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Baron of the Piney Woods a facinating Camden native
Inman F. Eldredge - photo by Courtesy Camden Archives and Museum

It all began with a letter penned in 1953. By then the writer was 70 years old and he was answering an inquiry from Judge Allison P. DuBose of Camden. The letter from Inman F. Eldredge (1883-1963) was in the Camden Archives and Museum’s vertical file on the Hobkirk Inn. I was working on the Camden Gardens exhibit and the Hobkirk Inn was one of the gardens in the exhibit -- so I “found” Inman on the way to looking for other things. His father and mother owned and operated the Hobkirk Inn during the heyday of the “Winter Colony” era in Camden. He told such a compelling story to Judge DuBose in this letter that I had to find out more about this man, a son of Camden.

Apparently, Judge Shannon wrote to ask Inman about his family and their involvement with the Haile gold mine and the Hobirk Inn. Inman related that his grandfather and uncle bought the Haile gold mine about 1880. They owned mines in California, Mexico and Virginia and put Inman’s father in charge of the Haile mine. A German engineer helped him devise the processing method and the mine netted around $12,000 per year ($259,200 in today’s currency using the consumer price index as a guide). When Inman’s mother, nicknamed “Goodie,” became pregnant with him, his father bought the Hobkirk and “installed” her there. The Hobkirk Inn began as a boarding operation for visiting engineers and capitalists involved with the mine operation, and eventually became the Eldredge’s sole business when they sold the mine.

He wrote that family tradition said the garden at the Hobkirk was planted while Fort Sumter was being bombarded in 1861, a tradition upheld when the garden’s California Red Cedar was removed after lightning struck it in 1905. Inman, then a newly trained forester, counted the rings in the trunk and verified the garden and the tree’s age. They sawed the cedar tree into boards and used them to panel a dining room at the Hobkirk Inn. But the Hobkirk Inn is another story.

Inman Eldredge wrote in his 1905 biography, “I went to the public schools of Camden and as I grew up enjoyed all the pleasures that a small town has to offer -- hunting, fishing, camping, dancing, horseback riding, and cock fighting.” He began studies at Clemson College in 1901 and majored in Civil Engineering for three years before admitting that the math requirements defeated him. He wrote, “Following a year at home I looked about for a new line to take. Forestry was being mentioned now and then in magazines and I ran across an article that told of the life of a forest ranger … illustrated with a picture of a big-hatted, big-spurred young man on a fine white stallion jumping a great log. That sold me! Here was what I wanted, and, I thought, no mathematics beyond simple arithmetic to confound me.” That picture became a defining image in his life; Inman’s career would be summed up at the end of his life as a quest to “ride the white horse.”

Inman entered the first forestry school in the United States, Biltmore Forest School, in 1904. There, on Vanderbilt property in what would become Pisgah National Forest, he experienced the instruction of Dr. C.A. Schenck. Schenck, a German forester of renown was the first scientifically trained forester ever employed in the United States. He opened the school in 1898 and used Biltmore’s vast acreage at Pisgah Forest as an outdoor classroom. Six days per week were spent in traditional classroom study and on horseback and foot keeping up with Dr. Schenck as he barreled through the woods. It is remembered among his students that he always rode at full gallop! He worked the students hard, but played just as hard with them. One journalist wrote, “The students were considered a lusty group, and their exploits in the local bars were loud and long. After repeatedly bailing out students that were thrown in jail, Schenck started “Sangerfests” -- singing and drinking sessions.” Schenck summed his thoughts thus, “If you’re going to do your drinking, let’s all do it together.” The good Doctor provided two kegs of beer on Saturday nights and they would all drink and sing into the wee hours – safe from arrest! The Biltmore Forest School closed in 1913, after producing 70 percent of all the forestry graduates in the nation. Schenck returned to Germany where he served as an officer in the German army on the Russian front during World War I. His students remained devoted to him throughout their years, having him return to the United States for their periodic Forest School reunions when he could -- and honoring him always whether he was present or not.

