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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.

City making plans for new TDC funds

The Crestview City Council gave the go-ahead last week to submit a proposal for the future use of bed tax funds from the Tourist Development Council. The funds will be new to the north end of the county, which began collecting bed tax money after voters approved the move in the 2021 October election.

At the top of the list are improvements to Brookmeade Park, home to the city’s skate park and radio-controlled car track. A multi-faced sports complex including ballfields, nature trails and other features is also a top priority, the city manager told council members.

The city is receiving $14,000 from 2021 and a planned $359,000 for 2022, following an Oct. 2021 vote to collect bed tax in the north end of the county.

“The way that the TDC funding works is about generating tourism and we believe that improving that park and making (the track) handicap accessible will invite tourists to stay in the area for at least one day,” City Manager Tim Bolduc said.

He said tourists stay in Crestview at one of a number of lodging facilities, which will generate bed tax funds. But they typically head south to the beaches and other entertainment options during the day. The city’s goal is to provide them with recreational opportunities in the north end and keep them “captured” for at least one of their seven-day stay.

The skate park has a handicap-accessible parking space, but the radio-controlled car track does not. Neither has a restroom other than port-a-potties. Bolduc said they also hope to put a pro shop on the site so that visitors can rent or buy equipment to use during their stay.

Kristina Dean was at the park Monday with her three children aged 5 to 11. She was excited to hear more improvements are on the way.

“We’re here about three to four times a week,” she said. “We homeschool them. This is one of our favorite places to stop by. Skateboards and helmets are always in the car.”

The sports complex is central to the city’s 5-year tourism development plan, according to the application for funding.

“The complex will include ball fields and amenities that contribute to and coincide with the needs of our region, as well as highlight our unique environment through ecotourism,” the application reads, in part. “The sports complex will include nature trails that are intertwined with the paths of the complex itself along with the hills and wooded wetlands found in Crestview.”

The first step will be a study to identify the best location for the new facility on 7,000 acres of city property in the southwest portion of Crestview.

Bolduc told council members the city is already “full-speed ahead” on the new facility.

Lindley Road annexation inches closer

At the same meeting, a second reading will be held, and a vote taken on an ordinance adding a new zoning designation for that parcel.

On the Friday before the meeting, City Manager Tim Bolduc and other staff members will meet with residents of the adjacent neighborhood to discuss their concerns and answer questions. That meeting will be at 6 p.m. Friday at city hall.

“It’s not a formal meeting,” Bolduc said. “it’s a place where they can do Q and A. Even when people don’t get the answer they want, they want an answer.”

The homes adjacent to the proposed annexation are larger homes, on lots ranging from 1 to 5 acres. The annexation was originally discussed using the city’s most restrictive residential zoning, which would have allowed four homes per acre. 

Under the new estate zoning designation, the minimum lot size is one-third of an acre and there can be a maximum of two homes per acre.

Staff developed the new designation after the neighbors expressed concern about the incompatibility of having the potential for four homes per acre next to their neighborhood. The developer supported those concerns and agreed to a more restrictive zoning designation if one was created.

The ordinance creating the new zoning had a first reading at the Feb. 14 meeting. After the reading, several council members spoke up in appreciation of the city’s efforts to find a solution.

“I’m really proud of our city for working this out and going in the right direction for citizens in the area,” said Councilwoman Cynthia Brown. “I think it’s a good compromise.” The ordinance is scheduled for a second and final reading Feb. 28.

Crestview band drops four new singles

A local band out of Crestview is releasing four new singles in the next month, including one called “Real Country,” about some of the original country artists like Johnny Cash.

Below Alabama was formed by four local men just over a year ago and had gigs for all but a few weekends in 2021. One place they don’t get to play very often? Crestview, where Leonard “Bubba” Ellis, who does vocals and guitar, said there are almost no live music opportunities.

Because of that, the “hometown” for the band is Florala, where they play at The Depot several times a year, drawing about 300 fans, many of whom follow them there from the Panhandle.

Leonard “Bubba” Ellis, who once played football at Baker School, sings vocals in “Below Alabama,” a band that plays gigs from southern Alabama down to the water’s edge in south Okaloosa County. Contributed photo

Earlier this month, they played at the Cancer Freeze – an annual fundraiser in Florala – and donated their take from the door, which totaled nearly $1,500, back to the fundraiser.

