Tri-City Ledger -

By Russell Brown
Guest Columnist 

E.F. Skinner made profit off lumber


January 11, 2018

The period after the Civil war in the South is known as Reconstruction. The name is a bit misleading. For former states of rebellion, these years were largely state government controlled with U.S. military oversite. Florida had been one of the slave state instigators before the war and one of the most controlled afterwards. Among other things, the federal government seized vast sections of land whose owners could not pay taxes. With strong northern influence over government, many Yankees came into the state seeking their own fortunes and earning another name for the period, the Carpet Bagger years. In the western panhandle most of these Yankees became wealthy in the logging and lumber business. This is the story of one of the most notorious.

Emory F. Skinner was an orphaned son of a New York farmer. His young life is unclear, but in 1860 he married the daughter of a wealthy lumberman. In 1870 Skinner was 36 years old; the census of that year shows him in Wisconsin, working as a sawyer. It was about this time that he came to visit cousins in the lumber business at Bagdad and quickly saw the opportunities here. In 1874 Skinner, his father-in-law, and several northern investors began Skinner, Hubbard and Co. with the purchase of a saw mill along Escambia Bay at the junction of today’s Olive Road and Scenic Highway. The mill was supplied by logs floated down the Escambia. The company also boasted of its newly acquired 75,000 acres of U.S. government timber land in Santa Rosa County.

How E.F. Skinner gained influence to acquire government land is a question. His position during the war is not readily available. It may be due to his partner and father-in-law E.H. Hubbard, his great-grandfather was one of the Revolution’s Concord Minutemen. But, Santa Rosa historian Warren Weeks recalled Skinner’s remarkable land purchase this way.

“Emory Skinner rowed across Escambia Bay to Floridatown with a local man called Knowles who was a notary public. They put the boat in a wagon driven by a Negro man and pulled by two mules. The three men headed north, going as far as the state line and returning along the Escambia River. On the third night, they stayed at Coon Hill with Mr. Byrnes and by the forth night had returned to Floridatown. Skinner immediately made an application to the U.S. He said “I have traveled this route in a boat.” He forgot to say that the boat was in a wagon. He sent a map. Government definition of land that one can cross in a boat, “swamp and overflowed land” meant that it was cheap. Skinner told them “This is all swamp and overflow, I’ll make an offer if ten cents an acre.” The Congress of the United States accepted his offer.”

The new Skinner logging operation had the old land owners along the east side of the Escambia River declared “squatters”. Many homesteads of the Scot’s Bend area settled during our Spanish period were destroyed. Stories can be found of teamsters, sent with their oxen into the old settlements with chains, ordered to pull down the log buildings.

In 1877 a new post office established at Skinner’s mill gave the growing community a name, Escambia. In 1883 Skinner’s son graduated from Yale University and returned home to join the business. Also that year, his elderly father-in-law sold his partnership to the five McDavid brothers of Coon Hill, opening up another 15,000 acres of timber that this family owned in the central part of Santa Rosa County.

In October 1883, E.F. Skinner, his son E.H. and John and Henry McDavid chartered the Pensacola and Andalusia Railroad Co. in order to access the new timberlands. Company representatives were sent to Wisconsin to purchase railroad and saw mill engines. The logging railway would eventually route from the Escambia River near Molino to the state line near Jay. The south end of the railway tracks extended over the river at a place now called Webb’s Landing where the train’s cargo would be dumped into the river. Rafts of logs were then assembled and floated to the new saw mill. By 1900 the operation would utilize five locomotives. A large maintenance yard for the railway and a company store were also built a mile or so from the river. Skinner called it Chumuckla, named after a nearby resort.

The McDavid-Skinner partnership ended shortly after 1890; in 1893 Emory, his son and wife established the Skinner Manufacturing Co. In 1903, at the age of 69, Emory Skinner suffered a bad stroke and lost the use of one side. In 1904 the family sold their company of more than 95,000 acres, a railway and sawmill to James Pace and his associates for half a million dollars. Possibly driven by doctors’ recommendations, the entire Skinner clan soon moved to Los Angeles, California. Emory Skinner died there in 1913.

The saw mill at Escambia was damaged by a hurricane in 1906. The Pace company then moved the mill across the bay near Floridatown, but this is another story.

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