Naval Stores – Distilling Turpentine

Chipping a Turpentine Tree

One of the Most Important Industries of the State of Georgia
Injuring the Magnificent Trees
Spirits, Resin, Tar, Pitch, and Crude Turpentine all from the Long Leaved Pine – “Naval Stores” So Called.

Dublin, Ga., May 8. – One of the most important industries of Georgia is the distilling of turpentine.  Here and there among the thick tracts of yellow pines, so numerous in South Georgia, can be found many turpentine farms, more properly called stills, which are fast sapping away the life of the magnificent timber in that section.  A visit to one of these stills is well worth the time.

When the production of the pine tree became known, the crude misnomer, “naval stores” was recognized by the commercial world as the fitting name for all articles of commerce manufactured from the long leaved pine.  The term is in general and exceedingly comprehensive use, but, as it is  on commercially used and understood, it embraces only those products of turpentine known as spirits, resin, tar, pitch, and crude turpentine.

American turpentine is chiefly obtained from the long-leaved pine, which is abundant on the coast of Georgia, the Carolinas, in the upper portion of Florida, and in the lower belt of Mississippi and Alabama.  Spirits, or oil, of turpentine is a volatile oil distilled from turpentine.  Resin is the residuum from the distillation of turpentine, when it is freed of the spirits of turpentine and water which it contains.  Tar is produced by burning the wood of the long-leaved pine in kilns, so constructed that tar is extracted from the wood without being consumed, it running from the bottom in a liquid state.  The residue is charcoal.

What is known to commerce as navy pitch remains after the oil has been extracted from the tar, and this was formerly the only way of obtaining it.  It is now produced by a combination of tar and dark resins.

Crude turpentine is produced by cutting during the Winter a hollow receptacle, called a box, in the lower part of the tree.  During the Spring and Summer the pores of the sappy portion of the tree are opened weekly by a slight cutting, which enables the turpentine to exude and run into the box, from which it is dipped, and placed in barrels for transportation to the distilleries.  Whatever remains during the Autumn, hardened on the face or side of the tree, has to be scraped off, and is generally put into separate barrels and sent to the still as scrapings.

Previous to 1820 the production of turpentine was very small, being confined to the regions of North Carolina between the Cape Fear River on the south and the Tar River on the North, the shipping depots being Wilmington, New-Berne, and Washington.  Little distillation was done.  Iron stills were used upon a plan different from that in present use.  Most of the products went to Northern ports, and the rest was shipped to Great Britain in the crude state.  Up to 1836 the getting of turpentine was confined to a space between the two above-named rivers and within twenty-five miles of the shipping points, the quantity produced being sufficient for the consumption of this country and for export to Great Britain.

In 1834 great improvements were made in distillation by the use of copper stills, when the product was increased, and new distilleries were erected at the shipping points.  In 1836 the manufacture of India rubber goods caused a new demand for spirits of turpentine, increasing the value greatly, and creating a demand for new territory near shipping points.  Up to this time it was considered that the country on the west and south sides of the Cape Fear River would not yield turpentine.  A test was made in 1837, the error was discovered, and the business was rapidly extended.  After 1840 many of the operators left the old region to work in the new.  Up to 1844 no distilling was done away from the shipping points, all turpentine being sent in from the country in a crude state and it was manufactured about as follows: One-fourth in North Carolina, one-fourth in Northern cities, and one-half in Great Britain.  Some spirits of turpentine was used for illuminating purposes as early as 1832, in mixture with high-proof alcohol, and called “spirit gas.”

About 1840 rectified spirits of turpentine began to be used largely as an illuminator under the names of camphene, pine oil, &c.  The mixture with alcohol, furnished under various names and at cheaper rates when the patent right expired, was the cheapest light known until the discovery of petroleum, which has entirely displaced it.  The increased demand for spirits of turpentine caused the production to increase, and the gathering extended to the States south, embracing South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.  The quantity of resin produced exceeded the demand and was not worth the cost of handing, even at the ports.  This caused distilling to be done as near producing points as possible, which carried into the country numerous distilleries.  A new demand, however, sprang up for resin, as it became extensively used in the manufacture of varnishes and soap and numerous other articles.  Previous to 1846 the tariff of Great Britain was such as to exclude imports of spirits of turpentine and resin, but when free trade was established in spirits and resin, as well as crude turpentine, shipments were made in all grades, the manufactured increasing and the crude decreasing up to 1861, when business became closed by the breaking out of the war.

