Tapping the Pines: The Naval Stores Industry in the American South.
EARLY TRAVELERS IN THE SOUTH NEVER FAILED TO REMARK UPON THE curious and odoriferous activities of the naval stores workers they came across in the vast longleaf pine forests that stretched from Virginia to Texas. Tar burners tended their smoldering kilns day and night, and turpentine laborers chipped streaks into pine trees and carted barrels of raw gum to distilleries. The making of naval stores was a critical component of early Southern economies, especially North Carolina's, and for a traveler it seemed to be a highly visible and colorful industry.
Long before readers finish Robert Outland's engrossing Tapping the Pines: The Naval Stores Industry in the American South, however, they will be convinced that there was nothing colorful about the industry as it was developed over three centuries in the South. This industry, and especially turpentine production, played a large role in the destruction of the great pine forests of the South, and it contributed to the continuing exploitation of black workers for a century after slavery had ended. Outland's environmental and social history fills a gap in studies of the South that has long been evident.
Naval stores production, Outland reminds us, is the South's oldest industry, and, until 1920, it was the region's largest industry, together with lumber. Tar and pitch, ancient naval stores products, were essential to the maritime enterprises of many seafaring European nations, and by the eighteenth century, Southern colonies, led by North Carolina, were producing a rich supply of these products from their vast longleaf pine forests. Tar was made by burning dead wood or "lightwood" in kilns; pitch was a more concentrated form of tar made by boiling it.
But with the rise of manufacturing in the nineteenth century, another pair of naval stores--turpentine and its byproduct rosin--claimed center stage. By the 1850s, the paint industry was using 112,000 gallons of turpentine each day, and in the years after the Civil War dozens of industrial uses of rosin were discovered. North Carolina had become the country's--and the world's--greatest turpentine producer.
Though Outland's general topic is the naval stores industry as a whole, he is especially interested in the destructive environmental and social effects of industrial turpentining on the South and its people. Turpentine was produced by distilling the gum bled from the longleaf pine when it was gouged weekly during the growing season. As the V-shaped grooves rose up the tree trunk, the flowing gum collected in a "box" chopped into the tree below. Gouging grooves and chopping boxes into the living wood did not contribute to a tree's health, and millions were killed by disease, fire, and windthrow as a result. Industrial turpentining was one of several contributing causes--along with rooting hogs, cut-and-run logging, and the suppression of periodic woodsburning--of the ruination of the Southern pineries and their unique ecosystem.
The mania to produce turpentine and rosin on a large scale first developed in North Carolina. Just before the Civil War, there were 1,600 naval stores establishments in the Tar Heel State employing 4,000 mostly slave workers. Even then, operators and their labor were moving into fresh forests farther South, especially in Georgia and Alabama, and the industry came to be characterized by a destructive nomadic impulse. Outland suggests that operators moved so often because they were exhausting the forests in their greed. There is little doubt that this was true, yet a major reason for the migratory movements of large-scale operators and their workers was the realization that the longer they worked a tree, the less money they made from it. Indeed, the most valuable gum, called "virgin dip," came from the first year of working. It made the best spirits of turpentine and the clearest rosin. In subsequent years, as a turpentine face extended higher and higher on the tree, most of the gum stuck to the tree and was recovered not as dip but as "scrape," which made the least valuable turpentine and rosin. Large operators leased woodlands for only a couple of years before moving laborers, distillery and quarters to another virgin forest elsewhere.
Though many white farmers produced and sold their own naval stores, blacks came to be associated with the dirty, hot, and lonely woods work of turpentining, first as slaves and then as slaves of another kind. Outland's book builds on earlier works of Robert Starobin, Pete Daniel, and others who have studied the social history of Southern workers. Even after slavery ended, other forms of forced labor persisted into the twentieth century, notably peonage and convict leasing. Convict labor was especially brutal. Convicts were worked six or seven days a week, from dawn till dusk. "What matters to [the lessee] if their convict's health is broken down," wrote one. "There are plenty more convicts." The apparently "endless supply" of convicts mirrored the seemingly endless supply of virgin forests.
The industry's evolution in seemingly inexhaustible virgin forests and its reliance on labor-intensive methods honed under slavery ultimately proved its undoing. Second-growth forests were not as productive as the old-growth forests, and twentieth-century turpentiners never modernized their industry until it was too late, clinging to the same primitive and inefficient methods that had evolved in eighteenth-century North Carolina. The first true innovation in turpentine work--the use of movable clay cups to recover the gum, instead of fixed boxes chopped into the trees--wasn't introduced until 1903. Cupping trees was less harmful than boxing trees, and cups increased the quality of the yield, but they did nothing to soften the primitive practices that required a worker to walk from tree to tree--10,000 trees or more per week--to chip the next streak or to dip the gum. The onerous conditions of this work and the cruel tactics of operators to force workers into perpetual debt ultimately drove the workers away, an outcome from which gum turpentining never recovered.
Outland tells all this in numbing detail, and his story takes on a kind of grim momentum as he carries the reader into the late twentieth century with the faltering steps of the turpentine industry. Though naval stores production and uses and their economic role in the South have been examined before, Tapping the Pinesis the first full-length study on the subject, and it should be the last word on it for some years to come. One might quibble with the author's somewhat plodding style, and it would have been much more helpful for the general reader if more graphic materials had been included--there are only twelve photographs in a book 313 pages long. But Outland's story is gripping enough to easily carry the reader along.
What is probably most disturbing about the turpentine industry is how little profit it produced, and how much waste. As one industry booster admitted early in the twentieth century, "one cannot but breathe a sigh of regret for the millions of acres of noble trees that have disappeared, bringing back many claim but a minor stream of gold in replacement." Tapping the Pines is a richly detailed and melancholy reminder of the environmental and human costs of this forgotten Southern industry.
LAWRENCE S. EARLEY
Author, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest
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|Author:||Earley, Lawrence S.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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