While carefully nurtured longleaf pines aren’t uncommon in Bladen Lakes State Forest, some at the Turnbull Creek Educational Forests have a much harder life.
Some of the trees are hacked and scarred; another has a wedge-shaped shelf cut into the trunk. The trees were injured not by vandals, but by Forest Rangers.
The longleaf pines are part of the naval stores exhibit at Turnbull Creek. Ranger John Uber spent much of Saturday explaining how the hacks and boxes in the pine trees-and the resulting pine rosin-dominated the North Carolina economy for more than two centuries.
“When the Europeans first arrived in the area,” he said, “they saw the maritime oak forests, then they found the longleaf pines.”
Many European countries, especially England, had depleted much of their forestland by the 17th century, Uber explained. Oak was the preferred choice of wood for ships, because of its strength and the direction of the grain.
But the pine tree really made the difference, Uber said.
“They came inland and saw the longleaf pines,” he said, “and knew they had their masts as well as their tar and pitch.”
Tar and pitch were used to waterproof and seal virtually every part of a sailing ship, Uber explained. Shredded rope was coated in tar to create caulking, which sealed joints between boards. Almost every piece of rope on a ship was coated in tar.
The tar was created by “sweating” heart pine in an earthen mound known as a tarkiln or tarkill.
“Fat lighter” wood-the heavy, rosin-soaked center of an old pine tree or stump-was slowly burned. The resulting tar ran out of the mound via a wooden or clay pipe into a barrel or catch basin.
The tar was then ladled into barrels for transport.
Later on, Uber explained, as improvements in distilling techniques made turpentine stills more practical.
Both jobs were difficult, Uber said.
“You used to find people all around southeastern North Carolina with horrible burn scars,” Uber said. “Those wounds sometimes came from when the side of a tarkill blew out from the pressure.”
Workers had to man the tarkiln 24 hours a day until it burned out. The wood inside could then be removed and used for charcoal, leaving a blackened hole in the floor of the forest, sometimes with a sandy ridge around the outside. Similar structures were built for making blacksmith or cooking charcoal, using only oak and hickory.
“You find these everywhere in the woods,” Uber said, standing beside the remains of a large tarkiln at Turnbull. Many people don’t know what they’re seeing when they come across one.”
A few feet away stands a reconstructed tarkiln, along with a simple lean-to structure.
“This was hard, hot, long work,” Uber said. “The kiln had to be manned all day and all night. You were out in all kinds of weather, for much of the year. It was smoky, smelly, dangerous work.”
Hack, box and bleed
Tarkiln workers often worked gathering rosin when not working the kilns.
Trees were “hacked,” or scarred, using a specially-shaped tool. The long wounds were angled, to channel the flow of the rosin into a collection “box.”
The box was simply a wedge shaped step that gathered the rosin as it dripped from the tree. The box was chopped into the tree with a long-bladed axe.
Rosin would drip from the tree and gather in the box. Workers would then gather the rosin and collect it in barrels for later transportation to market or refining into turpentine.
Like all trees, pines drip rosin to cover wounded places. As the rosin hardened, the worker would have to reopen the wound to allow the flow to start again.
By using tin plates and clay pots to gather the rosin, Uber said, workers no longer had to box trees, and more time could be spent collecting the rosin.
As the 19th century progressed, Uber said, workers had to reach farther and farther up trees to create the rosin-drips. Some trees had hacks 12 to 18 feet high, and on three sides, with boxes a similar distance above the ground. Uber said a few such trees, more than a century old, still stand in Bladen County.
Another advance in technology that helped increase the flow of rosin, but also hastened the death of the industry, was the discovery that sulfuric acid can restart the flow with less work than a hack.
“We don’t know exactly who discovered this, or how, or why,” Uber said. “We do know it made collection a lot more efficient, although it killed the tree much faster.”
“They started getting greedy as the demand rose,” Uber said. Extensions were added to hacking tools, and sometimes workers used stepladders to reach collection boxes, since trees had been hacked and boxed so long the lower trunk could no longer be used without completely killing the tree.
Modern scientists and writers from the 18th and 19th century mention 10 to 30 years as the productive lifespan for a well maintained naval stores forest. Often the woods would be abandoned when the flow of rosin stopped.
Dried-out pine forests, combined with centuries of pinestraw and peat, made forest fires the worst enemy of the naval stores industry. The pine stumps-themselves a wealth of fat lighter and rosin-could ignite the peat and straw. Since nature maintains pine forests by fire, Uber said, a forest fire fueled by peat, straw and fat lighter, could be nearly impossible to stop.
“If a fire got out of control,” Uber said, “they didn’t have the modern tools that we have to stop it. Even a fire on one tree could be a major problem.”
While rosin by itself is slow to ignite, once on fire it burns hard and fast, and is difficult to extinguish.
Uber displayed a hand-made iron rake, an antique that had been used to clear straw and debris from around trees. Clearing pine straw during the naval stores era was, in some cases, as much a part of forest management as today when the straw is gathered and sold.
“They cleared the straw away from the base of trees, just like we do today,” he said. “The last thing they wanted was an out of control fire.”
One of three stills
Dominating the naval stores demonstration area at Turnbull Creek is what looks like a huge whiskey still.
“Turpentine and moonshine are distilled much the same way,” Uber explained.
The copper cooker has a brick base, with a 15-foot tall platform a few feet away. The platform is over a well, which supplied the water required for making turpentine.
A “snake”, or condenser, extends inside the cooker. An outlet nearly a foot in diameter allowed workers to drain off the turpentine.
The belly of the cooker-which resembles a giant teapot-rests on a brickbase with an iron furnace door which allowed workers to feed the fires.
Hundreds of turpentine stills once dotted the pine forests in North Carolina and elsewhere. As production methods improved, many were dismantled and sold for scrap metal.
The combustible nature of turpentine is another reason only three such stills are known to still exist in the state.
Newspapers of the 1800’s regularly reported explosions of turpentine stills along the Cape Fear River in Bladen County.
Uber said the decline in the naval stores came in part due to the production of steel ships, and because the pine forests were being tapped out.
Some production continued into the 1930’s, he said, but except for a brief experiment by the state in the 1950’s, longleaf pines have been replaced by faster growing white and loblolly pines.
Old fat lighter stumps are still gathered from clearcut areas, he said, for shipment to a company in Georgia that uses a process similar to paper pulp production to extract the rosin.
“This was labor intensive work,” Uber said, wiping dried rosin from his hands. “I doubt you could find many people willing to work like this anymore.”
Turnbull Creek State Educational Forest is located off Sweet Home Church Road, near Jones Lake State Park. For tour information call 588-4161.