Upon the opening of business, in 1865, there was some stock of spirits and resin on hand in the South, which, with old crude on hand, constituted the business until the new crop of 1866 came into the market since which time the production has continued regularly, but did not at any time prior to 1875 equal that of 1860.  The many uses of the product of petroleum, which spirits of turpentine had before answered, greatly reduced the demand and caused prices in some localities to be unremunerative, especially off the rivers and railroads, the hauling being too expensive, and besides, the cost of production was too great, as a vast number of the trees had been overworked, especially in that section of North Carolina where turpentine was first produced.  The operators then sought new fields, and numbers of North Carolinians came to Georgia.  The vast forests of virgin pine trees in this State offered to the experienced turpentine producers a new and remunerative field of operations, and for twenty-five years the production of naval stores increased rapidly in this State, being a financial success to those interested, and at the same time making Savannah the leading shipping point and the largest market in the world.

As is too well known among those directly interested, the naval-store trade during the last three seasons has suffered from the effects of overproduction, and the industry continues to suffer, being further depressed by the recent financial stringency, which has greatly curtailed the domestic demand for spirits and resin.  At present the price of naval store is very low. In fact. Almost below the cost of production, but, with the determination among the operators to reduce the production, it is hoped there is a better future for the business generally.  The receipts of spirits of turpentine and resin at Savannah for the year 1893, in round numbers, were about 257,000 casks of turpentine and 950,000 barrels of resin, which was about three-fourths of the entire crop of the United States.

In this State, as trees from time to time have been exhausted, they have been cut into sawmill lumber, and all through Georgia the millman follows in the wake of the turpentine operator and cuts timber which previously has served to produce turpentine.  Some old trees in North Carolina have been chipped constantly for twenty years.  It does not pay, however, to continue the operations longer than three or four years, as the yield becomes so diminished that the expense of production over-balances the value of the product.

It may be interesting to many to understand how turpentine products are obtained from the tree.  The original product of the pine is of two sorts-turpentine and tar.  Turpentine is the sap of the tree, obtained by making incisions in its trunk.  It begins to exude about the middle of March, when the circulation commences, and flows with increasing abundance as the weather grows warmer, so that May and June are the most productive months.  When the circulation is slackened by the chills of Autumn, the operation is discontinued, and the remainder of the year is occupied in preparatory labors for the following season.  The first thing is the making of boxes.  This is done in January and February.  In the base of each tree, about three or four inches from the ground on the south side, a cavity is formed, commonly of the capacity of a quart, but proportioned to the size of the trunk, of which it should occupy a quarter of the diameter; in trunks of more than six feet in circumference, two and sometimes four, boxes are made, on opposite sides.

Next comes the raking or cleaning of the ground at the foot of the trees from leaves and herbage.  “Cornering’ is merely making at the sides of the box two oblique gutters about three inches long, to conduct into it the sap, which exudes from the wound.  In the interval of a fortnight, which is employed in this operation, the first boxes become filled with sap.  An iron paddle, or rather dipper, is used to transfer it to the pails, which, in turn, are emptied into casks placed at convenient distances.  To increase the product, the upper edge of the box is “chipped” once a week, the bark and a portion of the sap wood being removed to the depth of half an inch.  The boxes fill every three weeks, and the turpentine thus procured is the best and is called “pure dipping” or “virgin.”

