Turpentine Industry

turpentine still near Chipco, 1929
Turpentine still near Chipco, 1929. Photo courtesy of Jeff Cannon

The following article appeared in the New Port Richey Press on July 9, 1964, and in the Dade City Banner on Dec. 12, 1963.

The History and Archives committee of the Pasco County Pioneer Florida Museum Association traveled down Memory Lane recently, passing along what was once forests of pine in the days when “Pine was King” in Florida.

About the turn of the century, turpentine enterprises were numerous in Pasco County and turpentine stills were located in the depths of the forests. Stills were located at St. Thomas, operated by a Mr. Lucas. Later he purchased one at Gasque and also Emmaus. Stills were located at Pasco Station, West Sagano, So. Sagano, and Needmore in the west section of the county, and at Kalon, near Trilby, Richland and Lumberton, Ehren, Odessa, Dutton and Sharp, near Lacoochee.

The resinous sap of the pine tree was extracted by chipping off the bark in narrow strips, beginning a few inches above the ground and exposing a large face of the sapwood from time to time as the operation progressed. cups of metal or earthenware were placed at the lower end of these incisions and the gum sap flowed into them. Hundreds of thousands of trees were tapped in this fashion to provide gum (known as dip or crop) depending upon the methods of its removal from the tree for turpentine still.

A single “crop” of cup numbers 10,000. When a turpentine operation spoke of having ten crops under operation, it meant that he had 100,000 pine trees tapped for turpentine. The still itself was a crude structure, redolent of the spicy aroma of the pine. The cups were emptied into barrels by crews of men who traveled the forest continually, and as the barrels were filled they were placed on platforms by the side of the road and later were collected, usually by four mule-hauled wagons equipped with skids to help in the loading and taken to the still.

The crude gum, as it came from the forest, was emptied into a large boiler from which a spiral pipe led to the vat in which the turpentine was to be collected. As the gummy matter was brought to the boiling point, turpentine was given off in the form of steam or vapor that passed through the coiled pipe.

A stream of cold water flowing around the coils condensed the vapor which dripped into the vat as pure spirits of turpentine. The twigs, bark and dirt which rose to the surface of the boiling mass was skimmed off, and the remaining liquid was drawn off into barrels, in which it speedily solidified into resin.

These resin and turpentine products found their chief market among the manufacturers of paint and varnishes, while resin was used in the manufacture of hard soaps, paper, and 100 commodities of daily use. The Florida pine was so full of resin, especially in its roots and the lower portion of the trunk, that it burst into flame at the touch of a match.

That characteristic gave it the local name of “lighterwood” also sometimes called “fatwood” and frequently “fat lightwood.” When the railroads were put through the county, many pioneers sold “fatwood” to the railroad company.

The pine forests vanished under pressure of settlement and demands for farm and homes on the one hand and under lumbering operations of the sawmills on the other.

A letter received from Lillian Bessenger Hines, an early resident of Pasco County, gives an interesting report about the turpentine industry in Pasco County. She writes:

To fill in one the turpentine industry I have to write of our family life, so please excuse the personal side of the story.

I will try to tell you about the turpentine industry in Pasco County and South Florida which my father operated. He came to Blanton in 1900 and bought out the turpentine business there and moved the family and about 20 negro families down there, building a house for his and set up quarters for his help.

There were only three or four houses in Blanton when we moved there. After the sawmill was built, there were at least 25 families to come in and make a community. There was not an active church nearer than Trilby or Townsend House, so the people met in homes for Sunday School. My mother led the Baptist group and the other group was Methodist.

My father gave the lumber and helped build the church in Blanton. Mother made a survey and found there were more Methodists there, so she helped to get the Christian people to all worship together and she joined the Methodist Church and raised us up as Methodists. I joined the church at age seven and we enjoyed being a part of God's family in Blanton.

The schoolhouse was a very old building east of the lake. My first year of school was in that old building and we were all so proud of the new two-story schoolhouse that was built about 1905. There were about 50 shanties built southwest of Blanton, for colored people and a church built for them.

A store was next, and since the post office was in the Granny Johnson house she was postmistress. As Blanton grew, a new store was built and the post office was moved to the store building with Sanford Blocker appointed postmaster and Blanton was a booming town. Next a parsonage was built.

The telephone was put in about 1906 with the Ellsworths and Bessengers having a phone. The next year the Millers had a phone put in. All the phones rang every time a call came but different rings for each house, so my best fun was to listen to see who was being called.

My father put a “dummy” track on which operated a narrow gauge railroad wood burner for many miles of the country around Blanton to haul the logs to the saw mill after the turpentine industry was out of existence. This “dummy” track was also enjoyed by the boys. On Sunday evenings a group would take the hand cart and push it to the top of the hill and all jump on and coast own for quite a ways.

In turpentining each tree was sliced (cutters, the men were called), and a cup hung to catch the gum. Then there were scrapers who went yearly to cut trees. With mules and wagon the cups were carried and emptied into barrels on the wagons and taken to the still. Near the still was a copper shop where the barrels were made for raw gum and also for the processed tar, rosin, and turpentine to be put in.

This shop was dangerous and a no-man's land for children. So on Sunday afternoons we would slip down and look around as no work was done on Sunday. With about 600 negro workers and 100 white, Sunday was the day of rest. The still and sawmill were between the lake and the railroad, so the depot hid us from view at our house, so we felt safe.

The rosin was put into the new barrels for shipment, but left open during the weekend to harden and then tops put over the barrels. The boys dared my oldest brother to see how hard the rosin was and one day he tried a barrel and his entire hand went into the hot rosin and just cooked his hand. They had to take him home, and the Sunday exploring ended then and there.

Ed Gasque was the only other turpentine man in that section. His business was down near the old Pasco depot. He later moved into Dade City and built the Edwinola Hotel. They became very good friends of ours and we often exchanged views on the turpentine business.

Every railroad man, salesman, and doctor tried to make it to the Bessengers about meal time. We never knew how many would eat at our table before the day was over. Dad later built a large boarding house but the free meals at Bessengers never stopped.

There were no weather reports, only a weekly paper from Tampa, so the only weather news was by the ACL telegraph at the depot. That became the gathering place for the news. Many a deer hunt was planned by Berry Miller, Charley Dowling, and L. B Bessenger on the depot steps. The only amusement in the little sawmill town of Blanton was the croquet ground my dad made in the center of things.

He put clay down and kept it rolled, built high stands on the four sides up for the court and filled with sand and piled dross on each to burn for lights. The dross was the shaving from the pine trees as they were cut with trenches for the tar to drip in and run into the cups, and was full of tar and pine needles so would burn and make a bright flame to see by. At dark on Friday and Saturday nights these were always full and lighted for the public. There were many hours of croquet enjoyed by the adults.

The children were put to bed at dark. The only road to travel was very sandy and horse and wagons were the only transportation then. The first car in Blanton was brought out by Mr. Sparkman to try to sell to my dad. He took mother and dad for a ride and we children were scared pink until they returned. They didn’t buy the car and were we glad. My dad drove his rig 25 to 50 miles to attend to his business and would take the train in Dade City to get to Jacksonville and Tampa real often.

There were over 86,000 acres of land in Pasco county and South Florida owned or leased by my father, L. B. Bessenger, when I was about 12 years of age. We moved into Dade City in 1914. We children drove a horse and buggy into school before we sold our house in Blanton to the ACL Railroad for a section foreman house.

We had six different turpentine places in South Florida and operations ended with World War I. The war changed many things and lives.

Signed Lillian.

Many of the implements used by the turpentine industry will on display in the museum booth at the Pasco County Fair.

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