Turpentine Time

Turpentine Time

written by Gale Fishman

 

The live oak is the south's beauty queen with her spreading crown and strands of Spanish moss stirring in the sultry breeze. Her heavy limbs lean upon the earth. She is romantic.

But the work mule of the south has always been the pine tree, specifically the longleaf pine, Pinus palustris.

When wooden ships ruled the seas, the naval store industry kept them afloat. Naval stores included hemp for ropes, cotton for sails, live oaks for spars, and pines for masts, decking, tar, pitch, rosin—and turpentine. From the early 1900s until the 1950s, Wakulla County's economy depended on her longleaf pine forests to fuel the many turpentine stills and sawmills. The stills and mills are long gone but their existence remain as place names.

Cut a pine and it oozes a sticky substance properly called resin or oleoresin. Living longleaf and slash pine trees were scraped on one or more sides. The V-shaped cuts resembled a cat's whiskers, hence the scars are called cat-faces. The resin was collected in cups, transferred to barrels and carted to the still for distillation. The turpentine was drawn off by a condenser leaving the thicker rosin behind for more processing.  

Tar, a dark, sticky substance, was used to hold masts and sails in place, to grease axles, and to cover wounds on livestock. Pitch was spread on the sides and bottoms of wooden ships and boats to make them watertight.

Turpentine was used to manufacture paint, solvents, cleaners, and a variety of medicines. Your grandmother may have sworn by turpentine as a cure-all and cleaning the floor too.

From beginning to end, this was a sticky, dirty, dangerous business and the work was unceasing. Fire, once a frequent occurrence, meant death to a cat-faced tree. In winter, workers cleared needles and grasses around the trees. When warm weather began, so did the toil of scraping, collecting, and cooking the resin. Injuries were common and stills often burned.

Turpentine camps included crude housing for workers, the still, a cooper's shed, gardens, livestock corrals, and the important company store where workers purchased commodities using the tokens in which they were paid.

After seven years or so, the pines, wounded as they were, produced less resin. The turpentine camp moved to a new forest. Usually a sawmill followed to cut the damaged trees.

During the years the trees were being worked for resin, little natural regeneration of pines occurred. After the trees were cut, manual replanting in rows became accepted forest management. The make-up of Wakulla County's longleaf forests were forever changed.

Some cat-faced trees survive, bearing witness to the cultural history of Wakulla County. You might glimpse one in someone's yard, a fencerow, or walking through a forest. Longleaf pines can live centuries; imagine the changes they have seen—from the years when the pines burgeoned with life to the highways carrying speeding carloads of people intent on getting from one point to another, hardly noticing the roadsides, unaware of the history they pass. 

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This was a guest post written by Gale Fishman.

Gail Fishman is a 2nd Generation Florida native. Although born in South Florida, her grandmother's family moved to Florida in the early 1900s. Her great-grandfather ran turpentine stills in DeSoto, Wakulla, and Calhoun Counties and many cousins reside in north Florida. She is the author of "Journeys Through Paradise, Pioneering Naturalists in the Southeast" published by the University Press of Florida. The book contains profiles of men, such as the Bartrams, Dr. Alvan Chapman, John Muir, and John J. Audubon, who explored and described the southeast between the early 1700s to the early 1900s. She believes history must be shared and appreciated.