Inman graduated from the Biltmore Forest School in 1905 at the age of 22. He secured an appointment as a Forest Student in the United States Forest Service a few months after graduation. The Forest Service was in its infancy when Inman entered its service. It was established by an act of Congress in 1905 during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency. An agency of the Department of Agriculture, its charge was to “sustain healthy, diverse, and productive forests and grasslands for present and future generations.” From its inception, forest management was its primary focus. During its early years, the “forest reserves” became national forests. The Forest Service recognized the need for recreation on national forest land and developed areas where camping and hiking could occur. Wildlife management also became a focus of the agency. In this setting, Inman also learned from another famous forester, Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service. Pinchot is considered the father of the American conservation movement.

In 1906, after working in the Shasta National Forest in northern California and in the Sierra National Forest on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inman was ready to sit for his Forest Assistant exam. On April 18, 1906, he tossed and turned in bed at the Occidental Hotel in downtown San Francisco, awaiting the hour to rise and go take his test. As he lay there, the San Francisco earthquake struck the city. That earthquake and the ensuing fire are the stuff of legends and don’t need elaboration here -- but Inman wryly put it in words when he wrote of it many years later, “Suffice it to say that I was not killed but the exam was -- at least temporarily.”

After the earthquake, he was sent to Sequoia National Forest as a party chief, cruising and mapping timber for future sales. He was given a special exam time due to the unusual circumstances surrounding his first attempt to take it and was the only student sitting for the test. He wrote, “Since I was the only candidate I am able to say that I made the highest mark in the U.S. for that exam.” Inman had a dry sense of humor!

In 1909, Inman was sent to Florida to organize and administer the newly proclaimed Choctawhatchee and Ocala National Forests. He wrote, “ … for the next eight years, 1909 to 1917, I lived the life of Riley, with 2,000 miles of slow travel between me and my district office and with conditions and problems so strange to my superiors that they had perforce to leave me to rule unmolested as the Baron of the Piney Woods.” Truly, the western panhandle of Florida (the Choctawhatchee Forest) and the middle of northern Florida (the Ocala Forest) were like something out of the Wild West in the early 20th century -- and into the 1940s. Inman was on the frontier, literally, developing his career in forestry in uncharted waters. What he encountered on a daily basis was not what the lessons in forestry school prepared him for, in large part.

During his long years in Florida he had the chance “to settle down” and married Callie Landrum in 1913. He remembered his early married days, “… I set up housekeeping in 1913 at which time I owned, in addition to around 600,000 acres in two national forests, two saddle horses and gear, a rifle, a shot gun, one bird dog, and fourteen fox hounds. As time passed and the laws of nature prevailed I gained children but lost dogs rapidly.”

World War I interrupted his years working in Florida. He sat for the exam for a reserve commission with the Engineer Corps and received an appointment as a captain in the 10th Engineers (Forestry) of the United States Army. From this day on his nickname was “Cap.” His unit trained at American University in Washington, D.C., before being sent to southwest France. The Forestry Engineers produced wood for transporting American forces throughout Europe. Their timber was used to build roads, railroads, and barracks; for supporting trenches; and for telephone poles. The Forest Engineers three times surpassed all expectations of their output. Inman remembered, “My battalion was assigned to Southwest France where for the next 18 months we played havoc with the famous forests of Landes. We smelled mighty little gun powder in the war but kept all the freight cars shuttling to the front with our lumber.” The unit came home in 1919 and was dismantled. Inman returned to his Forest Service duties and his family in Florida. In the 1920s, his duties with the Forest Service sent him all over the country to work, necessitating about five months per year away from his family.

The important ground work which Inman laid during his Florida years changed the way the Forestry Service dealt with southern forests. He developed a conservation method of turpentine operation which did not kill the trees. He advocated controlled burns for forests of the South, rather than the then prevailing fire exclusion policy -- this because the piney woods had been cleared of underbrush for centuries using this method, allowing healthier forests to develop and allowing man the uses he desired from the forests -- grazing land, easy hunting grounds, ease of removing cut timber and tending turpentine trees. Reforestation of the devastated pine lands timbered by pulp wood companies became his motto -- and hence he promoted the pulp wood industry in the South because their forests were sustainable resources when taken care of properly. Inman’s innovative approach to forestry was simple and straight forward and does not seem remarkable for us today, but in his time these approaches were unheard of. Vast stretches of south Georgia and Florida were laid to waste by the timber industry and Inman Eldredge developed and pioneered the approach to conservation and sustainability that restored them to productivity and health. These are forestry practices which we take for granted today. Inman “wrote the book.” Literally. In 1947, his slim volume entitled “The Four Forests and the Future of the South” was published and one urban forester that we all know, Liz Gilland, said of the book, “This is what we do today … everything he wrote is still standard practice …”

