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2/8/17- Turpentine Farms

By Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist

The days between deer season and turkey season are a very important time to those who want to do some scouting; scouting deer that got away this season and scouting turkeys that are already strutting and gobbling in many areas (thanks to the crazy weather). Some of us are lucky enough to stumble across a little bit of history while we are out and about. Recently, I was walking through some virgin timber in Clarke County and I came across not one but several trees that were used for the retrieval of turpentine. I decided to do some research into these “catheads” and this is what I found.

Many, many years ago, Alabama was covered in dense longleaf forests that were heavily managed by severe lightning storms and had little to no understory. This became the scene of turpentine retrieval. Mobile County, Tuscaloosa County, and many counties in between became desirable distilling sites between the mid nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. The distilling of turpentine provided fuel and the resin was used in many varnishes and soap industries, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama. This development became very important to the economic success of Alabama, and the turpentine business took off like a wildfire. The turpentine farmers relied on the labor of slaves and/or convicts to perform the many hours of “chipping and dipping” on pine trees in South Alabama. The Encyclopedia goes on to say that even the naval industry got their hands in it and used the pitch from the pine trees as caulk for their wooden ships.

It is believed that the turpentine business began in Mobile County as early as 1777. However, the business really got going after lightweight stills were invented in 1834. The stills allowed the turpentine farmers to set up as close as possible to the harvesting sites, reducing their production costs. In the 1840s, the rubber industry (which required turpentine) began to grow, as well as the need for turpentine to fuel households and their oil lamps or the need of resin for soap. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the turpentine season lasted eight months out of the year. The labor intensive process began in November when workers would cut a box in the tree using axes. They then inserted Herty boxes made out of terra-cotta clay to catch the sap. In order to release the sap from the trees, the workers would chip streaks (looked like catheads) into the tree with an implement called a hack. This process lasted for about 34 weeks and allowed the sap to ooze out of the tree into the box. Around April, the workers began to scoop out the liquid known as gum out of the boxes and transferred them into buckets. The layer of gum was then transferred into 40 gallon barrels and the barrel was relocated to a distillery nearby or one of the lightweight stills located at the harvesting site, as previously mentioned. The entire process ultimately killed the tree, quickly destroying thousands and thousands of acres of pine trees in Alabama. Turpentine farmers and their workers would move from site to site depending on how depleted the pine tree crop was. That is why the lightweight, portable stills were so important to this industry. By 1860, the turpentine farms were producing $642,000 and quickly expanding.

Once the gum reached the distillery, it was boiled, divided, and ultimately produced turpentine and resin. After the Civil war, the formation of railroads had a huge impact on the turpentine business. It allowed turpentine farmers and their workers to venture into virgin forests they were once unable to reach. It also allowed them to send the gum to distilleries that were once out of reach. Convicts became more and more valuable as freed slaves refused to continue the strenuous labor. As time went on the, the process became more and more elaborate with the expansion of paper mills and pulpwood mills, which ultimately replaced human labor with machines that performed the labor in ¼ of the time. Fast forward to 2017; pulpwood is used to make turpentine which is now used as a supplemental fuel. The process now takes all of 10 minutes and the decks of paper mills are filled with chipped and stripped trees.

I am fascinated by little piece of history I found in Clarke County. It just so happens that Clarke County is where Col. R.D. James began a turpentine operation in 1855. The Encyclopedia of Alabama says that this location produced 1,060,000 gallons of turpentine and 130,000 barrels (40 gallon barrels) of resin per year. I can only believe that my little piece of virgin timber once was the site of turpentine retrieval and was a huge part of Alabama history.

Please visit encyclopediaofalabama.org to learn more about this historical practice!

By: Red Clay

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