Georgia Town Celebrates Pine Trees

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on March 12, 2012
John Curry A timber-harvesting machine saws quickly through a pine trunk in a region where muscle and ax felled trees more than a century earlier.

ike Cowart, 49, breathes in the aroma of evergreens as he positions the claw of a 28,000-pound timber-harvesting machine around the trunk of a 100-foot-tall longleaf pine tree, using the equipment to saw quickly through the tree’s base and drop the giant log on the ground.

Watching the harvest on his farm near Swainsboro, Ga. (pop. 7,277), James Morgan describes how, more than a century earlier, men used muscle and axes to fell pine trees during the infancy of the local timber industry.

“The retrieval and removal of pine trees is mechanical to a great extent now,” says Morgan, 98, who became a tree farmer when he moved to Emanuel County in 1938, just as chainsaws were beginning to replace crosscut saws.

The buzz of logging equipment is heard frequently in Emanuel County, one of the top timber-producing counties in Georgia. Swainsboro is the seat of the county, which encompasses 310,000 acres of forested land and is located in the heart of the South’s Pine Belt.

Since 1948, the area’s logging heritage has been celebrated every spring during the Pine Tree Festival, which draws up to 10,000 people to Swainsboro to pay homage to the fast-growing evergreen trees. Featuring logging exhibits, parades, pageants and music, the two-week-long festival often is preceded by the placement of a steel storage building into a pine tree where a radio announcer or other local personality lives for one month to count down the days until the festival begins.

As one of the oldest community festivals in Georgia, the event celebrates “our forest resources and timber’s contribution to the community’s economy,” says Bill Rogers, 60, president of the Swainsboro-Emanuel County Chamber of Commerce. “Generations of Emanuel County citizens have recognized the area’s perfect climate and soil conditions allow pine trees to mature faster here than most anywhere else in the world.”

The local timber industry was pioneered by Morgan’s grandfather-in-law, James A. “Tobe” Coleman Sr., who after fighting in the Civil War, returned home to Georgia’s pine country. By 1888, Coleman and partner James Ellison started a sawmill business and later a railroad company to cut and transport lumber.

Coleman’s sons, James Jr. and Randolph, continued the family businesses, using axes to fell trees, tying the logs together and floating them 190 miles down the Ogeechee River to Darien, Ga. “They called it rafting back then,” Morgan says. “I would imagine it was quite a trip riding logs to the sawmill.”

While the logs initially were sought for construction, they eventually became valuable for pine byproducts such as rosin for patching wooden ships and pulpwood for making paper. The proximity of Georgia’s pine forests to the Atlantic coast was significant, contributing to the rise of Savannah, Ga., as a bustling port city.

Today, felled pines are transported by truck instead of by river, and most are used for home construction. Two-thirds of Emanuel County’s agricultural landowners work in the timber industry, and 36 harvesters are designated “master loggers,” thanks in part to an educational program at Southeastern Technical College in Swainsboro.

“We certainly do not depend on the pine tree like we did in the 1900s, but there is still a market and you can still plant pine trees and profit from the effort economically and environmentally,” says Morgan, whose picket fence around his home is made of locally grown pine.

Morgan manages 85 tree-covered acres and has spent his lifetime promoting the timber industry. He continues to plan for the future, planting 80,000 pine seedlings last year that won’t be harvested for 40 to 50 years.

“I am 98 years old, so I’m not likely to see any development of the evergreens, but my great-grandchildren will,” he says. “What they will do with them I have no idea, but where there are inventive people and vast natural resources there will be new ways to use them.”