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Lumbermen, Turpentine, Naval Stores, and Longleaf Pine

Mississippi's Harvest

Only a hundred and forty years ago at the close of the War Between the States, a massive virgin forest of longleaf pine stretched, as it had for centuries, from southeastern Virginia to east Texas. That’s not to say the forest was untouched, because it was. For over a hundred and fifty years before the end of the War, settlers used that forest for building materials and for naval stores. I have already discussed the abundant naval stores provided by the forest in my article titled Plantations of British West Florida. In addition to tar and pitch processed from dead conifer material, shipbuilders used the strong, rot-resistant wood of the longleaf pine for keels, beams, side planks, decks, (shorter) masts, and spars for naval ships. Great Britain always realized the potential of the pine forest blanketing her most southern colonies, but did not turn to them in earnest until the Revolutionary War had jeopardized her timber sources in the northern colonies and along the eastern seaboard. Remember that British West Florida was primarily Tory.

The forest of longleaf consisted of huge trees, some as old as five-hundred years. It thrived, despite hurricanes, and fed on fire. Indeed, fire was critical to its existence, a simple fact that the folk living beneath the trees realized for generations. More recently the piney-woods farmers put aside annual burning of its forests (floor) when confronted with “knowledgeable” foresters who discouraged fire, believing it detrimental to forest resurgence. The truth is that the wire and bluestem grasses growing at the foot of the massive trees needed a clear area, free of underbrush, to thrive. Natural fires, created by summer lightning storms—cool fires, as I understand it—provided that environment. Once the tree had attained a certain maturity, fire did not faze the trunk of the longleaf unless the fire were an extremely hot one. Hot fires occurred when they had fuel (dense underbrush) to feed them. The forest was as daunting as it was magnificent and was home to a large number of flora and fauna that adapted to its cycle of cleansing fire and renewal. Fire, of course, didn’t sweep through the entire forest constantly. Young saplings survived where fire was absent for several years.

Pine resin or gum or “sap” (a misnomer since sap carries nutrients from the tree’s roots to its branches) is a substance nature employs to protect an injured tree, coating the “wound” and giving the tree a chance to heal—sorta like a scab on skin. The tree produces resin naturally when it is hurt. The substance is, therefore, infinite for the life of the tree and not a finite substance that can be used up. Therefore, as long as one can “hurt” the tree short of killing it, the conifer will continue to produce resin.

From earliest colonial days, farmers processed the pine resin, producing rosin and spirits of turpentine, both of which were used for domestic purposes and for resale. Today we think of turpentine as a paint cleaner, but going back to ancient times, it has been used for medicinal purposes to treat everything from bronchitis to tapeworms, not to mention its use as an antiseptic. Farmers used rosin, another ancient staple, as a preservative, an ingredient in soap, a sealant, a waterproofing agent, and even a medium for boiling potatoes. As their famed capabilities grew, so did the demand for these two resin byproducts—and their value. North Carolina turned to the production of turpentine and rosin in earnest and eventually became the turpentine capitol of the world, and turpentine distilleries spread across the South.

Turpentining is a year-around industry beginning in winter with the chopping of a deep pocket at the base of the tree (“boxing the tree”) for catching the resin resulting from “chipping” the tree—hacking a long narrow wound in the bark above the “box” wherein flows the protective resin. As the season progressed, additional “v”-shaped cuts were made above the first, and the resin continued to flow into the box, creating what was known as a “face” over the resin-covered bark. And yes, this “face,” formed by resin that hardened before it made its way down to the box, was wasteful. Faces could rise one or two feet over the course of the year. Every couple of weeks, the resin was “dipped” from the “box” and taken to the “stiller” who distilled raw resin into turpentine and rosin.

The consequence of increased demand, of course, was mass production, and though turpentiners can remove the resin without killing the tree, mismanagement and over harvesting eventually led to the death of many trees. During those early years, the longleaf forest appeared inexhaustible, and turpentine manufacturers gave little concern to the death of a few trees.

In the years leading up to and immediately after the War Between the States, forest exploitation was restricted to the rivers and streams that flowed through it. Timber men cut the trees along the stream banks, then floated rafts made of that same timber to sawmills built on the streams and/or along the coast. Once loggers depleted the timber along the riverbanks, they moved farther upstream. For all intents and purposes, trees set back from navigable waterways were safe from exploitation, and the forest continued to grow, burn, and reproduce as it had for centuries.

Through the first half of the nineteenth century, the sound reputation longleaf pine enjoyed in Europe and the South was not shared by the rest of the nation. Timber men in the northeast denigrated the very strength so admired by European shipbuilders. The wood was considered hard to saw, easy to warp, and ornery to paint. Its main impediment, however, was white pine. Like longleaf in the South, the white pine forest in the North was considered inexhaustible. The trees were massive. One large white pine could produce up to 1,000 board feet of lumber. White pine was easy on the saw, it didn’t warp, and it liked paint; and in the last decade before the War Between the States, folk up North were beginning to realize it was, indeed, a finite forest. Immediately after the War, the North experienced an explosion in industry and population. To meet that need, wealthy lumbermen now looked South, and the South, still struggling to recover from war and the excesses of Reconstruction, welcomed the potential for revenue—but the wealth went North.

