Giant red cedar trees in the Avenue of the Giants - Redwood National Park

Pencils from Florida’s Cedar Trees

Pencils from Florida’s Cedar Trees

By Ted Hunt

It’s the end of summer and school is starting in a couple of weeks, and finally, the little ones will be out of the house. But first the school supplies — crayons, glue, folders, a new lunch box and most importantly, those pencils.


The pencil is a simple instrument the creates marks that adheres to a sheet of paper. It has a core of graphite surrounded by two wooden halves glued together, usually with an eraser on one end. Contrary to a common misconception, lead has never been used in pencils. Graphite has always been the choice core. Graphite is a natural crystalline form of carbon in stacked layers and mixed with clay to create what is often called pencil lead. The first woods used for the encasement of the pencil caused many a splinter — Ouch! Our story begins.


Beyond the Graphite


It was in Italy in the 1500s, when the blueprint for the modern, wood-encased pencil was developed. A flat, oval, compact type of pencil was designed using two pieces of wood with a groove in the center. A graphite stick was inserted in the groove, then the two halves were glued together as the encasement. Juniper woods, especially red cedar, were found to be best suited because they would not splinter. The process is essentially the same method we use today.


In the 1800s Germany was the leading producer of pencils in the world. The industry was dominated by the Faber family. In 1849, a son of the family, immigrated to the U.S. and opened a stationary store in New York city. His mission was to find and export splinter-free wood to the family pencil factories in Germany.


The Write Choice


Faber heard that red cedar trees were abundant in the southern states, so he started his march south and depleted the strands of Red Cedar forests in his wake. He arrived in the area known as Cedar Key in 1852. Here, he discovered vast red cedar forests and bought thousands of land and timber rights. He brought in crews to cut down the trees and haul or float them to the port at Cedar Key. The logs were then shipped to the family pencil factories in Germany. Cedar Key was named for the abundant cedar trees in the area.


Getting to the Point


In 1858, Faber built a log slat mill on Atsena Otie Key — an island one-half mile or a stone’s throw off Cedar Key. He towed floating logs, tied together in huge groups, across the water to his mill. Then processed the logs into slats, loaded them on ships and sailed away to Germany (slats were easier and more cost efficient than logs). Faber had the island to himself and the town of Atsena Otie was officially chartered by the Florida Legislature. The 1860 Census recorded 215 men, women and children living in 30 households on the island. Most worked for Faber.

In 1861 the Trans-Florida railroad was completed, connecting the port of Cedar Key on the west coast to the port of Fernandina, just north of Jacksonville, on the east coast.  Now the slats could be sent by rail to the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida and then shipped to Germany. The cost savings of eliminating a ship trip around the Florida Keys enabled Faber to build a pencil factory in New York in 1862 and supply it with slats from Cedar Key. 

During the Civil War, the Union Army destroyed the railroad and most of the standing buildings in the Cedar Key area to cut off supply lines for the Southern army. Faber, not one to be discouraged, rebuilt his slat mill and also built a pencil casing factory on Atsena Otie Key. Once again, Cedar Key became a major lumber shipping port on the west coast of Florida. The demand for pencils was growing at an unprecedented rate at the time. In the early 1870s it was estimated that in the United States alone, over 20 million pencils were being used.

As always, when an industry makes money, the competition comes a calling. In 1876, the Eagle Pencil Company built a slat mill on Way Key, also part of Cedar Key. They shipped their slats to their own pencil factory in New York. Immediately, the pencil industry took off in Cedar Key and the town thrived. The population exploded, and everyone was making money. Faber Mills was annually producing pencil casings for more than a third of a million pencils. The pencil industry flourished for years, but as they say, all good things must come to an end.


The Writing’s on the Wall

Decades of unrestricted logging — without an emphasis on replanting — greatly reduced the number of cedar trees. In September of 1896, a hurricane with winds howling over 125 mph, together with a 10-foot storm surge, swept over the entire area, destroying all the mills, factories and most of the town structures. Many of the remaining Red Cedars were toppled in its wrath. Atsena Otie Key was destroyed.

The Faber and Eagle companies decided not to rebuild and abandoned Cedar Key. To add salt to the wound, a fire in Cedar Key in December of 1896 destroyed many of the remaining structures. The community was so devastated that it basically ceased to exist. It would take years of rebuilding to recover — which they eventually did.

Points of Interest

On average, 14 billion pencils are produced in the world annually — enough to circle Earth more than 40 times.

The average cedar tree can produce approximately 300,000 pencils.

A pencil can be used underwater, in space and upside down

During its lifespan, a pencil can draw a 35-mile-long line and write around 45,000 words.

On average, a pencil can be sharpened 17 times.

Just for fun: Johnny Carson regularly played with pencils at his “Tonight Show” desk. These pencils were specially made with erasers at both ends to avoid on-set accidents.

So Where is Cedar Key?

Cedar Key is not one island. It is an archipelago–a cluster of 12 islands. Atsena Otie Key is part of the cluster. The island where most live is actually Way Key, although everybody knows it as Cedar Key. The Key is sixty miles southwest of Gainesville, Florida. At the intersection of 98 & 24, stay west on highway 24. Enjoy your 20-mile drive across strands of pine forests, salt marshes and barrier islands. You’re going back in time to a forgotten coast and once thriving industry in Florida. When you reach the end of the road – STOP or you’ll end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Welcome to Cedar Key, Florida.


About Ted Hunt