Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Turpentine Making

Another occupation that you wouldn't think much about today but is something that was quite popular in the 19th century, especially in the east coast Southern states was that of Turpentine making.

Below is a clipping from Trumbell White in "Our Wonderful Progress" ©1902

TURPENTINE AND RESIN
Dialect writers find a fruitful field among the "tar-heels" of the Carolinas, Alabama and Georgia. In the cool depths of the turpentine woods, with the gashed trees yielding up their resinous gum, the balmy air and the picturesque "hackers," "dippers" and "scrapers," with the ever-vigilant "rider" watching everything, is a phase in southern life which has long been the delight of authors and the pleasure of the artists. The crudity of the implements and the stills used in the making of turpentine and resin lends additional interest to this old industry, and the gypsy-like habits of the turpentine-makers add to their ragged, illiterate charms.

Turpentine is the distilled gum of the pine trees of North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and part of Florida. The season begins when the first spring sap rises and ends when cold weather checks the flow of the tree's blood. In January or February the "hacker," with his keenbl'cded ax, begins the round which ends with the season. He is the expert of the woods and knows his trees, and just how much hacking they will stand. His task is to cut the "boxes" in which the thick gum of the wounded tree will collect. A box is a wide incision about six inches deep, a wedge-shaped cut in the tree, and he hacks from 90 to 100 boxes a day. The first 'boxes at cut near the roots of the tree, and they are cut close together, to the height of a man's head, as can be done without killing the pine. The hacker leaves a width 'A bark between each box, so as to preserve the virality of the tree. When the trees are leased to the turpentine-makers the terms of the lease limit the number of boxes to each tree, but when it is desired to work the pine to the fullest extent the gashes are carried up to a height of twenty feet or more.

After the hacker comes the man who "corners" the boxes. This "corner" is a cut in the top of the box, to guide the sap into the cavities left for the gum, and the man who "works" the "crop" goes systematically from box to box, starting the sap anew with fresh incisions, working in this way 10,000 boxes during the season. The sap or gum fills the boxes with a clear, sticky, thick fluid, and this is removed by the "dipper." Scattered through the woods are barrels in which the "dipper" deposits the gum, which is then hauled to the still. About a quart of sap is taken from each box by means of the trowel-shaped scoop used by the dipper, and then the hacker comes along and starts the flow afresh by wounding the tree again. The turpentinemaker watches his men closely, for the tarheels are an easy-going people and require to be urged by the "rider," who goes through the woods on horseback, examining the crop, hurrying the dippers and hackers, and sending the barreled gum to the still.

The first or "virgin" sap, which flows in the spring, makes the best resin, and the poorest is the product of the hardened gum which is left on the sides of the boxes when the sap "turns down" in the fall. This is removed by the "scraper," who moves
through the woods with his scraping tool, gathering the leavings.

The still is a large copper vat, hooded with a close-fitting air-tight cover, in which is a funnel which in turn is connected with the worm of the stilL The worm runs down into another vat near at hand, and in this vat the fumes or vapors of the heated gum are distilled into turpentine. Fire under the copper beats the gum, and the volatile parts rise to the funnel, pass into the still and are condensed by the water in the second vat into spirits of turpentine. The residuum left in the vat is the resin of commerce, which is passed through a series of strainers and sieves to the barrels, which are made on the spot. The turpentine, however, cannot be barreled so easily, for it will work through an ordinary barrel. It is placed in white pine barrels, which have been coated inside with several coats of strong, hot glue, until the barrel is impervious to the subtle fluid.

The trees are worked for five or six seasons, and then the turpentine-maker moves to another part of the woods. He started in Xorth Carolina, crossed over to South Carolina, and is still moving toward the gulf. Forest fires destroy the pines faster than the hacker does, for the inflammable trees catch the sparks readily, and the flames sweep over the large areas before they die out. Careful owners of turpentine woods have the pine straw and fallen underbrush raked away from their trees before the season begins, and, collecting this material in some safe spot, wait for a quiet day, when there is no wind, and then they burn the rakings.

Negroes are the common laborers of the turpentine woods, but white men are plentiful. They live in rough shanties in the
D, with the stables for mules aud horses near at hand. No work is more healthful than turpentine making, for it is all out of doors in the depths of the balmy, health-giving pines, free from the malaria of the swamps and from sudden changes of weather.
end of quote

I found many turpentine makers in the 1860 census of one of the county's in Florida.

8 comments:

  1. I love this article; thanks... i want to learn how to make my own turpentine from my own pine forest ;)

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  2. I have really been looking for an explanation of this 19th century process because of my interest in 19th century medicine.

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    1. How to harvest the sap.
      From the memory: the pine tree is approx 12" dia. or more, the bark is removed from an area about 10"x10". At this area grooves are cut 1" spaced 1/4" w x 1/4" deep 45deg sloping down on both sides of the centerline of the area to make the resin to flow to a cup at the bottom centre.

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  3. Thanks for the wonderful article! Now I know what my relative was doing when he was listed as a Turpentine maker!

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  4. Thanks for the info. One of my writers critique group tried to tell me the sap was collected in the fall. I had written spring in my novel. Glad for your confirmation.

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  5. Growing up, my mother used to give us a teaspoon of sugar with turpentine freshly made to eliminate worms that we sometimes got going barefoot outdoors. While it tasted awful, we never got worms.

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  6. Have you encountered any tidbits on Native Americans using turpentine (or turpentine oil?) medicinally or in concoctions that were medicinal? Have an ancestor who got the recipe for such a concoction that contains turpentine. It's for external use (thank goodness whomever generated the mixture know enough not to take it internally).

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