On a sunny Saturday in Portal hundreds of folks gathered along main street to launch the 29th Catface Country Turpentine Festival with the annual parade.
Led by local public safety personnel, the mayor, dozens of floats, numerous beauty queens and the Portal High school cheerleaders passed by the cheering throngs.
The parade signals the beginning of two days when Portal becomes the place to be in Bulloch County. As the parade ended, people quickly headed to the festival grounds. Festival goers enjoyed carnival rides and games, numerous food vendors, entertainment of all kinds and, of course, the old E.C. Carter Turpentine Still and Museum awaited.
The star of the festival was the fresh "turpentine spirits" that were trickling into a wooden barrel to the delight of the crowd over in the Still House. An almost clear liquid, many in the crowd could not believe that it wasn't just water until they took a sniff from a jar filled with the turpentine pouring into the barrel.
Also in the Still House were Roger Branch and Gay Wright. Branch, a professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Georgia Southern for some 30 years, and Wright, who wrote her Masters thesis at the University of Georgia on the social aspects of turpentining, were busy telling people the history of being a turpentine farmer to their rapt audience.
Over by the still, a huge copper vat of almost 3,000 pounds of turpentine gum were placed in order to “charge” the still. Unfortunately, as no “gum” is available in the United States, what was used came from Mexico.
David King, from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton, was the “stillmaster,” supervising the whole process. King helps run the two last operating turpentine stills in the United States: here in Portal every October, and then at the Georgia Agri-Rama held every February.
Busy checking the copper coils in the water tank, and lending his expertise in many other ways, was Emanuel County's Forest Ranger Doug Chassereau. It turns out his grandfather, David Butler, was a turpentiner and gum buyer, whose Bryan County operation was where Chassereau spent much of his youth.
Chassereau said that there are several reasons turpentining in Georgia, which produced the finest finished product in the world, has died out. First and foremost, he said, turpentining is incredibly labor-intensive. The process of collecting and distilling cannot reasonably be mechanized but must be done by hand.
Secondly, it competes for the trees. He explained that a tree that has been “tapped” cannot be cut for saw-timber and therefore is considered a loss to the timber farmer. What with the prices being paid for board feet, it was never a question which way the wood would be used. He said that the "spirits" were being sold as souvenirs of the fair. and very little if any would be used commercially.
The Catface Festival is open today from noon until 5:30 p.m.. Admission is free, and all the games, rides, food and fun will be open. And so will the opportunity to witness the vanishing art of turpentining, which was the heart and soul of the economy in Bulloch County for many years.