Band members include Ellis, who once played football at Baker School, Gabe Cassidy, who plays lead guitar, Zach McCarver, who plays bass guitar, and TJ White who plays drums. All the men have full-time jobs during the day. 

In fact, the band has its roots in their full-time jobs, since Ellis and McCarver worked at the same company in different departments. After learning they both played music, they got together to play guitar one night and decided to form a band. They added White as the drummer and, a little later, Cassidy. The other band members say he fit right in and has also played a key role in their sound, business and marketing.

Contributed photo

The band’s name is based on McCarver’s experience after he moved here from Tennessee and needed to ask people for directions. They always referenced being “above” one town or “below” another. Since they were looking for a name that told people where they were from, Below Alabama clicked with them instantly.

“That was pretty much it,” McCarver said. “It’s pretty simple. The band is ‘below’ Alabama.

All of the members have played music for most of their lives, some with bands, some at church and others in school bands.

“We all play multiple instruments and love a wide range of music,” McCarver said. “Between the four of us we run the gambit of music we enjoy, music we have played and what we consider influences. 

“We call ourselves a country band but listening to our music you will hear elements of everything from blues and rock to punk and hip hop,” he added.

Contributed photo

One of Laurel Hill’s ‘worst roads’ finally getting facelift

Bids went out earlier this month for the resurfacing of Steel Mill Creek Road, labeled by many residents as one of the worst roads in Laurel Hill.

The small city will fund the repairs with $300,000 in legislative appropriations and $100,000 in surtax funds. Okaloosa County will lay the asphalt, with Laurel Hill paying for materials.

“We’ll be saving money on Steel Mill by letting the county do the asphalt portion of it,” said Nita Miller, the city clerk.

She said it was her understanding that the work would be done this spring.

Change comes when it’s ready

I hope to be much older still before I’m done, but I have already lived long enough to hold several worlds in my hands.

First, there was my childhood, where we played outside, slapped at mosquitoes and ran freely back and forth to neighbors’ houses without our parents worrying if we would make it there safely. The only “hand-held devices” we had were books or toys, only a few of which had batteries. I was 5 or 6 the year Santa brought me Baby First Step, with her hard plastic hinged battery compartment and her lurching, straight-legged steps.

We took two-week vacations every year, through which my parents occasionally fought. Marriage is challenging, starting out like shiny high heels and ending up like galoshes sloshing through life’s puddles.

Everything was smaller somehow, but we also had more space. COVID-19 would not have posed as many challenges back then because we weren’t as crammed together, in classrooms, stores, life.

My childhood wasn’t perfect and, as I later learned, no one’s really is.

Then, there were my 20s, when I got my first car phone, which came in a shoebox-sized padded pouch and had to be plugged into the car charger to work. It was more reminiscent of a field phone during World War II than today’s pocket-sized cellular devices.

We still exercised outside, running down the street instead of squaring up to a treadmill. And we did our shopping at the mall, where we had a buffet of retail options. Weather forecasts came from the evening news, and we just muddled along in between, looking out the window or stepping outside to guess what might be coming next.

And then I had children of my own. They started out in a world without electronics. We didn’t even have cable television, which meant there was nothing to see – literally – on our TV. They played in the mud, built things out of large cardboard blocks and went to parks.

The toys became increasingly sophisticated. My younger daughter had a robotic cat, while my son had a radio-controlled dinosaur.

But as they reached their early teens that all changed when they got cell phones.

Now, their favorite shows are livestreamed, their friends are a touchscreen away, the outside is where children go to practice sports with dreams of competing professionally dancing in their heads.

No one knows what will happen next, what their children will grow up to do, what options they will have, what toys they will put on their Christmas lists.

I know there are some experiences they are unlikely to have. Gone are the downtown department stores we visited regularly to buy everything from Girl Scout uniforms to toys. The freedom I once had as a child has already been replaced by the tracking devices of our phones.

I liked my childhood, loved my early adulthood and I think my children liked theirs, as well.

But change is constant, even sneaky, and often surprises us. Peering around corners doesn’t protect us from the future; it only steals the present.

Change comes when it’s ready and we always adapt.

Crestview firm helps Good Samaritan honor ‘unknown infants’ 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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.”

