This is the fourth in a series on turpentining in the U.S.
On a sabbatical visit to Europe in 1900, Charles H. Herty, a chemist at the University of Georgia, heard a German professor describe as "murderous" the boxing method of gum collection used in the United States. He also observed the use of metal cups for that purpose in France. Upon his return, he became a crusader for change.
In 1901, he tested a cup and gutter method on a plot in Statesboro. Simply, a cup was attached to a pine with a nail below metal gutters that directed gum into the cup from an area where the bark had been removed. The following year, he continued his research in Ocilla. His method produced more gum of higher quality than the boxing system and was less destructive.
Although he published his results and proclaimed the worth of his method at every opportunity, producers did not respond with great enthusiasm. One problem was cost to which he responded with the invention of the "Herty Cup," an inexpensive clay cup with a hole for a nail at the top. Still, the galvanized metal strips for the gutters were another cost, as were new tools for "streaking" the trees in place of axes and hatchets.
The Herty method offered so many advantages that it soon replaced boxing. Not only was it less destructive and much more productive, but it also extended the productive life of trees. Cups could be moved up the trees year after year, extending the working face upward to 8-10 feet. Moreover, large trees could be "faced" on the other side so that they could produce for several years.
However, the Herty Cup was vulnerable, subject to accidental breakage and cold weather destruction when collected water froze. Various alternatives were tried: thick glass, round metal, V-shaped metal. The winner was a rectangular cup made of galvanized metal that extended the full width of the face. It was supported by a large nail underneath and fit snugly under its metal gutter. Much later, a thick plastic version was tried, but the unbreakable, annually reusable, rectangular "tar cup" was the standard for decades.
Herty's innovation pushed this extractive industry to new levels. Although not truly a crop, it was often compared to agricultural activities and in 1920 was second only to cotton in the amount of money it brought to Georgians. In that year there were 20 stills in Bulloch County alone. Georgia led the nation in production of turpentine and rosin except for a few years when Florida surged ahead before dropping back into second place.
What follows is a brief description of three basic steps in the extraction of gum, nature's bounty in turpentining. They are cupping, "streaking" and dipping. All labor was "piece work" with wages based on units of production accomplished For, example, the woods rider tallied the number of cups a worker attached to trees daily and checked on the quality of the work. Those who put fresh "streaks" on trees to make gum run were assigned a certain number of trees and paid on that basis. Dippers were paid by the number of barrels filled.
Cupping typically was done in late winter, the off season before warm weather made "the sap rise." When trees were cupped for the first time, it was called "hanging virgin." The bark in the area for the cup and gutter was leveled. Gutters were angled into one another and were either inserted into the tree in slits made by an ax with a curved blade to fit the tree or attached by nails with double heads that made it easy to remove them at the end of the season.
Where trees had been worked the previous season, cups and gutters were moved up the tree to the point where the last streak had been made the previous year. This work was often done by two-man teams. At the completion of work on a tree, the cupper called out his personal signal to inform the woods rider to enter another tally.
"Streaking" means using a sharp tool to remove bark above the gutter and cup to cause gum to flow. This does not damage the tree as badly as boxing, but each streak is still a wound. Eventually, the depth of the streak was reduced to just beneath the bark. One angled stroke from each side resulted in a flat, wide V that reminded some of the way cats' whiskers grow, thus, the term "cat face."
Two types of tools were used to make the cuts. The hack, used when the work was lower, had a U-shaped steel cutting edge that was fit into a short, stout wooden handle with a weight on the bottom end. The purpose of the weight was to pull the blade through the bark, reducing strain on workers' arms and backs. It was tricky to use, often called a "knee buster."
As streaking moved higher up the tree, the tool used was the puller. It had a flatter cutting edge, shaped a bit like an open box. This blade was fitted into a sturdy, flat handle about two inches wide. Its length varied with the height of the faces being worked. Both of these cutting tools were kept sharp. Workers carried files with them and used them often.
Dippers went from tree to tree to collect gum from the cups at intervals, dictated by how fast gum was flowing, faster in hot weather with ample rainfall. They carried with them metal dip buckets that ranged in volume from five to seven gallons. The dipper took the full cup off its nail with one hand and scraped the gum into the bucket with a flat rectangular paddle, usually made of wood.
When a bucket was full, the dipper took it to the "bunch ground," an area accessible by a mule-drawn wagon or sledge where empty barrels were deposited to be filled with gum. A dipper would leave one bucket draining into a barrel and pick up an empty one to return to his task until every cup had been emptied.
At the end of the season, dippers returned to gather the "scrape," the hardened layer of gum accumulated on the face over the course of the year. A tool similar to the puller but with wider face was used to scrape this material into a wide collection container to be taken to barrels and ultimately distilled. It was not as good as fresh gum but still valuable.
Woods work was difficult, sometimes dangerous. However, it was the very heart of an important extractive industry that touched the lives of millions and might do so again.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.