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Author: Wendy Victora Rudman

Keeping history alive: The largest known collection of turpentine industry artifacts is tucked into the backyard of a Holley home.

The history of each item has been carefully documented by Melvin, who has items on permanent loan to seven museums in Florida.

“Most of the people, all of the people that worked in the industry are dead,” he said. “Most people don’t know about it. It’s my way of keeping the history alive of how hard people had to work for a living and what they had to do for a living.

“All old families, they worked the pine trees one way or another,” he said.

In 1934, there were 2,000 turpentine stills active in the southeastern United States.

By the early 1960s, they were gone.

Melvin grew up in Holt in a raised house next to the railroad tracks. The family of seven had no electricity or running water. Hogs wallowed under the house, where an air conditioning effect was created by a hole in the floor.

This model of a still shows the process of converting gum into turpentine and resin. Photo by Wendy Victoria Rudman.

“The trains threw us off a 50-pound block of ice, Mamma put it in the house, there was a hole in the floor,” he recalled. “As the ice melted, the hogs found it.”

By the time Melvin was born, his father worked for the railroad, but from the age of 14 to 19, he worked in turpentine stills.

Melvin learned about “cat faces,” the term used to describe the pattern of cuts in the trees that looked like cat whiskers from the right angle.

“Him and my uncles had told me all about that,” he said. “You still see cat faces in the woods today. Some have healed up and some trees are dead.  

“Up there north of Holt, they were cat-facing all over the place,” he added. “He told me how he used to do that, how his granddaddy used to do that and his great-granddaddy.”

Before 1903, cavities were dug into pine trees to catch the gum. Raymond Melvin points to one of these cavities, which are known as “boxes.” Photo by Wendy Victoria Rudman.

The cuts are made to cause gum to flow, which is a tree’s natural response to injury. The gum was then fed into a still, where part of it vaporized into turpentine, while the rest was forced through three strainers and became rosin.

“A turpentine still is nothing but a large whiskey still,” he said.

Turpentine and rosin are both still in use in a number of household and building items. You can even find turpentine, in small amounts, in some brands of gum and toothpaste, Melvin said.  

From 1700 to 1903, a cavity called a “box” was cut into the tree to capture the gum. In 1903, the first cup was invented along with an “apron” or gutter to direct the gum into the cup.

Over the next 50-plus years, both of those were modified, changing in materials and shape. The most recently used cups were long metal trays while the earlier cups were ceramic, clay and even glass.

Melvin has them all, including those that were extremely rare.

In addition to his extensive collection of items from the turpentine industry, Raymond Melvin collects bottles and artifacts from the logging industry. Photo by Wendy Victoria Rudman

Harvesting gum was hard work and he has the tools to prove it, including wooden mallets bigger than a gallon of milk, hatchet-like tools and “racks,” which had a weight on one end and a squared off hook of folded metal at the other to gouge the bark.

“You had to put a new scar on a tree once a week to keep the gum running,” he said. “The weight was to give it momentum”

That meant someone with a crop of trees had to cut 10,500 faces – three on each tree – to maintain gum production each week.

In 1942, they discovered that squirting sulfuric acid into the cut would cause the gum to run for three or four weeks.

Before COVID and before he broke each shoulder – the left one before the pandemic and the right one last fall – he loaded up portions of his collection, marked with signs and supplemented with binders of information, and traveled to events, sharing his knowledge of the industry.

Recycled glass still lights up Milton intersection

To a passing motorist, the corner of Hamilton Bridge Road and Glover Lane may look like others in Milton. The city-owned utility easement has patches of scrubby grass and a circle of landscaping near the triangle formed by the intersection.

You must get close to it to see that the bushes are surrounded by tiny pebbles of crushed class spread in the way you might use mulch or gravel. On a rainy day, they sparkle like jewels.

The glass was likely placed there about a decade ago, when the county was recycling glass bottles by crushing them for use in landscaping.

Santa Rosa County Administrator DeVann Cook was in risk management at the time. He remembers walking outside one of the county buildings and seeing the flower beds glistening. When he asked what it was and learned it was crushed glass, he immediately saw it from a risk manager’s perspective, he remembered, laughing.

“People will cut their feet or kids will pick it up,” was his first reaction, he said. The glass was removed, he hopes, from all county property.

But it was a different time when recycling was popular and profitable, he said.

