Turpentine and the Long-lost Longleaf Pine

Nat, John, and Jane Shepard

Like so many of the world’s natural resources that have proven useful for the human cause, the longleaf pines that once blanketed much of the southeastern U.S. are now nearly gone. Yesterday we visited a historic site that revealed what happened to them.

The Boudreaux is docked in Panama City Beach—the long barrier island across a protected bay from Panama City proper—in a small canal behind the house of Jane Shepard, the widow of my first cousin Mac Shepard. Here Nat and I have enjoyed great company, wonderful food (there’s a tale to be told about that venison), and two nights sleeping on real beds. Yesterday, the weather offered a break from the blustery cold wind and rain we’ve had for much of the last week. With sunshine and temps creeping into the upper-50s, we loaded our bikes onto the back of Jane’s car and made the short drive to St. Andrews State Park.

Here we found a spectacular classic Gulf  beach with sand like white sugar (a gift of the quartz bedrock from the Appalachian Mountains), miles of trails that wind through dunes, marshes, oaks, and pine forests, and lots of wildlife. With the towering hotels that line the beach to the west hidden by the dunes and trees, this little oasis provided a glimpse into habitats that once covered hundreds of miles of the Gulf coast’s barrier islands.

Click here for a photo gallery of St. Andrews Park and Panama City Beach.

The park also included a historic turpentine still, which focused a beam on the demise of the longleaf pine. By way of background on this species of highly resinous pine—whose needles grow up to 18-inches—and the logging history of the region, here’s a short video from our Waters to the Sea: Chattahoochee River program:

Tree tapped for resin

“Naval stores” is the term for the uses put to the longleaf pine—turpentine, timber, and resin consumed by the U.S. Navy and merchants for a variety of purposes. And turpentining was a major Florida industry from the late 1800s to the 1930s. The turpentine still in St. Andrews Park shows the process by which the resins from the longleaf pine were refined by heating, cooling, and filtering. The sill included a sawmill, which provided an additional revenue source for the owner. Early on, slaves provided labor and stoked the still’s fires until emancipation, when they continued working as low-paid laborers. By the 1950s, synthetics had come to replace the naval store products that used the resins of the longleaf pine.

Click here for a turpentine still photo gallery.

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