Salvaging Beach Lumber

BlueTube is about picking up at the beach to remove plastics that are a hazard to ocean life, resistant to environmental degradation, and just plain unsightly. Until the 20th century, there was little human-created trash floating in the sea, and it was not persistent. People avidly gleaned useful materials from beaches, and almost everything that floated up had utility.

Along the Treasure Coast and Space Coast, treasure from Spanish ship wrecks were among the earliest salvaged cargo. It was extremely valuable, and Spanish golden archaeological artifacts are still salvaged today, 250 years after the wrecks.

The permanent human population settled along the Indian River after the Civil War. Those pioneers came to an area with plenty of trees, but no sawmills. Salvaging lumber, whether it was as boards, cargo on ships, or as parts of ships, allowed many of the earliest settlers to move from palm log cabins to frame houses more typical of the ones they had lived in further north. Lumber and the wood in the ships was more valuable than money.

The best known lumber ships that foundered off central Florida came from Georgia mills. Savanna had several and actively exported finished lumber to the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands. In the 1870s, at least one sailing boat whose cargo was primarily lumber, foundered in a storm off Cocoa Beach.

Two children of the pioneers, Cornelia Magruder and Emma Hardee Skelly, in their separate memoirs, commented on how fortunate and useful the salvaged lumber from those shipwrecks were in pioneer homes, including those their fathers built.

Part of the Magruder house, 1609 Rockledge Dr. still stands.  The east two story wing facing the road includes portions made of salvaged wood. The Hardee house, another one partially built of salvaged lumber and mentioned in Emma Hardee’s memoirs, burned down in the 1930s. It was located on the north side of Hardee Lane, on Rockledge Drive. The house built by Lafayette Wooten, on the south corner of Rockledge Avenue and Rockledge Drive, has some individual boards in its roof decking that has the base plate of barnacles still visible. That indicates at least some of the lumber in that house may have been salvaged, perhaps in the late 1870s when the oldest part of it was likely built.

In the mid-1870s, Titusville had a single lumber mill. Local residents cut trees from their land, transported those trunks to Titusville, and split the lumber on a 50-50 basis with the sawmill. The finished lumber was carried by barge back down the river. Cutting trees, taking them to Titusville, and returning with the finished lumber was a chore that could last weeks. In a few days after a storm, scavenging the beach might provide enough lumber to frame house and put siding on it.

Driftwood construction continued well into the 20th century. The Packard’s beach house on Cocoa Beach, Driftwood, is one of the best characterized examples of a home built with driftwood. The Packard’s built their beach house on the crest of the dune overlooking the beach. About 1920 a storm stranded the wooden schooner, Mary Celina, on Cocoa Beach south of Driftwood. The Packard’s salvaged wood from the ship’s hull and expanded their beach house. Driftwood has survived every storm on Cocoa beach for over a century. It survived the hurricanes in 2004, and is still in use today. The Packard family has not owned it for several decades, however.

In Indian River County, Waldo Sexton’s landmark Ocean Grill and Driftwood Beach Resort was partially built of driftwood. The lore is that some of the wood was mahogany, cargo from a ship wreck.

Century old photos of Brevard’s beaches show Sargassum and occasionally tree trunks on the sand, but there was rarely anything of obvious human origin. In the 21st century, synthetics and plastics are commonplace on Florida beaches.  They have little appeal as salvage because the debris is mostly suitable for the landfill.  That’s where BlueTube comes in . . .

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Roy Laughlin has written three books on local history, two of them focusing on Rockledge and Cocoa’s architectural heritage.  He found memoirs describing use of salvaged timber from Cocoa Beach while writing those books.  Photos of the Driftwood and Mary Celina, part of the Packard family collection, are courtesy of Ruth and Frank Aaron.

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Roy Laughlin’s books include At First Glance,  An Artist’s View of Rockledge’s Historic Residential Neighborhoods; Not To Be Missed, Cocoa’s Architectural Heritage and its People, 1880-1950; and Good To Hear From You Again, Historical Memoirs of Cocoa and Surrounding Areas & Biographies of Those Who Have had a Lasting Influence 1868–1950.  They are available from the author (nottobemissed.2011@gmail.com) or from Travis Hardware, or the Florida Historical Society, both in Cocoa Village.