“People actually wanted to recycle,” he said. “There was a need for cans and papers. We were selling recyclables and making money. The county used to be very intertwined with recycling.”

It’s not clear how many municipal sites still feature the recycled glass. Several Milton city officials, unaware that it was still on that corner, pulled up photos after they were informed. To them, it looked like gravel.

In addition to municipal uses, residents were invited to take some of the crushed glass during its heyday. Frances Andrews, who lives in Milton, got a bucket of it and had big plans to brighten her plants.

“I was thinking to put it on a garden pot,” she said. “It was sharp.”

Setting it straight

In a series of individual conferences with members of the local media last week, City Manager Randy Jorgensen, Economic Development Director Ed Spears and Public Information Officer Stephen Prestesater did what they could to set the record straight.

At the top of their list for what they say has been misrepresented is that the location of the new facility is a pristine vista surrounded by trees with a view of downtown Milton. That was part of a statement made by citizen activist Jerry Couey at a recent Santa Rosa County commission meeting.

“You should stand on that piece of property and think what our ancestors probably stood there and said: ‘Wow, what a magnificent view of the city of Milton.’ Why in the world would we want to put a sewage treatment plant (there).

“When you stand on that piece of property, you’re look at the Fisher-Hamilton building. You’re looking at the bridge. It’s all open,” Couey continued. “There’s very, very few trees to block your view. It’s a clear shot.”

After that claim, city officials went to the very spot he was standing and took photos. The parcel is more than 4 miles from downtown Milton and all that can be seen is the tops of two water towers visible through a long clear-cut utility easement.

Officials say Couey wasn’t even looking in the right direction.

“They main things that you can see are a small portion of the correctional facility and trees,” said Prestesater, who is one of the photos pointing at the distant water towers. “You can’t see anything right next to you.”

City officials expressed frustration at statements like Couey’s.

“There are people in the room that I’m sure believe every word that comes out of his mouth,” said Jorgensen. “He’s in front of the county board making these statements that are completely inaccurate.”

To clarify, city officials want people to know that the current facility is 100 yards from the Blackwater River. The new site will be 600 yards.  

The current site is 8 feet above the mean highwater mark, and it discharges its effluent directly into the river. The new site will discharge the treated effluent into rapid infiltration basins on 100 yards of property nearly adjacent to the new plant.

Once treated by a facility, the water is clean enough to drink as Jorgensen proved in May 2021, when he was filmed scooping up a beacon of water leaving the city’s current facility and drinking it to the last drop.

“The quality of the water it discharges is cleaner than the receiving water of the river,” Jorgensen said.

But that current facility is reaching capacity and is likely to exceed capacity in two to three years, Spears said. That means if someone comes in with a project to develop, they won’t and can’t get approval due to the constraints of the facility.

“For 80 years, the city of Milton has been dealing with this subject matter,” Jorgenson said. “The current plant has been there for the last 40 years. If you care about the river, wouldn’t you think you’d look at a plant that’s going to be over 1,000 feet from the river, 80 yards above the river and out of the flood plain?”

The city is under contract to provide the wastewater service to Whiting Field and had originally planned the project using land north of Whiting for the RIBS. But the price of the pipes to carry the treated effluent 8.5 miles away has quadrupled and Whiting has also been dealing with water contamination issues that caused it to withdraw from the agreement.

The city then turned to 100 acres of county land nearly adjacent to the 25 acres already owned by the city planned for the facility. A survey confirmed it is suitable for the basins and the commissioners approved the land transfer earlier this month.

Some citizens have pushed for the facility to be built on the larger parcel, which is farther above sea level and slightly farther from the river.

Navarre Beach has ‘big parking problem’

Events sponsored by nonprofit groups on Navarre Beach, especially during the high season, came under fire at a recent Tourist Development Council meeting. Specifically, concerns were expressed about these events taking up parking spaces, a particularly valuable commodity now that tourism has increased threefold in the last half-dozen years.

“My parking lot is part of my lease,” said Tamara Fountain who, with her husband, Ken, operates the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier and Windjammers through a lease with the county. “I paid for it and I want to use it. That’s not unreasonable.”

She praised the TDC for promoting the area so effectively but said that a perfect storm has been created. There are more visitors than there are available parking spaces. Events held on the beach and subsidized by the TDC are complicating the problem, she said, arguing that such events entertain visitors who are already here, but do not bring in additional bed tax dollars.

