New Bern and the Longleaf Pine
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
You know, of course, that North Carolinians are called tarheels. But you may not know that the nickname comes largely from New Bernian activities.
Vast forests of Longleaf Pine flourished in this part of Eastern North Carolina in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Wound faces were cut in the bark, allowing early settlers to collect pine pitch and sap to make pine tar. Pine tar made wooden ships watertight, and was essential to the British Navy. By the late eighteenth century, New Bern had become the largest source of pine tar for England.
In the mid-1880s four brothers from Maryland purchased many of the smaller outfits and formed the Blades Lumber Company. Within twenty years William, James, Lemuel, and Charles Blades had amassed fortunes. At its height, the Blades Mill produced 50 million feet of lumber annually.
To their credit and North Carolina’s benefit, the Blades brothers only sold within North Carolina, stimulating our economy. Tar, pitch, turpentine, and lumber were essential to nineteenth century industry. Readily-available lumber fueled home and ship construction and allowed a furniture industry to grow in North Carolina.
The Blades legacy remains in our architecture here in New Bern. The first Blades House is on East Front Street, an Italianate Victorian built in 1891.
Then, in 1906, William Blades commissioned our local architect, Herbert Woodley Simpson, to blend Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles to create New Bern's finest mansion. Built around the foundation and central staircase of an 18th century great house, the Blades Mansion still stands on Middle Street.
But the Blades Mansion isn’t the largest Blades house ever built. That honor went to William’s younger brother, James, who—not to be outdone—commissioned Woodley to create a larger mansion on Broad Street.
The James Blades house was Colonial Revival in design and had elaborate, carved mahogany interior woodwork. James sold the house in 1939, when it became the Queen Anne Hotel. Sadly, the Queen Anne Hotel was demolished in the late 1960s.
In 1919, the Roper Lumber Company purchased all the Blades mills and several smaller ones as well. They became the largest lumber mill in North Carolina, operating lumber camps south and east through Beaufort County and up through Washington.
Below is a picture from a newspaper article (circa 1945) of the Roper Mill at its height, with a flotilla of logs arriving along the Neuse.
Although there are energetic programs at work now, the Longleaf Pine forests here in Craven County and adjoining counties along the Neuse River were decimated to near extinction by logging activities. But the Longleaf Pine and the men with ingenuity in exploiting it christened us tarheels and provided industry and economic growth here and throughout North Carolina. Long live the Longleaf!