Pictures From Our Past
EARLY FIRE TOWERS
The first Forestry Commission fire tower was erected in August, 1930 near Camden. It was a 100’ steel tower, apparently purchased as a kit and assembled on site by the Kershaw County Forestry Association. The cost of the tower itself was $1,072; freight and labor ran the total expenditure to $1,639.
A full-time tower operator was hired on January 1, 1931. His wages were “not to exceed $2.00 per day or $50.00 per month.”
While the very first tower was steel construction, many of the early South Carolina towers were built from wooden beams. The beams were joined with steel plates and bolts, and additional support was provided by heavy cable guy wires. Eventually, all wooden towers were replaced by steel structures.
The Forestry Commission closed its fire tower system on October 1, 1993.
HOW THE TOWER SYSTEM WORKED
South Carolina towers ranged from about 55′ tall (atop Sassafras Mountain in Pickens County) to 120′ tall. The taller towers were generally in the flatlands of the Coastal Plain.
Most tower sites consisted of 10 acres of land, the tower, and a year-round dwelling for the operator. The size of the property allowed tower operators to grow their own vegetables and feed for their domestic livestock. In the early days, most tower families had a milk cow, chickens, and raised a few hogs for their own use.
The tower operator’s hours in the tower cab depended on the fire danger. If it was raining, they didn’t go up at all; if danger was low, they might make a short check in the morning and afternoon; when danger was high, they might spend as much as ten hours per day in the cab.
When a smoke was spotted, each of two towers would record its direction using a large compass table and a sighting device called an alidade. The fire was located at the spot where these readings crossed when plotted on a map.
Towers were not routinely manned at night. During moderate to high danger, operators were required to make a “night check”, climbing the tower after dark to check for glows.
Towers were the public’s fire reporting contact point, and served as the communications link for firefighters in the field.
From the 1960’s on, most South Carolina tower operators were women; frequently their husbands were employed as firefighters. In many cases, the tower became a family tradition, with adult children succeeding their parents as tower operators.
RURAL TELEPHONES, FORESTRY STYLE
Beginning around 1930, the Forestry Commission started building a network of telephone lines to link its firetowers with its firefighters. Agency personnel cleared rights-of-way, cut poles, strung wire, and maintained the lines.
Tower operators would spot a fire and dispatch the firefighter by telephone. Some firefighters were even equipped to climb the poles, tap on to the lines, and make reports back from the field.
This may have been the very first telephone service to rural SC; it was certainly the first to much of the state. At its peak, this system consisted of more than 2,000 miles of telephone line. When SCFC changed from telephone dispatch to radio, many of the lines were purchased by local phone companies and co-ops. The last lines were disposed of around 1970.
When the lines were being built, a woman in Greenville County agreed to provide a line right-of-way across her property in exchange for the SCFC’s promise that they would provide her service as long as she lived. She outlived the SCFC’s use of telephones in that area, but the Commission honored their agreement until she died.
Retired Newberry District Ranger Melton Wall says that original SCFC telephone poles are still in service along SC 121 between Carlisle and Chester. Mike Thomas, one of the SCFC’s Region Communication Managers, reports that a line in the Orangeburg vicinity is still referred to as the “Forestry Line.”
FORESTRY COMMISSION: DIVISION OF PARKS
The South Carolina State Park system was originally part of the Forestry Commission. From the beginning of the park system in 1934 until 1967, the Forestry Commission consisted of a Division of Forestry and a Division of State Parks.
Land for the first state park was acquired in Chesterfield County in 1934. Later that year, lands in Aiken, Sumter, Horry, Dorchester, York, and Cherokee Counties were added. In July, 1936, Myrtle Beach State Park became the first SC park to open to the public.
Early development of the recreation areas was done primarily by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Their signature structures of stone and timber still bear witness to the skill of CCC craftsmen.
Eventually the system included 28 properties owned and managed by the Forestry Commission’s Division of State Parks. With the exception of Croft State Park in Spartanburg County, all these lands were either donated or purchased with donated funds.
In 1965, the Forestry Commission instituted limited timber management on the Parks. This was initially viewed with skepticism, especially when it involved harvesting, site preparation, or tree planting. The idea eventually caught on and became the basis for the present-day State Lands Management Program.
In 1967, the Park system was transferred to the newly formed Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism.
EARLY FOREST LAW ENFORCEMENT
The Forestry Commission has always been involved in forest law enforcement. The degree of involvement was not always consistent, being dictated by both public attitude and the attitude of agency administration.
The Forestry Commission’s first attempt to prosecute someone for illegal woodsburning was in 1929. In this case, a Charleston County Grand Jury refused to return an indictment.
This was indicative of a prevailing public attitude toward woodsburning. Fire was credited with getting rid of snakes, chiggers, ticks, and other vermin. It made the woods “green up” in the spring. It didn’t hurt anything except maybe a few trees and they’d probably grow back. Many people simply didn’t see it as a problem, and certainly not as a crime for which someone should be punished.
