Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Turpentine Still

In the late spring of 1942 our family moved from the house in the cemetery to an old house by a turpentine still, about two miles northeast of Chipley and a half mile or so north of the road that goes east from Chipley to Campbellton. We moved there because Holly, my stepfather, had taken a job chipping boxes for a Mr. Cook, who was either the owner or manager of the turpentine operations.  The house went with the job.

The turpentine operations involved the still and considerable timber acreage -  land heavily forested with pine trees, which at the time was given over to the production of the pine sap from which turpentine and its derivative products were made.  The turpentine was produced by the boiling and distillation of the pine sap, hence the term "still".

At some distance from the still was a group of simple frame houses that had been erected years before to house the timber workers and their families. These houses were quite small, were constructed of rough, unfinished lumber, and sat on wooden blocks cut from large trees. In place of normal windows the houses had rectangular openings in the walls. The "windows" were closed by pulling in wooden shutters which hung on hinges. There were no screens. It was to one of those houses that we moved.
Worker's house near the turpentine still.
Not long after we moved to this place a neighbor from across the street came over one Saturday night and got Holly to go over to his place to hear the new song that Roy Acuff was singing on the radio. The song was "WABASH CANNON BALL".
That man had a big Indian motorcycle which he kept parked on the front porch. That was the first motorcycle that I ever saw, and I was always fascinated by it. I can picture it now exactly as it appeared then.
Chipping boxes consisted of cutting slanted gashes on the face of pine trees so that their sap would run down the tree and into a retangular tin cup or "box" at the base of the tree. The proper name for the sap from pine trees is resin, but country folk called it "rosin".

The slanted gashes were made with a curved cutting tool designed for the purpose.  The first gashes on a tree would be made by chipping, using a short staff which had the cutting tool on one end, and a rounded solid steel weight on the other end, which helped to carry the chipping action through. Thus the term "chipping".   After the gashes had been made to a height almost to one's shoulder, it was necessary to use a long slender pole with the cutting tool attached to the end. This was called "pulling" boxes. Still, one in this line of work was said to be "chipping boxes".

Chipping Boxes
A worker engaged to chip boxes would be given a territory containing an estimated number of "boxes", and would be paid a certain salary per month to properly work the boxes. "Working the boxes" included placement of the boxes, chipping the gashes, collecting the rosin and depositing it in barrels, and assisting with the loading of the barrels onto flatbed trucks.  The worker operated alone and set his own schedule, but was subject to random inspection by the timber owner or his superintendent.   The average pay for such workers was around seven to ten dollars per week.

The first chipping of a tree began with single left and right slanted cuts about a foot above the ground.  Additional cuts would be made later, directly above the first ones. I don't recall how many cuts might be made in a particular season, but it took several years to obtain the full yield from a tree.

The worker would go through all of his territory chipping the gashes, then return to his starting point to begin emptying any boxes that may have filled from previous cuts, using a small paddle to scoop the rosin from the box into a large bucket which was flat on one side so as to be carried easily. When the bucket was filled it would be emptied into a huge barrel made of wood staves. When a barrel was filled it would be sealed with a wooden lid and a plug, a large flatbed truck would be driven around, two wooden pole runners would be laid from the ground to the truck body, and the barrels would be rolled up onto the bed of the truck.

When the truck was fully loaded the barrels would be taken to town and placed on a platform at the L & N railroad station for shipment to to a turpentine still, where the rosin (resin) would be boiled and distilled into the liquid called turpentine, a liquid spirits similar to kerosene. The distillation process yielded other products known as "naval stores", so called because in earlier times they were used as preservative and maintenance agents on wooden ships.

Loading platform at railroad station in Chipley, FL.
I often accompanied Holly on his rounds chipping boxes. He always took time as he went along to explain this or that to me, but I often had to run to catch up with him because he kept a lively pace except for a few minutes' rest every hour or so. In the early mornings we would now and then see a 'possum still hanging by its tail from a tree limb.

A Terpentine Still

Boiling down the sap.
(The Cook still vat was much larger)

Mr. Cook's operation differed from the usual in that his barrels of rosin were hauled drectly to his own still. One by-product of the operations at his still was much sought after by the families living in the company houses. That was the pine chips that fell into the cups during the chipping operation. It was not deemed economical to remove the chips during the collection of the rosin, so at the still they were "boiled down" along with the rosin and became impregnated with the hot liquid resin. Then they were dipped from the vat with a long-handled wire basket and dropped into neat little piles on a concrete slab where they were allowed to cool. A small handfull of such chips was an instant fire starter.
Mr. Cook paid his workers in company "scrip", which was paper money printed in various denominations under the company name. It resembled the play money used in the game of Monopoly. He also maintained a "commissary", which was a company-owned store stocked with a variety of groceries, staple goods, clothing and miscellaneous items. Whenever a new worker was hired, an account in his name was opened at the commissary, and groceries, clothing and other items purchased there by the worker were charged to his account which was payble in scrip. The worker could also exchange his scrip for cash.

I recall visiting the commissary once. It was housed in a rough frame building that was nestled in among the other buildings in the operations yard. The whole scene rather resembled the little village in the TV program "Border Town".

Once a week Mr. Cook would load a pickup truck with flour, meal, whiteside meat, potatoes, and one or two other staples, and drive around among the houses where the workers lived, dispensing the week's groceries to their wives. He would make a note of whatever the wives purchased, and add the amount to the worker's account back at the commissary. I recall his stopping at our house once. He ask Mama, "How much meat do you need?" Mama said, "Five pounds". He pulled out a big slab of whiteside, marked off a measure of it with a long knife and said, "That's about five pounds". Flour and meal were measured in similar eyeball fashion.

It was generally thought that Mr. Cook made those grocery runs through the workers' quarters as a courtesy to the wives, but I always felt that his reason for doing so was to insure that a worker's family at least had groceries before the balance of his pay was lost to liquor and other vices.

Our house, like the others, was nestled among tall pine trees. As warm weather approached, the scent of pine needles filled the air, and the smell of resin from the "still" permeated the area. The hoot owls began to make their peculiar calls in the evening toward sundown. As the wives began to prepare "supper", the tantalizing aroma of hoecakes, hashbrowns and whiteside meat would drift lazily through the quarters on the light evening breeze. It was an authentic 'down South' setting.

After the sun went down behind the tall pine trees it would get dark quickly, and in early summer the forest fairly sparkled with the pinpoint lights of "June bugs". On a moonlit night the tall pines would cast long shadows, and it was great fun to imagine Indians darting among the trees.
We lived near the turpentine still only a few months, but it was one of the most memorable periods of my childhood. I enjoyed almost total freedom, since my only chore was to keep plenty of wood on hand for the cook stove and fireplace.  I enjoyed wandering around the "still" area and observing operations, but I was always under the watchful eye of the workers, who saw to it that I did not get too close to the huge open vat that contained the boiling resin. As an added measure of insurance I had already meditated at length on the consequences of such carelesness.
The dynamo.

It was here that I first became aware of machinery, because of a small electric motor, called a "dynamo", that was used to start a large diesel engine. The dynamo was connected to the crank of the large engine, and turned the engine over until its cylinders compressed injected diesel fuel to the point that it was ignited by the heat generated by the compression.

Very interesting to one aged seven and a half.


James V. Lewis
 ca 1941-42

1 comment:

  1. Love your stories, Mr. James! Makes me feel like I'm right there, too! What a smart man Mr. Cook was to deliver those goods and insure that his worker's family was provided for. Made it more certain that his worker would be also! Thanks for another wonderful Southern experience!