Nabb recalls Dorchester’s logging heritage

Submitted to the Dorchester Banner/Nabb Family
Lin and Jason Spicer of Holly Lane Farms paused in their work to cut a final logging tract on Egypt Road.

Over the historical timeline for Dorchester County, the lumber industry has played as big a role in the county’s development as any economic force located here. In the early years everything depended on the availability of the natural resource of timber. Forests provided the lumber used to build the houses, heat the homes and fuel the stoves upon which the food was cooked. Lumber built the Bay workboats as well as the ships of transportation. Wood built the frames for all industrial and agricultural equipment.

Since Dorchester County had so many tracts of beautiful timber, it was only natural that the lumber industry was one of the real power points of the economy. As with any industry, there are always a few individuals and families who set the pace of that endeavor through intelligence and hard work. The Spicer family of Golden Hill has always been and still are well known throughout the region as a leader in the timber trade.

The Patriarch of the Spicer family was Mr Lingan T.Spicer, who had four sons who were all involved in the lumber business. Leon, Theophilus, Arthur and Thomas were the brothers, and they all at one time or another had sawmills located in southern Dorchester County. Tracts of timber were always looked upon as piling logs and saw timber. The piling logs brought the most money. The tall straight timber that was used for pilings were usually cut first. The saw timber came out later, and these logs were generally classified and used for boards in construction.

In the early years of logging, a woods may have been cut over several times with the smaller trees given years to mature. Today clear cutting of all trees is usually the method used. At the turn of the century, county roads were really non-existent. Trails were made of dirt, oyster shells and wood slats. Timber could not be hauled on this type of road, so the creeks and rivers were the way the big trees traveled.

Brought out of the woods by mainly teams of oxen, the single logs were pulled to the nearest waterway and floated with the tide to the creek or river used for the landing. At Golden Hill the main ramp site was near the headwaters of the Honga River, by the road going to Hoopers Island. On that site there now stands a boathouse that still can be seen from the roadway. Logs that could be used for pilings were chained together in huge rafts that were pulled up the Bay by tug boats that hardly had enough power to move the load. Some of these rafts had up to a thousand logs chained together. Baltimore was usually the destination for the piling — most of the buildings located on the Baltimore Harbor were built atop wood pillars, not concrete foundations. Moving the large rafts of logs up the Chesapeake Bay was very slow, and very dangerous. For night travel, lanterns were placed on each corner of the raft and usually one was hung in the middle of the raft itself.

On one such trip, Mr. Lingan Spicer and his young son Arthur decided to accompany the tugboat captain to Baltimore. This was one February journey that was not to be forgotten. When the tug got past Taylors Island the temperature started to drop and the wind started to blow. As the spray fell over the huge raft, the ice buildup caused a very dangerous situation because of the weight that was growing on the surface of the wood. Just before reaching Baltimore harbor the unthinkable began to happen. The barge started to sink, and the lines had to be cut from the tugboat in order to save both of the men and the boy, as well as the boat itself. After spending the night in the Baltimore Harbor a huge crane from the Dundalk terminal was brought out and raised the raft from the bottom. This certainly was not a very profitable trip.

Years later Mr. Arthur Spicer had the Bay Schooner L.T.Spicer built and also purchased a second boat, the Dale. The L.T. Spicer spent many years hauling Dorchester lumber all up and down the East Coast. The Dale was not so fortunate – she sunk on her first voyage loaded with timber.

Mr. Arthur Spicer started the permanent sawmill at Golden Hill in 1950. In 1955 William Spicer joined Arthur at this location since Hurricane Hazel destroyed most of the cropland that Bill had been farming. The saw blades were now going full speed ahead. Truck loads of lumber pulled out of the mill every day. Just about every workboat that was built used Spicer products. Loads of lumber was hauled to Crisfield; dumped overboard at the city dock and pulled to the Bay islands for the boats and houses that were built. Bronza Parks, Oneal Dean, Junior McGlaughlin and Robert Meekins were just some of the boat builders who used Spicer lumber, and many of their boats are still in use. The skipjack Nathan’s mast was a tall pine from Spicers, and other pilings were used at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Many jobs and paychecks were the results of Spicer lumber.