During 1930-31, however, Forestry Commission authorities successfully prosecuted cases in Fairfield and Williamsburg Counties. Both cases were for careless burning; in both cases, the accused was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days on the county chain gang. The Williamsburg sentence was suspended, but apparently the Fairfield culprit served his time.
In 1936, a Georgetown County man was charged and found guilty of careless burning. A creative judge sentenced him to help fight all wildfires in his community for the rest of his natural life.
The first Forestry Commission officers were commissioned as state constables. There was little training, so officers put their own distinctive touches to their law enforcement effort. One early County Ranger was also a magistrate, and would try his cases right at the fire scene. His bench was the hood of his truck and his statement to the accused was, “Don’t you lie to me . . . did you start this fire?”
The County Ranger has always been the first-line firefighting supervisor at the local level. Rangers have traditionally been provided pick-up trucks with some type of water handling capability and hand tools.
This photo from the late 1940’s shows a ranger truck equipped with racks of 5-gallon backpack pumps and a low-band radio.
In the early days, Forestry Commission Fire Wardens were primarily smoke chasers, responding to fires in their personal vehicles. If the fire wasn’t too large, the warden would put it out himself with hand tools or enlist help from volunteers in the community. Tractors were few and were only dispatched when the warden couldn’t handle the fire with hand tools and local helpers.
In this 1958 photo, Warden Carmichael of Horry County checks and cleans his backpack hand pump. The plate just above the license plate identifies him as an official Forest Fire Warden.
In 1949, John Shirer of the Forestry Commission’s Fire Staff developed a pocket sized hand-held device to calculate the value of timber lost in a wildfire. Made of weather-resistant cardboard, the device consisted of two connected wheels, one printed with descriptions of different forest types and the other with an indicator of fire intensity. When the appropriate values had been aligned on the wheels, the dollar loss per acre was displayed in a window.
Shirer called his device the “Damometer”. It was adopted by the US Forest Service, renamed the “Southern States Forest Fire Damage Appraisal Meter”, mass produced, and distributed to forestry agencies throughout the south.
THE C-150 FIREPLOW
The first firefighting plow to use live hydraulics as a lift mechanism was designed and built by SC Forestry Commission mechanics. Head mechanic Oliver P. Woodward was the principal designer, assisted by Meyer Geddings and Tom Skinner. Dubbed the Carolina 150, the prototype was completed on March 1, 1950 at the Forestry Commission’s shop in Sumter.
The Forestry Commission contracted with Southern Iron and Equipment Company in Chamblee, Georgia to build the plows. Company officials immediately recognized the revolutionary design had commercial potential and obtained the manufacturing rights. It was widely marketed as the “SIECO C-150” and similar plows are still used by forest firefighters all over the south.
DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
Sand Hills State Forest Mechanic Henry Theodore Hunter stands out as one of the Forestry Commission’s most innovative pioneers. In addition to maintaining mechanized equipment on the State Forest, Mr. Hunter invented and built specialized experimental equipment. Working from a mountainous scrap pile, he designed and built numerous fireplows, water-handling vehicles, herbicide sprayers, tree planters and hand tools.
He once replaced a $900 “store bought” tree planter with one of his own design built from scrap and costing a total of $1.50. His two-row tree planters are probably the only such ever developed. From old disc blades he built land clearing hoes that wouldn’t wear out in the sandy Chesterfield County soil. He solved the problem of trimming the tall hedges around Sand Hills headquarters by mounting a lawn mower on a platform carried on the shoulders of two men.
Carlton W. Truax, writing in the Columbia Record (Apr. 23, 1954), said Mr. Hunter had “plenty of opportunity to demonstrate that the impossible just isn’t.” After 30 years of doing the impossible, Mr. Hunter retired in 1969.
Nelson Peach and John Witherspoon were working in the Forestry Commission’s Information and Education section when they produced the famous hand and little tree photo in 1951. The hand in the picture is that of Olin Ballentine, foreman of the Commission’s woodworking shop, then located in Sumter.
Peach and Witherspoon planned the shot on the way from Columbia to Sumter one morning. When they arrived at the sign shop, they found a slab of pine bark, propped it up in a pile of pine straw, and arranged the seedling, pine cone and seed.
Mr. Ballentine’s hands were dirty from his morning’s work, and he mentioned that he needed to wash them before the photo was taken. Peach and Witherspoon said no, dirty hands would actually enhance the visual message. Also apparent in the photo is a small blood blister on the index finger, further emphasizing the image of working hands.
The photo appeared all over the US in various publications, including National Geographic and Newsweek. Variations of the shot also appeared on posters for the national Smokey Bear campaign and other fire prevention publications for several years. In 1997, it was still being used by the Federal Land Bank in some of its publications.
SOUTH CAROLINA POSTERS HAVE NATIONAL IMPACT
In 1951, the Forestry Commission hired Columbia artist Jack Smyrl to produce 3 fire prevention posters.
