R. S. Thigpen ~ Turpentine Man of Ray’s Mill

Robert Silas Thigpen (1849-1898)

Robert S. Thigpen was a wealthy Naval Stores manufacturer and a resident of Berrien County, Ga.  In the 1890s he lived near Ray’s Mill where he owned and operated a turpentine still.

Born Robert Silas Thigpen, August 13, 1849 he was a son of Dennis Thigpen, of South Carolina. It appears that R.S. Thigpen came to Georgia with his family from South Carolina when he was a young man, probably in the 1860s.

In 1880, R. S. Thigpen and his younger brother John Thigpen were living in the 1125 Georgia Militia District in Worth County.  By that time, Robert was already a successful manufacturer of  Naval Stores, in the comparatively new turpentine industry. The 1880 census non-population schedules show R.S. Thigpen owned a Tar & Turpentine Naval Stores operation valued at $6000. This turpentine still was situated on the Ty Ty Creek near Isabella, GA. The enumeration sheet shows Thigpen generally employed about 60 hands, who worked 10 hour days, year-round. Skilled workers received $1.50 a day, and ordinary laborers 65 cents. Thigpen’s total annual payroll for the operation ran $5000 a year.

Georgia Property Tax Digests of  1890 show Robert S. Thigpen owned 843 acres in the Mud Creek district of Clinch county, Georgia Militia District 586, including all of lot 349 and parts of lots 486, 487, and 484. He was employing 70 workers in his operations there. He had $700 of merchandise on hand, $465 in household furnishings, $210 jewelry, $3200 in livestock, $225 in plantation and mechanical tools, $2810 in other property, all total valued at $13,800.

Early 1900s Turpentine Still in South Georgia. Image Source: Georgia Virtual Vault.

Early 1900s Turpentine Still in South Georgia. Image Source: Georgia Virtual Vault.

By 1894, Thigpen was manufacturing naval stores in Berrien County and had a turpentine still at Ray’s Mill.  One of the residents at the Thigpen property was Horace Cox.   As a young man Cox had worked in a carriage shop, and was the son of a Berrien County mechanic, Samuel D. Cox.

In the summer of 1894,  fire struck at Rays Mill.

Tifton Gazette
June 8, 1894 pg 1

The Thigpen mill near Rays Mill post office, Berrien county, was destroyed by fire one day last week.

On June 19, 1894 allegations of arson were made against Horace Cox by a committee of 110 citizens, who signed  and published a petition against Cox  in a paid advertisement in the Valdosta Times. Cox had been suspected of numerous arson cases in Berrien and Clinch counties.  The accusers asked R.S. Thigpen to turn Cox out, although Thigpen had not signed the petition.

That Fall, Thigpen suffered another setback when he was thrown from a horse.

Tifton Gazette
November 2, 1894  Pg 1

Mr. R. S. Thigpen was thrown from a horse near Ray’s mill last Sunday and two of his ribs were broken.  The girt to his saddle broke and the saddle turning threw him off.  He came to the city [Valdosta] in a carriage sent from here and is getting along well at present. – Valdosta Telescope.  Mr. Thigpen is a citizen of Berrien County and lives near Ray’s Mill.

Despite these hindrances, R.S. Thigpen continued with his operations at Ray’s Mill.

Tifton Gazette
Aug 16, 1895 Pg 3

Milltown Mention

L. D. Liles has sold his mercantile interests to R. S. Thigpen. The stock will be moved to the latter’s still near Ray’s Mill.

In February of 1896 incendiaries again struck in Berrien County, this time burning the landmark  Banks Mill at Milltown (now Lakeland).  This time, Horace Cox was formally charged with the arson. (see Horace Cox and the Burning of Bank’s Mill)  But he was acquitted  in the case, and afterwards he pursued a libel case against the Valdosta Times and the committee which had petitioned against him in 1894.  Cox’s lawsuit omitted any complaints against R.S. Thigpen.

Although the libel case Cox brought would continue to wind through the courts for another decade, Horace Cox’s connection with R.S. Thigpen was severed later that year by yet another fire.

Tifton Gazette
November 6, 1896 Pg 1

The residence of Mr. Horace Cox, near Thigpen’s still, was destroyed by fire, supposed to be of incendiary origin, last week.  But little of the furniture was saved. There was no insurance.

