Our Turpentine Times: Raymon Melvin is a living link to a booming business of Destin’s days gone by
Fourth generation Panhandle resident Raymon Melvin has a collection that very few people will recognize today — turpentine equipment.
Melvin, of Long Leaf Pine Industry of Northwest Florida, is a Holley resident. He said he has been collecting the unique turpentine industry equipment for more than 40 years because both sides of his family — all the way up until his father, were in the turpentine business here in Northwest Florida.
The tools are largely unrecognizable today because it’s obsolete and during World War II many turpentine workers had to melt down their equipment for the valuable metal to support the war effort.
Some accounts state that the turpentine industry started as early as the 1700s, but it hit its stride in the early 1900s.
The turpentine making process is complicated and time consuming. In order to tap a tree, a turpentine worker must use a combination of cuts to remove the pine bark from the tree.
After the tree is debarked, the tree will be begin to release a resin called oleoresin (similar to the chemical makeup of pepper spray) onto the cuts of the tree to protect itself from insects and micro-organisms — much like a scab would grow on a human after they were cut.
Once this resin was flowing freely, V-shaped cuts — or "catfaces" as they are called in the turpentine industry because of their resemblance to cat’s whiskers — would guide the resin into a container.
After the resin was collected, it was turned into condensed turpentine through a distillation process, where fire and steam took three to five hours to produce turpentine.
Trees that are valuable to the turpentine industry are the terebinth (closely related to the pistachio, also one of the earliest trees used in the industry), maritime pine, Aleppo pine, longleaf pine and others.
The primary use of turpentine has been as a solvent for thinning oil-based paints and to make fine furniture wax for use as a protective coating over oiled wood finishes. It was also crucial for ship maintenance in the days when ships where the main means of transportation.
During its heyday turpentine was so available it was used for nearly everything, but Melvin said looking back now the most shocking use was in medicine.
"It was used to treat all kinds of ailments," said Melvin. "It was used for everything as an antiseptic and a chest rub, and it was taken internally to get rid of parasites and as a diuretic."
Turpentine has since been found to be dangerous, causing damage to the lungs, kidneys, eyes, skin and being extremely flammable.
Melvin recalls the stories of turpentine’s sordid past that his family shared with him throughout the years, adding that it was never an easy life for anyone involved.
"You were paid in tokens that were only redeemable at the turpentine stores," Melvin said, "much like the coal mines back then."
To learn more about the turpentine and logging equipment, you can contact Raymon Melvin at 850-939-2746.
DID YOU KNOW?
•It was timber, not fishing, that brought many pioneering families to our shores. Coleman and Mattie Kelly arrived in Destin around 1935. He managed a turpentine still near the Walton County line, before buying land near the foot of the Destin Bridge and open a store and restaurant.
•Kelly Plantation golf course, built just west of the Mid-Bay Bridge in Destin, is said to be on the site of an old turpentine plantation.
•Many trees with tell-tale turpentine “cat-faces” are found in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Walton County.