Gifford Pinchot had trained Inman “to think on his feet.” He needed to! The situations he encountered on a daily basis were extreme. Eldredge himself wrote of those early days in the history of forestry, “… [we were] in a hostile atmosphere where the settlers in the national forests … were against you because the Forest Service hemmed them in. The stock men were against you because you were going to regulate them and make them pay for grazing, count their cattle and limit where they could go … The lumbermen were against you from the lumberjack up. They thought you were a silly ass …because you limited their action with the axe, and the people at the top [of the paper companies] thought you were a misguided zealot with crazy notions. People who work in that atmosphere have to have tough hides -- dedication.”

When Inman left the Forest Service and went into the private business sector of the timber industry in Fargo, Ga. (1926-1932), he was also “the law” in a lawless land. In an oral history interview given in 1959, Inman recalled that “Fargo for years … had become a sump into which all the hard characters of Florida and Georgia retired when pursued by the law, and the place had a very bad reputation and was known as Bad Man’s Fargo … it was the center of perhaps the largest illicit distilling of moonshine anywhere in the state, and probably anywhere in the South.” He reminisced, “These things [people] would kill each other -- they were tough, they were bad -- and no law, no sheriff within twenty-eight miles. We were the law … I was the law … The main thing was that one man would kill another, and then the man that did the killing would have to take to the swamp, to the Okefenokee. He didn’t dare come out or the family and friends of the unfortunate one would kill him, so we got rid of two people every time one was shot … so that helped.”

He recalled that once the bad guys entered the swamp “they never came out unless they were dead” and sometimes they were where the timber operations were underway and Inman and his men would have to deal with them. Inman got the reputation for being tough with the moonshiners and trappers conducting illicit business in his forests. His tough timber man reputation was immortalized in the curiously wonderful book “Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods …” written by William Thomas Cox and illustrated by Coert Du Bois. Inman Eldredge’s name was associated with “The Snoligoster,” a fierce crocodilian monster of the southern cypress swamps. With no legs, the creature had a propeller-like tail that moved it through the water and a spike on its back with which it impaled fugitives trying to escape Inman Eldredge as he tracked them. According to this tall tale, Inman did not shoot the creature out of gratitude -- because it had impaled his fugitive!

Inman returned to the Forest Service in 1932 as regional director of the Forest Survey of the South. Based in New Orleans, he was once again near the region he loved best -- the Gulf shores of western Florida. He retired from the Forest Service to Valpariso, Fla., in 1944 and then served as a forestry consultant for 12 years. At age 75, he retired for good from forestry to concentrate on “cultivating my grandsons and teaching them the noble art of fishing” and to “enjoy complete relaxation and let the younger generation take care of the world.” The ride on the white horse was passed on to others.

Inman F. “Cap” Eldredge lived a lifetime of achievement. In 1911, he was elected as a member of the Society of American Foresters and in 1942 he was made a Fellow of that society. Dr. Schenck wrote of him in 1953, “… you are foremost among the Biltmorians.” In 1956, he received the Gifford Pinchot Medal for outstanding service to Forestry and was described as “the man who knows most about the forests of the South.” It was said of Inman, “Forestry has made Mr. Eldredge both happy and rich -- rich not in material wealth, perhaps, but rich in his thousands of friends, in the respect of his professional colleagues, in service to the nation.”

The little boy who played hide and seek in the garden of the Hobkirk Inn had a full and interesting life -- and a life that left an impression on our economy, our conservation ethic, our forests and the way we protect our land for the future. All because he decided he wanted to ride that fine white horse, wear a big brimmed hat and big spurs -- and become a forester.