Tri-City Ledger -

By Kevin McKinley
Guest Columnist 

Virgin pine forrests kept area busy


February 8, 2018

Long needle pines

History told from primary sources is always a fascinating way to learn about the way things were at an earlier time. I've always consumed history in a large quantity. A friend recently asked me if it took a lot of time to prepare articles for publication and I said no; but upon reconsidering; it does take a long time with research and all, but it doesn't feel like a great amount of time because it is so interesting. It is much like the quote from Albert Einstein. "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour, sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That's relativity.

One of our best primary sources for history in our area was Rev. R.W. Brooks. A primary source is someone who witnessed and lived through historic times. Brooks certainly lived just such a life, having came to this area in the 1860s and lived into the 1940s, he saw our area develop from a frontier wilderness, to the settled area we know today. He also wrote historically based articles in the Flomaton Journal in the 1930s, yet perhaps his most dramatic article dealt with the demise of our virgin pine forests in the late 1800s.

Brooks mentioned in a 1938 article, "When I came to Escambia County 69 years ago this was an unbroken pine forest from the Conecuh County line to Mobile and Pensacola (and above the Conecuh County line there was plenty of it) but now where is it, man has denuded the land of the last pine tree, I mean of the original pines. When I arrived here the pines was so thick that you could not run a wheel barrow between them hardly and they were from two to five feet and more in diameter, almost all heart and when thrown in the water would float half of it out of the water."

Mr. Brooks arrived at the sawmill town of Evansville, Alabama in the late 1860s. This town was referenced several weeks back, yet Brooks' articles in the Flomaton Journal go on to add color to this ghost town of western Escambia County. "The town had stores, a telegraph office and a hotel. A lady from Bay Minette was employed to keep the Hotel who was the mother of Mrs. Stackhouse of Atmore. Judge Wilkins and his wife of Bay Minette were frequent visitors of the Hotel keeper," noted Brooks. The fuel driving this engine of development was the long leaf virgin pines of the area.

The pines made a fortune for some, turning towns like Brewton and Pine Apple into incredibly wealthy towns overnight. "The Big Cut" as it was called didn't last forever and soon the pines were gone.

"It took man just 20 years to destroy and use up what it took the Lord six thousand years to grow. A few years after I came here I moved to Florida on Escambia River and the timber and logs came down that stream in constant flow day and night for years and years...I have stood on the bank of the Escambia River and watched rafts of timbers go by for hours," stated Brooks.

Brooks was able to recall with certainty the height of the virgin pine industry. "The years between 1870-1890 was flush times in the logging businesses in this section and after 1890 the logs begin to give out and not much was done in that line after that date, but while it was good everybody who wanted a job could get it, if he did not mind work," recalled Brooks.

The steady stream of logs making their way down the creeks from Brewton and other local towns and those on the Escambia River gave rise to all sorts of side industries; some legal and some not.

"There was a crowd of men who lived on both sides of the river that a made a business of taking up the logs flowing down the river and sawing off the ends so that the timber company brands would disappear," stated Brooks. This had the of effect of making it impossible to know who had cut the log and thereby the men could steal payment for the logs.

Other locals living along the river made an honest living "log driving." Brooks noted the difficulty of floating logs in an article from 1938. "There were mills at Brewton, Pollard, Bluff Springs and at Pine Barren, McDavid, Molino, Ferry Pass, Pensacola and three at Muscogee. Each of these mills produced not less than fifty thousand feet per day and many of them cut one hundred thousand per day. A novice in the log business would naturally suppose that when you rolled a log in the river it would float on down with the current to its destination, as a log is a small thing and the river is wide, but nothing is further from the facts as that log won't go sometimes a hundred yards downstream before it hangs up against the bank or some other obstruction," stated Brooks.

Enter the log driver. Brooks opined, "Now it is a well-known fact that for a man to do anything he must know how, and if there is any thing that requires skill more than driving logs, then I don't know what it is, if you don't believe this statement get you a log that will float and be sure you are a good swimmer and put on a bathing suit and get on the log and get you a pole and try to put yourself across the river. In a few minutes you will be in the water and log rolling ever so fast you can't keep up with it and trying to get on it again."

The log drivers were tasked with keeping the logs from hanging up against the bank and keeping them moving with the current, all the while balancing on them. It would seem this was a most dangerous profession, especially if one was a non-swimmer.

Having worked a variety of jobs in the Bluff Springs area, Brooks knew the best of the best log drivers of his generation, "The best drivers I knew was Coley O'Gwynn of Flomaton, Bob and George Chandler of Bluff Springs and Will Dick of the same place, and Wash and Neil Campbell of Jay, all of these men were experts and could ride a log anywhere at any time..." remembered Brooks.

"I have seen Coley O'Gwynn who weighed nearly two hundred pounds get on a log that looked like it would hold up a ten year old boy and ride it across the river and tend to something over there and ride it back and not go fifty yards downstream, I have seen Bob Chandler ride one down the middle of the river and seems just as much at home as if he had been sitting in a chair on his front porch, and after a few yards he rode it he would ride that log from up the river and down the river clear out of sight," recounted Brooks in his column.

"The others were just as expert at it. It takes years of experience to be an expert log driver and of course it is a lost art now as there are no logs to drive. All these men mentioned were first class men at the job and knew the river with all its crooks and turns and knew just exactly how to get the logs to the mills with the least possible time and cost," stated Brooks.

Yet the logging and the decades took its toll on men, the forest and on the people around them, "Every one of these men have passed to the beyond, with one exception, Coley O'Gywnn died in Flomaton. Bob Chandler died in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The Campbell Boys died at their home near Jay, and George Chandler died a few years ago at his home at Bluff Springs. Will Dick is the only one living and he lives at Gull Point, near Pensacola," noted Brooks.

Some today view the hard work of our ancestors as exploitation and still others consider the Faith of men like Rev. Brooks 'the opium of the people (Marx),' but I think it's something to be admired when we consider the resourcefulness, resiliency and bull-dog determination of our ancestors to survive without being ashamed of doing it and without asking anyone for a hand-out and anyway, Marx never matched wits with Rev. Brooks. If someone cites one of my stories 80-100 years down the road like some of us cite to Brooks, I'd feel I accomplished something.

"I'm not against all the modern conveniences, but I believe the real value of our lives can only be found in tracing back our ancestors and researching those early people who had to live off the land," George Singleton-Somewhere In Time columnist for The Monroe Journal and pulled from Dispatches from the LP-OP of Lee Peacock, a prolific and excellent journalist from the Monroe/Conecuh area. Special thanks to Don Sells at the museum for help with this article.

Copies of Canoe: History of a Southern Town are available at the Wawbeek Store.

Coming soon in 2018: "Shadows and Dust Volume III-All Things Southern."


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