WT Block Jr -- Turpentiners Worked Hard for Product
By W. T. Block
First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday December 4, 1999.
NEDERLAND—In 1915, if one had seen V-grooves notched into the East Texas tree trunks and buckets affixed for collecting sap, the unknowing viewer might suppose he was in the maple forests of Vermont during syrup-making time. Instead, employees of Western Naval Stores Company were “turpentining,” that is, bleeding the sap from pine trees, which was then made into turpentine and rosin.
Even the loggers who often worked beside them did not hold “Turpentiners” in high esteem in East Texas. A Broaddus native considered them “...the meanest people that ever lived...”
Although many East Texans worked in the turpentine camps at very low pay, Western Naval Stores imported many foreigners, who formerly had worked in the forests of Finland and Russia. In Western Louisiana, nearly all turpentiners were Black men, who were experienced in that trade and had been solicited from camps closing in Georgia and Alabama.
At its peak about 1915, there were probably 25 turpentine camps in six East Texas counties, about 80% of the industry being concentrated in Jasper and Newton counties. Two towns in Jasper County, Wenasco and Turpentine, were devoted solely to bleeding pine trees and distilling the sap.
Buckets attached to pine trees might collect as much as a quart of sap when they were emptied weekly and poured into a nearby barrel. The barrel wagon made frequent rounds to pick up the sap and return it to the “still,” for the process of turpentine distilling was not greatly different from bootlegging.
Usually a copper “still” contained the sap, mixed with water, and the cooker was heated from a stone furnace beneath. The distilled liquid passed through copper coils in a tank of water, and the finished product was turpentine, floating on water. Oftentimes coopers worked in the camp, making wooden barrels for the turpentine.
Wenasco, 5 miles north of Jasper, was founded in 1915, its name derived from the beginning letters of Western Naval Stores Company. Being solely a turpentine camp, it had a single distillery, 300 employees, and a population of about 500 when the site was closed down and abandoned in 1919.
Turpentine, Texas, 20 miles northwest of Jasper, was located on the Burr’s Ferry, Browndell, and Chester Railroad. It was founded in 1907, with an initial work force of 80 men, and it had 16 subsidiary camps in 4 neighboring counties. The turpentine center in Newton County was at Burkeville, where several camps were subsidiary to the main distillery there.
However, the East Texas industry was dwarfed when compared to Western Louisiana, where the major lumber companies owned distilleries. Long-Bell Lumber Company operated its distillery and camps adjacent to its log camp at Walla, between DeRidder and Singer.
Western Louisiana’s largest turpentine distillery was at Rustville, operated by Gulf Lumber Company at Fullerton, east of DeRidder. The pine forest was bled by 50 “crops,” containing 505,000 “boxes,” and the 3 distilleries there averaged 150 barrels of turpentine and 450 barrels of rosin weekly. The plant had three 550-barrel tanks for turpentine and worked 259 employees.
Rustville was entirely a Negro town, which was built in 1907. It had 129 new employee cottages, a commissary and meat market, depot, post office, a church and a school. One account noted that “...there is no other plant that offers greater inducements to the turpentine Negro...”
At a later date Southwest Louisiana’s main turpentine plant was located near DeQuincy. Like East Texas in 1930, all that Western Louisiana had left from its once mighty lumber industry was 30,000 square miles of lighter pine stumps, rich with rosin.
So, Mr. Fiddler, the next time tune your violin or adjust your bow, remember how much work went into that little clump of rosin.