Turpentine and naval stores industry became an economic engine for Ray’s Mill, Berrien County and the other counties of Wiregrass Georgia.
An 1881 news item sums up the Wiregrass workman’s appraisal of the original growth pine forests.
Columbus Daily Enquirer-Sun, Jan. 15, 1881. Pg 3
– In regard to ”The Turpentine Industry,” the Berrien county News says: “This comparatively new industry is attracting much attention in our vicinity. The people of this section, who in a great measure, own the timber, have allowed it to lie idle and undeveloped, notwithstanding the turpentine is a great source of revenue. This timber has stood upon the earth for centuries, and it may stand there as much longer, and the owners will derive no more benefit from it than from an equivalent sum of money locked up in a safe for the same length of time.”
As in other Wiregrass communities, turpentine and naval stores became major industries in Ray City, GA. Robert S. Thigpen, a wealthy resident of Berrien County, GA, owned a turpentine plant in Ray’s Mill. The plant, sold in 1898 for $13,000, would have valued at more than $10 million in 2008 dollars.
Among other Ray City and Berrien County residents who prospered in the industry was Walter “W.D.” Brown, who had a turpentine operation near Ray’s Mill in 1904. W.W. Fender was in the turpentine business, as was L. D. Carter. Another of the Ray City businesses was the Sapps & Fender turpentine operation, managed by D.A. Sapp. Arthur Shaw and brother-in-law, William Clements, operated a turpentine still at Willacoochee, Georgia, Brothers Chester Shaw and Lacy Lester Shaw were also involved in the turpentine business.
John Whitford worked for one of the turpentine and naval stores concerns in the area. His neighbor, Brass McKnight, was employed as “stiller” in the turpentine industry. Another area turpentine barrel maker was William Watson. Men like Jessie Norris, Elbert Thomas, John Fox, Levey Jones, Jack Jackson, Harrison McClain, Jessie Williams, Tom Thompson, Jim Stripling, George Taylor, and Daniel Holden and others worked on turpentine farms. Many of these men may have worked one time or another for Lorenzo D. Carter, a naval stores operator and employer in Ray’s Mill (aka Ray City), GA in the early 1900s.
Disputes over valuable lumber and turpentine rights sometimes ended up in court. One such case was that of Shaw v. W.L. Fender et. al., where the timber on land owned by Francis Marion Shaw was being worked for turpentine operations. W.L. Fender was a local turpentine man and in 1905 was treasurer of the South Georgia Turpentine Operators’ Association.
Collecting the turpentine was hard and sometimes dangerous work. The working conditions could be grueling and the pay was meager. But the vast, untapped pine forests of the Wiregrass provided abundant employment opportunities for those who could take it. African-Americans, many sons of former slaves, came to the area to find work in the turpentine and sawmill operations. Other turpentine woodsmen, like Benjamin F. Morehead and Lewis Hudson, were born and raised in the local area of Ray’s Mill, Georgia.
Fire was a constant threat where the highly combustible turpentine rosin was present. The March 22, 1905 Pensacola Journal related the disparaging ruminations of a Valdosta turpentine man about the low paid laborers and their risky work.
“…I sent a negro with a team into the wood some time ago to haul drippings and the negro let the wagon burn up, even the tongue. He was ‘totin’ the rosin up in a bucket, and I guess threw a match down on a dead pine top. When he looked around the pine top was in a blaze and the rosin-smeared wagon was catching. The negro tried to put it out and finally started the team toward a cypress pond but the wheel became locked against a tree and it was all the darkey could do to save the mules.”
As in other industries, African-American turpentine workers at the turn of the 19th century could be subject to poor treatment by their employers. Violence could be the result. One such case was that of Joe Willmont. Willmont was arrested while working turpentine at Ray’s Mill in May of 1911, where he was hiding out under the alias Will Nelson. Willmont/Nelson had arrived in Ray’s Mill after fleeing an alleged double murder at the West Bay Naval Stores Company in West Bay, Florida. The killings occurred when supervisors at the Florida company attempted to ‘whip’ Willmont for quitting the company.
According to A. P. Malone, author of Piney Woods Farmers 1850-1900: Jeffersonian Yeomen in an Age of Expanding Commercialism, most black laborers who came to the Wiregrass to work in the sawmill and turpentine operations did not acquire real estate here. Many lived in turpentine or sawmill “camps,” and moved on to other areas after the available timberlands had been exhausted. “However, some – perhaps as many as one-fourth – married locally and stayed in the area, often because they had some skills which enabled them to purchase town or farm property. Examples in Berrien County of such individuals are Neil Shipman, Cap Taylor, and Nathan Bridges.”