The production of naval stores-tar, pitch, and turpentine-was a major industry in North Carolina from the early eighteenth century until after the Civil War. On the eve of this conflict, Franklin County played a minor role in this aspect of the state's economy.
According to The Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), production of naval stores flourished in the Cape Fear Valley, especially in present-day Cumberland and Harnett counties. Extensive stands of longleaf pine trees there supplied the raw materials for products needed to make wooden ships seaworthy.
Frederick Law Olmstead described the wasteful process in a book he published in 1856, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. Slaves provided most of the labor. Owners hired them out to men who owned turpentine orchards. The slaves, who had no motivation to work carefully or efficiently, used a small axe to notch the tree, often hacking more bark than necessary. In the spring, as temperatures warmed, a small wooden box placed under this "V"-shaped cut collected the raw turpentine, which was dipped into specially made barrels.
Some raw turpentine was shipped to distilleries in the North, but many owners operated their own stills. Other products included rosin and tar, which was made by charring pine lightwood or roasting it in iron ovens. In North Carolina during the 1850s, New Bern and Wilmington were the principal markets for the turpentine, rosin, and tar produced in the southeastern part of the state. At this time, naval stores were the third most valuable export of the South.
According to the manufacturing schedule of the 1860 census of Franklin County, two farmers owned turpentine operations. Both of them lived at Baker's Cross Roads, located north of Norris's Creek in the extreme southern part of the county. Sherwood Brantley, 33, had invested $1,600 in his distillery. In the year ending June 1, 1860, Brantley used 2,500 barrels of raw turpentine valued at $4,000 to produce 16,000 gallons of spirits worth $6,080. Because he owned only a slave woman and three young children, Brantley hired three free men to help him, paying an average of $51 in wages each month they were used.
Ashley L. Bunn, 27, and Sherwood operated another distillery together. Though slightly smaller in terms of production, this business also employed three workers. Bunn owned two slave boys, ages 11 and 15.
The population schedule of the 1860 census for Franklin County reveals the names of men living near Brantley and Bunn who pursued occupations related to the turpentine industry; most of them likely worked at one of these distilleries. They included members of the Hall, Medlin, Moye, Parks, Pendergrass, Perry, Privette, and Smith families. Payton Massey, 23, listed his occupation as "stiller." Ruffin R. Massey, 40, and Floyd Williams, 44, both coopers, probably made barrels for the distilled turpentine. Andrew C. Bryant, an 84-year-old native of Virginia, worked as a "tar maker."
During this period, at least one more slave owner in Franklin County had a role in the turpentine industry. The Fayetteville Observer on June 14, 1860, ran an ad for J. B. Littlejohn of Louisburg, who offered a reward for the return of his slave Southwell or Southey. Littlejohn had hired out Southwell to work as a turpentine hand for the firm of J. and N. A. Cameron, in Cumberland County. It is not surprising that Southwell had run away. According to historian Lloyd Johnson, conditions in turpentine orchards tended to be harsher than on the typical plantation.
Compared to the many grist and saw mills scattered throughout Franklin County at this time, the turpentine industry contributed little to the local economy, but the efforts of Sherwood Brantley and Ashley L. Bunn represent an interesting episode in the county's history.
Published in The Franklin Times on August 20, 2015.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at email@example.com.