Some of this account is well known, though not all. The purpose is to proffer the unfamiliar, to fill a gap or two, and to enhance appreciation of the Pierce County Story. For to be sure, it has come far and upward since the darkening landmark year of 1918.
The first settlers in notable numbers appeared around 1830, from Liberty and Mcintosh counties, mainly later from South Carolina. No foreign immigrant were among them. Twenty-seven years later the county was chartered as the states’ 120th – from portions of Appling, Wayne and Ware. Part of the original lands were taken in 1914 in creating Bacon County. In 1920, another section was carved out for Brantley County.
By 1918 the county was fully settled. The 1910 census reported a population of 10,749. Blackshear’s was 1,235; Offerman 483; Patterson 264; Bristol 198. Hoboken, later in Brantley County, claimed 100 residents. The year 1918 saw World War I in Europe come to an end, bringing great national relief. The county and the state, however, were still burdened with the financial and economic disasters caused by the Civil War. According to Kenneth Coleman, et. al., in their History of Georgia, 2nd Edition, annual per capita income ranked among the lowest in the nation. It would continue lagging until the 1950s.
More misfortune lay ahead. Across the county and the state, cotton farming accounted for over half of all farm income, in a region heavily dependent upon agriculture. Five years earlier in southeast Georgia, and little noticed at the time, the black-snouted boll weevil had made his unwanted entry. He progressed slowly at first, but by 1918 this outrageous pest had begun devastating the cotton crop. Moreover, with the war in Europe over demand plunged and farm prices across the board began their historic collapse. Cotton prices dropped from 35 cents per pound in 1919 to 17 cents in 1920. Pierce County and rural America were on the verge of descending into the Great Depression, long before Wall Street’s crash in 1929. They would not recover until the outbreak of World War II and its skyrocketing demand at home and abroad for U.S. farm commodities.
It was during the “field season of 1918”, as they stated, that two obscure agents from the Bureau of Soils, U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived in Pierce County. E.T. Maxson and N.M. Kirk, by Act of Congress, were charged with conducting a survey of soils and with publishing their findings. They satisfied both charges. In 1920, the Government Printing Office produced their Soil Survey of Pierce County Georgia. Fortunately, it contains observations of conditions then existing, aside from their soils analysis. Much of what follows is drawn from the Survey.
Pierce County, wrote Maxson and Kirk, “encompassed 507 square miles of Earth’s surface or 324,380 acres”. It lay, then and now in geological terms, on a flat featureless plain characterized by areas of loose sandy soils and poor drainage, no more than 250 feet above sea level at any site. The population was classed as “rural”, albeit Blackshear and the largest town enjoyed a system of waterworks and electric lights. It also supported an oil mill, a fertilizer plant, and a large cotton gin.
Manufacture of commercial fertilizer was a key industry, as were logging and turpentine stills found among the remaining stands of longleaf pine, then rapidly disappearing. Agriculture was the dominant enterprise. The latest census reported a total of 1,312 farms with an average size of 178.2 acres. The agents described the industry as “unsettled but improving. “Gas powered tractors were yet to arrive – as was true of telephones (in any number) and electricity. The farmstead remained unlit until the coming of the New Deal and the REA.
Livestock production proved a bright spot. Substantial herds of native (scrub) cattle grazed on the open wooded range before being driven to market. In addition, progressive farmers were producing pork products on an increasing scale. They were also upgrading swine herds through importation of purebred sires.
Transportation had its strong and weak points. Rail transport was good; public roads were poor. Isolated farmsteads were reached only by rural mail routes. More and better bridges were badly needed and conspicuously lacking.
Drawing from records of the Weather Bureau station at Waycross, the agents depicted the climate. Conditions were unusual in the previous winter of 1917-18. The ground froze and ponds were covered with ice on several occasions. Otherwise, and in common with the region, the county lay within a climatic belt characterized by long hot summers and short, mild winters. Average temperature for the summer months was 81.4 degrees F. For the winter months of December, January, and February it was 51.1 degrees F. Average date for the first killing frost was November 15, the last March 14, allowing for a growing season of eight lengthy months.
The Survey, of course, dealt at length with the very dirt beneath the county and the soil types underlying it. Most readers – agricultural people excepted – will find descriptions of the same technical and of little interest. A few points are notable. Nature requires one thousand years to produce a single inch of top soil suitable for tillage and cultivation. The soils of Pierce County are largely of sedimentary origin. That is, they were laid down in sediments as the ancient oceans rose and fell, advanced and receded, leaving a vast level plain stretching along the eastern seaboard from North Carolina to the tip of Texas. The original deposits of sands and clays were modified by ages of weathering, erosion, and the growth and decay of vegetation.
As we know, Pierce County lies in the Coastal Plain soil province. According to the Survey, its soils are grouped in eight series, differentiated in proportion to sand, silt and clay. They bear such fascinating names as Norfolk fine sandy loam, Tifton sandy loam, Blanton fine sand, Susquehanna sandy loam, Myatt fine sandy loam, and so on. The Tifton sandy loams were considered the most productive for farm crops.
Maxson and Kirk drew and attached to their Survey a superb, large, colored map that portrays the geographic location within the county of each and every soil found and classified. The originals of both items are on file in the Archives Section, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
•Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident.