Turpentiners said 'meanest people' in country

By Bob Bowman
Special to The Journal

There are two "Turpentine" stories worth telling in East Texas. One is a forgotten town; the second is a forgotten way of life.

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

Actually a "mother camp" for Western Naval in Southeast Texas, Turpentine employed about 80 men and had a population of l25 at its peak in 19l0.

By 19l5, the company had l6 subsidiary camps in Jasper, Sabine, Newton and San Augustine counties.\par }{\plain In 19l8-19, at the peak of the turpentine industry in the South, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi produced some 2l 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 l973 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 razor-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.\par }{\plain 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.

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."

(Bob Bowman of Lufkin is the author of more than 30 books on East Texas, including the forthcoming book, "Forgotten Towns of East Texas." He can be reached at bobb@consolidated.net .