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.  For a while the Troupville elders thought the Withlacoochee would provide a navigable waterway to the Gulf of Mexico. Even the Georgia Legislature in 1833 entertained “A bill to be entitled, an act to lay out, open, define and make navigable the Withlocoochey river, from Joyce’s ferry, on said river, to the Florida Line”, Joyce’s ferry being the Withlacoochee river crossing of the Coffee Road. But it was not to be.

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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Turpentine in Wiregrass Georgia

Turpentine and naval stores industry became an economic engine for Ray’s Mill, Berrien County and the other counties of Wiregrass Georgia.

Turpentine Still in Thomas County, GA circa 1895

Turpentine Still in Thomas County, GA circa 1895

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. Wilson W. Fender  was in the turpentine business, as was Lorenzo D. Carter.  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.

The firm of Sapp & Fender also conducted turpentine operations in Ray City.  David Asa Sapp was the manager; among his employees in 1917 were Leiland Scott, Si Randolph, Elisha  Graham, George Greene, James Hodges, Ellis Jenkins, Barney Johnson, John Jones, Robert Jones, Ruther Golden Jones, Ira Little, Will Mitchell, John Sam Robinson, Ernest Singleton, Arthur Stripling, Anderson Walker, John Waters, James Wooten, Turner Wooten, Willie Barnes, Arlie Brown and Handy Simpson. The company chauffeur was Henry Groover Page.

The Y. F. Carter Naval Stores concern began operation in Ray City about 1916 and by the 1930s it was the largest firm in the community, where approximately fifty men were employed.  This firm operated over ten crops of boxes, a “crop” consisting of 10,000 trees.  The turpentine rights for these trees were typically leased from local land owners..

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. William Lon 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 were 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.”

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Dr. A. L. Johnston and the 1913 Possum Supper

The February, 1914 issue of the Pharmaceutical Era reports on the “Possum Supper” thrown by the Mashburn Drug Company of Valdosta in December of 1913. Aside from the interesting menu, the affair  was also noteworthy for the presentation of “moving picture films” and “stereopticon views”, and “automobile rides” around the city. One of the attendees was Dr. A. L. Johnston of Valdosta. Dr. Johnston had a Ray City, GA connection and provided services, sometimes unusual, for Ray City residents. More on that in the next post DAN CUPID WINS OUT AFTER FOURTY YEARS.

For Christmas, A Possum Dinner

The Mashburn Drug Company, of Valdosta, Ga, gave their second annual ‘Possum Supper to their customers in December. Quite a number of their guests who reached Valdosta in the early afternoon were given an automobile ride around the city. At 8: 30 p.m. the guests were escorted to the New Valdes Hotel, where a sumptuous repast was spread, consisting of ” ‘possum and taters,” birds, salads, etc.  A. E. Dimmock, a Valdosta druggist, was toastmaster. Among those responding with toasts were Mayor Jno. T. Roberts, of Valdosta; Jno. Dickerson, of Jacksonville, who represents Eli Lilly & Co. in the State of Florida; C. L. Parks, representing H. K. Mulford & Co., Philadelphia, Pa.; Dr. E. P. Quillian, Clyattsville, Ga.; Dr. J. M. Hall, Douglass, Ga.; W. A. Bradley, representing the Cleveland Fruit Juice Co., Cleveland, Ohio; Senator W. L. Converse; Fred Bergstrom, of Bergstrom & Newberry; Dr. A. L. Johnston, and Russell Peeples, of Valdosta, Ga. Woods A. Caperton, sales manager for Eli Lilly & Co., Indianapolis, Ind., was a specially invited guest and he made the trip to Valdosta to attend this supper. He brought with him about 80 stereopticon views and two reels of moving picture films and immediately after the supper he gave those in attendance a “moving-picture trip” through the plant of Eli Lilly & Co. About 150 or the Mashburn Drug Co.’s customers were present and all expressed themselves as having had a most enjoyable time.

In The Pharmaceutical era, Vol 47. (1914). New York [etc.: D.O. Haynes & Co.

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T.M. Byrd is F.M. Byrd

After further research it seems that the listing of T.M. Byrd at the Florence Hotel during the flight of the Strobel Airship was most likely a typographical error.  Starling’s companion must have been Frank M. Byrd (F.M. Byrd)and the F. was mistaken for a T. Both Benjamin L. Starling and Frank M. Byrd were residents of the Ray City area and had similar agricultural interests.