The history of the Pine Tree Festival & Southeast Timber Expo, as recalled by Mr. Jimmy Morgan:
World War II had ended in the early forties and Emanuel County, like the rest of the nation, was experiencing the painful process of reestablishing a normal lifestyle.
Emanuel’s dominant natural resource was (and is) timber. Dr. Herty in Savannah had developed a revolutionary process for making paper from the southern yellow pine, thus creating a third segment, pulpwood, in the timber industry. Sawmilling and naval stores had long been mighty forces. The country’s largest industry was the Coleman Lumber Company in Swainsboro, with lumber yards as far away as Philadelphia. The annual crop of gum from the slashed “faces” of the trees required a very large force of strenuous laborers.
Devotees of each of the three segments loudly debated the merits of one of the three and the evils of the other two. Sawmillers were convinced that “turpentining” would stunt the growth of the trees, and they hated the nails that held the gum cups. Naval stores people, on the other hand, gloated over the fact that southeast Georgia enjoyed a world monopoly of turpentine and resin products, and argued that it should be exploited. Pulpwooders saw the prospects of dominating the pulp and paper market, so long the domain of Canada and the northwest.
A pioneering movement in neighboring Treutlen County proved the values of planting slash pines in marginal row-crop fields, and the resultant national “soil bank” promoted the practice in surrounding areas. It was soon discovered that the area running roughly from Millen to McRae, some forty miles wide, would grow slash pines faster than any other known area of the world.
Another industry, livestock, complicated the issue. State law allowed free movement of cattle, requiring a landowner to build fences around his land in order to keep roaming cattle off of it. The mistaken belief that wiregrass would provide more nutrients provided cattlemen to ignite the fields in dry seasons, hoping the grass would grow faster when the rains came. Rabbit hunters liked to set fire to the field and waylay the rabbits running out of the downwind side. And some people would set fired just to watch the excitement.
So Emanuel County had yet another claim to fame. It stood near the top in the number of forest fires per acre. Its scorched-earth policy was not the result of some enemy somewhere, but of its own citizens, who watched thousands of acres of valuable timber go up in smoke.
The first Pine Tree Festival, held in Swainsboro early May of 1946, was an effort to call attention to the problem. Many people were involved, but two names stand out. One was a Swainsboro attorney name I. L. Price, who felt deeply the need for civic improvement. The other was W. Kirk Sutlive of Savannah, who used his position as public-relations manager for Union Bag and Paper Company to do all he could to diminish forest fires.
Price was chairman of the first festival. Other civic leaders too numerous to mention joined in the effort, sponsored from the outset by the Swainsboro Kiwanis Club. The early parades drew huge crowds. There was little competition; television was in its infancy.
The slogan for the second festival, held early in May, as all the rest have been, was “Stop Forest Fires.” The next year it was “Keep Georgia Green”, and then “Dollars Grow on Pine Trees”, then in 1950 it was “Protected Forests Provide.”
The State of Georgia got the message, and changed its laws to require that livestock be fenced in, not out. Forest fired decreased dramatically, and the mission that had found expression in the first Pine Tree Festival had accomplished its purpose. But the festivals had also taught Emanuel Countians much about the value of the pine tree, and that there was much more to be learned.
Over the half-century the festivals have attracted many dignitaries, and provided much useful knowledge and entertainment for its visitors. Before the third one, Georgia found itself with two politicians, each of whom had a reasonable claim to the Governor’s office. After many months of feuding and avoidance of each other, Melvin E. Thompson and Herman E. Talmadge met and shook hands at the 1948 Pine Tree Festival.
The forty-nine festivals have attracted a wide variety of activities. Besides the parades and the speeches, there have been continuing golf tournaments and flower shows. Once there was a water ski event, and there have been arts and crafts shows and automobile races and pageants and rodeos and world-class boomerang contests and record-breaking spells in pine trees- 33 days aloft established a new world’s record. For every festival there has been, of course, a queen. Jimmy Carter dropped by when he was running for Governor, as various other candidates have. Lately the Forestry Commission has produced, in conjunction with the festivals, “forestry field days” with live ongoing exhibits of various forestry practices.
Since 1946, there was only one time, in 1949, that it rained hard enough to stop the parade. Even then it managed to march for three blocks before the downpour.
In 2008, the Swainsboro Kiwanis allowed the Swainsboro-Emanuel County Festival Foundation to expand the Pine Tree Festival into the “Pine Tree Festival and Southeast Timber Exposition.” The event includes all the traditional elements of the Pine Tree Festival but it has been expanded to include events such as lumberjack shows, arts and crafts, Civil War reenactments, and live concerts.
In 2012, the festival returned to its original home, downtown Swainsboro, after four years of being held at the Swainsboro-Emanuel County Recreation Department. The change was met with great response, as downtown Swainsboro filled with thousands of visitors who enjoyed the old-fashioned community festival and its family-friendly activities. Downtown Swainsboro remains the site of the majority of festival and expo activities.