The naval stores industry is rooted in antiquity — the event of wooden sailing ships required tar and pitch to seal cracks and treat ropes to keep vessels sea worthy. When colonists settled in America, the demand from England’s navy for tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin resulted in inflated prices and an early industry in the New World. These materials, produced from pine forests, were called naval stores. They became the country’s first major export products. The longleaf pine forests of the Southeast quickly became the primary resource for producing naval stores because of the species’ highly resinous nature. North Carolina became the leading producer. The earliest production method was by pine tar kilns. To develop a kiln, workers would hollow a depression about 25 feet wide and dig down to clay soil to seal the bottom. A gutter was made to drain liquid tar into a collection pit. The kiln area was then filled with lightwood — resinous stumps, limbs, and boles from decayed pines — stacked up to 8 to 10 feet high. Clay and pine straw were then applied to seal the lightwood pyramid with an exhaust hole near the top to control the amount of oxygen that could reach the smoking wood. The temperature had to be monitored day and night to assure that the wood did not burn. The hot smoking conditions caused the wood to “sweat” until all the tar was extracted and the wood became a pile of charcoal. The tar collected in the pit was barreled for shipment or it could be boiled and made into a higher-grade product called pitch. The name “Tar Heels” given to North Carolinians came from those involved in this sticky process. The demand for naval stores products was so great that production shifted to collecting resin, called gum, from living trees. This process involved cutting through the bark with a sharp cutting tool known as a hack.
The tool cut through the cambium layer and the into the tree’s resin ducts to stimulate resin flow. Called “chipping,” streaks of bark and cambium were removed weekly through the growing season. They were cut at an angle to move the gum flow into the collection area. Early in the history of this process, gum was collected in a “box” or hole cut into the base of the tree. Cutting these boxes in the trees was labor intensive and frequently caused windthrow — when a tree is uprooted or overthrown by the wind — or even tree mortality. In the early 20th century, the process improved with clay or metal cups attached to the “face” of the tree replacing the box method. This process allowed pines to be “worked” without mortality and usually the rest of the tree could be used for lumber once the several years of chipping ended. Workers collected the gum from the boxes or cups every several weeks by emptying them into buckets. When full, the gum in the buckets was emptied into barrels which could either be sold or processed locally. Large operations developed their own stills for processing the gum. Essentially, the stills were copper pots in which the gum was heated by wood fires. Turpentine was condensed in a coiled copper pipe. The remains from the process was a molten mixture of resin acids known as rosin. Because a primary product of the resin was turpentine, the process became known as turpentining. Turpentine was marketed for a wide variety of products. Gum naval stores became a major industry in the Southeastern United States. North Carolina was the hub of the industry for more than a century. However, by the mid-1800s the longleaf pine forests of that state were decimated and companies moving into Georgia and Florida became the leaders of the industry. The industry required a huge work force and before the Civil War, it was provided by slaves. They were housed in camps, usually isolated from surrounding communities and were frequently subjected to cruel punishment. The camps typically consisted of small lean-to or shacks where workers were constantly exposed to the elements and were poorly clothed and fed. After the Civil War, labor for these turpentining operations in the Southeast was largely provided by contract prisoners and indentured debtors. Laws in Alabama, Georgia and Florida were passed to support the need for the type of labor; however, changes were gradually made to overcome this grievous system. Gum naval stores was never a major industry in the West Gulf Region. Early in the 20th century the “golden age of lumbering” began in the region and the financial returns from lumber were much greater than financial returns from naval stores. Although some turpentining operations worked trees for naval stores, they never reached the scale of those in the Southeastern states. This was because there were fewer markets in this western forested area, many lumbermen believed turpentining would hinder their lumbering operations and some aspects of the turpentining operations were in conflict with the newly developing science of forestry. The demand for naval stores products continued, however, and the resinous stumps resulting from the harvest of virgin longleaf pines provided an opportunity for the development of wood naval stores technology. Resinous stumps on millions of acres of harvested pines in the West Gulf Region provided a great resource waiting to be tapped and the harvest of stumps began. Landowners embraced this technology because it provided economic benefits from the sale of stumps and their removal opened possibilities for other uses of the land. Both Newport Industries and Crosby Chemicals developed huge facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi to grind the stumps, steam distill the wood and produce a wide array of useful and valuable chemicals. Crews moved across the region harvesting stumps. In contrast to the workers involved in turpentining operations, these workers were well-trained in the operation of equipment and use of explosives. Crawler tractors were developed with blades to split stumps and push them from the ground. If stumps were too large, holes would be drilled to insert dynamite for blasting. Rail cars and trucks brought a seeming endless supply of stumps to these processing plants. The production of wood naval stores required a completely different process than that of gum naval stores. The final products met the same need, but the method was not as labor intensive as that of gum production methods. Wood naval stores resulted in an expanded array of chemicals for market since chemistry was a focus of the methodology. Wood naval stores plants continued in operation until the early 1980s when the availability of resinous stumps remaining from the harvest of the virgin longleaf pine forests ended. It is interesting to note that the chemical products from naval stores operations are now provided as byproducts of sulfate paper production. Thus, naval stores operations in southern pine forests are now a largely forgotten aspect of our history. They were, however, the earliest significant products for export from the American colonies and continued to provide valuable products for national and international markets for almost three centuries. (Jim Barnett is emeritus scientist for the U.S. Forest Service.)