The chippings extend the first year eighteen inches above the box, to remove the sap coagulated on the surface of the wound.  The closing of the pores, occasioned by the continuous rains sometimes, exacts the same remedy, and it is to be remarked that the product is less abundant in moist and cool seasons. The virgin tree becomes a yearling the second year, and the chipping is continued up the tree, above the wounds made the previous year.  The product is not as good as the “virgin dip” and continues to depreciate in quality and quantity each year it is worked, until finally it is abandoned.  It is reckoned that fifty boxes yield a barrel containing 320 pounds.  Some hands can hack 10,500 boxes, others only 8,000, which is considered an easy task.  Generally, 10,500 trees yield, in ordinary years, 200 barrels of dip turpentine and 50 of scrapings the first year, which supposes the boxes to be emptied six of seven times during the season.  The scrapings is a coating of sap, which becomes solid before it reaches the boxes, and which is taken off in the Fall of the year.  The stripped trees become white with the resinous sap, and on a dark night one would take a turpentine farm for a huge cemetery.  One new-comer, who recently came from the North, was heard to remark that he always thought South Georgia was unhealthy, but after seeing one of these seemingly large cemeteries he knew it.  He packed his grip and left on the first train.

Spirits of turpentine is procured by distilling the turpentine in large copper retorts.  The crude turpentine is dumped into the retort, and the fire started in the furnace under the kettle.  After the water which is contained in the crude turpentine is evaporated, more water must be injected in the kettle.  The fire is kept up and the operator watches closely the process of boiling.  The “singing of the kettle” tells the operator in unmistakable notes the condition of the mass within, and he is thus notified when less or more fire or more water is required in the process.  As the vapor arises from the mass of turpentine, it enters the “worm” which it attached to the kettle, and as it passes through it condenses and runs out at the other end of the worm into a barrel, which is so arranged as to allow the spirits to flow from it into another barrel, while the water settles to the bottom, and is let off when that portion of the barrel is so full as to come above the point where the spirit flows out.  The spirits is then dipped from the second barrel and poured into casks for market.  One cask of virgin dip turpentine yields about forty-eight gallons of spirits.

All of the tar made in the Southern States is from the dead wood of the “long-leaved” pine, consisting of limbs and trees prostrated by time and other causes.  As soon as the vegetation ceases, in any part of the tree, its consistence speedily changes; the sap decays, the heart, already impregnated with resinous juice, becomes to such an extent as to double its weight in a year; the accumulation is said to be much greater after four or five years.  This general fact may be proved by comparing  woods of trees recently felled and of others long since dead.  To produce tar a kiln is formed in a part of the forest that abounds in dead wood.  This collected, stripped of the sap, and cut into billets two or three feet long and about three inches thick─a task rendered long and difficult by knobs.  The next step is to dig a ditch, in which is formed a receptacle for the tar as it flows out.  Upon the surface of the mound, beaten hard and coated with clay, the wood is laid in a circle.  The pile, when finished, may be compared to a cone truncated at two-thirds of its height and reversed, being 20 feet in diameter below, 25 feet above, and 10 or 12 feet high.

A layer of pine leaves is then placed over the wood, and this is then covered with earth, and curtained at the sides with a slight cincture of wood.  This covering is necessary in order that the fire kindled at the top may penetrate to the bottom, with a slow and gradual combustion.  If the whole mass were rapidly imflamed, the operation would fail, and the labor in part be lost.  A kiln to afford from 100 to 150 barrels of tar is eight or nine days burning; as the tar flows off into the ditch, it is dipped into barrels made of the same species of wood.  Besides the spirits and resin, essence of tar is made, which is also a fine medicine, and pitch, which brings a fair price.  Sometimes the resin is mixed with cotton or cottonseed, which makes an excellent fuel and burns like soft coal.

It is beneficial to invalids, especially consumptives, to reside on a turpentine farm.   To breathe the atmosphere when the trees are being worked is health to any one.  The turpentine, acting of the lungs, kidneys, and the whole system, gives on a new life.  The largest naval-store merchants in this section of the State are the Messrs. Pritchett, who have stills at Tollie, in Laurens County, in charge of Mr. George Pritchett; one at Lothair, in Montgomery County, under the supervision of Mr. William Pritchett, and another at Willingham, in Worth County.

From The New York Times – Published May 9, 1895

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