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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Forever gone or coming back?
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

This is the fifth in a series on turpentining in the U.S.

Even in its most prosperous time, turpentining faced problems and the Herty cup and gutter method of gum collection solved only some of them. Stills were prone to fires, even explosions. Steam cleaning and distillation mostly took care of that threat and replaced scores of fire stills across the turpentine belt. Shallower streaks and use of an acid solution made gum run longer and with less damage to trees.

However, by the middle of the 20th century, the industry faced greater challenges. One was competition for the basic resource — trees. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of pine trees in the South was flooded with an even greater market for lumber to build the nation's growing cities. Added to the demand was the product of Charles Herty's other great discovery — how to break down the fiber of pine trees to make paper bags and corrugated boxes. Property owners often sold their trees to feed the hunger of the paper mills before those pines were large enough to be used for either saw timber or turpentining. Now there is a market for trees that will be chipped up and glued in sheets as pressed board.

There also were market problems as alternative products were developed. One was tall oil, a by-product of the pulp and paper process, which can be used for many of the same purposes as turpentine. Latex paint cut deeply into the market for oil-based paint, further reducing the demand for turpentine.

Another challenge was a labor dilemma, finding someone to do the hard work that had always paid little. The trickle of African-Americans from south to north that began after the Civil War became a flood during and after World War II. Low profit margins for products from the turpentine industry made it difficult for producers to pay competitive wages and comply with wage and hour law requirements. The time of the "tar heel" had passed.

The invasion of the turpentine beetles was the back breaker. They are blind and stupid, but have an uncanny sense of smell. They readily discover injuries to pine trees and use them to invade. Boring deeply and quickly, they kill the trees. If the problem is discovered soon enough and the trees are big enough and numerous enough to interest a buyer, a landowner can salvage some income. Otherwise, the infected trees should be destroyed to get rid of the borers. Obviously, a forest of trees regularly injured to produce a flow of gum is a banquet table for these beetles and is doomed. All effective pesticides are deemed dangerous to the environment and their broad scale use is forbidden.

By the 1960s, turpentining was in retreat. By 1980, only two commercial steam processing plants were in operation — the large FRP Company in Baxley and the smaller "Choo-Choo" facility in Vidalia. An old-style fire still that had been moved to the Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village in Tifton was and is run once a year by master technician David King. In 1982, the Carter still in Portal, the only one at its original location, was restored as a living museum and is run each year in October, also under King's direction.

Interestingly, this nadir of the industry has come at a time when demand for its products is high. Rosin, once the less valuable product, is now in high demand. Its use in rosin-core solder is a driving force because it is necessary in making connections in electric and electronic devices from cell phones to satellites.

Although the U.S. is the most prolific consumer of all such products, China is the dominant producer. While this is convenient for China since it leads the world in the manufacturing of electronics, it is potentially an issue for the U.S. in matters of security and defense. No one in Washington seems to be informed, much less alarmed.

The United States Department of Agriculture could encourage development of environmentally safe chemicals to control turpentine beetles. Better still, why not an eradication or control effort like the one that wiped out the screw worm or the one that controls the boll-weevil? 

One positive development is a different technique for collecting gum. Called the "bore hole method," it begins with boring a hole into a tree near its base. A short piece of PVC pipe is inserted to drain the gum and a long, narrow plastic bag is attached to collect the gum. Its damage to the tree is minimal and never requires further injury. Sprayed with boric acid, it is less likely to attract beetles. A large tree can support more than one bore hole. Since trash cannot get into the collection bag, the quality of the gum is virtually perfect. There is little impact on the tree's future value as saw timber.

However, the bore hole method produces much less gum than facing. Greater accessibility for machinery is required for it to work effectively. Over the long haul, what is needed is a system of large plots planted in a design that will allow machine access for tapping the trees and removing the bags filled with gum. That means waiting several years for trees to reach maturity and a much smaller number of trees per acre than is true of current planted forests. Enlightened policies from the USDA could encourage this economic patience on the part of land owners.

There are some new, small-scale operations, including new distillation technology. To date, demand for both turpentine and rosin has been strong. A French-owned factory has opened in Effingham County. It is using materials from pulp and paper companies in the region, but reportedly is ready to use traditional products if and when they become available.

It is too early to say that a new era for turpentining is just over the horizon. However, a region that sorely needs a new, dependable economic engine waits in hope.


Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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