In April, l will team with my friend Douglas Chassareau for a presentation on turpentining for the Bulloch County Historical Society. Doug, a Georgia Forestry Service veteran, probably knows more on the subject — past and present — than anyone else alive. Revisiting my resource materials has reminded me of how important turpentining has been to South Georgia. So, I am turning aside from columns on aging to write about this part of our heritage.
-- Roger Branch
An ancient treasure in the New World
The first British settlers in North America hoped to match the Spanish in finding gold. Such good fortune was more than 200 years away. The discovery of petroleum — "black gold" — also came long after the settlers arrived. However, another liquid treasure, pine tar, was there in abundance and immediately exploited.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of pine products from the colonies to England. It was an island nation with far flung economic and political reach. Everything depended upon a huge navy and commercial fleet. Every ship was kept afloat with pitch and tar. Since dense population concentration had long sense converted most suitable land into farming, "naval stores" products had to be imported and shifting alliances amid European power struggles made England vulnerable.
Some historical context is in order. First, let's visit terminology. The word "tar" can be confusing because it is often used for the raw product from the tree (AKA resin or gum) but sometimes also for the processed "pitch." To be an effective sealant, raw tar had to be thickened by slow boiling and that was pitch. Another process involved sweating it out of pine stumps and logs in kiln-like, earthen covered trenches.
Humans have used tar, pitch and other derivatives for thousands of years. Noah was directed to cover the ark inside and out with pitch. Moses' mother made his little bulrushes boat waterproof with pitch before leaving him in it at the marshy edge of the Nile. Archaeologists have discovered its use on ships dating back much earlier. One document described how sheep skins were stretched over the boiling tar to collect a product used as a varnish. While most conifers produced sap or resin that could be used for tar and pitch, certain types of pines are most productive.
Historically, the most important uses of tar and pitch was in the building and maintenance of ships, thus the name "naval stores industry." Unless a craft was a canoe carved from a single log, it was constructed of boards joined together. Every joint was sealed inside and out with pitch, thicker than the raw tar, although it might be heated just before application to ensure penetration into the joint. When it cooled, it was waterproof. When my father built watering troughs for livestock, he poured a bead of tar on every joint, set it on fire until every crack was filled and dashed out the flames with sand to leave a layer of protection over the seal. Ancient technology that worked.
Sailing vessels on long voyages carried pitch to cover leaks, which were common after storms and other heavy seas. Tar was also used extensively to protect sails, ropes and rigging. These were constantly wet by sea spray, fog and rain. Whether they were made of fiber or animal skins, they would rot unless given a protective coating of tar. It is small wonder that veteran sailors in constant contact with this stuff were sometimes called "old tars."
Given the high demand for "naval stores" in England and issues about reliable supply, settlers were encouraged do engage in this industry. There was early activity in Virginia and New England, but North Carolina soon became the center of production. No doubt the reason was the vast pine forests — especially of the longleaf variety — in the southeastern section stretching along the sandhill region next to the South Carolina border. The crown offered land grants to people who would agree to settle there and engage in the grueling labor required to produce tar. Irish, Scotch-Irish and Scots, people who were not always welcome in some colonies, could and did apply.
In the beginning, most of the output was raw tar. Barrels were made from oaks cut on site and filled with tar to be taken to port, primarily Wilmington for direct shipment or processing. Transportation was by wagon drawn by oxen, horses or mules but also by river on pole boats or rafts. The work was hard and dangerous, pursued constantly by all of the men and boys big enough to work through all of the months warm enough for the sap to run. Tool-making and cooperage (barrel-making) consumed much of the rest of the year. They were in constant contact with sticky tar, thus called "tar heels."
The extraction process that involved sweating pitch out of stumps, dead trees and pine knots did not depend upon season. A deep, angled trench was dug with a collection point at the bottom. Tar-rich materials were placed in the ditch and covered with earth. A carefully managed burn cooked the pitch out of the materials, sending it to the collection point. It was a dangerous process which could lead to explosions.
As the colonial period came to an end, the North Carolina naval stores industry began to change. New technologies, new products and uses for them made it more profitable. Large operations based on slave labor began to replace the small farmer type of practice. The era of industrial turpentining had dawned.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.