A Sticky Situation: The Turpentine Industry in North Florida

6 Comments

On June 3rd I will be giving a talk on the turpentine industry in North Florida at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about it. It was not until I moved to North Florida that I learned about the naval store industry, and I found it fascinating. It has since become one of my favorite topics to research and talk about! I am not going to give away all my fun facts (for that you have to attend the lecture), but this post will give you a good idea of what was going on at that time and perhaps entice a few of you to come check out my lecture!

The turpentine industry has its roots in North Carolina in the mid-1800s. Workers would scar longleaf pine trees (the scars are often referred to as cat faces) which would cause the gum, or resin, from the tree to run. They would

Turpentiners working a stand of longleaf pine trees to collect the resin.

attach a cup and gutters to the tree to collect the resin. This resin would then be distilled in a large still to create pitch. The reason that this industry is often referred to as “naval stores” has its origins in the fact that the majority of this pitch was used to caulk holes in wooden boats and to coat rigging to help it last longer on ocean-going vessels. Eventually the trees stopped producing any significant amount of resin and the turpentiners  gradually moved south to  new stands of trees. After some time, in the late 1800s, they made their way into Florida’s pine forests.

The Convict Leasing System lasted in Florida from 1875 to 1923.

As you can imagine, this was hard work and dangerous.  Collecting the gum was very labor intensive and working the still was hot and very dirty work. The workers, who in some

A box ax recovered from a turpentine site, now part of the State of Florida Collection.

cases may have been leased convicts, lived in camps situated close to the area they were currently working. The housing was considered temporary and was usually poorly constructed. If they were paid (which would not include the leased convicts), usually they would receive their pay in the form of company script or coin. This could only be used at the company commissary, where they could also purchase items on credit. Many workers found themselves in debt to the company store, and of course, could not leave their employment until they settled their debt. Convict laborers were usually treated very harshly and their living conditions varied, but usually were not very hospitable. The camps were usually very remote and not well regulated by the state government.

There were tools and supplies that were very specific to the naval stores industry. The best known tool of the trade is probably the herty cup, which was developed by Dr.

Herty cups were developed by Dr. Herty, who founded the Herty Turpentine Cup Company in 1909.

Charles Holmes Herty, Sr. in 1909. Dr. Herty’s method for gathering gum was more economical, allowing for a higher yield of resin and extended use of the trees. Other tools specific to the trade include box axes, dippers and pulls. A box ax was used to cut boxes into the base of the tree to collect the resin prior to the use of cups. Dippers were used to collect the resin from these boxes and pulls were used to cut the cat face scars into the tree. Eventually, all the resin collected would go to the still to be processed into various grades of turpentine to be put into barrels and shipped off to be used as ingredients in a variety of products (in addition to being used for ship building, as previously mentioned).

Early example of a container lid for Vicks VapoRub, which once contained turpentine as an ingredient.

Many early products contained turpentine, some of which seem bizarre today. Vicks VapoRub, which you can still find on store shelves today, originally contained turpentine. In fact, at many of the turpentine archaeological sites that I have excavated have contained the fragments of the cobalt blue glass from the small jars of Vicks VapoRub.  Apparently its use was popular at the time and many company commissaries carried it. Many household cleaners contained turpentine as well and many people would mix turpentine with beeswax to make their own furniture polish. It was also used medicinally to treat burns, bites and stings. However, since that time turpentine has been found to be carcinogenic and there are strict guidelines for the proper handling of turpentine (and it is no longer an ingredient in Vicks VapoRub).

In 1923 the convict leasing program was abolished in Florida due, in part, to the death of Martin Talbert. He was a convict that was killed at a turpentine camp as a result of very harsh physical punishment. By the mid-1900s the industry started its decline due, in part, to the advent of steel ships and the development of synthetic chemicals. By the 1970s the industry had pretty much vanished from the Florida landscape. However, the turpentine industry left a lasting legacy on the landscape. This industry was very destructive to the longleaf ecosystem and the many plants and animals that depended on it. Fewer than 3 million acres of old growth longleaf forest survived. Today on many of the trees in Florida’s old growth forests you can still see the old cat face scars. While hiking many of these same forests you might come across pieces of herty cup or similar metal cups that once collected the resin (and as a reminder, it is against the law to remove artifacts, like herty cups, from state and federal land!).

The turpentine industry helped to shape a fascinating time in Florida’s history and has had a lasting effect on our environment and our culture. Much of the land that is part of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge was once part of various turpentine operations. Today wildlife and habitat restoration efforts are being undertaken to restore these stands of forest to their previous state, prior to being worked for turpentine. I hope you can join me on June 3rd to learn more! If you are unable to join us though, there are many wonderful books dedicated to this industry. So be sure to visit your local library and check some of them out!

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ray Lapeyrouse
    May 17, 2017 @ 19:14:22

    I would like to attend the talk on the turpentine industry in N. Fla. Please advise where and what time.
    Thanks

    Reply

    • FPAN North Central
      May 18, 2017 @ 12:03:39

      Right now we do not have any lectures on turpentine scheduled. You can check our website for events scheduled in your area. You can also follow all FPAN regions on Facebook to keep up to date with events and other happenings.

      Reply

  2. Joan Oxendine
    Jul 10, 2017 @ 18:59:50

    I believe that my grandfather worked in the turpentine industry in St. John’s County, Florida in 1910 and 1912. One of his children was born in St.Augustine in 1910 and another at Racy Point in 1912. I’m interested in information about turpentine camps at and near St. Augustine in the early 1900s. Can you tell me anything about camps in that area?

    Reply

    • FPAN North Central
      Jul 13, 2017 @ 15:09:21

      You may want to contact our St. Augustine office (Northeast Regional Center). I have not done a lot of research on turpentine camps in that area, but they may be able to put you in touch with somebody that has.

      Reply

  3. Carla Anders
    Jul 28, 2017 @ 18:37:59

    Hello,
    We are searching for two family members born in the 1870s in NC, who worked in the turpentine industry. We aren’t sure which state. Is there any way to locate lists of names of workers?
    Thank you.

    Reply

    • FPAN North Central
      Jul 31, 2017 @ 19:24:20

      I would start by contacting your state’s archives to see if any such list exists for NC. In the state of Florida I do not know of such a list, but if you know what company they may have worked for you could possibly find them listing in a ledger at the state archives if such a thing is on file. It would probably be helpful to have an idea of what company they worked for. Local historical societies are also a great source of information, along with local genealogical societies.

      Reply

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