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Gull Point, The Pensacola Tar & Turpentine Company, and the Wernicke Family – Part 2

This Oral History was presented January 30, 2012 at the Tryon Library on Langley Ave. by Michael Wernicke.
[Read Part 1]

Early history

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Marianna Bonifay’s home

The Gull Point area I have been describing was part of one of the great Spanish land grants, the Marianna Bonifay grant.   I’m sure many of you know more than I do about Marianna Bonifay and the land grant, so please forgive me if I leave out something important or get something wrong!  I am taking this part mostly from an article by Alice Crann some years ago in the Pensacola News.  Ms. Crann said that Marianna Bonifay and her son Manuel planted orange groves around the Gull Point area.  The original trees are all long gone, as far as I know, but I might point out that my mother Gilda Wernicke, recently planted a single orange tree which is doing very well, So I guess the soil and climate are good for oranges at the point.

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Constitutional Oak

After Marianna Bonifay’s death in 1829, the land was sold to Juan de la Rua and Moses Yniestra.  Juan de la Rua was the mayor in 1822 and already living at Gull Point when Pensacola was chosen as the location for the first session of the Florida Territorial legislature.  Legend has it that because of a yellow-fever epidemic in Pensacola that year, the first session of the legislature was held in the yard of the de la Rua home under a large oak tree.  Legend further states that Andrew Jackson may have participated in one or two of these meetings.  The oak tree in question is still standing at Gull Point today in the yard of Tom and Lynn Hayes.

When Juan de la Rua died, His wife Margaretta sold his Gull Point land to Judge John Cameron in 1833.  Cameron, together with Walter Anderson and Benjamin Overman, built a steam sawmill on Gull Point.  But the business failed, and somehow the property passed into the hands of Moses Yniestra who already owned much of the Bonifay land grant.

In 1875 Dr. John A. Brosnaham purchased the 251-acre land grant from Yniestra.  After he bought the property, Brosnaham took advantage of the orange groves planted by the Bonifays 50 years before.  He shipped the oranges in his own boats to Pensacola, where he sold them in the market at Palafox and Main Streets.  But in 1902 Brosnaham and his wife sold Gull Point to the Pensacola Tar and Turpentine Company.

Pensacola Tar & Turpentine

The Pensacola Tar & Turpentine Company had been incorporated in 1901.  The founders were D.Y.  McMillan, H.H. Boyer, B. Forbes, H.N. Roberts, J.M. Muldon, L.M. Levy, and F.E. Mariner.  They put up a total of $24,000, divided into 240 shares at $100 a share.

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Railroad crossing on the road into Gull Point

After buying the land at Gull Point, they built the plant.  It was a great location, with railroad service and water access.  The company built a complete community for their workers, which was necessary because in those days Gull Point was pretty isolated.  There was no easy road into Pensacola, and in particular there was no bridge across Bayou Texar.  The little community of Gull Point even had their own post office, with mail delivered by the L&N railroad.  They had a company store, where employees could buy provisions using the coupons with which they were paid.  [Editor’s note: after the talk, a member of the audience informed me that the Pensacola Tar & Turpentine Company paid its workers with metal tokens, no coupons.]  They built a row of houses along the bay shore for the managers of the plant.  They built apartment houses for the workers on the other side of the railroad tracks.

The community had its own utilities, too.  There was an electric generator to provide power for the plant and the houses.  At that time Gull Point was one of the few electrified areas in Escambia County. Interestingly, the electric system was based on direct current, rather than the alternating current system that we use today.  When Gulf Power took over electricity distribution to Gull Point, all the appliances in the houses had to be modified or replaced to accept AC power.  I’m told that in my grandparents house, they kept the old refrigerator, and just replaced the DC refrigerating unit on top with an AC unit.  There was a central water well and water system for the point.  They even had a large in-ground reservoir near Scenic Highway for fire protection water.  There is still a large pipe and valve sticking out of the ground my mother’s house that was intended for use with a fire hose.

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Pensacola Tar & Turpentine report cover

The business of the Pensacola Tar & Turpentine Company was processing old pine stumps to recover the pine chemicals from them.  The basic process was called “destructive distillation”, and it consisted of heating the stumps in an air-tight retort to extract useful products from the wood.  This had the added benefit of retrieving economically valuable products from what was basically a waste product of the southern timber industry, the stumps left behind after the trees were cut.  The company paid people to go out into the logged-over forests and dig up or blast out the stumps, and bring them to Gull Point.  The stumps were then loaded into the retorts, where the wood was heated to drive off all the volatile chemicals in a gaseous form.  The gases were condensed into liquids such as turpentine, pine oils, pine tar and so on.  What remained of the pine stumps after processing was basically charcoal, which was ground into carbon powder and sold for the manufacture of gunpowder.

In 1916, my great-grandfather, Otto Heinrich Louis Wernicke (O.H.L. for short), bought a controlling interest in the plant and moved to Pensacola.  Before I get into O.H.L’s work here in Pensacola, let me mention that your vice-president, Jean Wallace, tells me her father-in-law first came to Pensacola to work as a chemist at Pensacola Tar & Turpentine.  So more than one of us owe our presence here to that old company.

Read part 3 of this 4 part series.