Jim Thomas

Enormous and lasting benefits resulted from Dr. Charles Herty’s chemical breakthrough, a first-of-its-kind formula that permitted the pulping and printing of newsprint from Georgia pines. Into the poverty-stricken South of the 1930s, it pumped billions for paper mills offering good jobs in the tens of thousands. It encouraged a new tree-farming industry, marked by pine saplings planted in endless rows and harvested young. Precisely, as Alexander Hamilton would have predicted, land prices rose and rained on their owners unheard of wealth.

All of this within five years, fifteen at the outside. Today, his great works are rarely mentioned, if not forgotten altogether. They deserve a brief resurrection.

In 1932 at his Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory, Dr. Herty began a series of tests and experiments. His aim was to disprove the paper industry’s conventional wisdom, to wit: fast-growing Georgia pines contained too much resin for pulping and producing whitepaper — newsprint, books, magazines, and the like. (As distinguished from the Kraft Process used for paper bags and cardboard.)  He soon discovered a chemistry that in his words “worked beautifully.”

Charles Holmes Herty was born and reared in Milledgeville. At Johns Hopkins University in 1890 he received a PhD in organic chemistry. He then taught at the University of Georgia and the University of North Carolina.

Across an incredibly busy life and career, he served as president of the American Chemical Society, as advisor to the Chemical Foundation and as a consultant to business and industry. While employed in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Forestry, he developed a cup-and-gutter system of turpentining that revitalized the naval stores industry. It also established his national reputation.

Dr. Herty was an apostle of “better days, through better ways, with chemistry.” As a promoter of southern industrial development, he sought chemistry solutions for economic problems — in the forest industries in particular. He was among the first to foresee a whitepaper industry’s advantages for Georgia’s economic disadvantages.

That was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, and conditions indeed were grim. Still reeling from the Civil War’s devastation and the boll weevil’s destruction of the cotton commodity, per capita personal income in 1933 —if you can believe it — was less than $500. A quarter of the workforce was idle. Pine woodlands, often priced at a few dollars per acre, found few buyers. Poverty was pervasive.

Georgia, however, was blessed with a huge natural resource—her forests. Native stands of longleaf, slash, loblolly, and shortleaf pine were part of a vast regional forest that stretched from southern New Jersey to eastern Texas and as far south as central Florida.

In the South, however, there were no whitepaper pulp mills. Slash pine trees, as stated, were believed too gummy. Consequently, America was importing four billion pounds of newsprint, much of it made with Canadian spruce.

Dr. Herty saw things differently. Drawing from research, experience — even hearsay from other chemists — he became convinced the necessary chemistry could be found, formulated, and confirmed. For years, in both public speeches and in forestry trade journals, he revealed his ideas. Invariably, he described how a whitepaper industry would prove invaluable for the ailing economy. However, no corporation, university or individual assumed the challenge.

With one exception.  Private tests in 1928 at Hercules Powder Company in Brunswick found a 1.38 percent resin content in the pulp of young slash pines, well below pre-test predictions of 15 to 5 percent. While both he and Hercules agreed the results were only approximate, Dr. Herty was convinced they were of authentic value.

 In 1932, with cooperation and financial support from the Georgia legislature, from professional organizations, and from key Savannah businessmen, and through his own missionary-like zeal, he opened a pulp and paper laboratory in an empty Savannah warehouse. There he was intent upon finding the key for replacing Canadian spruce in the manufacture of whitepaper. There were doubters, of course. But, as he himself observed, “Only sixty years earlier the very idea of making paper out of wood pulp was labeled impractical.”

 In May 1932, Dr. Herty reported success with the chemically-cooked pulp of loblolly pine. Additional tests with longleaf were equally successful. But the skeptics remained. Accordingly, he procured further testing in corporate laboratories using both pine and spruce. They confirmed his laboratory breakthrough.

With  no financial gain for himself, Dr. Herty  released his chemical process to investors, businessmen and to the paper industry. Across the South, whitepaper pulp mills were soon under construction. Between 1935 and 1940 15 new ones came on line. All utilized the Herty chemistry. All contributed to the region’s industrialization. Paper making and its demand for wood created a tree-farming industry that by 1950 claimed 4.5 million participants. By mid-century, too, pine woodlands were selling for one-hundred dollars an acre, and often higher.

In 1937 The Progressive Farmer named Dr. Herty “Man of the Year for Georgia and the South.” It was one of many awards and recognitions.  Exhausted by a lifetime of unrelenting duties and professional labors; of travel, speaking, and writing, he died in 1938 at Savannah, age 70.

• Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident and can be contacted at jmtlawyerspeak@yahoo.com.