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Portal is still cooking

Town celebrates 25th annual Catface Country Turpentine Festival in style

By BOBBY NESMITH
Special to the Herald

    Locals and tourists alike filled the streets of Portal as the town hosted its 25th Annual Catface Country Turpentine Festival Saturday.
    The festivities kicked off at 10 a.m. with a parade, led by members from the 648th National Guard Unit. Following close behind were members of city and county law enforcement, local marching bands, area churches, and various political candidates.         Following the parade, Mayor Larry Motes welcomed the crowd, as people slowly made their way to the festival grounds. Motes announced that the City of Portal and the Bulloch County Board of Education are working together to create a memorial park for the town, which will serve to honor past and present teachers at Portal Elementary School and Portal Middle High School (formerly Willow Hill Elementary and Portal Primary and High, respectively), as well as local veterans.  
    Motes also announced that the city, along with the Portal Heritage Society, is making special plans for 2008, when Portal is set to celebrate its centennial.
    The acres surrounding the Carter Turpentine Still were packed with vendors — some selling food, others featuring original artwork. Many families independently provided customary festival foods, including hotdogs, hamburgers, barbecue, and the crowd-favorite: funnel cakes.
    Debi Miller, a native of Augusta, figured the festival would be an ideal venue to display her original pieces. A first year vendor, Miller showcased her artistic talent on a rather unusual substrate: antique windows. Years ago, she decided to give up painting. However, her husband had a different idea.  
    “My husband remodels old homes,” she explained. “One day, he brought home a bunch of windows and said, ‘Quit your job and get to work [painting]!’” Miller is now a certified painter, and offers private      lessons in her hometown.
    Nearby, Grace Shannon — owner of Creations by Grace — offered a variety of handmade décor, from seasonal wreaths to crocheted accessories. At a young age, Shannon decided she enjoyed creating baskets, wreaths, and the like. She later began marketing them through various craft shows.     
    “Everything you see is hand-made and original,” she said. “My specialty is angels. I love them!” Shannon recently retired to Statesboro, in order to help care for her grandchildren. She has participated in other local festivals, but this year is her first in Portal.
    Among many religious organizations represented at the festival, one seemed to catch the eyes of everyone who passed by. Zeal 4 The Lost, an independent evangelism ministry, offered an array of tracts, accompanied by ever-popular optical illusions.
    “Our mission is to evangelize the lost and equip individuals to share their faith,” said Troy Brown, the ministry’s treasurer. “We offer evangelism training seminars, resources, and opportunities for one-on-one witnessing.” Other ministry team members dove into the crowd, sharing their message with festival attendees.
    Many of the festival’s attendees sought the mercy of shade trees and bleachers, as they enjoyed performances by many local music groups. Bill Cohen, minister of music at First Baptist Church of Statesboro, coordinated with the groups to provide family entertainment for festival-goers. Following performances by local elementary school students and church youth ministries, the Friendship Pickers — a bluegrass band from Friendship Baptist Church — offered their renditions of famous hymns and gospel pieces. First Baptist Church of Statesboro’s Gospel Four quartet were next on stage, performing more contemporary and upbeat music. Baritone Dennis Brown seemed to enjoy his first year at the festival.
    “I’m excited,” he said. “I just hope more people continue to come out and enjoy [the festivities].” Finally, a quintet dubbed “Redeemed” took the stage, followed by additional performances from local youth ministries, including Aaron Church of God.
    History buffs and curious visitors found their place beneath the actual turpentine still. An educational exhibit was created to illustrate the once-prominent turpentine industry. According to Gaynell Wright, “The turpentine industry was once a very important part of the southeastern United States.” This was due in part to the warm climate, which provides ideal conditions for producing the multipurpose liquid. Wright also pointed out that the Carter Still is one of two remaining “operative stills” in the country. The other is located in Tifton. Wright graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in anthropology. Her thesis was based on the turpentine industry, as was her documentary film entitled, “Spirit of the Pines”. Wright apparently has turpentine in her blood, so to speak, as the industry is where her father made his career.
    Dr. Roger Branch, a retired professor at Georgia Southern University, was also on-hand to offer history, with a local twist.
    “Years ago,” he said, “Denver Hollingsworth decided to rebuild the still.” Since then, a festival is held each year to offer a look back on the once-thriving industry, as well as provide entertainment for the community.
    “It took the effort of many pioneers to get [the festival] started,” he said. “Most of them are no longer with us.” However, one pioneer still braves the crowds each year to bottle and sell turpentine.
    Annie Ruth Cartee, better known as “Big Mama”, began volunteering at the festival 25 years ago, accompanied by her late husband, George Cartee, who passed away earlier this year. Over the years, it’s become a family affair. Cartee’s daughter, Ina Ruth Smith, was on-hand to assist her mother, as well as granddaughter Michelle Fields, along with her husband Bubba and children Madison, 7, and Makinley, 3.  
    “It’s been a joy,” Cartee said. “I love watching the people grow up, and how new people come each year.”
    Michelle remembers helping her “Big Mama” over the years, collecting bottles and taking money from interested buyers. “I love to hear people tell stories about how they have used the turpentine,” she said.
    Once each year, community volunteers come together and make turpentine, for the purpose of the festival. They begin by boiling resin, collected by “tapping” pine trees. Next, through steam distillation, the vapors condense and become the liquid turpentine marketed at the festival. The solid left-over material, called rosin, is used to improve the quality of sound on violins and to help baseball pitchers hold on to the ball, by providing a slightly tacky surface.
    The Catface Country Turpentine Festival is held each fall, at the E.C. Carter Turpentine Still festival grounds, located just off Highway 80 in Portal. Its name comes from the whisker-like markings made on the trees to extract the resin. It is coordinated and hosted by members and affiliates of the Portal Heritage Society.  

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