Money  /  Dispatch

Turpentine in Time

The hard labor behind what was once one of the nation's most significant industries.

The early turpentine industry was built on the backs of enslaved African Americans, freemen, convicts, and sharecroppers. Convicts labored in this industry into the twentieth century. They did the hot, dirty, dangerous work of cutting the trees, gathering the resin, building barrels, and distilling the gum. Each worker had a specific job. First, eight to twelve inches above the tree’s base, a man chopped a box-like cavity into the tree trunk to a depth of seven inches. Another worker used a hack to remove the rough bark, exposing the inner wood. He then made two adjacent, V-shaped slashes on the face that caused the tree to “bleed” gum into the boxes. The slashes resembled the whiskers on a cat and became known as “catfacing.”

By 1903, the turpentine industry was in decline. The box-cutting method of collecting the gum resulted in weakening the tree and causing disease. The Herty Cup, made of molded clay and developed by Dr. Charles Herty, however, eliminated the need to cut a deep cavity and saved the industry. Workers inserted a metal gutter-apron into the tree’s cambium so that when gum oozed to the surface, it flowed down the apron into the attached cup. As the catface dried out each week, workers cut new ones above the old to start the flow again.

Once a month, a worker transferred the resin or gum from the clay vessel into a fifty-gallon barrel. One barrel contained 300 pounds of resin which could be distilled into 75 gallons of turpentine. Workers loaded these barrels onto a wagon and hauled them to a distilling station. Here, laborers dumped the resin into a large copper kettle set inside a wood-fired still. While the resin boiled, the distillation process began.

Connected to the kettle was a worm, or copper coil, that wound through a tub of water. As the boiling progressed, steam vapor traveled into the worm, condensing into water and turpentine spirits. Lighter than water, the turpentine rose to the top and drained into fifty-gallon barrels. The thicker resin flowed into a trough, seeping through three layers of hardware cloth to catch leaves and bark. Clean resin went into barrels ready for shipment. The entire operation took two to three hours.