By TIM KNOX
Special to The Eagle
Readers may recall my column a couple weeks ago that examined the turpentine industry. This week we will detail the conditions that the turpentine workers endured.
Turpentine workers on Pine Island.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
The Civil War ended in 1865. In the period immediately following the Civil War, freed slaves were sought out to work in the turpentine camps. These potential workers were often lured into employment with the promise of free rent and food in return for employment. To a newly freed slave this exhibited the appearance of a good deal. All too often though this promise was not honored. Rent and food would be debited from the worker's account at the company commissary. Before the freed slave worked their first day in the pine woods, he was already in debt to the company.
Working conditions were brutal and often misrepresented to potential workers. Employees would be driven to toil from dawn until dusk for five, and sometimes, six days a week. The tapping of pine trees and the boiling down of the sap was physically demanding and extremely dangerous. The tapping of the trees required the use of very sharp tools, which could result in nasty wounds if not handled properly. Many a worker was horribly burned or suffered an excruciating death when a vat of pine sap exploded. Medical treatment in the pine forest, away from towns, was nonexistent.
This work was conducted during the months of March through October. In addition to the sweltering heat and torrential showers, workers had to be on constant guard for poisonous spiders and snakes, scorpions and wasps. Other animals that posed a risk to the workers were bears, razorbacks, panthers and alligators.
During the winter months the workers performed what was called "raking the pines." This was keeping the pine needles around the trees cleared away so they would not burn in case of a fire.
Workers were paid by the number of trees they "boxed." "Boxed" was the process of cutting a V-shaped mark into the tree which looked like a "cat face." This opening would allow the pine sap to flow into a tin pot nailed to the tree. Every few weeks the workers poured the sap from the pots into barrels and hauled them to the still. At the still the sap was heated in a large copper pot set over a pine tree fire. As the sap reduced, it formed what was called rosin. This was used to caulk the planks of wooden ships to make them watertight. Rosin was also used to treat the sails to make them last longer.
In later years rosin was utilized in the manufacture of gun powder, explosives, printer's ink, paint, soap, shoe polish and sizing for fabric.
Compensation for this work was in the form of company scrip. This was redeemable at the company commissary, although outside merchants sometimes accepted scrip at a discount to its face value. The company commissary invariably charged excessive prices for such necessary items such as soap, salt and basic food staples. Fresh meats, vegetables, eggs, milk and butter were, for the most part, unavailable.
The workers' foreman was called the "woods rider." They received that name because they rode a horse around the woods watching over the workers. Woods riders held nearly absolute power over the workers. The use of brutality in an effort to maximize the work output was constantly used in the forest. Failure to meet the expectations of the woods rider were met with severe consequences.
Laborers lived in wooden shacks hastily erected by camp operators from scrap sawmill wood. Most times there were only dirt floors that turned to mud during rainy periods. As the turpentine operation was constantly moving to different areas in search of virgin forest, these structures were not permanent. Communal wells supplied potable water, and hand dug privies were located behind the dwellings.
Rosin was eventually replaced by synthetic resins and by the 1960s the turpentine industry vanished.
Was the turpentine operation on Pine Island like what was described above? More research is necessary to determine what impact it had on the people who worked there.
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.