Gum Turpentine

Even if you are lucky enough to stumble upon a “catface” tree in the woods of Alabama, chances are you probably wouldn’t give it a second glance. With its disfigured and scarred trunk, the tree could easily be mistaken as the victim of a lightning strike or some crippling disease. 

But catface trees, or what remains of them, are traces of the endeavors of man in his search for pinesap — all in the name of the turpentine industry and the flammable oil it produced. When a tree’s bark was cut away, the freshly exposed wood was said to resemble the ears and face of a cat. 

The turpentine industry belongs, for the most part, to a bygone era. But it’s a time period that’s left an indelible mark, not just on the trunks of our pine trees, but on Mobile County as a whole.

Turpentine is oil created by the distillation of tree resin. Although mostly derived from pine trees, the oil gets its name from the Greek word “terebinthine, ” the name of a Mediterranean tree related to the pistachio that was an early source of turpentine. 

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There are countless practical uses for turpentine. In industry, the oil is used as a solvent for thinning oil-based paints and producing varnishes. In the early 1800s, it was also used in lamps as a cheap fuel alternative to whale oil. Medicinally, turpentine has been used since ancient times to heal wounds, treat lice, kill intestinal parasites, and soothe nasal and throat conditions. In fact, Vicks cold relief products still contain turpentine.

As expected, the early days of turpentine production were much more labor intensive than today’s process. Workers began by cutting a box into the base of a pine tree in order to catch the tree’s sap. Then a “streak” was chipped into the bark to channel sap (or “gum”) into the box. The distillation process heated gum to a boil, after which operators would collect and condense the resulting vapor. Turpentine was then skimmed off the surface. 

In the early 1950s, the growing pulpwood industry introduced a new process of turpentine production that is the primary method used today. During this process, turpentine is created by stewing chipped pine trunks in sulfuric acid to separate the cellulose from the rest of the wood material, successfully producing turpentine spirits. This development, among other factors, contributed to the demise of turpentine production as a separate, viable industry. 

Our History in Turpentine

  • There’s evidence of turpentine harvesting in Mobile County as early as 1777, but it didn’t become a widespread practice until the technological advances of the 1840s. The southern part of the state, with its countless acres of pine forests, was particularly appealing to producers. Paired with Mobile’s port, the turpentine industry thrived locally, as its byproducts were vital to shipbuilding.
  • The early years of the turpentine industry became synonymous with questionable labor practices. After the abolition of slavery, most laborers were unwilling to subject themselves to the grueling tasks of turpentine production. Eventually, operators began leasing convicts from Alabama prisons and luring immigrants with false promises of high working wages. It’s said that the infamous Alabama outlaw Railroad Bill escaped from a turpentine camp.
  • Environmentally, early turpentine production threatened Alabama’s pine forests. The traditional sap gathering method, if performed carelessly, could kill the host trees, wiping out large stands of pine trees in the process.
  • A 1901 story from the New York Times describes the burning of a Baldwin County turpentine camp as “the most horrible catastrophe in the history of Alabama.” It’s reported that 60 people perished in the fire, which started in the middle of the night while workers slept. The tragedy’s lone survivor was said to have rowed naked across Mobile Bay the next day to recount his story.

Text by Breck Pappas

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