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Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold: Phosphate, Fertilizer, and Industrialization in Postbellum South Carolina

Author(s):McKinley, Shepherd W.
Reviewer(s):Irwin, James R.

Published by EH.Net (January 2015)

Shepherd W. McKinley, Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold: Phosphate, Fertilizer, and Industrialization in Postbellum South Carolina.  Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2014.  xii + 230 pp. $70 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8130-4924-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by James R. Irwin, Department of Economics, Central Michigan University.

Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold is a well-written history of “the beginnings of South Carolina’s three phosphate-related industries — land mining, river mining, and fertilizer manufacturing” (p. 3) — which emerged in the lowcountry in the aftermath of the Civil War. Shepherd W. McKinley provides a thorough account of the origins and early development of the industries, from the late 1850s into the mid-1880s.  The book is an interesting blend of business history (focused on companies and their leaders) and southern social history (with attention to ex-slave workers and to the “New South” context).  Some economic historians researching the post-Civil War South will want to draw on Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold, but I suspect the book’s main audience will be a wide range of historians.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of “Antecedents, Precedents, and Continuities, 1800-1865,” years identified as the “gestational period for the three industries” (p. 10). The chapter starts with a brief history of fertilizer in the antebellum U.S., focusing first on the North and drawing on Wines (1985). McKinley sees slavery as an obstacle to fertilizer use in the antebellum South, but that is a minor point in a story of increasing fertilizer supply that came after emancipation. A major contribution of the chapter is a thorough and engaging account of how “gentleman-scientists” (most notably, the planters Francis S. Holmes and St. Julien Ravenal) and professional scientists (such as Charles U. Shepard Sr. and Nathaniel A. Pratt) contributed to the discovery (in the late 1850s) that the lowcountry’s “stinking stones” were a valuable raw material for fertilizer production, and a replacement for increasingly costly guano imports. By 1860, at least two businesses were looking to use lowcountry rock to produce fertilizer, so the phosphate-related industries seemed poised to take off when secession and war intervened. McKinley suggests that “the Civil War was both a catalyst and an obstacle to the development” of the lowcountry’s trio of phosphate-related industries. And he provides examples of how wartime contacts and experiences were advantageous to some of the key players founding the industries in the wake of the Civil War.  But whatever the gains to those individuals, on my reading the war simply delayed the emergence of phosphate mining and fertilizer manufacturing in South Carolina.

Chapter 2 describes the emergence of the lowcountry’s phosphate-related industries in the years 1865 to 1870. It focuses on two firms, the narrowly southern, and small, Wando Fertilizer Company, and the much larger, and northern-financed CMCC (Charleston, SC, Mining and Manufacturing Company).  Starting in November 1866 as a partnership including Ravenal, Wando focused on fertilizer manufacturing and pursued a “cautious” approach to business.  Founded in September 1867, the “northern-dominated CMCC” (p. 56) focused on land-mining, shipping the phosphate rock north to fertilizer manufacturers. Southerners Holmes and Pratt played prominent roles in the early years of CMCC, providing the company a southern face for extensive purchases of phosphate-rich lands in the lowcountry. McKinley notes that “CMCC was active in pioneering public relations through the local press” — a compliant press that distracted attention from the northern financing and control of CMCC (p. 52). After less than two years CMCC had concluded the phase of land acquisition; Holmes and Pratt “dropped out of active participation” (p. 54), and the company headquarters moved to Philadelphia. “By 1870, phosphate land mining was well-established as a substantial industry in the lowcountry” (p. 63), with a wide range of southern and northern companies, even if “Philadelphia-based CMCC was the largest, best-financed, and most productive firm.” McKinley emphasizes the role of “Charleston’s business elites and local planters” (p. 64) in these early years of land-mining and fertilizer-manufacturing in order to challenge views of the New South as a colonial economy of the North.

