There are several theories about how North Carolina came to be known as the Tar Heel state. One is its dominance in the production of naval stores – tar, pitch, and turpentine – from colonial days until the early 1900s. In 1928, N&O writer Ben Dixon MacNeill looked back at the state’s turpentine empire.
North Carolina of two centuries ago presented an unbroken expanse of long leaf pine. It is doubtful that anywhere in the world there existed so magnificent a forest. Over a territory 300 miles long and more than 100 miles wide, the forest stretched in a green unbroken sea, with here and there rivers up which boats might come for their burdens. North Carolina became the chief turpentine producing territory in the world. The tar went everywhere. Even the Chinese, seeing the well-caulked ships that came from remote ports, coveted our tar and bought it.
Curiously enough there grew up a legend that only the pines of North Carolina could produce the particular grade of tar that had found such favor throughout the world. Up until 1835 the legend persisted. The trees south of the Cape Fear river were believed to be of an inferior sort whose tar could not equal that of the rest of the state. It may be that the propagandies of the day of the day fostered the myth. At any rate it was not until after 1835 that it was discovered that there was really no difference between the trees in South Carolina and those across the line to the North.
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North Carolina prospered because of the legend, and monopolized the business. It became famous throughout the world for its turpentine products. “Naval stores,” they were called, because they were used almost exclusively for caulking ships and tarring ropes and such other sea-going uses. With 1835 the State learned the use of the copper still in the distillation of the crude tar and rendering the pure turpentine. From then on the State’s position in the industry was made more secure by the higher quality of the turpentine produced here.
Production methods were, of course, crude. With the exception of the introduction of copper stills in the distillation of crude tar, no improvement was made in the industry in 200 years. The process was simple, and not costly. All that was needed was a tree, an axe, a bucket and crude dipping paddle, and a workman with a strong back. Methods developed in the primitive beginnings of the colony were still in use when the industry disappeared during the first decade of the present century.
With his axe the woodsman chipped a box in the trunk of the tree about a foot off the ground. Chips were removed above the box to induce the flow of resin from the veins of the tree. As the substance flowed out, some of it tended to harden on the chipped place, stopping the flow. The tree was merely healing its own wounds in the way that blood will clot about a wound stopping the flow. Periodically it was necessary to re-open the wound by new chipping. Tools were developed for this purpose. They were known as “hacks.”
From the wounds in the trunk of the tree the resin ran down into the box, and periodically it was dipped out. As the face of the chippings grew longer, tar hardened on the face and was removed in cakes. This had its commercial value. The drippings were poured into barrels, and hauled to the distillery or to a place of shipment. …
During the past 25 years, the turpentine industry has almost disappeared from the State. A ship coming now into the ports of Wilmington for a cargo of turpentine might create a sensation among this younger generation that does not remember the great, gaudy days when the ships of the world bent their courses toward the Cape Fear river bar.
Two things contributed to the disintegration of the industry. The trees were bled to death. After a while the producers and consumers discovered that there was really no difference between the trees in North Carolina and the trees in other parts of the South. The industry moved off Southward, and during the 80’s and 90’s, the State lost innumerable excellent families. They moved to Georgia and Alabama and Florida and other Southern States whose trees had not been bled dry.
The end of the century saw, too, an enormous increase in the demand for long-leaf pine lumber. Within 20 years the forests, already bled white under the hacks of the turpentine operators, succumbed finally to the axes of the lumbermen. The State was stripped bare of its timber. The forests disappeared. All that is left of them are the pine saplings, second growth, despised alike by turpentine men and lumbermen. The State’s glory was spent. –The N&O, 1/29/1928
Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/pasttimes.