By Ted Hunt
Florida is renowned for its picturesque beaches, tropical climate, theme parks and citrus industry. However, beneath this vacation paradise lies a lesser-known historical treasure — the early turpentine industry. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Florida played a major role in this booming industry, tapping into the liquid gold of its vast pine forests.
The foundation of Florida’s turpentine industry lay in the abundant Longleaf Pine forests that covered much of the state. These majestic trees stood as tall sentinels, their trunks harboring a valuable resource known as gum resin/sap or crude turpentine. Turpentine was a sought-after commodity in a rapidly industrializing world.
Turpentine: A Centuries Old Industry
For centuries, navy powers worldwide with their wooden ships relied on what’s referred to as naval stores to build and keep their ships afloat. Naval refers to ships. Stores refers to supplies. Naval stores are the products essential to the construction, maintenance and operation of wooden ships — lumber, masts, ropes, sails and sealing materials for the hulls and decks. The main product to support the industry was the sap of the pine tree, which was called crude turpentine — aka Liquid Gold. Crude turpentine when distilled, results in products called spirits of turpentine, rosin, pine tar and pitch.
When settlers came to America they found millions of acres of Longleaf Pine forests in the southeastern section of the country, a scarce commodity for European nations with wooden fleets. The naval stores industry quickly developed and farmers began to tap the pine tree for its sap and distilling it for the thirsty industry. The process became known as turpentining.
By the 1840s, the increased demand for naval stores made the process attractive to large Southern plantation owners. Next to cotton and rice, naval stores became one of the South’s greatest exports. There was big money to be made.
Florida’s Abundant Pine Forests
Over time, the production of turpentine in the Carolinas and Georgia led to the destruction of the pine forests. Seeking new timber, the industry turned south to Florida with its vast Longleaf Pine forests. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, Florida was a major supplier of worldwide naval stores and other turpentine products. Turpentine camps were established throughout North Central Florida. The camps provided housing and a commissary for countless workers and their families. They worked thousands of acres of pines, and when the trees were depleted of their sap, after about 10 years, the camps would be converted to lumber mills and then harvest the trees.
Many trees were used for ship masts. Those not working in the mills would move to another strand of pines and start turpentining all over again. Many stayed behind and built homes, churches and schools and developed the Florida small rural towns that exist today.
Tapping That Liquid Gold
To reach the tree sap, turpentine workers removed the pine bark up to a height of more than seven feet. Once debarked, pine trees secreted sap/crude turpentine onto the surface of the wound as a protective measure to seal the opening. Workers would cut V-shaped channels down the length of the trunks to guide the running sap into containers/cups. The V-shaped cuts were called cat faces for their resemblance to a cat’s whiskers. The sap was collected and put into wooden kegs and transported by wagons, pulled by mules, to turpentine camps for distillation.
At the turpentine camp, the crude turpentine was heated in large copper kettles, vaporized and the vapor then condensed in a cooling tower – Basic distillation. The refined product was called spirits of turpentine, from which many byproducts were produced.
Spirits of turpentine was used as a substitute for whale oil in lamps (a necessity on ships), in paints, inks and medicines. And yes, they swallowed it and also used it in enemas. Today, it’s widely used in the chemical industry, shoe polish, crayons, vapor rubs and in perfumes as a fragrance. Who remembers the fresh, clean, pine scent of Pine-Sol?
Rosin is the sticky substance left at the bottom of the copper kettle after turpentine distillation. It was used and still is, in soaps, sealing varnishes, sealing wax, adhesives and for waterproofing leather. Today you will also find it in sodas, printing inks, paper, medicines and chewing gum. Speaking of baseball, next time you watch a major league game (if ever), that small white bag on the pitcher’s mound is full of sticky rosin powder. It helps pitchers combat sweat and moisture to get a firm grip on the baseball.
Pine tar is produced by putting pine wood along with pine tree roots into a kiln/oven. The tar is drawn out of the wood into containers. It was essential as a wood sealer on the planks of wooden ships and to waterproof the ships ropes. Medically, it was used to cauterize (burn the flesh) wounds to stop bleeding and also to sterilize amputations. Today it’s used to treat dry, itchy, flaky or inflamed skin conditions and in insect repellants. Back to baseball, it’s used by batters to enhance the grip on the bat. It’s that black substance on the base of the bat.
Pitch is made by boiling pine tar that is mixed with a small amount of turpentine. This makes the tar thicker that can be applied to the planking (boards) on ships, especially the planks below the water line. This waterproofed the planks and also helped prevent worm damage in tropical waters. Ships’ rigging (ropes) were also soaked in pitch then used as caulking between the planks to make them water tight. Today it’s used in the manufacture of roofing tar paper, greases, lubricants and cosmetics.
The Industry Declined but the Longleaf Survives Today
Florida’s turpentine production continued well into the late 1800s until the wide use of steel ships began the industry’s decline. Overharvesting of Longleaf Pines and the advent of synthetic alternatives added to the reduced demand for turpentine. By the 1920s many turpentine camps were abandoned. By 1970, after decades of consistent decline, the industry had all but disappeared. Today, Florida is known as a vacation paradise but its pivotal role in the turpentine industry was a vital chapter in the state’s history, driven by the bounty of its Longleaf Pine forests. The legacy of the thousands of turpentine workers and the liquid gold they extracted from the trees, endures as a testament to Florida’s everlasting spirit.