Forests have always played an important part in the history and economics of South Carolina. The first record of a forest products industry dates to 1670 when boards were sawn near the mouth of the Ashley River. This record coincides with the establishment of Charleston as the colony’s first permanent settlement.


Tar kiln, Sand Hills State Forest, Chesterfield County
Tar kiln, Sand Hills State Forest, Chesterfield County

Pine Tar : By the 1700s, coastal pinelands became major producers of naval stores, products derived from the pitch of southern yellow pines. Probably the first such product was pine tar produced by melting the liquid from resin-soaked wood of dead pine trees and stumps. This industry thrived until the 1940s.

One method of producing pine tar was to dig a large pit with a sloping floor. A barrel was set in the ground at the bottom of the slope (exactly where this was depended on whether the pit was round or rectangular). The pit was stacked with resin-rich “lightwood” and covered over with dirt except for one ventilation hole.

Tar from tar kiln, Chesterfield County
Tar from tar kiln, Chesterfield County

The lightwood was then set on fire and allowed to burn slowly. As it heated, the resin liquified and ran down a series of gutters to the collection barrel. A written account from the 1900s describes a Chesterfield County tar kiln as being 19 feet wide and 48 feet long.

According to the report, about 49 cords of lightwood could be stacked in the kiln. It would take about 10 days to burn, and would produce 45-50 barrels of tar.

Remains of old tar kilns can still be found throughout the coastal plains and sand hills of South Carolina.

Turpentine : Turpentine was produced by distilling the pitch or “gum” from living pine trees. Workers would cut V-shaped galleries into the side of a pine tree and place a reservoir at the point of the V to collect the sap as it flowed from the wounds.

Early reservoirs were simply hollows carved into the base of the tree. These were called “chop boxes”. Chop boxes gave way to clay collection cups during the second decade of the 1900s, and these were in turn replaced by tin cups.

Interior of turpentine still
Interior of turpentine still

In South Carolina, turpentine trees were worked from March though October or November. One V-cut was added each week during the season, creating a chevron effect or “face” on the side of the tree. Old stumps and sometimes even living trees can still be found with the characteristic turpentine scars.

The collection cups were emptied of gum every three weeks. Barrels of crude gum were then hauled to a turpentine distillery (“still”) to be rendered into turpentine and various by-products.

The turpentine industry moved out of South Carolina in the 1940s. A few lightwood stumps are still harvested to extract various chemicals.


Large sawmill operations moved into the state after the War Between the States. During the late 1800s, Sumter County was the lumber capital of South Carolina with 31 sawmills recorded in 1884.

By the end of World War I, most of South Carolina’s virgin timber was gone, and some believed that the forest industry would disappear. In the 1930s, however, interest in reforestation, timber management, and sustained yield provided new promise for a failing timber industry.

Technology improvements aided the development of the industry. Equipment for felling trees has advanced from two-man crosscut saws and axes to chain saws to modern hydraulic shears.

Once severed, trees have to be transported to the mill. In early days, portable sawmills were set up in the woods and trees were dragged (“skidded”) to the mill by mules, horses, or oxen. In some cases, railroad tracks were laid into forested swamps to provide access.

Now large rubber-tired tractors skid the cut trees to a loading area (“log deck”). There the trunks are trimmed to size, loaded onto trucks by means of hydraulic cranes, and hauled directly to permanently established sawmills for processing.

Most early mills produced boards by means of large circular saws. Logs were secured on a movable platform (“carriage”) and fed into the rotating saw. The first pass removed a slice of bark and wood (“slab”) from the side of the log; the log was then turned a quarter-turn on the carriage and another slice was taken. Four trips through the saw would yield a square-sided cant which could then be sawed into boards.

Sawmill, Newberry County, 1940
Sawmill, Newberry County, 1940

This type of mill generated large amounts of waste. The slabs taken from the log in the squaring process were generally considered worthless except as firewood. Piles of slabs and mountains of sawdust were simply left in the woods when portable sawmill operations moved out. Permanent mills had large waste incinerators to dispose of slabs and sawdust by burning.

In the 1800s, sawed lumber was sometimes transported down rivers on huge rafts built of logs. An early report describes lumber rafts as being 25 feet wide and 175 feet long. Such a raft, crewed by three men, would carry about 180 tons of lumber.

Modern mills produce very little waste. Bark and sawdust is frequently used as fuel to run the mill, and the rounded outer portions of logs are turned into chips for the papermaking industry. Sawdust and wood chips are also components in a number of manufactured wood products.



For many years it was thought that the highly resinous southern yellow pines were not suitable for papermaking. In 1884, Major James Lide Coker of Hartsville, South Carolina, became to the first man to successfully manufacture paper entirely from southern pine.

This breakthrough opened a new market for pine throughout the southeast. Major Coker’s papermaking operation, the Southern Novelty Company, became SONOCO in 1923. In the 1930s West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (later WESTVACO) opened a paper mill in Charleston and International Paper Company began operations in Georgetown. Pine pulpwood was suddenly big business.

Pulpwood was traditionally cut into four or five-foot long pieces (“sticks”) and hauled on small trucks to concentration yards on railroad sidings. There the wood was loaded onto rail cars and hauled to the paper mills where it was stockpiled until needed.

Along the Waccamaw and Pee Dee Rivers, barges were loaded with pulpwood and floated downstream to the paper mill at Georgetown.

The first step of the papermaking process involves removing the bark from the sticks of pulpwood. Early debarkers were huge rotating drums which battered the pulpwood sticks against each other, knocking off the bark.

From the debarker, sticks are fed into the maw of a huge machine that grinds the raw wood into small chips. The chips are then subjected to various chemical and mechanical processes, finally emerging as a continuous sheet of paper.

Over the years, the way raw material is handled has changed significantly. Most pulpwood is now hauled to the mill in tree length pieces—the limbs are removed and the whole tree trunk is loaded onto a tractor-trailer truck. Debarking machinery has changed to accommodate the longer pieces, but much of the actual papermaking process remains the same.