Saga of the Turpentiners
Naval Stores is the name given to the industry that made use of pine products. (See http://www.hchsonline.org/places/turpentine.html for a really good article.)
Tar and pitch were used from the early 1600s and other products were developed well into the 1900s. Pioneers from the south often moved following the industry as it literally ate up the woods from which it derived its profits. As often as not, farmers having depleted their poor soil had to take jobs as turpentiners to keep bread on the family table. Farmers and folks in the naval stores industry thought of the natural resources as never-ending - much as some of us do today. Without fertilizers to rebuild the soil, farmers soon depleted their lands and with no management of chipping and facing, turpentiners soon killed the trees they depended upon. In spite of the efforts to control the depth of cuts made on the trees, the number of cups or boxes and the size of trees used, owners of the large companies as well as laborers saw controls as dipping into their pockets.
Turpentine was used as a solvent and combined or distilled to make products such as lamp "oil," soap, ink, lubricants and many others. Tapping the trees, shipping and refining employed many people with varying skills. Most of the employees would be simple laborers or even local children who were paid to hoe around the trees to keep down fires. Others were skilled craftsmen who made barrels for transporting the gum or turpentine; shoed horses, oxen, or mules. Company stores sprang up to sell workers goods and railroads were build for shipping the products. Cooks, accounting clerks, and those with other talents were hired to fill needs. As one can see it was a large industry, fitting nicely into a wild forest area and providing needed income for subsistence farmers. It certainly is no wonder that many of our ancestors followed the industry as it moved from place to place. Not only did it provide employment, but it also opened wilderness areas by building railroads and roadways. People could more easily travel in the areas where the industry spread. (Often not much easier, but at least somewhat.) There was the added attraction of "safety in numbers." Schools and churches often sprang up around distilleries. Some of today's NW Florida cemeteries are named for the still's owner.
"Camp Pinchot," a very well done manuscript by Julie Massoni, Historian, Armament Division, Eglin AFB, describes the process. "Crude gum was obtained from the living tree by removing a section of bark, wounding the tree, and collecting the secreted gum . . . . Trees were "boxed" by cutting an elliptical hole about eight to twelve inches wide and four or five inches deep in the base of the trunk, thus forming a cavity to receive the resin. The box was "cornered" by taking off the bark in a triangular pattern on each side of the top of the box, creating a "face." The laborer returned once in 10 days to cut a new streak on the face with a tool called a hack and to dip the resin from the boxes and pour it into barrels stationed at intervals in the woods. A worker usually chipped and dipped a "crop" of 10,000 faces during a season, with each crop yielding about 150 barrels of gum turpentine." [The tool at the base of this post is used to measure size of the trees.]
Later, pots (Herty, Pringle) and triangular (Birdeye) or loaf-pan shaped (McCoy) containers took the place of the holes. Also, acid was used to start gum flow instead of making repeated grooves (chipping) in the bark. Often more than one face was cut on a tree, but some care was taken to leave enough bark on the tree to keep it alive until the operation was over. Many trees succumbed to disease from the cuts and many more were lost to fire. Often children of the nearby homesteaders would be paid to hoe grass from around the trees. About 1908 my grandmother was paid a penny to hoe around five boxes. She had a string in which she tied a knot for each box she tended. If there were 3 faces on a tree, she tied three knots in her string after she cleared the grass from beneath the tree. I'm sure she was happy to see more boxes on each tree, not realizing they were hastening its death. She once made fifteen cents and used it to purchase 3 yards of fabric. How proud she was to provide material so her mother could sew a new dress for herself!
Her father used his oxen to transport barrels of turpentine or gum to the railhead at Mossey Head. In addition to farming, he likely worked as many faces as possible on his own homestead in the forest that is now Eglin Air Force Base. Probably many of the cattle and hogs he raised and the deer he killed in the forest were bartered, at the nearest company store, for things he could not produce for himself.
Left are Smooth Clay Herty, Ribbed Clay Herty, Pringle, Birdeye, Metal Herty cups - from top down.
Below are some tools used in the naval stores industry. As you look at them, you may be surprised at the knowledge and skill involved in the process. Each tool had a very distinct use and had evolved over many decades. Many of these tools are and many more like them are on display at the Baker Block Museum on loan from Tommy Simon. Others are from a display at Marianna State Park's Heritage Days.
Ann Spann wrote the following article that appeared in the newsletter of the Baker Block Museum, March, 2001. Included here with permission.
