Sarasota History of Turpentine and Pine Woods

By | December 12, 2013

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turpentine-woodsLittle remains of an industry that once spread throughout much of the pine woods of Sarasota County.

The harvesting of gum from trees for the purpose of distilling it into turpentine had moved into Florida as the forests of Georgia became exhausted. In the first two decades of the last century, R.S. Hall and George McCloud, in separate operations, leased thousands of acres of pine forest from Alligator Creek south of Venice to Cow Pen Slough east of Bee Ridge.

The labor force in the turpentine camps was almost exclusively African American, and many of the workers followed the industry into this region from Georgia and north Florida. Supervising the camp and enforcing the law of the camp was the “woodsrider.” Under him workers specialized; some cut “cat faces,” V-shaped grooves, into the side of a tree. From these cuts oozed gum, into a clay pot or “box” cut into the base of the tree. Other workers transferred the accumulated gum into barrels, which others then transported by wagon to a still.

The “stiller” brought to a boil approximately 10 barrels of gum in a large copper kettle over a wood fire. Distillation resulted in turpentine (about 20 percent) and its by-product, rosin (about 80 percent). A turpentine company in Jacksonville purchased any turpentine or rosin which was not sold locally.

Many camp operators built “quarters” for their workers. In Laurel, the worker’s houses were north of Laurel Road and east of the railroad. A commissary stocked basic food and household supplies and often carried families on credit between pay periods. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church also housed elementary school classes during the week and served as a meeting place for the Masons. A community cemetery was on high ground near the still. Workers in the cooper’s shop, who made barrels for the shipment of turpentine products from the camp, also made burial caskets. They made the caskets from wood for barrels and lined them with cotton batting, which the stiller used to strain the rosin.

In the 1930s, B.T. Longino Sr. established a turpentine camp on 12,000 acres at Sidell and, with Luke Grubbs, another camp at Bee Ridge. Longino hired Albert Jones to organize and run the camps as woodsrider. Jones recruited workers from other turpentine operations around the state. The Sidell camp was on the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad about a mile south of State Road 72 (then called Sugar Ball Road). In addition to 30 houses for workers and the still, there was a cooper’s shed, commissary, school and church. The Sarasota County Board of Public Instruction sent a teacher out to the school and Jones or his brother preached in the church.

The Bee Ridge camp was just south of Clark Road and east of the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Near the still were two – to four room houses for the workers, a cooper’s shed and commissary. Slightly west on Clark Road was the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, which doubled as a school. Bee Ridge workers could find weekend recreation at Charlie Pinkney’s nearby “jook.”

All the turpentine camps in Sarasota County were closed by the early 1950s. Demand for the products had severely diminished and many of the pine woods no longer existed. After being turpentined, trees typically became by-products of local sawmill operations.

For more details on the turpentine industry, read the historical markers at the Laurel and Bee Ridge camp sites.

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!

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