As Florida shifted from the agricultural base it had in its territorial days and early years of statehood—field crops, cotton, tobacco, and cattle—towards new economies, citrus and timber production became leading factors in the young state’s livelihood. However, by the turn of the nineteenth century it was not these products but another which was Florida’s leading industry: naval stores, a field largely now forgotten to history.
Naval stores wasn’t the manufacture nor arming of military ships but the production of turpentine from pine oleoresin—a core material for the water-proofing of wooden-hulled vessels. To produce turpentine, an enormous amount of pine resin had to be collected, and collection was predicated on two conditions: a supply of healthy pine able to furnish the sticky syrup, and the labor to engage in this very intensive and difficult chore. The American South from North Carolina down through southern Georgia into Florida’s panhandle and north-central regions held vast reserves of longleaf pine trees appropriate for the collection of the required oleoresin—and it also had the legacy of slavery. Thus a large number of black Americans, though freemen by the time of the real rise of naval stores as an industry, were in poverty and easily enlisted for the workforce necessary for producing turpentine.
Any accurate history of naval stores needs to place emphasis on two aspects of this topic. The first is the economic impact of naval stores, especially in southern Georgia and northern Florida. But just as important is the fact that, much as it was with coal mining further north, the camps where resin was harvested were run in a manner often unfair to their workers, where people were according to their type of labor (and the color of their skin) divided into nearly separate castes, and lower-level workers became indebted to company stores. “Turpentining,” as it became known to its workforce, was hard, time-consuming, back-breaking labor. The largely positive economic history cannot ignore the human toll it took and the racial issues involved. However, the whole industry should not be demonized in retrospect, either. Naval stores was vital to our Navy and merchant marine fleets and turpentine had many other varied uses. Without this industry, much of the American South would not have developed as it has. There are cities and towns that were literally built on the fortunes of turpentine.
Lake City, Florida, was such a place. Now the county seat of Columbia County and the northernmost city of any size in north-central Florida before entering Georgia, the original focus on homestead-based farming, timbering, and its function as a regional center quickly gave way to the boom times of turpentine for the area. As the scope of pine needed for large-scale turpentine production is tremendous, camps to collect the resin were spread all throughout rural Columbia, Baker, and Hamilton counties plus further south in Alachua and Union counties with the southernmost turpentine camp in Citrus County—south of Crystal River on the Gulf Coast. In Hamilton County, there are still locations with names such as “Black’s Still” or “Kennedy Still”: these were once turpentine camps. They would have been company-owned operations, some rather small and others quite large, with foremen and overseers who would ride through the palmetto-speckled pine forests to ensure their workers—the laborers who actually “cat-faced,” or cut, the pine trees, collected the resinous sap, and hauled it back to the central camp’s still for boiling down—were doing their jobs correctly.
These foremen were known as “woods riders” and, while considered bosses of the common laborers, ranked below not only the company owners but the accountants and other men with “white-collar” jobs back at the camps. In some of the larger camps, there were even three clear divisions of housing: the simple cabins for the laborers, the homes of the woods riders, and the often plantation-like buildings for housing or temporary lodging of the higher-up administrators. This is important to note because as many of these camps—constructed cheaply and almost always of timber-frame construction—have fallen into such disrepair that no actual buildings remain standing. It is easy to imagine turpentining was a simple business that required little organization, but the exact opposite was the case. The camps required a still for boiling down the resin, support and storage buildings, homes for all these workers, a company store, and often had a church (sometimes two, separated by race), administrative offices, and other buildings.
Naval stores became such a vital industry that it was the single leading industry of Florida’s economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and even got its own federal laboratory to support further innovation in better techniques for obtaining turpentine and growing the necessary pine. The Naval Stores and Timber Production Laboratory in Olustee, Florida—not far from Lake City—for decades supported the production of pine both for turpentine purposes and also general timbering, as these industries were expectedly very closely connected. The forests that became crucial for turpentine production were originally used for timber production, and eventually most that were not over-forested returned to this function. By the 1950’s traditional turpentine production was being phased out, not only due to declining reserves of virgin pine forests but also due to new technology that allowed for the extraction of resin from harvested pine sent to paper mills and other processing sites. No longer did the resin have to be collected from living trees over time, and this development was a true game-changer for the industry. By the 1960’s little, if any, commercial turpentine production was continued via traditional means in the American South.
