Turpentine Camps

what a turpentine still looks like
Florida Memory site photo # N043941 (You can access Florida Memory via our links page)
     The essential oil of turpentine can be separated from the rosin by steam distillation.  When pure, it is a colorless, transparent, oily liquid with a penetrating odor and a characteristic taste. It contains a large proportion of a compound from which camphor is manufactured.  Turpentine is obtained in large amounts from several species of pine. It is used chiefly as a solvent and drying agent in paints and varnishes.

     In addition to its naval uses, pine products had many other pioneer uses including tar for sealing animal wounds, honey and pine tar remedies for human bronchial infections, and resin or "brewers' pitch" to line beer barrels or fruit juice kegs.  Pine wood charcoal was used for tooth-cleaning powder, a meat purifier, laxatives, and beverage filtration agents.

     Starting in the 1870s, turpentine stills dotted the piney woods of northwest
Florida. Camps of employees grew up around the turpentine gathering and processing sites, e.g., the ‘still’ which processed the rosin drawn from the trees.  The turpentine still and population became known as “Turpentine camps.”   These camps - located in the forests - were isolated – away from town or city life.   Many of these camps developed a culture of their own. And, the camps became known for their terrible working conditions and abuses.  The owner and the commissary store was the power base in the camp.  It was not uncommon for workers to become virtual slaves – unable to pay their debt at the commissary and required to work until their debt was paid.  The worst abuses in these camps occurred during the 1930s.  The Great Depression left few alternatives for the poor.  They quickly became absorbed into the endless cycle of work and debt. Workers were rarely paid in cash.  Be what it may, many people managed to make a living, provide for their families, and give their children a better life.

     Sometimes bosses used alcohol as a reward for extra work, contributing to occasional lawlessness and violence in the camps.  Some Southern turpentine camps included stockades.  Others, especially in Florida throughout the 1800s, were known to lease convicts for turpentining as part of their penal system.

     In the Okaloosa County area, some residents leased their piney wooded forest lands to ‘Bosses’ who extracted the turpentine from the timber on the leased land.  An article in the DeFuniak Springs, FL.  newspaper in the early 1900s mentions the Spoon family of Hall’s Still.  Many oldsters remember a still called, “Cracker’s Neck” which was located near present-day Wright, FL.  This may be the same one mentioned as being at Garnier’s (off present-day Lewis Turner Blvd.). 

     Mr. Raymon Melvin of Holley, FL., a fourth generation Panhandle resident, puts us in touch with the industry that dominated our area’s economy a century ago. He is able to bring the turpentine industry to life with his accounts of the industry in our area.  He describes how the tree trunks were scored and a clay or tin container was placed below the scoring to let the rosin drain into the pot.  (A process called by some as “pulling.”)  Contents of the pots were transferred into barrels and readied to ship to the next part of the process.

Visit BBM to see the instruments used in the turpentining industry in the Florida Panhandle.  Here is a sample of what you will see there:

turpentine display at BBM

Baker Block Museum Educational Services. 2008. Baker. FL. (850) 537-5714