One depicted Smokey and two cubs looking at a tiny tree growing on a grassy forest floor. The second poster depicted a small boy showing his father a seedling in the grass.
These posters showed that little trees were very susceptible to wildfire, and that little trees were a legacy to be passed to future generations.
The third Smyrl poster showed a magistrate lecturing a careless burner.
The poster of the boy and his father impressed fire prevention experts with the US Forest Service. In 1957, they incorporated this design idea on one of their nationally-distributed posters. Famed Smokey artist Rudy Wendelin later produced a national poster on the same theme as Smyrl’s Smokey and cubs.
The Smyrl posters were produced on both paper and cardboard stock. Very few are known to still exist.
SMOKEY COMES TO SOUTH CAROLINA
The first mention of a Smokey costume in Forestry Commission records was in the 1955-56 annual report. It is not absolutely documented that this was the agency’s first costume, but all indications are that it was. The report shows a costumed Smokey and lists “Smokey suit” as the entry in several Christmas parades in 1955.
In 1955 the Forestry Commission ordered some talking Smokey teddy bears for use in fire prevention programs. In gruff voices, the bears recited a fire safety verse. All except one, that is . . . one had a little girl’s voice saying a bedtime prayer.
Assistant State Forester Walt Ahearn reported the problem to both the US Forest Service and national Smokey Bear headquarters in Washington, DC. A news wire service got wind of the praying Smokey and distributed the story to news media across the country. At the request of NBC-TV, the bear was shipped to New York City and was featured on one of their national news programs.
At the time, folks thought there was probably a little girl doll out there somewhere with a Smokey Bear voice. Smokey headquarters in Washington, DC mounted a nationwide appeal to find it, but it never showed up.
The Praying Smokey has been lost, but one of its brothers is in the Forestry Commission archives. It still talks, but it’s message is strictly fire prevention.
In 1956, the Forestry Commission acquired a young male black bear. Named “Charcoal”, the bear was billed as “Smokey’s Cousin” and appeared in parades and other fire prevention events. During the first two weeks of his short fire prevention career, Charcoal visited more than 19,000 children in 42 South Carolina schools.
THE FIRST SHOULDER PATCH
The Forestry Commission’s first official shoulder patch was issued beginning around 1957. It was half-round in shape with gold trim and gold lettering on a black background. The central feature was a green palmetto tree. Some patches described the wearer’s position or area of work (Ranger, Warden, State Parks).
The patch was designed by Gene Middleswart, a forest management staff forester. Personnel were encouraged to purchase their own khaki shirts and green pants to wear as a uniform. This system was in place until the agency began issuing uniforms in 1981.
THE BEICHLER AWARD
In 1961, the US Forest Service instituted a 10-year annual competition to recognize the most effective fire prevention program among the southern states. The judging criteria were very comprehensive and complicated, involving 12 pages of explanation and mathematical formulae. Each state competed against its own previous record as well as the records of other states.
First known as the Smokey Award, it eventually became known as the Sam Beichler Award after its founder. The trophy itself was a hand-carved cherry wood statuette of Smokey; a brass plate on its base was inscribed with the name of each year’s winner.
The competition ran from 1961-1970. The Forestry Commission won the award twice, once in 1965 and again in 1970.
This was an extremely prestigious award. A photo in the 1965-66 Forestry Commission annual report shows South Carolina Governor Robert McNair admiring the trophy.
The trophy was retired in 1970. Its whereabouts is unknown.
The buildings that now make up the Forestry Commission’s central shop complex were originally located on the Savannah River Plant between Aiken and Barnwell. The buildings were given to the Forestry Commission, and Commission employees disassembled them and hauled the parts to Columbia.
Forestry Commission personnel from all over the state reassembled the buildings on their present site off Broad River Road. After several years of work, the job was completed in 1964.
THE CLEAR POND FIRE
The largest wildfire ever recorded in South Carolina started on April 10, 1976, from an unattended campfire between Conway and Myrtle Beach. The persons responsible were never apprehended.
Extended dry weather, wind, low humidity, volatile fuel, and difficult plowing conditions combined to frustrate containment efforts for 5 days. Thirty thousand acres of woodland burned; of this, eleven thousand acres burned on April 10 and seventeen thousand on April 11. Some of the area actually burned more than once. No homes were lost and there were no serious injuries associated with the fire.
The smoke column from this fire was 12,000 feet high, extended 200 miles out to sea, and was visible on photography taken by orbiting weather satellites. Strong convection currents carried ashes and burned debris as far as 40 miles from the fire.
More than 300 firefighters battled the blaze, including 113 Forestry Commission personnel and 65 tractors from 28 counties.
The area burned in the Clear Pond fire is one of the most volatile areas in South Carolina. Known as the Buist tract, it has been the scene of at least two other large fires. One, in 1954, burned more than ten thousand acres; another, in 1967, burned more than six thousand acres. Much of the area is now being converted into a housing development.