Thigpen continued his turpentine still at Rays Mill and worked for public improvements to support his operation.  The Tifton Gazette, Friday Sept 4, 1896 edition noted under “Green Bay Items:”

Mr. R.S. Thigpen is pushing to completion a bridge across Thigpen Bay, on the new public road running by way of Thigpen Still and H.H. Knight’s. He has contracted to build the bridge for $200. Those who oppose the opening of the new road said it would cost $500 to build that bridge.

Over his life, R. S. Thigpen amassed sizable holdings in naval stores, including his properties at Ray’s Mill, GA.  He  died on February 23,1898, and was buried at Sunset Hill Cemetery in Valdosta, Lowndes County, GA.  The regional newspapers reported on the settlement of his estate:

Macon Telegraph,
April 17, 1898  Pg 1

VALDOSTA.

Valdosta, Ga., April 16.

Judge W.H. Griffin, counsel for the administrator of the estate of the late R.S. Thigpen, has closed a trade for $35,000 of property in the estate. The turpentine plant at Rays mill was sold to W.F. Powell & Co. of North Carolina for $13,000 and naval stores stock to other parties for about $13,500. The still in this county near Naylor was sold for about $6,500. These large sales comprise only a minor part of the estate, but the good prices that were gotten for the property assures not only the solvency of the estate, but that the heirs will get a good deal from it.

 

Tifton Gazette
May 6, 1898 pg 4

 Mr. W. F. Powell, of North Carolina, with his father has purchased the Thigpen turpentine plant at Ray’s Mill from the estate of the late R. S. Thigpen.   The deal was made last week and engineered by Judge W. H. Griffin, the attorney for the estate.  Besides the valuable Ray’s Mill property, the still at the Bamberg place was also sold.  Henson, Bros. & Co., are the buyers, and it is understood that the price paid was about $6,500. {text illegible} 13,500 in naval stores stock {text illegible} ld, making about $35,000 {text illegible} n’s property to change hands in the past few days. -Valdosta.

 After the death of R.S. Thigpen, his wife and children made their home in Valdosta in a large house on Patterson Street.

Children of Sarah and Robert S. Thigpen:

  1. Annie Thigpen, b. December 1882
  2. Percy Thigpen, b. July 1886
  3. Fred Thigpen, b. August 1888
  4. Robert Silas Thigpen, Jr., b. May 1892
Gravemarker of Robert Silas Thigpen, Sunset Hill Cemetery, Valdosta, Lowndes County, GA.

Gravemarker of Robert Silas Thigpen, Sunset Hill Cemetery, Valdosta, Lowndes County, GA.

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More About Troupville, GA and the Withlacoochee River

Montgomery M. Folsom

Montgomery M. Folsom, from his 1889 book, Scraps of Song and Southern Scenes.

Found this 1889 account of the history of  Troupville, GA by erstwhile Wiregrass historian, poet, and humorous writer Montgomery M. Folsom.  Folsom starts his tale at the headwaters of the Okolocoochee and Withlacoochee rivers. He traces them down to their connection with the Withlacoochee, at which point Troupville was founded. As the government seat, Troupville was the center of legal and civic activity for Lowndes County (see An Antebellum Trial at Troupville). Troupville was also an important center of commerce and social life for the pioneer settlers of Lowndes County, like Levi J. Knight, who established the first community near the site of present day Ray City, GA.  The Knights settled on another branch of the Withlacoochee;  Beaverdam creek, at Ray City, flows into Cat Creek on down to the Withlacoochee.

Atlanta Constitution, January 29, 1889, Pg 12.

