Turpentine Births Modern Day Jacksonville

July 6, 2015 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

The turpentine and resin industry was a driving force behind the development of 19th century port cities like Pensacola and, of course, Jacksonville. Once Florida’s largest industry, and one of the oldest industries in the United States, turpentine is a ubiquitous ingredient in American household products including paints, medicines, hair spray, and cosmetics (to name a few). Here's a brief look at its impact on Jacksonville over the last century.

The turpentine industry was flourishing in the form of camps near the Micanopy area in the late 1800s.  Collectors were mostly African-Americans who scraped gum, or tree sap, into barrels for transportation. However, boiling gum in kettles was tedious and expensive. It was later determined that it was more economical to transport the barrels to places like Jacksonville for processing into turpentine. A 50-gallon barrel of this raw gum would yield about 11 gallons of turpentine and about 330-440 pounds of resin after a distilling process.

Collecting the crude gum from the cups after it has dripped from the tree into the receptacles. Courtesy of Naval Stores: History, Production, Distribution and Consumption, 1921.

One particular kind that was prevalent in North Florida in particular was Oleoresin, better known to turpentiners as “pine resin.” This was a natural byproduct of certain types of pine trees and was handled frequently in Jacksonville. This pine resin would be extracted from the trees by laborers and then distilled to give us what was known as “spirit turpentine.”  This turpentine was originally used for sealing wooden ships to protect against leaks, which is why it eventually was given the nickname “naval stores.”

Jacksonville quickly became the Atlantic capital of the 'naval stores' industry. In 1908, the National Transportation & Terminal Company, a subsidiary of the American Naval Stores Company, moved headquarters to Jacksonville from Savannah, Georgia. The yard was located at the intersection of Enterprise Street (now Beaver Street) and Stockton Street. However, as the industry in Jacksonville continued to grow, a larger terminal at Commodores Point, along the St. Johns River, rose to prominence.  

General view of Jacksonville Naval Stores Yards at Commodores Point Terminals, showing turpentine warehouse, turpentine tanks and rosin yard. Courtesy of Naval Stores: History, Production, Distribution and Consumption, 1921.

During the season ending April 1, 1920, 332,128 barrels of rosin and 89,748 casks of turpentine were handled through Jacksonville. However, in 1924, Savannah took back the lead from Jacksonville as the principal port for naval stores exporting. By 1936, almost 60% of the world production of turpentine was from the southern United States. 60% of that production occurred in Georgia and 30% in Jacksonville.

Loading rosin for foreign shipment at the Jacksonville Naval Stores Yard in 1921.. Courtesy of Naval Stores: History, Production, Distribution and Consumption, 1921.

Regardless, these numbers were still positive for Jacksonville. But by the 1950s, the days of chipping and dipping gum from pines were coming to an end. The 50s brought new methods of extracting turpentine that were cheaper and less labor- intensive. Pulpwood mills would emerge, cutting up pines into chips and then boiling them. This would lead to a quick out-producing of traditional turpentine operations.

The old Commodore Point naval yards terminal site is now used for game day tailgating near Everbank Field.

Nowadays, turpentine is used for medicines, solvents, paint thinners, and other items.  Resin has been utilized for everything from glue for envelope flaps to ingredients in ointments & plasters. While perhaps not as “big” of an industry today, remnants or “lasting legacies” from Jacksonville’s turpentine era can still be seen.

Article by Kristen Pickrell

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