While most aspects of turpentine operations were confined to the aforementioned camps, stills and storehouses were also located in cities and towns: Older residents of Lake City have informed me that in their lifetimes the remains of a large still were still extant in town and a similar situation was present just west of Glen Saint Mary in Baker County. Moreover, the ports and railroad operations necessary for shipping out finished turpentine enjoyed the success of the industry and also grew from it as did the cities these transportation modalities joined. Jacksonville, Florida, and Valdosta, Georgia, were respectively the key port and rail centers for naval stores. Pensacola also played a vital role as a port.
Some of the material culture—the actual physical aspects—of the naval stores industry still remain, however. Southwest of Hawthorne, Florida, on a back road in the midst of deep pine forests there is a clearing where a small cluster of buildings sits vacant. One of the buildings, a garage for logging trucks and tractors, bears the familiar Georgia-Pacific logo. This was a basecamp for timber operations for Georgia-Pacific for years but was built by other timbering concerns and also was involved in the naval stores business in the early twentieth century. The National Turpentine and Pulpwood Corporation had it from the 1950’s into the 1980’s when Georgia-Pacific purchased it. But the original force behind not only this facility but the vast surrounding woods was the W. B. Phifer Co. These days, much of the forests here are a nature preserve named for the Phifer operation—the Phifer Flatwoods Preserve—while the basecamp is in private hands but unused save a cellphone tower placed on the land recently. The town of Hawthorne was once a center for naval stores and some of its remaining early architecture still indicates this, such as Moore’s Hotel which catered to industry executives as well as sportsmen who came to the area for its fine hunting and fishing.
The facilities the Phifer Co. placed here provides a good insight into how the actual “tree-side” operations of naval stores took place in the early twentieth century. Aside from garages and sheds—some of which were built later as timbering became more mechanized—we find a small office building. Though now in poor repair, its interior suggests that it served as a place for workers to come and get paychecks or see their foremen, though instead of actual checks, history tells us, the Phifer Co. used tokens good only at its company stores, as did many larger turpentine operations. This office was built in the middle of the fence between the outside and the area containing other buildings, serving a literal gate-keeping function as well. The lead foreman was provided a modest but nice home on the site for himself and his family: although now in very poor repair its design suggests it was in the 1920’s a modern, bungalow-inspired house that the foreman would have been proud to inhabit. While Georgia-Pacific appears to have kept the garage and shed buildings up and used them to service their equipment, the office and house were left to the elements, suggesting they served no purpose in later years when the outfit moved fully into timbering and away from naval stores.
An article in the Gainesville Daily Sun from 1906 gives some idea of how powerful an economic force the Phifer Co. was:
One of the most important transfers in real estate recorded in Florida in some time was the sale of 18,000 acres of timber land, together with forty ‘crops,’ or 400,000 boxes, and the complete naval stores outfit of W. B. Phifer, located at Abbott, Pasco County, a few days ago. It is understood that the consideration was $90,000. A large acreage of the tract is virgin timber, and said to be among the finest for turpentine purposes in Pasco County.
From this newspaper article we can also tell that Pasco County was highly involved in naval stores, though a key difference is that the Phifer Co. seems to have been able in Pasco to consolidate operations there, while in the northern counties such as Columbia and Hamilton, operations were smaller and run by independent contractors who sold their resin to larger companies. Thus, while the level of production in these counties may have been higher, it was less unified. Part of the reason for this state of affairs may have been that the northern counties—aside from the leading ports—remained less-developed in the early twentieth century. However, as Lake City’s downtown can testify, naval stores was high times for smaller, northern Florida cities. Lake City architecturally resembles a town in Georgia more than what we may think of as one in Florida: it has the traditional courthouse square and the Neoclassical Revival style of courthouse design. The surrounding buildings speak of commercial success in the early to mid-twentieth century, and later a loss of attention to downtown as Highway 441 and Interstate 75 lured businesses away from the city center to its outskirts. Trains still run through the core of Lake City, however, and some may still carry timber off—but no turpentine today. By the 1950’s, as the naval stores economy drifted off into the sunset, farming—especially for food crops and beef cattle—continued in rural north Florida alongside timber for wood production, taking advantage of the rail lines that in good part came to the region for naval stores, once Florida’s largest industry but forgotten to many now.