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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Turpentining: Revolutions change the world of naval stores
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

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

The early period of production of tar and pitch for ships in the colonies saw many family-based operations primarily in North Carolina, although it could be found in South Carolina, Georgia and other places where useful pines were abundant and seaports were accessible.

A closed market system between England and the colonies was disrupted by the American Revolution and birth of the United States. No doubt it depressed production for a time. Perhaps this factor and the pull of available land in Georgia after major cessions by the Creeks led to the influx of settlers into southeastern Georgia from eastern North Carolina. If so, they came as herdsmen and small-scale farmers rather than "tar heels" likely because swamp and river systems made transportation to the port of Savannah difficult.

The naval stores market in Carolina soon began to flourish. England still had to have pitch and tar, even more so as Napoleon Bonaparte stirred up Europe with his empire building. France, ally of the rebelling colonies during the Revolution, was also in the market for tar and pitch. More importantly, the new nation was building its own modest navy and rapidly expanding a worldwide commercial fleet.

High profits led to the development of large-scale naval stores' operations using slave labor. Woods activities were organized around isolated, semi-autonomous villages or "camps." These were the centers for the extraction of gum and in time for processing as well. Vegetable gardening was encouraged, but most of the necessities were brought in by the owner. The producer/supervisor and the woodsrider in charge of workers in the woods were white, but slaves bore the burden of the heavy labor.

Then a second revolution, the Industrial Revolution, made its way to the United States. With it came hundreds of new uses for processed pine products. The key was the adaptation of an old technology well known to the Scots, the Irish and their British kin-distillation. Invented in 1834, the copper still, looking very much like a larger version of a whiskey still, quickly replaced the cast iron retort then in limited use. A newly valued product was spirits of turpentine, extracted from raw gum by distillation.

Spirits of turpentine had many practical uses, including replacement of whale oil as fuel for lamps and reducing dependence upon candles. An important industrial application was to "dress" the leather belts that linked moving machinery from steam boiler to productive units like spinning and weaving machines. Constant passage over spindles made the leather slick, but a coating of turpentine restored its grip. Other uses include paint, paint thinner, paint remover, cleaner, disinfectant, perfume and cosmetics, to name a few of many. Regular folks used -- and still use -- it as a disinfectant for fresh injuries and insist that it promotes healing. They also use it medically to treat sore throats and coughs (a few drops on a spoon full of sugar). There is evidence to support their practices.

Turpentine production required innovation in barrel production. Because it quickly penetrates wood, leading to loss of product and risk of fire or explosion, it had to be placed into barrels completely coated inside with a special glue impervious to its power as a solvent. This and other challenges had to be met because spirits of turpentine had become the dominant, most profitable product. That itself was a revolution.

The other product of distillation was rosin and it certainly was not unimportant. It emerged from the still as a hot liquid and, after straining and filtering through cotton batting, was stored in barrels where it cooled and became a solid. It could be heated to be used in all of the other applications of pitch and tar. However, it was also used in the production of explosives, lacquers, varnishes and other commercial products.

It is commonly encountered in other ways. No stringed instrument played with a bow makes any sound until the performer "rosins up the bow." Baseball pitchers regularly step to the back of the mound to dust their throwing hands with powder from the "rosin bag" to improve their grip on the ball. Rosin is "tacky" in the positive meaning of the word.

Supportive industries emerged. Large copper works produced stills and other components. Other companies produced barrel staves of the size and shape to make standardized 50 gallons barrels, steel straps to hold them together and barrel heads to seal them. They were then assembled in cooper's sheds at the stills.

These are the basic steps in distillation. Raw gum is emptied into a thick copper container called the kettle, which is completely encased in brick and set atop a furnace. Carefully controlled fire heats the gum to the steaming point. A large, pear-shaped copper collector placed over the opening atop the kettle is attached to a "goose neck," a long copper tube, which directs the steaming vapor into a huge condensing coil called "the worm."

The worm is surrounded by a large wooden vat filled with water to cool its contents, which emerge into the "spirits house" as a liquid combination of turpentine and water. In a gravitational process, the lighter turpentine is separated and stored and the heavier water is discarded.

After all of the turpentine has been cooked out, the remaining rosin is allowed to cool a bit and then emptied from the kettle through a "tail gate" on the side opposite the spirits house. The rosin is strained, filtered and stored, originally in barrels but now in metal containers.

With distillation and the rise of large-scale operations, the processing of gum to finished product moved into the woods as part of the turpentine camps. A still crew headed by a "stiller," who might or might not be white, and a cooper became part of the village and a bit higher in status than the woods workers.

Even after the Civil War severed the bonds of slavery, the structure of the camps remained much the same. Lacking skills that would translate into jobs in the North, many of the former slaves remained where they were, doing the things they had done before. They bought most of the things they needed from the camp commissary at elevated prices, sometimes with script used in place of money by the owner. Many never ever paid off their debts, tied to the producer in a system labeled "debt peonage" by my late colleague Dr. Richard Persico.

It was a system of economic control mirrored in the coal mines of Appalachia, the steel mills of Pennsylvania and Alabama, and the cotton mills or garment factories of the South. As Tennessee Ernie Ford sang, "Saint Peter don't you call me, `cause I cain't go. I owe my soul to the company store."


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

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