Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/Turpentine-Farming

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FINDING myself in the pine-region of Southeast Georgia, and thinking that some information on the subject above named may not prove uninteresting to your readers, I will endeavor to tell to them that which has been imparted to me by those thoroughly conversant with the whole business.

A turpentine-farm consists of from five to forty crops of ten thousand five hundred boxes each. The work is sometimes carried on by the owners of the pine-forests themselves; again, the trees are leased out for a certain number of years, two or three being about the limit. Negro labor is principally employed in this section. The work commences in November, when the boxing of the trees begins. The boxes, which are cut sloping back into the trees about a foot from the ground, measure three inches back at bottom, four deep, and about seventeen in length. In March they are cornered; that is, a chip is taken off on both sides just above the ends of the boxes. Next the faces for dripping are cut Y-shape between and above the places chipped. The number of faces on each tree depends upon its size, varying from one to three. Besides the original cutting of the faces, the trees are hacked once a week during the dripping-season with a peculiarly shaped knife suited to the purpose. The hacking increases the length of the faces, as one or two inches of bark are taken off above each time.

The dipping of the crude into barrels begins about the middle of March, and the boxes are emptied seven or eight times during the season. They hold from one to two quarts each, and from 10,000 boxes 210 barrels is considered a fair, 250 a fine yield. The first year's dripping is called "virgin," the second "yearling," and all after "old stuff," From eight barrels of crude they get two of spirits of turpentine, and five to five and a half of resin. Of the latter there are several grades: W. W., "water-white"; W. G., "window-glass"; M, next highest, and so on up the alphabet, but down in quality, to A, the letter J being omitted. The first drippings, if not scorched in boiling, make beautifully white, transparent resin; hence the name "water-white." The crude producing this can never be obtained from the trees after the first month's running; that for W. G., "window-glass," possibly, into July or August. Sometimes dealers are imposed upon by agents, who, by a skillful handling of the brush, can change W. G. into W. W., and H. into K., and so pass the resin off for a higher grade than it really is.

The stilling begins about April. One pleasant afternoon, a few weeks since, one or two friends and myself strolled down to a still, about a mile distant from the farm-house. The stiller and his wife were most kind, and cheerfully answered my many questions. The still, which cost about six hundred dollars, was a rude structure of two stories, or rather a ground-floor with one story, roofed, but not closed in. Ascending the rough stairway, we reached the top of the huge caldron, into which are poured from eight to ten barrels of crude at a charge. The opening, only sufficiently large to admit of the turning of a barrel of crude over it when the boiler was being filled, was covered by a copper cap that, being lengthened out, formed a short pipe which, bending downward, united with the spiral pipe or "worm" that coiled itself in the huge still-tub of water near by. The water was conducted into this tub by a trough leading from a well, the buckets of which were drawn several feet above the mouth of the well to a convenient height. A pipe from a barrel of water led into the boiler, so that the water could be turned in whenever, in the judgment of the stiller, it was necessary. When the boiling began, the vapor, rising and entering the "worm," was condensed by the cold of the tub into water and spirits of turpentine, which poured out into a barrel on the groundfloor. From this barrel the turpentine only was conducted into another; this was easily accomplished by having the connecting-tube placed near the top of the barrel, higher than the water ever reached, the turpentine always rising to the top: this was prettily shown by the stillers catching from time to time a tumblerful and holding it up, when it could be seen that the separation was instantaneous. The stiller frequently places his ear at the end of the "worm," as by the sound from the boiler he can judge as to the expediency of adding water to the crude. The proportion of spirits to water that flows out should be as two to three; the quantity of the former of course decreases as the time for letting off the charge approaches, and it at last should stand only a half-inch on a glass of water. But when the demand for resin is greater than that for turpentine, the tendency is not to carry the boiling quite so far, as more turpentine may be left to the improvement of the resin; still, it should be taken out sufficiently to prevent the softening of the one and a half inch sample-cube, which is placed in the show-case of the merchant.

When, during the boiling, the necessary proportion of spirits to water for discharging is reached, the stiller removes the cap, lessens the heat—as there is great danger of scorching the resin—and, after giving the contents of the boiler a vigorous stirring, lets it out at the opening near the bottom, a boiling tide, into the three strainers placed one above another upon the ground-floor, through which it passes to the tank below. The upper strainer is of coarse wire, in which are caught the pieces of bark and other foreign substances that have escaped the wire skimmers when in the boiler; strainer No. 2 is of finer wire; No. 3 coarse, but covered with cotton-batting. "When this mass of liquid has passed entirely through, the strainers are removed, and the still intensely hot resin is taken up by great dipperfuls and poured into barrels standing near. It must now be undisturbed until hard, as even putting a stick down into it injures the quality of the resin. The poorest crude, if taken off the furnace just at the right moment, gives W. W.; but if scorched the color is injured, and consequently the grade lowered.

The children around the still brought boxes containing flowers and brightly colored pictures, lying flat upon their bottoms, and the stiller poured a small quantity of the liquid resin upon them; this, continuing transparent, glazed them over and preserved the treasures. I still have a sprig of small leaves which he dipped for me that is coated over quite prettily. There are two or three discharges from the boiler each day.

All foreign matter taken from the crude, also the cotton-batting used in straining—in other words, the "dross"—although valuable as material for kindling, is frequently burned, as there is very little of it sent to market. I remember the dense smoke that caused the gentleman from the farm to hurry over to the still one afternoon, fearing that everything was being consumed, when it was only a bonfire of this most combustible material. In case of danger from fire to the still-house, the first step is to seal down the cap as rapidly as possible with mortar always kept mixed in a tub near by.

The resin is put in pine barrels; but oak barrels, made very tight, their seams being glued on the inside, are used for the turpentine. The uses of resin in the manufacture of soap, varnish, shellac, etc., and in various other ways, are numberless. The products of the turpentine-farms of this region are sent by steamer down the Altamaha to Doctortown, thence by rail to Savannah and Brunswick. Savannah is said to be the largest market for these commodities in the world.

Mr. Bolton King maintained, in the British Association, that the future of successful agriculture lies in large farms under skilled management, with plenty of capital, or in co-operative farming. It can enjoy the economic advantages of large capitalist farms, and is believed to be competent to realize the social ideal sought for. Such evidence as is at hand is favorable to the feasibility of engaging the co-operation of the laborers in enterprises of this kind, and there is not likely to be difficulty in finding the required capital; but the chief obstacle to the extension of association farms lies in the scarcity of skilled managers, who will have to be waited for till they can be trained.