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Jasper County TX
Jasper County
Jasper Hotels

TURPENTINE, TEXAS

Texas Ghost Town
Jasper County, East Texas

The Turpentiners

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
There are two turpentine stories worth telling in East Texas -- one a forgotten town; the second, a forgotten way of life.

First, the town -- a settlement established in 1907 by the Western Naval Stores Industry in the virgin longleaf pinelands of Jasper County as a turpentine camp and distillery.

Actually a "mother camp" for the company in Southeast Texas, Turpentine employed about 80 men and had a population of l25 at its peak in 1910.

By 19l5, the company had 16 subsidiary camps in Jasper, Sabine, Newton and San Augustine counties. In 1918-19, at the peak of the turpentine industry in the South, Texas and two other Southern states -- Louisiana and Mississippi -- produced some 21 percent of the nation's gum output before the industry started to fade.



Turpentine -- as well as its offspring camps -- generated a lawless breed of men and a way of life that led loggers to look down upon "turpentiners."

Chester Norris of Broaddus, who in 1973 shared his memories as a turpentine camp boss with a writer, said turpentiners "were the meanest people who ever lived."

"They'd kill each other...one or two every Saturday night. If they didn't have gambling and a barrel house to get drunk in, they'd move on to camps where they did have 'em."

Norris, whose father was also a turpentiner, remembered that he and others "had to patrol the camps on Saturday nights, breaking up fights, trying to keep them from killing each other."

Norris said the outside law "didn't pay us any mind...it was turpentine law and we took care of our own camps."

Norris remembered a camp incident when a worker who kept his money tied around his leg got drunk and fell asleep in a house used to store wooden barrels). "A fellow came in with a razer-sharp apron knife. He chopped off the man's leg at the knee, grabbed the leg and left."

Another incident occurred, according to Norris, when a worker named Molasses was shooting craps with several other turpentiners. "A man came in with a gun to shoot another fellow in the game, but Molasses was between the two. The fellow with the gun hollered at Molasses to duck, but he didn't. The bullet went in Molasses' forehead and slid around under the skin and came out behind his ear. Molasses wrapped his head in a red handkerchief and went right on shooting craps."

Turpentine workers collected sap from the pines by "notching" or gouging holes into the sides of the trees to let the sap run down the sides. Cups were then attached to the notches and once a week the turpentiners would empty the cups into barrels scattered throughout the woods. A barrel wagon regularly made rounds to pick up the full barrels.

The sap was then taken to stills -- which operated somewhat like a whiskey still -- to generate turpentine. The stills were able to handle about l5 barrels at a time.

The turpentine industry in East Texas was usually referred to as "the naval stores business," a term originated when tree gum was used to tar the rigging and caulk the hulls of sailing vessels more than a century ago.

Early turpentine workers in East Texas seldom made much money. But there were benefits other than the pay. Norris said turpentiners seldom got sick in the camps.

"How could they get sick? They breathed in enough turpentine fumes to kill all the flu and pneumonia bugs in the world."


All Things Historical July 15, 2001 column
Published by permission.
(Bob Bowman is a former president of the East Texas Historical Society and the author of 24 books on East Texas history and folklore.)
Jasper Newton County TX 1920s map
1920s Jasper & Newton County map showing Turpentine near Angelina County line
NW of Jasper, 3.50 miles E of Aldridge, a sawmill ghost town
From Texas state map #10749

Courtesy Texas General Land Office

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