias Buddington was a major purchaser.
This Department of Forestry map shows large land holdings in 1957. By now, almost all of the county’s virgin timber had been cut and companies were on their second and third plantings. One-third of the county’s 150,000 acres was owned by these entities:
- Union Bag and Paper Corp. (36,192 acres)
- Foremost Properties (29,981 acres)
- St. Mary’s Kraft Corp. (29,089 acres)
- Camp Blanding (28,000 acres approx.)
Turpentine (also called Naval Stores)
In the era of wooden ships, the Navy demanded a tremendous amount of tar and pitch to seal boats. “Cats faces” were slashed into long-leaf yellow pine to collect the rosin (“gum”) into boxes or clay pots. These were then combined into barrels. This industry was called “Naval Stores.”
As the demand for tar and pitch decreased with the advent of metal ships, the demand for turpentine increased, especially for use in paints. “Turpentine farms” (pine forests) were planted just as before, but the pine sap went through an extra distillation process, somewhat similar to making moonshine. The term naval stores was broadened to include turpentine, even though the Navy was no longer the primary buyer.
Clay County was flush with turpentine farms (slashed pines) and turpentine stills, especially after the first growth long-leaf yellow pine had been nearly completely clear cut by 1900.
In 1929, one-eighth of the county was planted for turpentine production. A “cooperage plant” was also in operation to make the turpentine storage barrels.
The Marmaduke Turpentine Mill is shown on map CCA101810 in Green Cove Springs.
Books at the Archives
- Treasures of the Long Leaf Pines