Family puts Georgia back into the turpentine business

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One family of farmers is bringing back one of Georgia's most storied industries.

As the weather warms, and the pine sap rises, a long-forgotten South Georgia industry edges closer to resurrection.

A French company recently announced plans for a first-in-decades turpentine factory in Effingham County. Here in the buckle of the old Georgia pine belt, though, an old-fashioned, farm-rigged turpentine still already turns pine gum into paint thinner, violin varnish, soaps and salves.

It’s owned by the Griner family, fifth-generation foresters revitalizing a profitable and painful Georgia history one sticky bucket at a time.

From a sole customer in Brunswick five years ago, the Griners now count hundreds of online aficionados who buy small batches of turpentine and rosin. Artists use the goo to thin paint or clean brushes. Craftsmen mix turp into a fine furniture wax. It’s in Vicks VapoRub, inhalers and medicated soaps. Hunters deploy turpentine to mask their scent.

Rosin, another pine sap byproduct, helps baseball players grip bats and bull riders grab reins. Violin makers apply rosin as a varnish. It’s in chewing gum, Coca-Cola and depilatory wax.

“We saw ourselves as a grass-roots effort to revive an industry once thriving in this area,” said Julie Griner, an elementary school teacher who doubles as the family’s marketing whiz. “Back during the recession, in ‘07 and ‘08, I remember (husband) Chip saying: ‘Look around. There is money in these trees and people are going around hungry.’”

An industry Georgia once led

Longleaf pine forests once stretched across 92 million acres from Virginia to Texas. In 1720, the British pushed their American colonies to tap as many trees as possible for the lumber, rosin and turpentine — naval stores — needed to keep the king’s navy afloat.

The industry, at first, centered on eastern North Carolina. But as the trees were cut, operations shifted south into Georgia’s virgin pine forests. By 1890, Georgia was No. 1 in turpentine production. Much of the success, though, was built on the backs of African-American slaves, freemen, convicts and sharecroppers who did the hot, dirty, dangerous work of cutting the trees, gathering the tar, building the barrels and distilling the gum.

Turpentine plantations proliferated from Statesboro to Valdosta prior to the Civil War. Slaves lived in camps scattered throughout the forest. Once the trees were tapped out, they were harvested into boards and the slaves moved on to the next tract.

The war’s end changed little, though labor became harder to find. Black families remained in the camp shanties, bought food and clothes from the company-owned store with company-issued scrip, and moved on to Florida, Alabama or Mississippi as Georgia’s forests dwindled.

By midcentury, Georgia-tapped turpentine generated $43 million annually and tallied 8,000 gum producers, according to the American Turpentine Farmers Association in Valdosta. South Georgia state legislators pushed to make Georgia the “Turpentine State.” A CBS radio ad of the time extolled turpentine as “the universal household cleanser (from) the great fragrant pine forests of the romantic South.”

The romance, though, soon ended. Production dropped off drastically by the mid-60s as the forests, and the men needed to cut them, dwindled. Pulpwood proved more lucrative work for turpentiners. Cheap-labor Brazil, China and Indonesia supplanted the American South as the turpentine leader.

By the mid-70s, the Miss Spirits of Turpentine beauty pageant had been canceled. Today, only 4.3 million acres of longleaf pine remain in the South.

‘These people know their craft’

Endless rows of slashed pines today line the highways and byways of Pierce County. The tree plantations supply the 2-by-4s sold at Home Depot, the wood pellets burned by European utilities and the pine straw lining flower beds in Atlanta.

Chip Griner Jr. sees the poor county’s past, present and future in the pine rows. In 1924, Griner’s great-grandfather, O.W. Raulerson, took out a loan from a naval stores company in Savannah to buy a 20-barrel still, two mules, a wagon and 10,000 wood boxes to catch the sap running down pine trees. He turpentined for thirty years.

Five years ago Chip and his father, Wade, tapped 10 trees on their 500-acre farm outside Patterson. They used “repurposed farm equipment” — old vats, pipes, funnels and sieves — to fashion a still. They carried their mash to the Pinova factory in Brunswick, which turns pine stumps, trees and other natural resources into additives and solvents.

Pinova takes as much rosin as the Griners want to sell. A business was born; a Georgia industry revived.

Chip Griner quit his job running a sawmill last year.

“We’ve gone from zero customers in a month to, this month, over 800 customers,” Wade Griner, 65, said. “We (tapped) 70,000 trees last year. We also bought gum from other people. As time goes by, I don’t think we’ll be able to produce as much as we need.”

Diamond G Forest Products, the Griners’ company, sets aside about half of the rosin it produces for Pinova. The rest is sold online.

“Good turpentine is hard to find, and it was right next to impossible until they showed up,” said Joe Robson, who makes violin varnish in upstate New York. “It’s clear. It’s got a light, piney smell. It’s not yellow or skunky or has things floating in it. These people know their craft.”

Diamond G can’t compete with low-wage and lower-quality China. DRT, the French company, isn’t really competition, either. Its 40 employees will use turpentine from pulp and paper mills to make chemicals primarily for perfumes. Most of its product will be shipped to France and India, a spokeswoman says.

It won’t be long before the Griners, their kids, some hired hands and other turpentiners fan out across Pierce County collecting pine gum from skinny and scarred trees that, to them, never looked so beautiful.

“If we can revive this industry in the U.S., we’ll all be ahead of the game,” Wade Griner said. “I’m not sure it will all work out or not. But we sure are a lot further ahead than when we started.”