Even after the main mill was shut down in the year 2000 the next generation of the Spicer family could not get the timber business out of their lives.

William’s son, Tommy still has a mill located on Bucktown Road across from the airport. Custom milling and fabrication are the main products of Chesapeake Wood Products. Everything from huge blocks that military vessels rest on in dry dock to special orders of lumber any length or size is sawed. Tommy built a special coffin that his mother was laid to rest in upon her death. It was a beautiful tribute made of wood that showed the craftsmanship and family pride of the Spicer family.

Lin Spicer, the son of Arthur, just cannot put the chainsaw down. Although 70 years old, he and his son Jason still custom cut tracts of timber during the winter months when they are not busy with their farming operation, Holly Lane Farms. Since owning and tilling over 1000 acres of farmland and timber does not seem to take up all their time, the namesake of Lingan T. Spicer and his son still find the woods to their calling. Their large modern equipment now does most of the bull work always associated with logging. The day I stopped on Egypt Road, David Wheatley of Generation III was on his way down to the Malkus farm to pick out the new mast for the skipjack “Nathan.” Community service and dedication have always been a part of the Spicer heritage and continues today.

Sawmills in the early years were not stationary buildings set up on specific sites. The mills were put where the timber was grown. The oxen and mules pulled the logs to the saw site and usually there were several different spots in each tract location. The big sawdust piles in the woods showed where the mills were set up.

How well I remember the sawdust piles on our North Yarmouth Farm. About 1950, Dad sold the timber grown on our farm to the Hurlock Lumber Company. For two years a colored man and his wife from the Eastern Shore of Virginia lived and worked in our woods. The mill was moved three times over the two year period and the three large sawdust piles were still standing until a few years ago. They were my mountains to climb and conquer until I fell in a fox den and was almost buried alive.

Joe and Maggie lived in an old Airstream trailer in the woods next to the sawmills. They had no running water, no toilet, no electricity; only an old hit and miss engine and a small wood stove in their two small rooms. These rooms stayed a constant temperature of about 100 degrees all year. Outside the trailer was the corral that held the two teams of mules used in the woods. Two blacks – two grays. Joe never had a rope on either mule. When the chains on the logs tightened up under mule power, the animals knew where to go. Joe’s voice was the only steering wheel they had. Boards were cut and hauled out by truck each weekend.

Maggie worked in the mill, helped Mom in the house, picked tomatoes and cukes and gathered ears of corn left in the fields by the corn picker. When Maggie had some spare time she would stack loose hay in a big pile for the winter. At the end of the day when Dad got off of the old Farmall M tractor that had the corn picker mounted on it, he was the same color as Joe. When Maggie cooked her fried chicken or squirrel, I made sure that I helped Joe feed the mules that night. I did however not stay for supper when she asked me if I wanted some possum that Joe had shot the night before. When Maggie raised the lid on her old heavy skillet, all I saw was a layer of fat boiling up.

There was never any shortage of milk, beef, hogs or vegetables for Joe and Maggie — they were part of the farm family. They left after two years of hard work in the woods. I never knew where they went, I never knew when they died. All I can remember is that sometimes when I went down to the old sawmill sites I cried. I really missed those old work mules that lived in the woods. I also missed Joe and Maggie a great deal more than the mules.

Hurlock Lumber Company came and built our brand new cow barn with milking stanchions, calf pens and a large loft the for hay and straw bales. The new barn was christened on a Saturday night with a square dance called by John Mowbray. Mr.Mowbray, Miss Annabelle, Wallace and Lucille lived on their farm just down Drawbridge Road from us. There was a big crowd that night but most of the women went to church on Sunday alone. I guess the liquid refreshments did not sit well with the male species. I’ve seen it happen many times.

Another logger who found Dorchester County to be a good spot to settle in was Mr. Claude Adams. The Adams family were farmers and sawmill owners who originally came from the area between Denton, Md. and Bridgeville, De. One of the features of Mr. Adams that set him apart from many of the sawmill operators was his usage of accurate land surveys and his history of honesty in business deals. Line trees were not touched, and a handshake was as good as a written contract.

