As early as 1565, John Hawkins, an Englishman, made the discovery that the pine trees in Florida could produce turpentine. During the late 19th century when the trees in Georgia were being depleted, Florida pine trees became a source of turpentine. Longleaf pine trees were plentiful in the northern part of Florida and that area produced the most turpentine. There were also many turpentine producers in Central Florida. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, turpentine became the second largest industry in Florida (Robison, 1995, pp. 150-151).
Workers made cuts in the base of pine trees to gather gum from the trees. After preparing the tree, they then placed tins and cups on the trees to collect the gum. After the cups were full, workers put the gum into barrels and transported them to the still. Here they processed the raw material to make turpentine and other products (EPA 2; Butler, 1998, pp. 35-36).
Turpentine workers lived in settlements called camps. During the 1850s and early 1900s there were many turpentine stills and turpentine camps surrounding Orlando (Gore, 1951, p. 114; Robison, 2005). There were approximately 20 to 30 turpentine stills in the Seminole County area until the 1940s. Locations included the Wekiva area, Gabriella near Dean Road and Aloma Avenue, Chuluota and Geneva/Snow Hill.
Turpentine camps were also located in other areas including Curryville, Snow Hill, Paola, and Markham. By the 1870s many lumber mills and turpentine camps operated in the Wekiva area. Some of these included the Spencer Sawmill, Zachary Lumber Company, Wilson Cypress Company and the Overstreet Turpentine Company (EPA 1; Robison, 2005).
In 1875 William Markham purchased land in the Wekiva River area. This land had pine forests, which provided trees for lumber, mills, and turpentine. By 1889 there were 500 people in Markham, which was near the Sanford and Lake Eustis Railroad (Gore, p. 168). Many of these people, including African Americans, worked in the turpentine and lumber industries and agriculture (EPA, p. 1; Robison, 2005). Streets and roads in the Wekiva area of Seminole County still bear the Markham name. Historic markers commemorate the turpentine industry and the community that flourished in Markham.
The Overstreet Turpentine Company operated in the Markham area. At the time, this was one of the larger businesses in Florida. Moses O. Overstreet was president of the Overstreet Turpentine Company, Inc, which listed its address as 132 S. Orange Avenue. He also operated the Overstreet Crate Company and was president of Peoples National Bank.
The Overstreet family is listed in the 1915-1916 Orlando, Florida City Directory. The directory also lists the businesses they owned.
Another turpentine operator was J.P. Musselwhite. He also donated land for the park at Lake Eola. A commemorative marker is located at the east end of the park. Gore (p. 213) stated:
Many African Americans worked in the turpentine camps and at the stills. Conditions were harsh and workers were paid little money. In the 1920s and 1930s workers earned approximately ten cents ($.10) per hour and sometimes they were paid with “company tickets,” which they used to buy supplies from the company stores known as commissaries (Bentley, 2000, p. 112). Workers lived in shanties and couldn’t leave the camp if they owed money to the store (Robison, 1995, pp. 151-152).
The State also leased convicts to work in the turpentine camps. They were treated harshly and the state ended the convict lease program after a prisoner was killed in 1922 in a turpentine camp (Robison, 1995, p. 152).
The workers began their workday at approximately 6 a.m. each morning and worked until dark. The workweek lasted from Monday until Saturday at noon. A saloon was sometimes located near the camps. Most children did not attend school and in some camps, black and white children played together (Adams, 2001, outline).
The following undertaker’s memoranda gives information about someone who worked in the turpentine industry in Central Florida.
In 1939 Zora Neale Hurston visited a turpentine camp in Cross City, Florida to record information for the Works Project Administration (WPA). Read about her visit and view documents, photos and lesson plans at the Florida Memory Project of the State Library and Archives of Florida:
"Zora Neale Hurston, the WPA in Florida, and the Cross City Turpentine Camp"
A substance called rosin was made from the turpentine gum. This product was part of the "naval stores" industry because workers used rosin and other pine products to seal openings and to preserve the ropes and other parts of wooden ships (Butler, 1998; Robison, 1995, p. 151). Rosin was later used to make soap (Butler, p. 222; Robison, p.151).
Turpentine had many household uses. It was used as a solvent for paint. People used it to heal cuts and bites and to treat burns and colds. Products such as Vicks Vapor Rub contained turpentine. People also used it to get rid of insects such as ants and to polish furniture and clean floors, windows and other items in their houses (Butler, pp. 218-221)
Turpentine production required other industries to support it. There were sawmills where workers cut lumber. Coopers made barrels to transport the turpentine. Blacksmiths made the metal bands for the barrels (Adams, 2001). By the 1930s production methods changed and large production methods replaced the smaller turpentine stills. By the 1970s turpentine was no longer a major industry in Florida (Robison, 1995, p. 152).