Apalachicola, Florida and Vicinity

So great was the excitement in Spain over the discoveries in Peru, whence Pizzaro had returned with his ships filled with the golden treasure of the Incas, that the mere announcement that DeSoto, who had been one of Pizzaro’s lieutenants, was fitting out an expedition to Florida and offering shares in the venture to whomsoever desired to contribute and to go along, that instead of four ships it took seven to carry the volunteers. Wealthy men of Spain and Portugal stripped themselves of their entire estates in order to raise money to fit out a ship to sail with DeSoto.

The tragic story of that bootless march from the Apalachicola River northwesterly across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi until, from the heights where the city of Memphis now stands, white men first saw the Father of Waters, has been told and re-told so often that it is familiar to every school-boy. There was no treasure. The few and scattering bands of natives had no wealth but lived miserably in squalid huts. There was almost no food except an occasional deer and the rabbits which the Spanish adventurers could not catch until the friendly savages taught them how to snare them. Through 400 miles of wilderness they drove a herd of pigs, whose flesh, however, was reserved for the table of DeSoto and his captains. The first reaction of the rest of the members of the expedition, when they learned that DeSoto had died on the bank of the Mississippi, was: “Now we can have some pork to eat.”

From that herd of swine, many of whom strayed away into the forest, have descended the Southern “razor back” wild hogs which one encounters throughout the southeastern states and who, coming out of the woods onto highways at night, constitute a far more serious menace to the motorist than do the bulkier and more visible range cattle, which also frequently stray into the rays of the headlights. And the hunter who tries to penetrate, unwarned and unprepared, into some of the dense forest fastnesses, may find himself confronting the most dangerous of all the wild beasts in these woods where bears and panthers live, the four-tusked wild boar of the old DeSoto strain, whose curved, six-inch fangs of razor-like sharpness can inflict a death wound at one lightning-like stroke.

Apalachicola today still has the fine, key-protected natural harbor which DeSoto found there. It still has, also, the great oyster beds which were an important food source for the na tives before DeSoto’s day. The small, but delicious and distinctively flavored Apalachicola oysters have been highly esteemed as a delicacy by Floridians for generations. Now their fame is spreading and their distribution likewise until one may find them on hotel menus as far north as Norfolk, Virginia, at whose very back door some of the best and most famous oysters in the world are grown.

So important has become the Apalachicola oyster industry that the United States Fish Commission, collaborating with the Marine Biological Laboratory of Woods Hole, Massachu setts, has established a laboratory here in the effort to find ways of exterminating the conchs, a marine mollusk which destroys these oysters of the Gulf as effectively as the star-fish formerly decimated the oyster beds of northern waters before the same institution of biological research found ways to get rid of them.

Besides its oyster beds, Apalachicola is an important shipping point for fresh and cured fish. The fishing fleets provide a livelihood for a high percentage of the little city’s population. Apalachicola’s smoked mullet goes into all the world markets, and refrigerator cars daily take iced cargoes of fresh red snapper into the North. A natural concomitant of its fishing activities is boat and ship building and repairing. Apalachicola boat builders have more than a local reputation for the design and staunchness of the craft launched from their yards. The fame of Apalachicola is spreading by the increasing popularity of its honey, distributed widely under the “Tupelo” brand.

East of the city is the Apalachicola National Forest of 300,000 acres, lying in Liberty and Franklin counties, along the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. This forest was established to stabilize a decadant community, which had depended almost entircly upon the virgin timber resources, and those had become exhausted. Purchase by the Federal government of the cut-over timber lands was authorized in 1933 and the area was proclaimed a National Forest in the Spring of 1936. The Forest lies between the Ocklocknee River on the East and the Apalachicola on the West. When it came under the control of the Forest Service it was one of the last backwoods areas of North Florida and was virtually inaccessible. Its development was made a C. C. C. program, and under intensive effort a network of graded roads now reaches within two miles of every point in the Forest. Six fire look-out towers and sixty miles of telephone lines, under the operation of an efficient fire-detection and control organization, have held fire losses to a minimum so that pine reproduction is rapidly becoming established.

There is no expectation that timber operations in the Apalachicola Forest can be re-established on a profitable basis before 1945, but the Forest Service is confident that eventually this area will come back as an important timber producing region. The new paper mill at Port St. Joe, within easy truckhaul of the Forest, is expected to provide an important nearby market for slash pine pulpwood. An interesting experiment in reforestation is being conducted on the savannahs, the low wet grassy plains along the Apalachicola River. Slash pine seedlings are planted on ridges between drainage furrows to determine whether this fast-growing timber can be cultivated on otherwise waste land.

Because of botanical and horticultural interest in much of the vegetation occurring along the banks of the Apalachicola River in this vicinity, the state of Florida has established Torreya State Park just north of the Apalachicola National Forest. The name is that of the tree known locally as “stinking cedar,” which is said to be identical with the gopher wood of which Noah traditionally built the Ark, and which grows nowhere else in the world except in Asia Minor. Here, also, grows the rare Florida yew tree, as well as many trees which are native to lands much farther north but which have grown here from seeds brought down by the river in the spring floods.