Chapter 3, “Land Miners and Hand Mining, 1867-1884,” approaches the land-mining industry from the workers’ point of view.  McKinley suggests that ex-slaves built on the lowcountry’s tradition of task-based slavery to create (p. 96) “a relatively autonomous labor system” that featured “good wages” and flexible timing. Of particular interest is McKinley’s suggestion that land-mining was a complement to the “two-day system” (p.77) of part-time sharecropping, which serves to remind that we have much to learn about work arrangements in the postbellum South. The chapter’s section on “Middleton Place” (pp. 85-91) skillfully draws on archival materials to illustrate the challenges a former planter faced in terms of recruiting, retaining, and managing ex-slave workers in the early years of the Ashley Mining and Phosphate Company (the origins of which are covered on pp. 47-48). Moving beyond the immediate postwar years, McKinley highlights limitations of census data for evidence on land miners and land mining, arguing there was a substantial undercount in both 1870 and 1880 (pp. 83, 95-96).

McKinley’s quantitative research on the land-mining labor force could have been more useful to   economic historians researching and teaching about the post-Civil War South; as it is they will find it difficult to build on his work.  McKinley scoured the census manuscripts (1870 and 1880) for evidence on phosphate miners but the book does not give citations to census manuscript pages, so subsequent scholars trying to make sense of the enumerations will probably duplicate McKinley’s efforts, instead of building on them. This is unfortunate because the census manuscripts are now online and easily browsed, creating a range of opportunities for researchers and students. McKinley’s assessment of the size of the land-mining work force also could have been improved, by referring to William Rowland’s “Report on the Manufacture of Chemical Products and Salt,” in the published Manufactures volume of the 1880 census.  Rowland’s “Report” includes sections on “Manufactured Manures” (p. 16-17) and “South Carolina Phosphates” (pp. 17-19). The evidence there would have been a useful starting point for discussing employment and production in South Carolina’s phosphate-related industries. Working from the 1880 manufacturing census manuscripts, McKinley suggests that land-mining employed “at least 1,685 workers,” which is not too far from the published census value of 1,350 hands (Rowland, p. 18).  However, McKinley’s discussion of the sector’s size would be more convincing if it referred to the published census data (which reflect contemporaries’ efforts to make sense of the census manuscripts). Similarly, the discussion might have benefited from attention to Edward Willis’s report titled “Phosphate Rock” in the 1890 census’s Report on Mineral Industries in the United States, which includes data on phosphate mining employment in 1880 (and annual production estimates from 1867 to 1889). McKinley’s primary sources do include two archival items by Willis (an industry insider, see e.g. p. 47), but the published material in 1890 census may provide additional evidence. That said, the quantitative dimensions of the phosphate industries are not central to McKinley’s narrative, so these quibbles of an economic historian are not major criticisms.

Chapter 4 is “River Mining and Reconstruction Politics, 1869-1874.”  Because rivers were public domain, the emergence of river mining raised a number of contentious policy issues that were bound up in “questions of ideology, sectionalism, party politics, race, class, and corruption” (p. 107).  River mining started as “an outgrowth of the land-mining bonanza” (p. 99), an informal industry of individuals gathering phosphate rocks from tidal flats and shallow waters, supplementing the phosphate supply for manufacturers and dealers. But the mining of state-owned waterways soon attracted legislative attention, from two directions: royalties were a potential source of revenue for the state government, and river-mining rights were a potential source of private profit.  Over the course of five years, with heated editorial debates, contentious legislation, and court battles, there emerged three companies that dominated river-mining (p. 122). The three used heavy equipment to break up and process large deposits of “stratum rock” (p. 115) from below the river beds, a year-round industry. Their production was supplemented by a wide range of independent operators and subcontractors with hand tools and small boats, who worked “from April through September” (p. 119).

McKinley’s account of the interplay of issues of race, party, and corruption, will be useful to historians of reconstruction politics. The establishment and enforcement of property rights in the river rock could provide a useful case study for those interested in law and economics or institutional economics.

Chapter 5 is “Convergence and the Fertilizer Industry, 1868-1884.” A history of the third phosphate-related industry of the South Carolina lowcountry, with detailed attention to eight Charleston firms, the chapter may be most useful to business historians. McKinley emphasizes the role of the Charleston elite in the emergence of the fertilizer industry, but generally the industry drew heavily on northern capital and management. Firms downplayed any connections to the North and appealed to regional loyalty and “southern patriotism” (p. 127).  The first plants were located in the city of Charleston, but the “noxious fumes associated with fertilizer manufacturing” (p. 131) made it unsuited to urban areas. Early in the 1870s firms began establishing larger-scale plants on “the Charleston Neck, a sparsely settled area north of the city” (p. 125).  Some of the firms developed vertically integrated operations, from mining to marketing.  Most firms built “acid chambers” to produce the sulfuric acid that dissolved the phosphate rock to make fertilizer. The resulting pollution from the fertilizer plants would end up displacing truck farming from the Neck, as local farmers’ legal challenges failed (p. 148).  According to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), the acid chambers that McKinley refers to were made with lead and arsenic which ended up contaminating the soil and groundwater of the Neck.