“They are no more generating that bed tax than the man on the room,” she said. “These subsidies have to stop.

“We don’t need them,” she added. “We are full.”

After Fountain was done speaking, board member Jeff Snow, who is also on the Milton City Council, said he wasn’t as familiar with the challenges in the south end, but wondered if there were any plans for multi-level parking.

“You can only fit so many people on the same real estate,” he said. “You’ve got to come up … You’ve got to get innovative on dealing with that now.”

Tourist Development Director Julie White said she agreed with Fountain that the beach area has a “big parking issue.”

“We don’t have enough spots,” White added. “The island is only so big.”

The past is a gift you have already opened

Before my oldest two children went to college, I made each of them a book. I filled a three-ring binder with letters from close friends and family members, as well as advice on all of the things that you don’t know you don’t know until you get far from home.

I also slipped in photos from their first 18 years, just enough to make them smile and feel loved and see the faces of the people who loved them first. 

It worked really well for my oldest daughter, who read it cover to cover and, in fact, reread it recently during an unsteady moment in graduate school.

My second daughter treasured it, but it made her too sad to read from cover to cover. She skipped around.

When my son left last year, he didn’t leave with a three-ring binder. Instead, I gave him a hug, promised to support him and texted him when he sent me questions about the kinds of things I’d included in his sisters’ binders. 

Transitions are wicked tough for me and for all of my children. We can be happy in new places but leaping from one to the next is often pretty graceless.

After my oldest revisited her book last week, she sent me a photo of her as a 3- or 4-year-old napping on the living room floor next to an elaborate Thomas the Tank Engine set up.

“I wish I could go back to the simpler days,” she texted.

No, honey. No, you don’t.

It’s easy to look back and romanticize how good things used to be. Most of the bad memories, the struggles, the pain washes away over time. And we rarely photograph tough moments, so all that’s left are sweet pictures of the sweetest moments.

If we could go back, we’d go back to it all. We’d have to revisit the bad moments, along with the good.

Even that one photo has layers that weren’t captured. Although I don’t remember specifics, I do know my daughter pretty well. That long-ago nap must have been hard-fought to achieve. I can’t remember her ever falling asleep on the living room floor. She must have been sick. Or worn out from the battles of a preschooler’s young life. 

Yes, beautiful things happened in her childhood. It was filled with days and weeks and months of playing, creating, running and swimming. But it was not perfect. It was not painless. It wasn’t even always easy.

She will get through this latest transition, a relatively small one compared to all of the hurdles she has already flown over. She will take photos of these graduate school days – the good ones, of course, not the hard ones.

And 20 years from now, she will look at those photos and she will wish she could go back.

No honey, you can’t.

The past is a gift you’ve already opened. The present is waiting for you today. 

Santa Rosa Black History celebration to feature performance by Florida A&M gospel choir

Citizens Moving Forward is organizing this year’s Santa Rosa Black History event Feb. 27 at the Milton High School Auditorium. The celebration will feature the gospel choir at Florida A&M University.

“Normally we plan it the last Saturday of every February,” said Carolyn McCray, who works with Rev. Desa Lee on the event.

They moved it to Sunday this year in order to give the FAMU students a chance to get to campus at a reasonable hour. She’s hoping it won’t be a problem, especially because this is the first time in three years they have been able to hold the event.

“Our young people as well our older adults will really enjoy the concert,” McCray said. “We’ve had a great turnout in the past. We’re hoping we get that this year.”

A donation of $10 for each person will be collected at the door to help defray the costs of the FAMU choir’s transportation, rental of the auditorium and the sound system.

In addition to the featured entertainers, there will be speakers and a performance by the Santa Rosa Black History Choir. The group gets together every year from churches across the county to practice between Martin Luther King Jr. events and the Black History Month event.

“We’re practicing hard right now,” said McCray, who is in the choir.

Members come from a number of different churches, including one in the south end of the county. Their membership has changed some since their last performance in 2019.

“We’re missing some great ones this year,” she said. “Some of them passed away because of the virus and some of them passed away.”

‘Unknown’ infants at Milton cemetery honored with headstones

More than 35 years ago, Cathy Hall was five months pregnant and had already had two miscarriages.

She and her husband, Jeremy, hadn’t even told their family she was pregnant when she went into labor and delivered their stillborn son, Jeremy Wade Hall, on Jan. 19, 1986. 

