Lacoochee – turpentine stills



Turpentine Stills in the Clay Sink/Lacoochee Area


At the turn of the century the turpentine industry was flourishing in Florida’s virgin forests of pine and cypress trees along with small sawmills scattered throughout the sparsely settled peninsula. Pasco County in the west central part of the state had its share of each.

The 1918-1919 Florida State Gazetteer & Business Directory lists a J.W. Dalton & Company with a general store in Lacoochee, Florida, trading in turpentine. The only other store mentioned in the town with a population of 50 was a general store owned by Charles Jensen who was also an express agent. (See, the Jensen story.). This is all we know about J. W. Dalton and his enterprise.

Some years later, the exact date unknown, Jim Dutton moved his family from Statesboro, Bullock County, Georgia, to Lacoochee, and began operating a turpentine still east of town near the Withlacoochee River and the community of Clay Sink. Carolyn Dowling Falls of Blanton provided information for this story:

The Duttons, Jim and Annie Sanders Dutton, had two school aged daughters, Dove and Alyce. In order for the two girls to attend school after they moved to Lacoochee, the family rented a house on South 14th Street in Dade City across from the Henry Colemans. They returned to their Lacoochee home on the river during the summer months.

In order for Jim Dutton to spend the weekends during the winter with his family he had to catch a passenger train in Lacoochee that ran from Jacksonville to Dade City and beyond. On the return trip, Dutton would catch the train in Dade City and get off at Lacoochee and have to walk three or four miles down the railroad tracks to his home on the river. On occasion, depending on the train’s conductor, the engineer would make an unscheduled stop at the railroad trestle over the river near the still sparing Dutton that long walk.

Often, as he walked down those tracks alone, he was carrying the cash payroll with him from the bank in Dade City for his employees at the still. The size of the payroll or the number of men employed by Dutton is unknown. Both had to be sizeable to handle the process of gathering sap from the trees, putting it in barrels, loading it on horse drawn carts or sleds to move to the still where it was processed and, eventually, taken to markets in Tampa, Ocala or Gainesville.

While the still was at this location, two sons were born to the Duttons and the family continued to live in the two locations until they moved their turpentine operation to Avon Park, Florida. By this time, the girls were ready for high school and graduated from the high school in Avon Park. Mr. Dutton suffered a heart attack and Mrs. Dutton, unable to operate the still on her own, sold what she could and returned to the Dade City-Zephyrhills area where she managed apartment rentals.

Alyce Dutton became a school teacher, married a Mr. McPhersen and they lived in Ocala, Florida. She became Superintendent of the Florida Girls Reform School.

Dove met and married Lyman W. Falls and they settled in Dade City. After Lyman Falls’ death, Dove was appointed Supervisor of Elections in Pasco County to complete the term of a man who had died in office. She was elected to that post in 1940 and served for several years.

When the Jim Dutton family moved to Avon Park, his brother Wesley and his family elected to stay in the Blanton area. Wesley worked in the commissary that the pioneer L. B. Bessenger family maintained for the employees in their sawmill and turpentine operation.

In the early 1900’s the pioneers who operated these abundant turpentine stills and small sawmills throughout the county owned or leased thousands of acres of forest land. The resinous sap of the pine tree was extracted by chipping a strip of bark from the tree. Then a ceramic or tin cup was placed underneath to catch the life blood of the tree as it dripped from the wound. Crews of men were hired to make daily rounds of the woods to empty the sap into barrels. Wooden sleighs or wagons pulled by four-mule teams would transport the barrels from the woods to the still. Here the sap was poured into a vat and boiled to make turpentine which was used in paint and other products.

This story is part of a collection of stories as told by Carolyn Dowling Falls. She was married to Charles Falls, one of Dove Falls’ three children (Russell Falls and Loyce, who married David Baillie, Jr. ) All now deceased.

Carolyn and Charles have two sons, Mark and John. Carolyn, a member of the pioneer Dowling family, also serves on the board of directors of the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City.

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