Turpentine In West Florida
By the late 1800's many small turpentine operations dotted the forests of the Florida Panhandle and provided a source of income for its residents.
The turpentine stills were usually located near a water source, such as a creek or spring and near the timber that was to yield the gum. The camp typically consisted of a fire still, cooper shop, stables, commissary and housing for the workers. The still was usually housed in an open two-story structure with a kettle resting on a brick fire setting.
By the early 1900's many turpentiners and their families had migrated into Georgia and Florida, the two states that would dominate the industry during the coming years.
Most had come from North and South Carolina, which had been the major turpentine producing states during the 1800's. Unfortunately the longleaf pine timber had been virtually destroyed in the Carolinas by a gum collecting technique known as the box method.
The box or cavity that was cut in the base of the tree, weakened the pine and made it susceptible to strong winds, insects and fires deliberately set for clearing the woods.
A more conservative method for collecting the crude gum was introduced in 1903, when University of Georgia chemist, Dr. Charles Herty, patented and promoted the use of a clay cup.
The clay cup, which was later made of tin, hung from a nail in the tree. And while the tree still had to be chipped in order for the gum to escape, it, was not nearly as destructive as the huge box cut had been.
After the gum had collected in these cups it was then removed with dip irons or wooden dip paddles, this work was often done by women or boys, who were known as dippers. Gum was collected from approximately 275 to 300 cups in order to fill a 50 gallon barrel.
These barrels were then transported by mule and wagons to the still for processing.
According to Carroll B. Butler, author of "Treasures Of The Longleaf Pines Naval Stores," a typical turpentine yield from fire stills was six to eight gallons of turpentine per barrel of gum.
After the stilling process the spirits of turpentine and rosin were placed in barrels and shipped by rail or water to market, which in the Florida Panhandle was Pensacola.
In 1914 an estimated two-thirds of the total population of the Choctawhatchee National Forest were involved in various turpentine throughout the forest. The area consisted of approximately 133,000 acres in portions of Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties, with about 3,000 total inhabitants during that year.
By 1916 there was a documented 24 stills within or adjacent to the forest. They included Garniers Naval Stores, Bryan and Metcalf, Bearhead, Ewing, Boggy, Mossyhead, Deerland and Crestview Turpentine Companies.
Ninety-five year old Baker resident, Thomas Simon was born at one of the turpentine camps within the Choctawhatchee National Forest, known as Metts Tower. "Uncle Tommy", as he is known locally in the Baker area, began dipping gum at the age of seven near the Metts Tower site, located north of Niceville, in what, is now the Eglin Reservation.
His entire family was involved in the turpentine industry. He began chipping as a teenager and went on to gain extensive experience in woods work as a deck hand and in the cooper shop. He worked at various stills in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia, before settling his family in Baker.
Simon assisted author Carroll Butler with information for his "Treasures Of The Longleaf Pines Naval Stores." In the acknowledgments Butler wrote, "My deepest appreciation to Godson Harrison and Thomas Simon for their readiness to assist in the project. Their insight and personal knowledge of the industry were unsurpassed".
Butlers' 270 page text is one of the most extensively researched on the turpentine industry that is in print. It is well documented, including footnotes from interviews with families that were directly involved in the industry. The book includes 111 photographs and 138 illustrations depicting the entire industry across the southeastern United States. Every detail of the operation is covered including procedures, processing, tools of the trade, transportation, marketing, and much more. A copy of the book is available at the Baker Block Museum for research.
The author also captures a local flavor of the industry with articles such as the Milton Gazette's 1913 account of a barge "The Jack," striking a dead-head in Yellow River and sinking with the entire cargo of rosin and turpentine barrels, or with an 1895 ad from the Pensacola Daily News; "GOPHERS! They are Fine; Try Them." There is even mention of barrels of whiskey made in turpentine stills throughout West Florida. This practice was done preferably when the still was new to avoid the turpentine taste in the liquor, but was not always the case.
The museum features an exhibit, on the local turpentine industry and surrounding forests, including tools, photos, forest animals and more. The lumber and labor for this project was provided by the Blackwater River Division of Forestry at Munson and Director Carl Webster.
Carroll B. Butler may be reached at: c/o Tarkel Publishing - P.O. Box 46 - Shalimar, FL 32579
(850) 651-5473 - CBBTARKEL@aol.com