Recent research on Lee County's Clerk of Court web site revealed an indenture between two parties for the purpose "turpentining the pine trees" [sic] on Pine Island. An indenture is a contract binding one party to work for another party for a given period of time.
The process of removing the resin from pine trees and cooking it down in stills was Florida's second largest industry, in terms of people employed, during the early 1900s. This business was called turpentining back then. The citrus industry was Florida's largest.
The turpentine business got started in North Carolina in the mid-1800s. Thus the reason for that state's nickname became the TarHeel State. Turpentine workers would slash the trees with a cut that was 8-12 inches wide and 4-5 inches deep in the base of the trunk and this would cause the resin to flow out. They would attach a cup and gutters to the tree below the gash to collect this resin. The resin would then be boiled down in a large pot to create what was called pitch.
This industry was also referred to as "naval stores" because the pitch was used to seal cracks and seams in wooden ships and to coat the sails to make them last longer. When the pine trees stopped releasing any significant amount of resin, the turpentiners would move south to a new forest of trees. By the late 1800s they had made their way into north Florida's pine forests and by the early 1900s into Southwest Florida.
Working in turpentine camps were arduous to the workers and the forest. Laborers worked sun up to sun down. Operating the still over an open fire was hot and very dirty. The workers lived in camps near the forest they were working. Their housing was temporary and often poorly constructed. Workers were paid company script that was redeemable only at the company store. These stores would often charge far more than the workers would pay in town for goods. But the camps were usually too far away from towns to be practical for the workers to journey there. The process of slashing the pine trees and removing the resin would leave the trees weak and susceptible to disease and strong winds, which could topple them.
By the mid-1900s the industry started to decline when ships started to being constructed of steel rather than wood. The development of synthetic chemicals also replaced the need for pine resin. By the 1970s the industry had pretty much disappeared from the state.
To determine where this turpentine camp was located on Pine Island and what impact it had on our island will require more research.
A special exhibit this month is a collection of spectacular photos of the historical fish shacks at Captive Rocks by renowned island photographer Ron Mayhew.
For more history of Pine Island, visit the Museum of the Islands, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday, 1-4 p.m.
The museum is conveniently located next to the Pine Island Library at 5728 Sesame Drive off Stringfellow Road. Call 239-283-1525.
Tim Knox is museum historian at the Museum of the Islands.