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History Feature

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

This history feature was written and researched by Annamaria Haden, Old Baldy summer 2020 intern. Haden is a senior at UNCW studying history.

Image Courtsey of the Old Baldy Foundation archives

Thomas Franklin Boyd purchased Smith Island in 1914. Boyd is a crucial figure in 20th Century development of Bald Head Island. Boyd intended Bald Head Island, which he renamed and advertised as Palmetto Island, to be a tropical and sophisticated tourist destination. Boyd’s optimistic vision for the island’s potential included the construction of a pavilion, hotel, clubhouse, and even a trolley to connect the island with Wilmington. However, an aspect of Boyd’s ownership of Smith Island that is often overlooked is the livestock farming operations that occurred just a few years before the 1920s. In environmental history, an industry such as animal agriculture is often studied through multiple aspects such as the role of the environment, perspective and impacts on the animals, and of course, the profits made from the commodification of livestock production. 

There are numerous 20th Century primary sources, specifically local newspaper articles that discussed the livestock on Bald Head Island under Boyd. The newspaper articles have two factors in common. The newspapers both highly respect the ranching plans under Boyd and highlight just how perfect the environment of Bald Head was for farming livestock. Early 20th Century newspapers emphasized the ideal conditions that the environment of Smith Island served for livestock farming. This included examples such as the year-round feeding ground that the land offered livestock, which relates back to the consistently advertised sub-tropical climate of Palmetto Island. Another article acknowledged what many still favor about the island today: the isolation of Bald Head. For example, an issue of The Wilmington Morning Star from March, 1917, stated that Bald Head was an ideal location for cattle ranching because it was distant from the crowded centers of the state but was still conveniently close enough to the Carolina Packing House Company, which was located in Wilmington on Smith’s Creek. The article also mentioned that the environment provided a natural fence which prevented the livestock, that they specified as cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats, from escaping any substantial distance from the ranch. Other aspects from additional local newspapers included the abundant acreage that the island offered potential ranching efforts and that the island was overall well adapted for the industry. Such claims about the adaptation of the environment of Bald Head is crucial for cattle ranching because cattle are not the most adaptive animal. So, characteristics of the environment mentioned by articles such as the warm climate that offered feeding ground all year and natural enclosure from the landscape of the island are just a few of the favorable conditions for cattle. 

Evidence from primary sources of cattle ranching on Smith Island during the ownership of Boyd date back to February, 1917. It is important to note that cattle were not the only livestock on the island. Horses, sheep, goats, and of course, hogs were all mentioned throughout primary sources. A Wilmington Dispatch article from March, 1917, suggested that due to the wild hog population already present on the island, Boyd did not intend to farm hogs. However, other sources emphasize just how many hogs Boyd owned. A stock certificate from 1917 noted that hogs were the exception because they all fell under the property of Boyd. Additionally, a Wilmington Morning Star article noted that Boyd experimented with hog farming before 1917, and again, discovered the environment was well adapted for such a business. The article even mentioned specific details, Boyd had around 2,000 to 3,000 hogs and about 1,500 to sell by the end of 1917 and intended to have much more than that by 1918. As for the quantity of cattle, an article in February, 1917, noted that another carload of cattle was shipped to Smith Island. Both of these comments on Boyd operating hog and cattle farms before 1917 suggest that his experimentation with livestock farming happened only a year or two after his purchase of the island in 1914. 

It is important to note that livestock farming was another marketing tool that Boyd and Palmetto Island investors used to advertise the island even more, but this time, towards investors rather than tourists. The newspapers rarely failed to mention the profitable enterprise that the ranching operation on Bald Head caused the plot owners, investors, and stockholders of Palmetto Island. For example, one article even noted that the plot landowners of Bald Head would soon realize the value of their property once their land was put to good use with livestock farming. From a broader perspective, The Wilmington Morning Star acknowledged that the livestock ranching on Bald Head would contribute even more to the agricultural industry of the Cape Fear region as a whole. A region, that was again, noted as perfectly suited for agricultural pursuits. 

Somewhat predictably, livestock farming did not quite align with the high-class tourist destination that Boyd promised tourists on their visits to Palmetto Island. However, the early stages of livestock ranching during Boyd’s ownership of the island presents one of the many environmental history topics within 20th Century Development.

For more information on Palmetto Island and Thomas Franklin Boyd, visit the Old Blady Subject Files at

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