McKinley’s “Conclusions and Epilogue” complete the text. He sees the emergence of the lowcountry phosphate-related industries as an early example of “a longer-term change in agriculture and industry ambiguously labeled modernization” and as “a break from the Old South” (p. 154).  He sees continuity however, with members of “Charleston’s antebellum economic elites” (p. 155) taking a leadership role in the new industries. Similarly, McKinley identifies elements of both continuity and change for lowcountry African-Americans. With emancipation, “freedpeople gained mobility and a host of partial freedoms” (p. 161), but ex-slaves “predominated as the working class” while “white elites retained control of the land and the business world” (p. 161). McKinley argues for the long-term impact of the phosphate industries, and against Shick and Doyle’s (1985) characterization of the “South Carolina Phosphate Boom” as part of “the Stillbirth of the New South.” While acknowledging that phosphate mining (land and river) declined in the 1890s, and that the “control and profits” (p. 164) of lowcountry fertilizer manufacturing shifted north, McKinley argues that “the three industries led to sustained economic development” in the Charleston area (p. 162).  In his account, fertilizer manufacturing was the basis for lowcountry industrialization that lasted until the 1970s (pp. 163-64).

McKinley notes some downsides to the phosphate/fertilizer industries, most simply, a legacy of severe pollution: in 1999, “EPA officials named the Neck ‘one of the most concentrated areas of contamination’ in America’” (p. 164).  In his paragraph on the pollution legacy, McKinley mentions “phosphorus leaching from abandoned fertilizer factories.” Interestingly for economic and environmental historians, the key pollution left by the fertilizer plants is “lead and arsenic contamination of soil and groundwater” (SC DHEC), where lead and arsenic are pernicious threats to human health.  Identifying another downside, McKinley speculates that “The sheer tonnage of fertilizer produced in the area altered agricultural production patterns” because it provided “the means for southerners to overproduce” cotton. If so, perhaps “Charleston’s peculiar industrialization” (p. 166) retarded the transition out of agriculture in the South more generally, and contributed to the persistence of southern poverty.  Be that as it may, in most of McKinley’s presentation the lowcountry’s phosphate-related industries come across as net positives for the region, and for both the workers and the firms.

Regardless of whether that assessment stands up over time, McKinley’s fine monograph is a valued addition to the history of the low-county and the post-slavery South more generally. I hope that subsequent scholars will follow his lead and give us histories of “other understudied southern industries emerging in the shadow of the Civil War” (p. 3).

References:

Ellis, Edward, “Phosphate Rock,” in U.S. Census Office,  Report on Mineral Industries in the United States at the Eleventh Census: 1890, Washington DC, GPO, 1892 (pp. 679-691), Volume 7 of the 1890 Census Final Reports. www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1890a_v7.zip

Rowland, Wm. L., “Report on the Manufacture of Chemical Products and Salt,” in U.S. Census Office, Report on the Manufactures of the United States at the Tenth Census, Washington: GPO, 1883, Volume 2 of the 1880 Census Final Reports. www2.census.gov/prod2/decennial/documents/1880a_v2.zip

Shick, Tom W., and Don H. Doyle, “The South Carolina Phosphate Boom and the Stillbirth of the New South, 1867-1920.” South Carolina Historical Magazine (1985): 1-31.

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), “Historic Superphosphate Fertilizer Industry in S.C.” Webpage, accessed January 2015, www.scdhec.gov/HomeAndEnvironment/Pollution/DHECPollutionMonitoringServices/SuperphosphateFertilizerSiteMonitoring/

Wines, Richard A., Fertilizer in America: From Waste Recycling to Resource Exploitation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1985.

James R. Irwin is Professor of Economics at Central Michigan University. His current research draws on probate and deed records to explore wealth and income in Virginia and the rest of North America in the period 1650-1860.

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Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century