A family member helped them find a spot in Babyland at the Milton Cemetery, a section set aside for those who can’t afford to bury their infants.

Christie Haarmann spent all of her free time sorting through cemetery records to identify the locations of babies buried at Milton Cemetery through a program for indigent parents. Now, those babies have proper headstones. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

Until early this year, J.W.’s grave was marked by a rippled concrete edgers and a green metal sign with his name on it. But when his parents came to visit his grave in January, they found a small headstone with his name on it.

“It really took us back,” said Jeremy. “We were overwhelmed at the fact that somebody would stop in and do that. We didn’t know who had done it.”

The headstones were provided through the City of Milton, with the help of a large donation from Gulf Coast Wilbert, a Crestview company. Private donations also helped.

Before the headstones were placed on Jan. 5 2022, small green markers identified each grave. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

They were laid at the head of the graves Jan. 5, after the cemetery manager, Christie Haarmaan, spent every free moment she could find researching and studying the 15-acre parcel, searching for babies’ graves.

“Christie worked continually to make sense of it,” said Stephen Prestesater, the public information officer for the city.

Of the more than 70 babies buried there, more than half are only known as “unknown infant,” on cemetery records. Those with recorded birth and death days lived a day, maybe two. An infant buried in 1985 was an abortion victim. His mom was 15 at the time.

One section of 40 graves is called Babyland in the Milton Cemetery. There is a second grouping of infants’ graves a few yards away and that’s where J.W. Hall was buried in 1986. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

Haarmann met that mom at her baby’s grave recently.

Many of the burials date back to the 1960s, with some stretching into later decades. A pair of twins who died in 1966 share one tiny gravesite.

Ask Haarmann, who juggles many duties in the city, why she put so much time and energy into this project, and her eyes fill with tears.

Fifty headstones were donated and delivered quietly by Gulf Coast Wilbert in Crestview, whose owner did not want to be spotlighted for the generous act. They were laid on the baby’s graves Jan. 5. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

“I just have a heart for it,” she said. “I love people. I love to help out. I feel like I make a difference in the cemetery.

“I always get emotional about it,” she added. “I just love being out here and doing what I need to do to help these families take care of their loved ones out here.”

The headstones have helped. While many parents might not be aware that their child’s grave is now marked, the Halls were so touched that they wrote a letter to city hall, thanking everyone for their efforts.

Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

“In all those years, we always wanted to get a headstone,” Jeremy said. “We didn’t have a lot of money.”

Soon after losing their son, the Halls went on to have a daughter, who is now 34. It’s been a long time since that sad day in January 1986. They don’t have any photos of Cathy pregnant with their son – they kept it quiet since she had already lost two other babies. They day after their baby died, Cathy’s sister gave birth.

It was a difficult time, Jeremy recalled. Their 34-year-old daughter now has a child of her own named Jeremy. 

“It’s been a long time,” Jeremy said. “We had always planned (to get a headstone) but life happens.”

Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

Milton man pulls Fort Walton mayor out of burning car

Robert Hammac was about 10 feet away from the accident when it happened, traveling in the opposite direction. He jumped out of his truck, yelled to Janey to get out of the burning car and grabbed the mayor, who was too injured to get out on his own.

By the time he got the jammed door open to reach the mayor, flames had already spread from the trunk to the back seat, he said.

“I didn’t care about my truck. I didn’t care about my life. I was just getting them out of there safely,” said Hammac, who has worked as a tow truck driver for 33 years. “That’s why I do the job that I do because I like to help people.”

Flames had already reached the back seat when Robert Hammac pulled Fort Walton Beach Mayor Dick Rynearson from his burning car after a Jan. 26 accident near Live Oak. Submitted photo

He was recognized at the Feb. 8 Live Oaks Council meeting as a Good Samaritan. Mayor Frank Davis called the Santa Rosa Press Gazette Feb. 9 to make sure locals knew about what he had done. 

That touched Hammac, who found it comforting that they took time out of their day to honor him.

He said he thinks about the accident every day and is looking forward to meeting the mayor when he’s well enough for a visit. The mayor and his wife are recovering at home. Hammac has been in close contact with the mayor’s family, he said.

At the time of the accident, he didn’t realize who he was saving.

