Harmony Hall hosts tar-making demonstration

WHITE OAK — Time, patience, sweat and long-leaf pines. A lot each.

Those four ingredients are key to the production of tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin — though the process today requires far less of the first three ingredients than it did more than 300 years ago.

On Saturday and Sunday, Brian Avery, who has been dubbed a “Roads Scholar” by the North Carolina Humanities Council, was at Harmony Hall Plantation Village to give folks a demonstration and historical discussoin on the production of tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin in the Carolinas. He brought his “Tar Heel Boys,” Richard Thompson of Erwin and Tom Steves of Lillington, with him to show the process.

“In 1700, England was buying all of its tar from Sweden,” Avery said. “Then, Sir Walter Raleigh discovered there were 96 million acres of long-leaf pine in the Carolinas.

“Tar was very important for a country that was building a lot of ships, as England was, since she was always at war with France and Spain,” Avery added. “The tar was needed to coat the ship’s ropes, masts, sails and any exposed wood to make it waterproof.”

Avery said that, in 1705, England sent tar-makers to the Carolinas to begin production of tar — and, by extension, also pitch, turpentine and rosin. They found that the heartwood of the long-leaf pine was full of resin, and it became the best source for making tar.

In the early summer months, they would begin by cutting a reservoir near the bottom of a long-leaf pine to catch the flowing resin in the tree that would flow through the end of September. A smooth face was cut above the reservoir that barely removed the bark and a “V” was notched above the face that kept the resin running to the center of the face and into the collection area.

“None of this hurt the tree, as long as they didn’t cut into it too deeply,” Avery said.

Back then, it would take tar-makers two days to dig an impression in the ground and build a mound that was 25 to 30 feet in diameter and several feet high, another two days to “load the mound” with the resin-filled heartwood and crude piping that extended outside the mound, and another two days to cover up all their digging and create air holes in the mound.

A fire was then lit atop the mound over the heartwood, which would heat up the resin and allow it to begin rolling through the piping to a collection item.

“For nine days that fire would burn and produce tar,” Avery said. “And they had to watch those fires closely 24/7 because, if the fire got too hot, it would burn up the mound and all the heartwood with it. And sometimes, it would start a forest fire.”

From the tar collected, it was boiled to remove the water and created pitch — more of a solid when allowed to cool. Turpentine was created by taking the resin directly from the pine tree and boiling it in a still. What came out of the piping was turpentine, and what was left behind in the still was the final product: rosin.

“So tar and pitch are created from the harvested dead heartwood of the pine,” Avery said, “while turpentine and rosin are produced from a live pine.”

By 1860, just before the start of the Civil War, Avery said 70 percent of all the tar used in the word was being shipped down the Cape Fear River to Wilmington on its way to England and, of that amount, 90 percent of it was coming from North Carolina.

“There is no question in my mind that this plantation (Harmony Hall) was a tar-producing location in its early days,” Avery said. “Its proximity to the river and availability of long-leaf pine in the area made it perfect to have the product moved to Wilmington.”

Bobby Lewis, field marshal at Harmony Hall, said he has seen plenty of proof of that.

“We’ve found a dozen or so remains of the tar-kill beds around the woods here,” he said. “It’s been documented that Col. (James) Richardson was a supplier for Naval stores of tar, pitch and turpentine products.”

The weekend demonstrations attracted a few dozen interested individuals, including scouts from Troop 622 and Pack 622 out of Dublin.

W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.