by Bob Bowman
are two turpentine stories worth telling in East
Texas -- one a forgotten town; the second, a forgotten way of life.|
First, the town -- a settlement established in 1907 by the Western Naval Stores
Industry in the virgin longleaf pinelands of Jasper County as a turpentine camp
Actually a "mother camp" for the company in Southeast
Texas, Turpentine employed about 80 men and had a population of l25 at its peak
By 19l5, the company had l6 subsidiary camps in Jasper, Sabine,
Newton and San Augustine counties. In 19l8-19, at the peak of the turpentine industry
in the South, Texas and two other Southern states -- Louisiana and Mississippi
-- produced some 2l percent of the nation's gum output before the industry started
-- as well as its offspring camps -- generated a lawless breed of men and a way
of life that led loggers to look down upon "turpentiners."
of Broaddus, who in l973 shared his memories as a turpentine camp boss with a
writer, said turpentiners "were the meanest people who ever lived."
"They'd kill each other...one or two every Saturday night. If they didn't have
gambling and a barrel house to get drunk in, they'd move on to camps where they
did have 'em."
Norris, whose father was also a turpentiner, remembered
that he and others "had to patrol the camps on Saturday nights, breaking up fights,
trying to keep them from killing each other."
Norris said the outside
law "didn't pay us any mind...it was turpentine law and we took care of our own
Norris remembered a camp incident when a worker who kept his
money tied around his leg got drunk and fell asleep in a house used to store wooden
barrels). "A fellow came in with a razer-sharp apron knife. He chopped off the
man's leg at the knee, grabbed the leg and left."
Another incident occurred,
according to Norris, when a worker named Molasses was shooting craps with several
other turpentiners. "A man came in with a gun to shoot another fellow in the game,
but Molasses was between the two. The fellow with the gun hollered at Molasses
to duck, but he didn't. The bullet went in Molasses' forehead and slid around
under the skin and came out behind his ear. Molasses wrapped his head in a red
handkerchief and went right on shooting craps."
Turpentine workers collected
sap from the pines by "notching" or gouging holes into the sides of the trees
to let the sap run down the sides. Cups were then attached to the notches and
once a week the turpentiners would empty the cups into barrels scattered throughout
the woods. A barrel wagon regularly made rounds to pick up the full barrels.
The sap was then taken to stills -- which operated somewhat like a whiskey
still -- to generate turpentine. The stills were able to handle about l5 barrels
at a time.
The turpentine industry in East
Texas was usually referred to as "the naval stores business," a term originated
when tree gum was used to tar the rigging and caulk the hulls of sailing vessels
more than a century ago.
Early turpentine workers in East
Texas seldom made much money. But there were benefits other than the pay.
Norris said turpentiners seldom got sick in the camps.
"How could they
get sick? They breathed in enough turpentine fumes to kill all the flu and pneumonia
bugs in the world."
Things Historical July
15, 2001 column
Published by permission.
(Bob Bowman is a former president
of the East Texas Historical Society and the author of 24 books on East Texas
history and folklore.)