THE WITHLACOOCHEE RIVER.
VALDOSTA, Ga., January 19. -[Special.]- Away up near the northern limit of the great wiregrass section there is a big cypress swamp. They call them bays there. From this bay emerges a little stream of claret colored water. This is near Peckville, and close to the corner of Worth, Irwin, and Dooly counties. This is the head of the Ockolocoochee, Little river.
    Farther eastward, some ten or fifteen miles, there is another bay from which emerges a restless current that goes rushing away toward the south, fretting among the pine boles, resting among the silent solitudes of the mysterious swamps, the Alapaha.
    About midway between these streams, some twenty miles below their heads, the Withlacoochee steals stealthily out of the depths of a brambly brake and glides noiselessly away, like some black serpent of the swamps winding in and out among the barrens.
    The Ockolocoochee curves and twines among the pine-clad ridges, receiving the tribute of some lesser stream at every turn. Ty Ty, Warrior, Big Indian on the West, No-Man’s-Friend, Frank’s creek from the east, till it reaches Troupville. It is, properly, the river, despite the fact that its name is lost after its confluence with the Withlacoochee. It is like the wedding of a great big strapping wiregrass girl with a short, stout, presumptive little man.
    The Ockolochoochee is the stream for fishing. Along the snowy margin of its glistening sand-bars the red-belly, the perfection of perch; and in its placid eddies, beneath the shadow of the tupeloes, the red-horse sucker, chief of all the carp tribe; abound in strength and numbers sufficient to gratify the most inveterate of anglers.
    New river gives the Withlacoochee a good start, and it swerves away to receive the tribute of half a dozen streams on its tortuous course. From its fountain head it is dark and forbidding, and the secrets of its black waters are preserved most faithfully.
    Away back in the olden days when Lowndes county was as big as Poland, an act was passed by the Georgia legislature, appointing a commission to select an appropriate place for a county site. Franklinville had been its capital, but was not near enough to the center. As the legend goes, Big Billy Knight and Big Billy Folsom were appointed.
    These two worthies, one from the pimple hills of the Ockolocoochee, and the other from the saw palmetto flats of the Withlacoochee; decided that the most appropriate point was right in the fork of the two rivers. They had an idea that the river would be navigable that high up, even above the point where the Alapaha disappears and runs underground a mile before uniting with the Withlacoochee.
    So it came about that where the wine-red waters or the Ockolocoochee and the black current of the Withlacoochee meet at the end of a long sandbar and go tumbling and writhing, eddying and curving down the long reach of moss-grown trees, like two huge serpents struggling for the mastery, the plat of a town was drawn, and it was called after Georgia’s great chevelier governor, “Troupville,” with a strong accent on the “ville.” They had not learned to say “Troupvul” then, and it was such a high sounding title that they lingered lovingly on the pronunciation.
    The town grew apace. It enjoyed what the modern’s call a boom. Land lots sold rapidly, and settlers came rushing in, mainly the Smiths. Lowndes county has ever been prolific in the smith line. Owen Smith, Old Billy Smith, Young Billy Smith, all sorts of Smiths, even down to our Hamp, who so ably represents that historic name in the present pushing metropolis Valdosta.
One of the Smith’s built a tavern, and another Smith set up in business, and young Dr. Briggs, who came from the north, broken in business, but full of energy and ability, and laid the foundation of that prosperity that has long distinguished the Briggs and the Converse families.
    Troupville only suffered one inconvenience. To get to town three-fourths of the population had either to cross the river of the east or the river of the west and half the time, during the winter and spring, these rivers were raging with freshets, the bridges were afloat and were frequently swept away.
   One thing more hindered her prosperity. At the only season when the main river was navigable, the Old Nick, himself, couldn’t navigate it. So it transpired that the only freighted barge that ever tempted its tempestuous tide was a flat boat that went down the river to the Suwanee, thence down that river to Cedar Keys.
    It never returned.
    The boatmen sold the vessel and cargo and walked home.
    Life was too short to navigate that crooked stream, with its sunken logs and treacherous sands, and the hope of water transportation was abandoned.
    Among those who settled in Troupville and left behind many momentous memories, was Morgan Goodgame Swain, a burly blacksmith from Emanuel, who was ever ready for a fight, frolic or a footrace. He stood six feet three and weighed over two hundred without  pound of surplus flesh. As handsome as a Greek god he was gifted with herculean strength and a heart that was generous and true. He erected his forge on the bank of the Ockolockochee, and his wife took possession of the tavern. Becky, she was lord above, and Morz was lord below.
    The town of Valdosta was laid off when the old Atlantic and Gulf Railroad was built, about the opening of the war. Brooks and Echols had been cut off from Lowndes, and the county site was moved four miles southeast of Troupville to Valdosta. A great many of the buildings were moved bodily. And now there is not one brick upon another to tell the story of Troupville. A pile of white rocks marks the spot of Swain’s old forge, and some weather beaten mulberry trees still bud and blossom around the old square where stood the tavern. Aside from these there is nothing left to keep alive the cherished hopes that once animated the soul of Troupville.
   The Withlacoochee still glides along to meet the Ockolocoochee, and the land that lies between them, once town property, is now a barren waste, overgrown with somber pines, solitary tufts of bear grass whose white crests wave to and fro in ghostly suggestiveness in the twilight of summer evenings when the whip-poor-wills chant their weird melodies among the lonely thickets.
    Around the once populous portion of the town lies a waste of sedgy fields that are barren and unproductive. The half-wild goats browse among the fennels and briars. “Ichabod” is written in lichen crusted letters, and desolation reigns supreme.
                 MONTGOMERY M. FOLSOM.

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