Turpentine camps once were common throughout the Southeastern Coastal Plain landscape. They were industrial communities in some of the nation’s most remote and non-industrial areas: the pine flatwoods stretching from Mississippi to North Carolina. Unlike the company towns in America’s rust belt or the northeast, turpentine camps were temporary settlements defined by debt peonage and populated by African Americans who couldn’t escape the lowest rung of the Southern socioeconomic ladder chipped pine trees, collected sap, hauled it to stills, and turned it into turpentine.
I spent the summer of 1987 on a team surveying a large tract of St. Johns County, Fla., forest for archaeological sites. Most of the sites we found were associated with the naval stores and cattle industries: turpentine camps, still sites, ubiquitous clay turpentine cup shards, and a semi-subterranean concrete cattle dipping vat.
One of the sites we documented was the former location of a turpentine still and its associated camp. The mid-20th-century still site — “Old Julia” — had long since been reduced to an illegible scatter of rusted metal and broken clay and glass while a later camp had evolved into an unincorporated hamlet: Elwood.
In the spring of 1988 I returned to St. Johns County to interview some of the former lumber industry workers about Old Julia and Elwood. I was by no means the first historian, folklorist, or anthropologist to collect narratives about Florida’s turpentine camps. They were the subject of crusading civil rights writers in the teens and Zora Neal Hurston wrote about them in the 1930s. Later historians documenting the 1923 Rosewood massacre and forced convict labor have provided a rich body of literature. These images are from the 1988 visit. Quotations from my March 1988 interview with a former forest manager punctuate the photos.
There may be some of the old timers that lived in both places, I don’t know. Most of the old guys — of course I’ve been here 33 years and it was gone 8 or 10 years before that, see. So maybe some young boys, you know there very could possibly be, cause this fellow’s in his 70s and he could remember when it was all there. But Elliot McGuire and his daddy run the commissary down there and everything, you know.
We moved down here in ’55, which is late, you know for history, but when you work with a man that’s been born and raised down here in Orangedale you get alot of the input that you wouldn’t get if you just been living here 35 years, you know; it’s a big difference. Him and I worked together, side by side, for 17-18 years, 20 years somethin’ like that before he retired. And you know when you work with somebody every day, eight hours a day, and you know him as good as you know your family because you’re with him more than you’re with your family, really. I mean when there’s just two of you workin’ too, and you know, your with each other eight hours a day, five days a week, why when you consider you talk to your wife probably three hours a day and you know the rest of the time you’re in the bed, I mean actually conversation and your with the guy. But anyway, we fished and hunted together and so and then of course with the woods job it’s different but because you ride through and, “that’s where so-and-so lived, and that’s an old field, and this one here.” And you just pick up that stuff. But anyhow, he would be a good one, Imean he’s gettin’ up in age but he’s still got, got his mind and everything and he, I mean he could really tell you about all the old stuff in this whole area.
Elliot McGuire’s daddy was Leo McGuire and Leo McGuire had the commissary and the buildings and everything and they worked for him at the turpentine. So he would be, oh I could tell you is just from hearsay, of what the man told me that worked here.
As you pull into Elwood, the old commissary is, where the old gas pumps is, that’s that white building. That’s the old commissary when they were down there, see.
There may be some of the old timers that lived in both places, I don’t know. Most of the old guys — of course I’ve been here 33 years and it was gone 8 or 10 years before that, see. So maybe some young boys, you know there very could possibly be, cause this fellow’s in his 70’s and he could remember when it was all there.
… he worked here back in the early 40’s, 38-39-40. And then he went in the service, then he came back and worked for Rayonier again till about ’70. And he was born and raised right there in that house right behind the house in a little log house. So he was just born and raised right there and he’s in his 70’s. So he was livin’ there when that still was there. And he knows the people that lived there and they moved it down here to Elwood down here now. They called it “Old Julia” and anyway.
But anyway, really you know, all I know is really that was where “Old Julia” was and I would say probably in the middle ’40’s they moved it.
Most of the young kids, you know, once they get grown they leave from out of here. They got to go to town, you know, they can’t live out here.