Catfaces: Totems of Georgia’s Turpentiners

[imgbelt img=george-music-cut530.jpg]The turpentine industry was central to life in south Georgia for a hundred years. The work and the profits are gone now, but George Music, Jr. of Waycross is determined to maintain the face of his occupational legacy.



The labor of turpentining was done mainly by African-American workers on camps throughout northern Florida and southern Georgia. There were many family-owned operations like the Musics’ farm as well.

Planting and replanting quickly became the norm.  So the vast majority of pine belt turpentiners – from the early twentieth century through to the industry’s demise – rarely tapped old-growth forests; they worked, rather, in replanted tracts of second- and third-growth timber.  This was the case for nearly all private landowners and public contractors alike, both large-scale camp communities and smaller, family-run operations. 

[imgcontainer left] [img:map-of-georgemusic-farm.jpg] [source]Tim Prizer/via Google maps

In the early 1900s, George Music Jr.’s grandfather bought outright the pine forested farm just outside Waycross, Georgia. There’s never been a mortgage on the property.

Not so, however, for George Music, Jr.  Music’s grandfather purchased an expanse of old-growth forest in Waycross in the early 1900s and raised his son and grandson to work turpentine in woods of ancient pine. Here they worked and lived for the remainder of the industry’s existence, forging a relationship with their forest that has consequently led George Music, Jr. to defend with passion the dwindling remainder of old-growth pine forests in the region today.  His unique position as both an owner of natural-standing timberland and a turpentiner who has only worked in old-growth forests has made him a particularly sentient witness to issues facing the region’s moribund acreage of old-growth pine.

Most estimates suggest that a sprawling 156 million acres of natural-standing pine once blanketed the American South, before humans exploited the forests for industry. In the centuries prior to European settlement in south Georgia and north Florida, Native populations of Oconee, Apalachee, Creek, and Timucua found their expansive forests a source of food and shelter, defining wealth in terms of what the forests willingly bestowed rather than by what they could seize from the pines.  Since at least the 1600s, however, the region’s old-growth forests have fallen victim to the monetary value of their resinous properties and, most destructively, of their own lumber. For centuries now, old-growth pines have been negligently sawed, chopped, hacked, and plucked from the earth.  The damage was such by 1952 that just seventy-two million acres of natural standing timber remained on the southern landscape – less than half of the pine cover from pre-settlement times. 

As the total acreage of old-growth pine has diminished, proportions of replanted timber have increased. These replanted stands – more commonly known as “pine plantations” or “tree farms” – range from mature second-growth pine forests to barren fields still in the grass stage of regeneration. At the close of the twentieth century, pine plantations accounted for nearly half of all pineland acreage in the southern states.

Most devastating have been practices associated with “cut-and-run” logging, by which – in a single blow – timber industries casually wipe out vast expanses of pine forest for the profits reaped from their lumber. To this end, the pulp and paper industries have clear-cut southern pine forests to near oblivion while sawmills have turned the piney woods to shavings and sawdust.  Yet, timber companies are not alone in cutting and running; construction firms often regard the forests as mere impediments to a new shopping center or residential community, and they too have left their footprint in the forest – one of catastrophic proportions. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The red cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) lives in mature pine forests.  Once abundant in south Georgia, it is now endangered.

With the destruction of old-growth woodlands, once-familiar animals and birds are now rare. The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), which spends most of its life burrowed among the roots of pine trees, have been decimated by logging, as has the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis), which makes its home by boring directly into pine trees themselves. Both are now endangered species.  Industrial-scale timbering has also eroded the riverbank where Music used to fish, and regular crop dusting over nearby pine plantations has made his wild blackberries and huckleberries inedible.

Music remembers that he and his father sipped standing water from cupped hands when the heat parched their tongues.  Not anymore.  Today, fertilizer mists soak the forest floor, polluting puddles of rain.

When landscapes change, memories of place become emotionally charged.  This is nostalgia for place. But nostalgia, too often associated only with dejection and grief, sadness and longing, can take many forms.

Georgia Info

Gopher turtles are native to the Georgia pine forests. Their habitat has been destroyed by heavy timbering across southern Georgia and northern Florida.

For George Music, and former turpentiners like him, nostalgia carries a sense of urgency. The landscape must be preserved for reasons both ecological and experiential. The pine forests are home to precious species and to cherished experiences alike, all endangered in the face of change.  For those who have experienced a pine forest, preservation is as much about history and memory as it is about eco-friendliness.  This is why, for George Music, the catfaced trees among the thousands of untapped ones are most central to his efforts at preservation. 

While he acknowledges the awesome grandeur of his virgin timber, the pines bearing evidence of life and work in the woods most powerfully bolster his determination to protect and defend his forest. On his property, there are several thousands of trees once used in the production of turpentine. Just as the rings inside the pines tell us how many years they have been standing, the healed wounds on their faces indicate just how long turpentiners have stood beside them. In this respect, the catfaced pines in Music’s woods stand today as important reminders not only of an obsolete industry but also of a rich family history.  In George Music’s words, watching the industry pass is “kind of like being, I guess, being married or something for all them years. It’s kind of hard to turn loose something you’ve done for all your life. A lot of fond memories, you know, and that’s what put groceries on the table for all them years.”

Music vividly remembers the day his father hauled their last batch of pine gum to the turpentine still. It was a summer day in 2000. His father returned to the old house from the still in Waycross and told his son, “Well, I reckon I just hauled the last load.  They won’t be buying any more after the next couple of weeks.” It was one of the most difficult days of his life. 

The work had kept his father healthy both mentally and physically. When the industry passed, the man whose lungs were once so enlarged from hard work that a radiologist could not fit them into one x-ray screen suddenly had little initiative to fight on. As his son explains, “When he had to quit chipping, he’d take the tractor and ride around in the woods all the time… He went looking for other things to do to fill his time. He wasn’t going to sit down because that was quitting. He done some mechanical work, some sawmilling, building some steps for mobile homes and stuff… fixing equipment, doing repairs and stuff.”

It was never quite enough.  George Music, Sr. suffered a heart attack and died at the age of sixty-seven on September 12, 2001.

I first met George Music, Jr. on July 12, 2002 – ten months to the day from his father’s death and just two years after the last traces of turpentine were drawn from Music’s timber.  Still fresh at the time were the wounds on catfaced pines and the heartache left by his father’s passing.