In 1866 the Federal government owned 47.7 million acres of land in the Deep South. In an effort to curtail land speculation and encourage homesteads for former slaves, parcels of land were sold in 80-acre increments. Ex-Confederates were restricted from purchasing the land. It’s not hard to read between the lines here, folks. Anyone with any knowledge of those days can guess that not only were the ex-Confederates summarily cut out of the potential profits, but so were the former slaves. In truth, speculators by-passed the law by settling individuals on one 80-acre plot after another and amassed large acreage for exploitation. In 1876, Southern politicians, now back in control of their home and eager for development, led the fight to repeal the Southern Homestead Act, but the die was cast. Railroads and lumber companies bought up the land. As of 1914, 80 percent of the South’s privately owned pineland, 47 million acres, belonged to 925 people, most of them Northern capitalists, betting on the westward movement and a treeless prairie. Note, however, that the job of cutting the forests went to the men who lived in the South. The timber companies and their quickly constructed sawmill towns provided benefits to the itinerant worker who cut the trees—homes, schools, entertainment, opportunity. The perquisites lasted, however, only as long as the forests lasted—and by the 1880s, we, as a species, had figured out how to cut down, cut up, and pulverize trees in short order.

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, railroad and spur lines were built, moved, and rebuilt across the Southern forests. Sawmills, which had once dotted the waterways of the Southeast, now sprung up along the rail lines. Short-lived sawmill towns grew up next to the mills. The double-bit ax and cross-cut saw more than doubled a logger’s output and during the 1890’s, a new invention, the “skidder,” a steam-powered, drum-and-cable-configured contraption, mounted on a railroad car, could drag a log a thousand feet across the forest floor for loading. Using the skidder, loggers could load 500 logs a day per site. As an added benefit, the traveling log could knock down new growth and anything else in its path—ensuring complete devastation of the area when the cutting was done (taxes were higher on forested than treeless land). In 1880, the port of Pascagoula reported shipping 60 million board feet of longleaf pine. By 1893, that total had risen to 130 million board feet. By the close of the 19th century, Southern sawmills, virtually unchanged for two hundred and fifty years prior, were now some of the biggest in the world. And the turpentiners? They were living on borrowed time. The locusts of lumbermen were chopping down fresh trees before the turpentine “cutters” could get them boxed. By the 1930s the longleaf forest was, for all intents and purposes, gone.

This cut-and-run logging devastated the centuries-old forest and left it no way to recover, at least not without help, and help was hard to come by—not from lack of interest, but because of ignorance about the ecology of the longleaf.

Longleaf is a slow-growing tree—it is also difficult to grow, particularly when foresters, trying to create the best conditions for its rejuvenation, are actually doing the opposite. The key is the aforementioned fire. For untold centuries, fire rejuvenated the longleaf habitat and kept it going. A longleaf grows for years without a seed fall; in fact, heat from fire causes seed fall. Because the cones are larger and the seeds heavier, longleaf seedlings don’t grow far from the parent trees, thus more than a few trees need to be left after cutting for reseeding. Further, those seeds do not do well in shrub and undergrowth—both features natural fires kept at bay. All these things forest managers have had to learn over decades. Of course, an old piney woods farmer could, and probably did, tell them about the “fire” thing.

Fire or not, the trees are slow. Loblolly and slash pine, which quickly took over longleaf’s habitat, grow fast. Both are good timber and paper mill trees—and folks looking to raise timber on their private lands saw little future in a tree they couldn’t harvest for three hundred years—not when they could harvest loblolly in fifteen.

Okay, I exaggerate. Truth is, today forest managers are trying to regenerate longleaf, and a longleaf forest can be thinned for “telephone” poles after fifteen years. You may have heard, also, that longleaf faired better than loblolly during Katrina—but it is natural that it would. Fire and hurricane are part of longleaf’s “life” style; that’s why God put it where He did.
He didn’t make it to survive man, though. That He’s left to man, and man is trying to right the wrong. It’s been hit and miss for the past century, but those forest managers have had more hits than misses lately, and as a Mississippian I’m proud to say that my state has more acreage in rejuvenated longleaf than any other; we are “managing” longleaf as a commercial, renewable resource. It’s a darn fine tree.

No matter, none of us will see the likes of that virgin forest again. But, just for the record, bits and pieces of original, old-growth longleaf pine (yes, uncut since pre-colonial days) do still exist in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia. I’m going to visit one of ’em some day.

My primary source for this article is Lawrence S. Earley’s Looking for Longleaf, The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, University of North Carolina Press, 2004. There are also many, many websites dealing with the subject.

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