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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, November 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Getting into the timber industry

Snipes describes his decision to enter the timber industry. While still working in the cotton mill at Bynum, North Carolina, Snipes had started to buy and sell timber. In 1946, he endeavored to do so full time, starting up a saw-milling business with a friend, and buying up huge tracts of land throughout central North Carolina. Throughout, he focuses specifically on the finances involved in the buying and selling of land and timber during the late 1940s through the 1950s.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, November 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BRENT GLASS:
How did you feel about working down there at the cotton mill?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
I didn't like ne'er a day of it. I had too much ambition; I had too much ambition to work for somebody else. But the N.R.A., that's when we went on the forty cents an hour, or thirty cents an hour.
BRENT GLASS:
Did the mill stay open during the whole Depression?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes sir. Well, it got down into… Me and a Mr. Suet had to split five days. He'd work three days one week and I'd work two, and then the next week I'd work three and he'd work two. And he finally got mad about something; he quit and I got the whole five days. Then when it went on that there getting off at three o'clock I went to buying cedar. I'd sharpen my axe at night, and when the lights blinked for three o'clock I'd light out down here. There was a fellow that had about a hundred and fifty acres of cedar down here. And I bought the cedar. And I cut cedar posts and towed them out there. I could go down there and cut maybe forty or fifty, and I got eight cents apiece for them. And I'd pile them out here, and a truck'd come by and buy them off me. I'd pile up two or three hundred; then I'd sell them to him. And I paid the man that I got the cedar posts from two cents, and I sold them for eight. I could cut a gang of them from then 'till dark, and then walk about a mile. I'd come on in about dark and bring back some with me. Then I got to messing with timber, and I got pretty good on estimating timber. I got to buying timber. I bought some of the biggest tracts all over North Carolina that anybody's…. I'm the oldest old timber buyer. I've bought from Murphy to Manteo: two or three thousand acres down yonder in Carley Swamp, and I bought eighteen hundred acres ajoining Polk Air Base on Little River at Fayetteville. And I bought a 32,000,000 feet tract over yonder in Halifax County.
BRENT GLASS:
Thirty-two… ?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Million: the biggest tract that's ever been sold. I helped Mr. Hancock. I was working with Hancock Lumber Company estimating timber then.
BRENT GLASS:
Well thirty-two million what?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Feet. And Mr. Hancock went there, and that was in World War Number Two. He went there and run a plane mill day and night, and when he left there they pulled him for between $500,000 and $600,000 of income tax. That's been a long time ago; it was in the forties. But anyhow, then I started buying timber. I bought some of the biggest tracts that's ever been sold in North Carolina, I reckon. Then in 1946 I told my wife (living right there in that company house), I said, "This is my last day at that mill. I ain't going to get nowhere."
BRENT GLASS:
Now all this time you were doing this in your spare time?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes.
BRENT GLASS:
You were still working at the mill?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Saturdays and after three o'clock. Me and Mr. Bryant, he lived right there. That extra outside work, I picked up four or five hundred dollars. And I told Bill one day, I said, "Let's go into saw-milling." I said, "The Moore boys up here have got some mills, two or three sawmills. So let's rent one of them, and me and you take that mill." And we'd buy the horses. We bought a pair of mules, a black mule and we bought a snaking horse.
BRENT GLASS:
Was he a cotton mill worker also?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
No sir, he was a carpenter. But carpentry, it got dull. So we started in 1946. Mr. Moore bought an $800. International motor unit for power for the sawmill. No, he bought an $800. Moffit mill and about a $1,000. International engine to pull it with. And we started to buying our timber, and sawing it and hauling it to Pittsboro and giving him half of what we made just for the use. We paid him for four years. I reckon on this $800. Moffit mill and $1,100. International motor (approximately $2,000) we paid him back $30,000. interest on it. We'd give him half of what we made for four years. And we got up there to where maybe we'd have $700 or $800. profit on Friday. If we had $800. me and Bill'd take $400. and give Bland $400. Me and Bill had to split ours. Then the Moore boys put in a planing mill up there, and they had eight mills. And they put me to buying for all the mills. I bought timber for every one of them. I got started at that. And then I started long about 1955 buying for an old millionaire in New Canaan, Connecticut. He furnished the money. He'd send me the money: a fellow Northrup Dawson. He lived in New Canaan, Connecticut in the summertime, and he had a big Del Ray beach, Florida home. And he had had a seat on the Stock Exchange, and he sold that, Mr. Northrup Dawson, for I forgot how many million. Well, I called him and I told him that J. B. Jolston Lumber Company'd gone into the hands of receivers. And they had about fifteen or twenty tracts of land.
BRENT GLASS:
J. B. who was this?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
J. B. Jolston Lumber Company at Carrboro.
BRENT GLASS:
How do you spell that?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
J-o-l-s-t-o-n. They had about eighteen or twenty tracts of land where Mr. Jolston had bought land, timber and all. He had some mighty poor sawmill men. They'd cut it and mess it up, cut half of it and it'd get wet in there and they'd move out, and they'd tell him all of it was cut. Well, the Sanford Bank was going to close out on J. B. Jolston for $29,000, I believe it was. I called Mr. Dawson in Connecticut and told him that I wanted it. I said, "I'll handle it for you." He said, "What do you want me to do?" I said, "Wire lawyer Jim Phipps at Chapel Hill a $5,000. binder." And he said it'd be on its way in an hour's time. Well, I took all that land then. Right out there where Bill Dixon is at Chapel Hill, ajoining the University, there was 218 acres. Well, the bank had all these eighteen or twenty acres, about twenty tracts of land appraised and itemized. Well, I looked at the itemized sheet and I saw that two hundred and something acres ajoining (250 acres, I believe it was) the University, they had it appraised at $18,000. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
BRENT GLASS:
You were saying about Cary Lumber Company?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Over yonder on the Durham-Raleigh highway I got land every-where: all over Durham County, Lee County, Chatham County and all up in yonder around where Chestnut Ridge Church is. There's five or six big tracts in there. I told Mr. Dawson, I said, "I'm going to start selling them off." We didn't take no capital gain on them. Well, I sold them off there, I sold off enough that he had his principal back and had $60,000 profit. Well, he was paying me this chicken feed all along out of what I'd sell. And he called me one night and he said, "John!" He said, "How much more land have we got?" I said, "You've got four more tracts." He said, "Well, if you'll sell them three tracts for $30,000 (that was the principal to start with) I'll set you up." No. "If you'll sell them four tracts for $30,000 I'll be all right." I said, "I'll do you right." I went and sold three of them for $30,000, and I had a hundred acres left up yonder where New Hope Camp is and Chestnut Ridge Church, way up yonder between here and Efland. And he deeded me that 96 acres as a commission. That 250 acre tract right here where Bill Dixon got a riding thing here in Chapel Hill….
BRENT GLASS:
Where is this now? What does he have out there?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
You go down there and turn down by…. Go right opposite the DuBow's and turn this a'way.
BRENT GLASS:
Turn right?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
That's right. Out there I think they have a riding ring out there. Well, I believe that 250 acres of land five years ago was selling for about five or six thousand dollars an acre. [Laughter] It'd have brought a million dollars if he had kept it.
BRENT GLASS:
But you sold it?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
I sold it. I sold that 250 acres for $18,000.