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Turpentine's boom ad bust.

What do you do with 3 million acres of cut-over forest land after the loggers leave? In 1903, some enterprising Michigan businessmen began to extract (read: dynamite) the pine stumps, shred the wood, and heat it until it released turpentine. A whole industry grew up in the northern counties of the Lower Peninsula to "harvest" this paint-thinning compound and its related products.

As a side benefit, removal of the stumps also enabled farmers and fruit growers to access and cultivate new land.

First, there was a thudding BOOM. Then dirt flew, dust swirled, and pine stump fragments shot skyward and fell to the ground. The dynamiter gathered his equipment and moved to the next stump. He dug under it, laid his explosives, lit the fuse, and ran. Soon another stump was blown into the air. Men followed, knocking dirt off the stump pieces, lifting them onto horse-drawn wagons and moving on through the barren land, collecting load after load of stump fragments.

The professional blaster and the stump collectors were harvesting thousands of red (Norway) pine stumps, which would be processed to produce turpentine. While most turpentine in the U.S. had been made by tapping the trunks of pines in the South and collecting the sap for processing, Michigan's turpentine was extracted from the pine stumps left from the lumbering days. In the industry, it was referred to as wood turpentine or "stump turp."

At the turn of the 20th century, demand for turpentine was great. About 60 percent of domestically produced turpentine in the U.S. was exported to Europe. With a ready market, and considering that the pine stumps were available at little or no cost, it is not surprising that--between 1905 and 1915--nine turpentine plants operated in the northern half of Michigan's Lower Peninsula: in Au Sable, Bay City, Cadillac, Cheboygan, Grayling, Herbert, Nolan, Roscommon, and Rose City. A 10th, in Clare, was built but never brought on line.

Distilling the Turpentine

To produce turpentine, the new companies put the stump wood through a process known as "destructive distillation." This process had originated around 1904 in stump country near Hinckley, Minnesota and had been imported to Michigan, where several million acres dotted with pine stumps promised prosperity to enthusiastic investors. Although moisture had evaporated from the stumps over the years, the resins containing the turpentine and other marketable compounds had remained. These resins would be released through this new form of distillation.

To test the distillation process, William Coon and H.J. Leary built Michigan's first turpentine plant in the village of Roscommon in 1905. After a few months, the plant burned to the ground. What Coon and Leary discovered while operating it, however, encouraged them to continue in the stump turp industry. They believed that, with improvements, the destructive distillation process would produce quality turpentine.

The process was fairly simple. At the refinery, the stumps were piled high in the stump yard. Cut into small pieces, they were fed, chunk by chunk, into a piece of machinery called a "hogger." The teeth of the steam-driven hogger shredded the wood, which was loaded into small railcars.

Workmen pushed the carloads of pulverized wood into cylindrical ovens called "retorts" and sealed them. They then lit fires under the retorts. In these ovens, heat drove the turpentine from the wood.

The heat was maintained at a steady 300 degrees centigrade for more than 20 hours. Vapors passing through condensers were reduced to turpentine and collected in a receiving tank. Further refining produced pure, water-white turpentine ready for the market. Workmen increased the heat in the retorts to release oils and tars, which ran into a trough in the floor and then through pipes into their respective tanks.

Valuable By-products

Besides turpentine, a host of marketable by-products resulted from destructive distillation; these included heavy pine oil for veterinary use, pine tar for coating ship ropes, pine gums for varnish, a powerful disinfectant, an antiseptic face lotion, creosote, wood preservative, wood alcohol, cattle spray, sheep dip, shingle stain, wood filler, paraffin, soap, black paint, embalming fluid, and "tree paint," a sticky substance that snared harmful insects crawling on fruit trees.

Karl Haulter, chemist at the Crown Chemical Company's turpentine plant in Grayling, was credited with producing 26 different products using the destructive distillation process. Only the smoke escaped, and it was suggested that it, too, might be captured and the soot used to manufacture black printer's ink.

Having extracted the turpentine, oils, and tars, workers increased the heat, reducing the wood pulp to charcoal. This was then collected and used to fire the other retorts. No one could think of another raw product that yielded so many byproducts, yet left no residue except ash.

The Industry Expands

Excitement over the new industry swept the northern states, where red pine stumps abounded. As with most new corporations seeking investors, the turpentine companies told compelling tales of future prosperity. The figures being tossed about were impressive. Each of northern Michigan's estimated 3 million acres of stump land would supply 13 cords of pine stumps, totaling 43 million cords. Each cord of stump wood would yield turpentine and by-products with a value of $25.75. Once the distillation processes were perfected, investors could expect a copious flow of both turpentine and profits. Investors lined up to take advantage of this opportunity, pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into the fledgling companies.