The area of the county that first attracted Mr. Adams were the vast tracts of untouched timber around Vienna. From Savannah Lake to Hurleys Neck on to Tripps Neck, the well-kept equipment and the efficiency of the Adams operation was well known. One story that left insight into some of the conditions that were worked in involved the logging of Tripps Neck.

Notorious even up until today, the road out of Tripps Neck was probably one of the worst in the county. In the winter months the ability to just travel the road, much less haul timber out, was a major undertaking. Three mules were hooked to the front of each logging truck making the journey out of the woods. With mud up to their belly, they pulled the logs from Drawbridge Road to the beginning of the state-maintained road at Aireys. Extra low gear established the speed, and trucks had a life expectancy of about two years.

Some of the local folks who worked in these conditions were the truck drivers, Roy Davenport and T-Berry Hurley’s father Earl Hurley. Freeman Frazier from Madison was the sawyer for the Adams mills. Most rough lumber was sent to the Nuttle Lumber Company at Denton and there dressed to the finished product. Much of this lumber was used to build the giant warehouses and factories in Cambridge for the Phillips Packing Company.

From Vienna to Cambridge, the Adams family moved to the large house across the street from Webster’s grocery. I’m sure young Roger and his two sisters Ruth Ann and Mildred enjoyed the nearness of the candy counter.

In the Taylors Island area, Mr. Adams bought a large tract of timber and used the Stewarts Canal to float many logs out of the Smithville woods. The Adams family still owns waterfront property on Parsons Creek near Route 16. Mr. Adams went on to join up with two local business men and they together bought James Island.

Mr. Roscoe Willey from Cambridge and Mr. Byron Harrington from Taylors Island, along with Mr. Adams, purchased the then-200 acre island in the Chesapeake Bay. Much of the virgin pine was sold to the J.I. Wells Company for piling timber, and loads of logs were brought into Slaughter Creek on Earl Pritchett’s barges. Later the island was bought by Mr. Carlton Slagle from Cambridge. Dorchester Lumber harvested much of the remaining timber for utility poles that were also sold to J.T. Wells.

The boys at the Taylors Island store said that one night, Earl Pritchett set off a dynamite explosion that blew out half the windows on Taylors Island. I guess he needed a deeper landing area for his barge.

Moving on to the Neck District, Mr. Adams set up mills on the Cooks Point peninsula. Well-known farmers in this area were Sewell Spedden, Donald Spedden, Edmund Seward and John Lewis. Johnnie Keyes took care of the farm located on the end of Cooks Point. This land is still owned by the Dupont family.

In 1955 Mr. Adams retired after suffering a major heart attack while logging the Henry Schnoor farm on Stone Boundary Road. His son Roger Adams and his family have lived on their farmland on Bucktown Road for many years. Roger is still retired, but each afternoon about three o’clock his ride around the “loop” makes sure everything checks out.

In 1949 Mr. Robert Dickinson came out of the hills of Louisa County, Virginia, and started cutting timber. Establishing Dorchester Lumber Company in 1953, the permanent mill was set up in Linkwood with Rt. 50 on one side and the railroad tracks on the other side. Sixty acres of lumber yard, chicken houses, hog pens and beef cows were just what Mr. Dickinson wanted. He also wanted his four sons to become part of the largest mill operation in Dorchester County.

Robert Jr. and Gerald (Giggs) are now passed away. The younger sons Mike and Ben are set to retire and have recently had an auction sale of most of the equipment. Ben and his head helper “Baby Boy” will continue with the shop — there is still plenty of equipment to work on. Dorchester Lumber bought and still owns large acreage in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

As I sat and talked with Mr. Bill Spicer at the Dorchester Lumber sale, I realized that another era of Dorchester history was passing as the sawmill closed down. From the many small mills in the countryside to the large stacks of lumber at Linkwood – it all depended upon individuals who shaped the future with the help of our woodlands.

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