Antique turpentine still to be unveiled at UF Austin Cary Forest

If you’ve ever sipped Gatorade, eaten a Cadbury Crème Egg, put on a Band-Aid or used a Post-It note, you have a forest to thank.

These products are on a long list of items with ingredients derived from pine gum, the sticky substance that oozes from tapped pine trees, said Wayne Smith, emeritus professor with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

One hundred years ago, Florida was the world’s leading producer of pine gum, which was processed into turpentine and rosin, Smith said.

On April 1, the UF/IFAS Austin Cary Forest Campus will commemorate the turpentine industry’s impact on the state with the dedication of the A. Chester Skinner Jr. Family Turpentine Education Site. The site includes traditional and modern pine gum collection techniques, an antique turpentine still restored to historic accuracy, four educational kiosks, and ADA compliant paths connecting the site to the other buildings and trails on the campus.

The dedication will kick off the annual Spring Celebration for alumni and students of the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation. Dedication, ribbon-cutting and site tours are set for 10 a.m., followed by a barbeque lunch, and the School’s annual scholarship and awards ceremony.

“At one time, there were over 100 turpentine stills in a 50-mile radius around Gainesville and 2,000 stills in the South,” said Smith. “We want visitors to be able to experience this important but little-known period in Florida history.”

As director of the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation, Smith worked to enhance the Austin Cary Campus, which is now home to a learning center, teaching pavilion, education building, and educational trail and tree walk. The A. Chester Skinner Jr. Family Turpentine Education Site is the latest addition, though the project started over a decade ago, he said.

In 2005, Smith and late UF/IFAS professor Jake Huffman coordinated the relocation of an antique turpentine still from Georgia to Gainesville. The still is a brick structure enclosing a large copper kettle connected to a copper condensing coil to capture the turpentine and vat to collect the residual rosin. In earlier years turpentine was the valued product but today rosin is prized more, Smith said.

The still’s journey South from the William Harrell family farm was not your typical road trip.

“Transporting the still was like moving a small building, requiring a professional mover,” said Scott Sager, forester at the Austin Cary Forest.

Once the still was moved, the Great Recession hit, and plans to build a wooden housing structure around the still were put on hold, Sager said. Thanks to fundraising by UF/IFAS Office of Advancement, the final phase of construction began in November 2016.

“This undertaking would not have been possible without the more than 50 individuals and organizations who helped sponsor the project,” Smith said.

Key supporters include the A. Chester Skinner Jr. Family—a Duval County landowning family with turpentine roots—as well as Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame inductee and former turpentine operator William Cook, John Morris of the Foley Timber and Land Company, John Rudnianyn of the International Property Services Corporation, Robbins Manufacturing Company, and the Georgia Museum of Agriculture and Historic Village.

Avery Roberts and Jim Tilton, whose families were two of Florida’s last turpentine producers, also provided their support in the memory of their families’ legacies.

“We’re also grateful for those who have offered their historical expertise or donated artifacts,” Sager said. “For example, several people have given us the cups that were once mounted on trees to collect gum. We’ve installed them on our own trees to show visitors how the gum was harvested.”