Westward from Apalachicola the Gulf Coast Highway skirts the shore, separated from the wide beach by high dunes of almost snow-white sand. No heavy surf breaks over these Gulf beaches, for lying seaward, from one to four or five miles, is an almost continuous row of narrow sandy keys, most of them treeless but some of them fertile islands upon which fisher folk dwell.

A few miles west from Apalachicola is another fishing port, a town which once held an important place in tlue life of West Florida, which dwindled to a hamlet of five or six hundred people but which, in 1937, came to life and started to grow into new importance with the construction here of a great paper mill. The influx of workmen for the construction of the mill more than doubled Port St. Joe’s population and put such pressure on its housing facilities that for miles along the highway on both sides the road was lined with trailers and hastily built wooden shacks in which, in the comfortable Florida climate, their occupants experienced the pleasures of pioneering with few of its hardships.

The Port St. Joe paper mill is the second to be completed of the six units of this new industry which were built, under construction or projected, in Florida in 1937. They are stretched from East to West in a row, from Pensacola to Fernandina. The location of a paper mill is determined by its accessibility to the pine forests on the one hand and to water transportation for its product on the other hand. The mill at Port St. Joe is owned jointly by the George H. Mead Paper Company and the estate of the late Alfred I. DuPont, who had lived in Florida for many years before his death in 1936.

A member of the famous manufacturing family of DuPonts of Wilmington, Delaware, and a large stockholder in the DuPont Corporation, Alfred DuPont had a keen interest in industrial developments, particularly those based upon chemical research. For many years, ever since the invention and application of processes of making paper from wood fiber, it had been assumed as an axiom that only the pitch-free conifers of the North, spruce, fir and hemlock, could be used for paper manufacture. In the late 1920’s Dr. Charles H. Herty, a former president of the American Chemical Society, enlisted the cooperation of the Chemical Foundation in establishing a laboratory at Savannah to investigate the possibility of utilizing the fast-growing low-grade “slash” pine of the southwestern states as a source of pulpwood.

The northern forests are being depleted of pulpwood timber, and it takes 30 years or longer for newly-planted spruce and fir to grow to pulpwood size. Here in the South are literally hundreds of millions of acres of pine which grows from seed to seven inches diameter in seven years; a perpetual, self-replenishing source of paper-pulp provided means could be found to utilize this lumber for that purpose.

Dr. Herty found the way, a simple, inexpensive way, which made the slash pine resources of Georgia, Alabama and Florida and the states farther west, even into Texas, available for paper manufacture. Northern paper mills were paying from eight dollars up to as high as fifteen dollars a cord for pulpwood; slash pine pulp logs could be cut and delivered as far as fifty miles by truck, 200 miles by rail, at a cost to the mill of five dollars or six dollars a cord. Moreover, the greatest demand for paper, a world demand which is steadily growing with no limit in sight, was and is for the kind of paper most readily made from the pine pulp. This is the tough wrapping paper known by the trade name of “kraft,” which requires little bleaching and is made on exactly the same kind of machines that are used for newsprint and other ordinary white papers; the only difference between kraft and other papers is in the treatment of the pulp. Kraft pulp is chipped wood boiled in a sulphate of soda solution; newsprint is made of a mixture of ground wood and sodium sulphite pulp.

The requisites for a kraft paper mill are, first, a nearby supply of pulpwood; second, an adequate supply of fresh water, for a five-hundred ton pulp paper mill uses as much water in a day as a city of 100,000 people consumes; third, low-cost fuel and power; fourth, supplies of sodium sulphate, or of salt and sulphur within low-rate transportation distance; fifth, transportation facilities for distribution of the product at a low freight rate.

All of these elements are found in North Florida. Railroads, highways and canals tap the pine forests for hundreds of miles inland and lead directly to Florida seaports, where the essential low-rate water transportation outbound combines with low-cost water-borne fuel oil, sulphur and salt from the Louisiana and Texas mines, cheap oil-generated electric power, and unlimited supplies of fresh water obtained by the simple process of drilling artesian wells.

Alfred I. DuPont was one of the first large investors in Florida to realize the potential future value of its pine forests. He quietly acquired more than half a million acres of pine land and the site at the almost forgotten town of Port St. Joe for his paper mill. He did not begin to build the mill, however, until others had done the pioneer work. The first paper mill in Florida was built in 1935 by the Southern Kraft Corporation, a subsidiary of the International Paper Company, at Panama City, only a few miles from Port St. Joe to the westward. Its success was sufficient warranty for others to go ahead in the same line and the building of the DuPont mill was begun early in 1937, shortly after Mr. DuPont’s death. Simultaneously construction was begun by the Container Corporation of America, manufacturers of corrugated board packing cases, of a similar mill at Fernandina. The Continental Container Corporation, in the Spring of 1937, let contracts for another kraft mill in Jacksonville. Before the end of 1937 a second mill at Fernandina was begun, and negotiations were under way for the building of the sixth Florida paper mill in Pensacola.