After the Coon & Leary turpentine plant in Roscommon burned, William Coon became involved in the design and construction of a new facility to be built by the Central Michigan Land Company in the southern part of the county, several miles from Nolan. This company, financed with Chicago money, had bought 22,000 acres of stump land. Coon was joined by Chicagoan Dr. Arthur Thomas, who had left k a successful medical A practice to oversee operations at the new plant.

With backing from Bay City investors, H.J. Leary started a small plant in Herbert, about seven miles east of Roscommon. For three years, this plant worked on improving its processes and formulas as well as perfecting the machinery and apparatuses to separate and refine its various resin-based products.

Once the Herbert plant proved successful, the Michigan Turpentine Company was organized. This new business built a large refinery and retort plant in Bay City with the capacity to process 80,000 pounds of shredded pine wood at a single location. One reporter called it "a strange sight to see a train load of gondolas fairly bulging with splintered old stumps thundering along the railroad tracks" toward the community.

Each week, the company's 12 retorts turned out 1,000 gallons of turpentine, 2,500 gallons of tar, and 1,000 bushels of charcoal. The company boasted that its turpentine contained just three percent residue, while Southern pine turpentine showed a residue of eight to 10 percent.

The success of the company induced the Paint, 011 and Drug Review journal to speculate that the turpentine in the stumps could be worth as much as the pine logs had been when they were cut 50 years before.

Cadillac Comes on Board

An estimated 30 percent of the pine stumps in Wexford County were thought to be red pine, a ready invitation to establish a turpentine plant at the county seat, Cadillac. The Cadillac Turpentine Company, founded in 1908, discouraged the use of dynamite in the removal process, favoring instead the new "stump puller" machines, capable of extracting stumps with roots as deep as 20 feet.

In another innovation, the Cadillac plant employed a variation of the destructive distillation process. Shredded wood was conveyed into retorts where steam--not heat--was applied. Once turpentine ceased to flow from the wood fibers, the steam was driven out of the retorts, leaving the dry debris to be sold as fuel.

In his efforts to refine the Cadillac plant's closely guarded processes, company secretary Casper Ramsby corresponded with Dr. Frank Kedzie, head of the chemistry department at Michigan Agricultural College. Ramsby sent bottles of turpentine compounds to East Lansing for analysis. He also invited Kedzie to visit the plant, gently urging him to keep his knowledge of the Cadillac processes confidential.

In general, the Cadillac plant was a success, but accidents threatened the economic health of the company. A chemical explosion that hurled a 17-ton extractor from one building into another also blew chemist Harvey Ballard a distance of 40 feet. A new state law made the company liable for Ballard's injuries, to which Secretary Ramsby replied, "Our directors and stockholders of course want to comply with the new law, but we cannot continue to add a liability that may be great enough to put us out of business."

Although the Michigan turpentine industry always operated on a narrow profit margin, investors out of Chicago, Toledo, and Youngstown, as well as Lansing and Jackson, were eager to pour money into it. Promoters cheerfully continued to tout the industry as a solid investment, even as oil refiners worked to come up with solvents to substitute for turpentine. This latter development suggested that the days of stump turp production were numbered.

A Swift Decline

Despite this challenge, several more plants were established in Michigan in the 1910s--with mixed results. One in Rose City produced an unmarketable reddish product, and quickly went out of business. Then, the Iosco Turpentine Company built a successful distillery in the village of Au Sable. However, in 1913, the plant was destroyed by fire, and the company filed for bankruptcy soon after. In 1912, the Crown Chemical Company moved its distillation operation from Grayling to Cheboygan, which offered better shipping facilities. The new plant produced turpentine for several years, but was auctioned off in 1915.

The Wolverine Chemical Company proposed a plant in Clare, and construction of the factory began in 1911.

Ultimately, the company went broke before going into production, leaving Clare investors disappointed and angry. The editor of the Clare Sentinel bitterly wrote about what might have been: "In imagination we saw the [city] being transformed into a...second Pittsburgh. Carloads of turpentine and those various 'by-products' were going east to eager purchasers. But the drama is dissipated, and [all] we have left [is] a spittoon and a bottle of turpentine."

The final nail in the coffin came with the advent of World War I, when hostilities reduced turpentine exports to Europe by 50 percent. By 1915, stump turp production in northern Michigan was over.

Ten years is a short time for an industry to rise and fall. But the experience did teach Michiganians how to make better use of their natural resources--even when it seemed like those resources were worthless. Additionally and, perhaps, more importantly, the land that the turpentine companies cleared of stumps was made available for sale to farmers and fruit growers, thereby advancing the development of agriculture in the state.

David McMacken is a Gratiot County historian and lives in St. Louis. Tom Schupbach lives in DeWitt and is vice president Of Manitou Pontoon Boats.
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Author:McMarken, David; Schupbach, Tom
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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