Once Florida’s largest industry, and one of the oldest industries in the United States, turpentine was a ubiquitous ingredient in American household products including paints, medicines, hair spray, and cosmetics, just to name a few. The industry was a driving force behind the development of port cities Jacksonville and Pensacola.
Oleoresin, better known to turpentiners as pine resin, is a natural byproduct of certain types of pine trees that at one time proliferated in North Florida. This pine resin was extracted from the trees by laborers (mostly African-American males) and then distilled to give us turpentine or “spirit of turpentine.”
Yet, before these modern uses of distilled pine resin, it was originally used for sealing wooden ships to protect against leaks, earning the name “naval stores.” The first known European use of naval stores in Florida was in the sixteenth century by Spanish explorers, but production of the resin did not become a fruitful trade in Florida until the early 1800s.
In 1989, the Florida Folklife Program conducted fieldwork for the Forest Industries Project to gather information from first hand sources that could shed light on past forest industries. As a part of the project they interviewed turpentiner/barrel maker Ralph Dupree, born in Esto, Florida in 1912. If you’d like to hear a firsthand account of a laborer who performed this difficult work, listen to this clip of Mr. Dupree explaining the process of gathering pine resin:
For more information about turpentining and naval stores, see:
Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA in Florida, and the Cross City Turpentine Camp: http://www.floridamemory.com/onlineclassroom/zora_hurston/.
R. S. Blount and the Florida Agricultural Museum, Spirits of Turpentine: A History of Florida Naval Stores, 1528 to 1950 (Tallahassee: Florida Agricultural Museum, 1993).
You can also visit the Museum of Florida History, which has a naval stores/turpentine exhibit on permanent display.