“God sent that angel to be there for my parents and help get them to safety,” their daughter, Heather Rynerson, wrote to Davis. “God’s presence has been in this the whole time.” She added that he got them out of the car before the tires started exploding and the entire car was engulfed in flames.  

Live Oak Mayor Frank Davis, right, honors Robert Hammac of Milton Feb. 8 in recognition of his heroism. Submitted photo

He said that they were hit by a truck that didn’t have its lights on and that he didn’t see the other vehicle until the accident.

Although in his profession, Hammac has been called to many tragic scenes, this was the only time he’s been the first person at the scene of a life or death situation.

“The best thing about it was we worked a rescue and not a fatality,” she said. “That’s the thing that makes me feel special in my heart.”

Wise Words: Santa Rosa County Commission could use a few women

For the last year and a half, I’ve been immersed in the worlds of Navarre and Santa Rosa County.

It’s been fascinating and challenging to understand the diversity of the county, from agriculture at the top to high-rise condos at the bottom

I’ve had many observations during these months, but of those, one stands out.

Though the county population is almost certainly an even split between males and females, elected offices are almost exclusively held by men. There are exceptions with a female school superintendent and females leading Gulf Breeze and Milton. In fact, about half of the Milton City Council is female.

But the county commission – from one end of the dais to the other is only men.

This troubles me, not because I think that the men who are running this county are any different from women would be. I don’t believe decisions are made based on gender, so the county is likely advancing in the same direction whether there are men or women leading it.

What bothers me about it is that the makeup of the county commission is not reflective of the population. And that sends a message to the future generations of would-be leaders, particularly young girls and women.

I grew up in the ’60s, when moms stayed home and raised children, and dads went to the office every day. The professional women I knew were teachers, librarians and nurses. Every other important job fell to a man. Our doctor, dentist, pharmacist, mayor and every police officer I met were all men.

That was reflective of the world as it was a half a century ago.

And although I can’t sort out its impact on me, I’m sure it has colored my choices and my perception of my options.

But everything has changed since then. Little girls aren’t raised to be stay-at-home moms. Many moms don’t stay at home. Dads stay at home sometimes.

Math and science awards are earned equally by both genders. Business owners are as likely to be woman as men. And there are increasing numbers of powerful women in positions of national power.

I am not pointing any fingers or even assuming that the current male-dominated commission reflects anything other than who ran for office and put up the best fight.

But I’ll be watching and hoping to see it change in the future.

Since coming to Santa Rosa County, I’ve met a number of strong, successful women – including my boss, Sandi Kemp – who don’t let male-dominated blueprints guide their future plans.

Many of the “shoulds” of my childhood have been washed away and that is for the better. Women can and need to earn as much as men. Men can and need to be as involved in their children’s lives as women. Leaders of our schools, communities and nation can and need to be people of all genders, nationalities and religions.

As much as I like to put people in boxes to better understand the world, those boxes limit how we see people and perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes.

My children, who are younger than me by more than three decades, don’t need to put people in boxes to make sense of the world. I am still learning. Join me.

Three key county employees resign

Board Chairman Bob Cole said he was concerned about the resignations, which come at a time that the county is moving forward.

“I’ll miss them and wish them well in their future endeavors,” he said. “I think we’ve overcome worse.”

He mentioned losing the county administrator and assistant county administrator last summer as an example of past challenges.

“We’ve got a good cohesive board that can work things out and an administrative staff that can start lining up other folks,” he said. “I think we’ll be all right.”

The resignations came in the same week that commissioners confirmed hiring DeVann Cook as the county administrator and Brad Baker as the assistant county administrator. Both men had been in those positions on an interim basis since late last summer.

County spokesperson Sarah Whitfield confirmed the resignations but said a public records request would need to be filed for additional information.

Someone who represented himself as “Mark Felt” sent a letter to the media last week, claiming to be a county employee – one of many, he said — who was angered by Cook’s and Baker’s promotions. There is no county employee named Mark Felt.

Cole said that he’d received a copy of the letter but hadn’t opened it.

“If people aren’t willing to put their name on something, I throw it in the trash,” he said. “If they feel that way, step up and say it. We’re all big boys and big girls.”

District 5 Commissioner Colten Wright said that he had read the letter but didn’t believe it was connected in any way with the recent resignations.

“It’s disappointing to have talented people leave the organization,” Wright said. “Given the climate that we have dealt with for the last year I’m not surprised that they have left.”

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