The men who made a living in the turpentine industry in Clay County earned every penny. It was a nasty, back-breaking job. They wiped pine sap on their trousers as they moved from tree to tree and by …
The men who made a living in the turpentine industry in Clay County earned every penny. It was a nasty, back-breaking job. They wiped pine sap on their trousers as they moved from tree to tree and by the end of the day the pants could stand on their own in a corner.
From 1890 until the mid 1920’s, when Florida accounted for 52 percent of the total American output of naval stores, there was hardly a man, woman or child living in Clay County who wasn’t in some way touched by the turpentine business.
As an industry, its reputation through history has been one of corruption, abuse and the lowest type of human cruelty. The story is different in Clay County because here, the majority of the camps were small, run by local families, and subject to close scrutiny of neighbors. The same can’t be said for the large turpentine camps west of the Suwannee River and south into the isolated Big Bend area of the state.
For the most part, in Clay County turpentine workers were treated pretty much like other poor blacks and whites in the rest of the county. Both paternalism and a condescending disregard for human dignity was the order of the day but it was not unusual for the owner of the land and his sons to work side by side with their employees and eat the same food they did from the commissary.
Collection of the rich pinesap went from mid-March to mid-November. Usually six days a week the crew was in the woods before the sun came up. The chipping crew used a hacker and in some cases sulfuric acid to renew the wound on the trees and keep the sap moving. This was in fact considered a highly skilled job. Done carelessly or too aggressively and the tree could die. Too little attention and production would slow or cease.
The main production arm of the operation was the dipping crew. They moved from tree to tree removing clay pots three-quarters full of sap and scraping the contents into a dip bucket then reattaching the clay pot to the tree.
The buckets held about 50 pounds of sap.
When full, the bucket was dumped into 55-gallon barrels pulled through the woods on a wagon. When those barrels were filled, the wagon returned to the still or to a loading area for transport to a still. Each tree’s sap was collected about every week to week and a half depending on the age of the tree.
At dark, the day’s work was done and crews collapsed into the backs of wagons or later into the backs of trucks to head home.
Several of the men who would become movers and shakers in Clay County began their careers doing this work. If they could do this day after day they didn’t flinch at much else.