The Early Career of John S. Holmes, North Carolina’s First State Forester

By Eben Lehman on May 31, 2019

John Simcox Holmes—born on this day in 1868—was a pioneer of forestry work in the state of North Carolina. The state’s first professional forester, he was hired in 1909 to survey and protect North Carolina’s forests, though he had little funding or staff with which to do the job. In 1915 he was named as both the first State Forester and Fire Warden. Six years later, a second forester was added to the staff, and Holmes finally secured the first funds for fire protection. His tireless work from 1909 until he stepped down in 1945 established the North Carolina Forest Service and state forest system we know today. His 1922 booklet Common Forest Trees of North Carolina, though since updated, is still in print.

JS Holmes

Holmes standing at boundary line between Moore and Lee Counties in North Carolina, 1929.

Before the State of North Carolina hired him, the U.S. Forest Service employed Holmes from 1902 to 1908, during which he worked in everything from swamps to deserts all across the U.S. In December 1954, U.S. Forest Service chief Richard McArdle asked him to document those experiences. Holmes responded a month later with nine handwritten pages outlining his brief federal career. Highlights from his recollections include:

  • Being hired in 1902 under the agency’s student assistant program and being dispatched to Beaumont, Texas. There he secured growth analysis figures of recently cut pines and stem analyses of small longleaf pine reproduction.
  • Spending the spring of 1903 in Washington, DC, tabulating the collected data from Texas. Describing it as “one of the high points in my life,” Holmes attended the weekly gatherings at Gifford Pinchot’s home with other foresters. At one meeting, Holmes met President Theodore Roosevelt and heard him speak on the importance of forest conservation.
  • Returning to North Carolina in the summer of 1903, he examined commercial southern hardwoods on Big Creek in Haywood County. He discusses a bizarre incident that resulted in the federal government purchasing a single cow.
  • Enrolling in the Yale School of Forestry in the fall of 1903—at age 35. As part of his course studies, he traveled to the swamps of Florida to investigate the potential use of dead and down cedar for lead pencils.
  • A year after finishing at Yale, the Forest Service sent him in 1906 to the national forests of Arizona and New Mexico, where he saw the damage unregulated logging by mining operations could do.
  • The challenges of studying forest conditions in the rough coal mining region of eastern Kentucky in 1907.
  • Spending the winter of 1907–1908 surveying the forests of southern Mississippi, and the opposition his recommendations to restore poor agricultural lands through reforestation encountered.
  • Investigating the impacts on the forests of copper smelter operations in the Ducktown area of Tennessee. In the subsequent trial, former Biltmore Estate forester Carl Schenck testified for the defendant, the Tennessee Copper Company.

Read the full letter from Holmes to McArdle.

First page of recollections sent by Holmes to McArdle (click image to read the full letter).

Palestine fire lookout tower

J.S. Holmes (fourth from right) standing with U.S. Forest Service Chief William B. Greeley (third from left) and others at the Palestine fire lookout tower, Cumberland County, North Carolina, October 15, 1927.