Henry Howard Thompson was a Skidder Flagman

Pine and Cypress timber have been an important resource in Wiregrass Georgia since pioneer times. According to the Georgia Forestry Commission, “The 1870 census showed that timber was already becoming a profitable industry for Georgia with the annual timber value rising from $2.4 million to more than $4.0 million in that decade. By 1880, Georgia ranked first in the South in total lumber production and was second only to North Carolina in number of sawmills…With virtually no regard for conservation, early settlers simply cleared forestlands, cultivated an area for a few years, then abandoned their fields for freshly cleared lands.”

By the 1900s, virtually every South Georgia town had its sawmill and turpentine operations, including Ray City. In those early days, logging was done by hand;  trees were felled with two-man crosscut saws, and skiddermen like Claudie Royal dragged by horse- or mule-drawn skidder carts to a railroad tram for transportation to the sawmill. There was no safety equipment and little concern about the occupational safety of the workers.  Cutting timber was inherently dangerous, and workers were presumed to know how to do their jobs safely – the risk was theirs.

When steam power was harnessed to do the heavy work of dragging felled pine and cypress timber out of the forests and swamps of Wiregrass Georgia, someone had to signal the equipment operator when the logs were ready to be moved.  That was the job of Henry Howard Thompson,  Skidder Flagman.  In 1917, Thompson was employed at the Clements Lumber Company at Ray City, GA. He gave his home address as Anniston, AL.

Henry Howard Thompson, Draft registration card, 1917

Henry Howard Thompson, Draft registration card, 1917

Henry H. Thompson was born in Heflin, Alabama in 1898, a son of Henry and Rameth Thompson.  On June 5, 1917 he registered for the draft in Berrien County, GA.  Three weeks later, on Sunday, June 24, 1917  Henry married Rose Lee Drawdy in Berrien County.  The ceremony was performed by Lyman Franklin Giddens, Justice of the Peace at Ray City, GA.

Marriage certificate of Henry Howard Thompson, June 7, 1917, Berrien County, GA.

Marriage certificate of Henry Howard Thompson and Rosa Lee Drawdy, June 7, 1917, Berrien County, GA.

Rose Lee Drawdy, born July 15, 1900, was a daughter of Susan M. Green and Daniel Drawdy, and a granddaughter of Delilah Hinson and Noah Green. Her father was a veteran of the Civil War having served with Company K, 32 Georgia Regiment. Her mother and grandmother later lived at Rays Mill (now Ray City, GA).

As a skidder flagman Henry Howard Thompson was part of a crew that operated an overhead skidder or a ground skidder, sometimes called a “possum dog” skidder. The crew also  included a log “tong” man, drum man, a foreman and other workers.

The skidder, placed in the woods, was used for pulling logs from the forest and bunching them in convenient places to be loaded upon wagons by the team crew and conveyed to the logging railroad. A skidder could be mounted on slides and moved from place to place by means of cable and slides resting on the ground, and upon being put up was operated under its own steam, and a drum, around which there was a steel cable, would draw in the logs. Cables could be run so the skidder dragged logs along the ground,  or could be run from tree to tree with a system of pulleys allowing the logs to be lifted and transported  by overhead skidders.

There were tongs attached to the ends of the cable to be fastened around the logs, and it was the duty of the tong man to apply the tongs to the log, and the flagman would thereupon signal the drum man, who would start the machinery and pull the log to its proper place. The cable ran through a pulley attached to a tree some 15 or 20 feet from the ground, and to offset the strain upon the tree guy wires or lines were run to and attached to other trees some 30 or 40 feet away. The skidder could draw in logs within a radius of 900 feet from all sides…the logs being pulled in would encounter obstructions and the operations were more or less dangerous.

Old time South Carolina logger Lacy Powell talked about how it was:

“The skidder used an 85-foot high rig-tree, usually a cypress with the top cut out and fitted with a huge pulley. It could reach out with cables to pull logs from a 600-foot radius to the track where they were loaded on cars. The rails were moved to the timber as it was cut.”

“It was dangerous work. Falling trees crushed loggers. Limbs snapped from a falling tree and ‘slingshotted’ back to strike loggers.”

“A flagman signaled the skidder operator when a log was hooked on the line to be hauled to the track. The skidder whistle hooted twice to warn the men to watch for the flying log.”

“You knew to stay away from a log on the skidder line,” Powell said.

Steam powered skidder loading logs. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/38948

Steam powered skidder loading logs. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, https://floridamemory.com/items/show/38948

But, mud and water in the swamp made quick movement by workers impossible.

“You couldn’t run; you settled down in that mud,” he added.

Death was an ever-present hazard in the logging operations. Six long blasts of the steam skidder whistle signaled a fatal accident. ‘That was a lonesome sound. People would come from everywhere to see who was dead.’

The men made stretchers for the dead and injured by running saplings through the sleeves of the denim jackets they usually wore. – Star News, July 26, 1981

 

One such example was that of R. L. Mikell, skidder operator for the Gray and Gatchell sawmill at Howell, GA:

Tifton Gazette
June 29, 1907

Valdosta, Ga., June 5  R. L. Mikell, a skidder for Gray and Gatchell, at Howell [Echols County, GA], suffered injury from an accident to-day that may cause his death. He was operating a skidder; pulling logs from a swamp when one log became fastened against another.   He tried to release it, when the log swung around and struck him, breaking his thigh. The log that obstructed it also flew up and broke the thigh in another place, knocking Mr. Mikell down and rolling over him, causing internal injuries.  The physicians regard his case as critical.

 

By 1920, Henry H. Thompson had moved his family to Willacoochee, GA where they were living next door to his sister, Mamie Lou, and  brother-in-law, Charlie Buckhannan.  Henry was a stationary engineer and Charlie was a mechanic, both working for the Henderson Lumber Company. They were living on the East & West Highway in the Henderson Lumber Company quarters.  The Henderson Lumber Company had its operation near today’s Henderson Road and Springhead Church Road, about where the  Willacoochee & DuPont Railroad (formerly the Ocilla, Pinebloom & Valdosta) terminated at Shaw’s Still.

Later the Thompsons moved to Jacksonville, FL.

Henry Howard Thompson died May 13, 1982 and Rosa Lee Drawdy Thompson died August 9, 1986. They are buried at Evergreen Cemetery, Jacksonville, FL.

Graves of Henry Howard Thompson (1898-1982) and Rosa Lee Drawdy Thompson (1900-1986).

Graves of Henry Howard Thompson (1898-1982) and Rosa Lee Drawdy Thompson (1900-1986). Image source: Johnny

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