Austin Cary built LSU forestry school

By James Barmett
Journal Correspondent

As late as the mid-1920s there were less than 20 professionally trained foresters in the entire South. However, before these graduates were in the field there were a few early transient foresters that did invaluable work in the South although they were located Washington, D.C. They traveled the South over a period of years in the early 1900s as employees of the U.S. Forest Service. The need for forestry expertise was beginning to be recognized and these individuals greatly influenced the development of forestry practices in the South as well as in other regions. One of these was Austin Cary.

Austin Cary was a forestry pioneer who worked for the U.S. Forest Service, state forest organizations, forest schools, and private companies. Born in Maine in 1865, Cary entered Bowdoin University at 18 and obtained two degrees by 1890. He was awarded a honorary doctorate by Bowdoin in 1922. Cary had early training in the Maine woods where lumbering was the primary activity of his New England family.

Cary worked for a number of early forestry related businesses, traveled to Europe to learn of their forestry practices, and published numerous publications related to thinning, naval stores, and fire issues. Always, he approached these issues with a businessman's view. He had become a pioneer on the practical side of forestry. In 1910, he was appointed as Logging Engineer for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C.

In 1917, Cary first visited the South in his new capacity. He became to realize the South's potential of a major timber growing region in the United States. At a time when most lumbermen saw no future in owning cut-over forest land, Cary began a campaign to convince them of the potential of forestry. He would barge into a lumberman's office. Cary would not spend time with underlings, but go to the general manager or company president. Always carrying an axe, he would take the men into the woods. He would not hesitate to cut down a tree or two just to illustrate its growth rate by counting annual rings. Observations such as these made a deep impression on many of these lumbermen and they had great respect for Cary.

Dr. Cary, a shaggy, red-beaded New England Yankee, would come back repeatedly selling them on forestry. They liked and enjoyed him and over time he convinced them to begin forestry programs. Cary spent his winters in the South, working out of Florida, and returning north during the winter. Although Cary was a member of the U.S. Forest Service, he was so independent that they had little control over him. The Washington Office of the Forest Service rarely kept track of where he was or what he was doing. They understood, however, the value of his forest extension work and talent in interesting lumbermen in forestry.

He was a rugged individualist and a non-conformist in social customs as in forestry. William Greeley, who was an early Chief Forester of the Forest Service, remembers inviting Cary as a dinner guest soon after he was married. When completing the dinner, Cary returned to the living room, shed his coat, unbuttoned his vest and stretched out on the sofa. Soon he kicked off his shoes and began a running fire of comment on current publications and doings in forestry. Greeley's bride looked at Cary with astonishment. Little did she know that this was the custom of Cary after dinner regardless of location.

Cary was a remarkable teacher. He endeared himself to students by his pithy, homely ways of putting things and by his practical, down to earth Yankee mind. He was one of the great early leaders in American forestry, not in official organizations or programs, but as an individualist in the woods. As a roving missionary in the South, he laid much of the ground work for the piney woods forestry of today.

He foresaw the great promise in the pine lands of the South. Judged solely as a forester, Cary deserves the highest rank, but his role as a champion of the South demands even greater recognition. The progress of southern forestry and forest industries unmistakably bear the imprint of his work. Heyward states "Forest history will record the South's fond remembrance of, and respectful gratitude to, the 'Yankee peddler of forestry,' Austin Cary."

(Frank Heyward's articles in the May and June 1955 issues of American Forests was used as a resource)

Heyward, Frank. 1955. Austin Cary: Yankee peddler in forestry. American Forests 61 (May 1955): 29-30, 43-44; 61 (June 1955): 28-29, 52-53.