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

Photos: Dollar stores doubling in Laurel Hill

Construction is underway on a new dollar store along State Road 85 in Laurel Hill. The new store is just down the road from a Dollar General store. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman
City officials say this is the concept for the new store being built in Laurel Hill, just down the road from a Dollar General. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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.”

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.

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

“God sent that angel to be there for my parents and help get them to safety,” their daughter, Heather Rynearson, 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.  

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.”

Homeless man with ‘senior issues’ refuses to leave Crestview shelter

At 73, John Porter has been everywhere he ever wanted to be, from flying former President Gerald Ford in Air Force 1 to spending 46 years at the side of a woman he describes as magical.

“Look at her eyes,” he says, showing off the tiny picture on Ann Porter’s driver’s license.

They had money, homes and credit card debt. He had adventures. He met important people, like the King of Saudi Arabia, and taught them to fly. The couple lived “high on the hog,” he said.

They had it all and he has lost it all.

Now, he’s living in a homeless shelter in Crestview and appears to be staying, despite staff finding him apartments several times and offering to provide support while he gets on his feet. He told the media last week that he’d been kicked out, but he’s still there, according to Ann Sprague, president of the Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless.

John Porter had a big life before losing his wife, his house and his life savings. Now, this new car, cosigned by a friend, is all that connects him to that former success. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

“He has never been kicked out and where did he sleep last night? In the shelter,” Sprague said.

Porter gets $2,300 a month in Social Security and Veterans Administration disability. A friend helped cosign on his new Nissan Altima, which gleams in the handicap spot at the shelter on Duggan Avenue.

Sprague said that because of Porter’s income, she’d been able to find him apartments that he could afford and that they would continue to subsidize him in an apartment while he got himself sorted out.

He refuses, turning down three so far. She said she has never had anyone turn down an apartment before. 

“Usually when I find someone an apartment to rent, they either cry or jump up and down,” Sprague said.

Porter isn’t easy to decipher. He was in the Marines for 10 years, has a VA disability and a bad leg, had a successful career as a pilot and flight instructor, and a good marriage, he said. He and his wife were “inseparable,” except his job kept him away from home 300 days a year.

Ann died in April 2016 while they were sitting in the living room watching television. She was still working at the time, leaving him with credit card debt that now totals $30,000.

She wanted to live an afterlife, if there is such a thing. So, he spent money to have her cremated and fly her over several states, disposing of a little bit of her over each one. He then used his former connections in the aerospace industry to get a small amount of ashes taken up in a space shuttle, he said.

“Part of her is in orbit,” he said.

Within three years of Ann’s death, their house was gone and so was their life savings. He stayed with a friend for several years, and tried staying with his adult son, from whom he is now estranged.

He has also lived in his car, staying at the rest area at mile marker 59 on Interstate 10 until officials told him he was limited to eight hours a day and 24 hours for a week. 

Around Halloween, he moved into the shelter and is in no hurry to leave. His car makes him a target of envy, he said. It’s a source of pride.

John Porter spent 10 years in the Marines, which included stints in Vietnam. Now he lives at a homeless shelter. Photo by Wendy Victora Rudman

“Everybody else in here has nothing,” he said. “They’re tapped out. I, on the other hand, have a new car.”

The car is what connects him from his former life to this one. What he used to be, instead of what he has become.

The items inside, while a seeming jumble even to him, mean something. There’s the painting of him and Ann on their wedding day, painted from that moment captured on Polaroid. He finds it in the back seat and gasps sharply, turning his head away to hide the pain of recognition.

In the trunk, amidst a laundry basket and garbage bags filled with possessions, he finds a broken table leg. His wife made him buy that table, he said. This stick of wood, ending in a jagged separation, is a treasure to him.

There’s also a random can of tuna fish, which he tosses back in, calling it and the other objects the debris of life.

He’s had a series of strokes and admits to some “senior issues,” saying his memory isn’t as sharp as it once was.

It’s clear he views the offers of an apartment as an attempt to get him to leave. His response is that he needs more time to save money. If is forced to leave before he’s ready, he won’t be able to pay for the car.

It’s ego, he admits. But it’s important for him to die someday with some semblance of prosperity. It’s where he draws the line.

“I will not allow that to be the postscript on my life,” he said.