The prompt for the today’s Chatham Writers group meeting was the photo shown above. There was no caption to the photo, no background information, just create a story in about 1,000 words. To me, the photo appeared to be taken sometime around the Great Depression. Earlier this year I read a novel that my wife had recommended and written by Donna Everhart called “The Saints of Swallow Hill”. The setting for the story is a turpentine camp near Valdosta, Georgia and the time frame is during the Depression. I had never heard of turpentine camps before reading the book. The prompt photo brought that novel to my mind and I began to research turpentine camps. There is a wealth of information available on-line about turpentine camps, which were also called “Naval Stores” because the end use of most of the products derived from pine trees were used to protect and preserve wooden ships and all accoutrements associated with sailing vessels. The information available about these camps provides enough detail about the horrible conditions the workers at these camps endured to craft several Naval Stores novels. My story touches only on a couple of the occupational hazards these workers faced. I have added photographs to illustrate my story. The name of the camp and all characters are fictional. The working conditions, the behavior of the camp managers, etc. are things I extracted from my research.
An Uncommon Bond
The snap of the whip against the tree trunk just above his head made Ezra Bond flinch.
“Y’all best keep up with them chippers boy! Them drains ain’t gonna nail themseve’s to the trees!”
Careful not to make eye contact, Ezra replied, “Yes sir, Cap’n Brown.”
“He is keeping up with us Cap’n. We ain’t finished chippin’ this tree yet,” said Louie, Ezra’s co-worker and friend.
Brown’s eyes flashed, he jabbed his whip handle at Louie and snarled, “Don’t you dare sass me, you lousy white trash tramp! I’ll throw you in the sweat box if’n you sass me again!”
Louie mumbled, “Sorry boss,” and went back to making slashes on the pine tree to get its resin flowing.
Cap Brown kneed his horse and moved on to harass the next team of men collecting pine resin. Ezra glanced at his two co-workers, and friends, Louie and Karl. Louie smiled, “You’re keeping up Ez, don’t let him get to you.” Karl also flashed a smile and gave a slight nod before turning to slash at his tree.
“I really don’t belong here,” Ezra thought to himself. Here was the Chickasaw Creek Turpentine Camp. Ezra was here because he had shoved a white man who called the female members of his choir, whores. He eluded his pursuers by jumping a freight train that took him to Vicksburg, MS. With only the clothes on his back and $3 in his pocket, he was arrested for vagrancy after being caught sleeping in an alley behind a bakery. To avoid jail time, he accepted the option of going to work at the turpentine camp to pay off his $10 fine. As Ezra was being hustled in to the registrar’s office, he looked back in time to see the camp manager hand the sheriff a crisp $10 bill. His heart sunk.
After registration, Ezra was given a key to his living quarters and a sheet of paper with a list of essential items he would need to perform his job, along with a few food staples. He was told he could obtain all the items from the company store. The store clerk took the list and collected the items in a cardboard box. Pushing the box across the counter he handed Ezra a bill for $11. Seeing the great look of consternation on Ezra‘s face, the clerk said not to worry, the money owed would be deducted from his pay at the end of the month. This made Ezra’s heart sink even further, he now owed the company store more than he owed the sheriff.
He was engaged in shoveling the filth out of his cabin when he heard the clop of horses hooves and the jangling of harness links. Ezra stepped out of his cabin and saw a wagon full of men approaching. On horseback next to the wagon was a slightly built man with a long nose and the semblance of a mustache on his upper lip. His sweat stained fedora was tilted back on his head to reveal a pair beady eyes. To Ezra, he had the appearance of a rat. The wagon stopped and the men on board began to pile out. The rat faced man sauntered his horse over to Ezra and gave him the once over.
“Everyone calls me Cap’n Brown, I’m your boss. Y’all will jump when I says so or it’ll be the bite of my whip on y’all’s back. Sass me and it’s the hot box. Got it? We work six AM to 6 PM. Be on that wagon by 5:30.” Brown rode away.
Including Ezra, there were 18 men in Brown’s work crew, 16 were black. Ezra was assigned to work with the only two white men in the group, Louie and Karl. The Depression had forced both men to come to the camp seeking employment. At work in the woods, Louie and Karl would cut chevron marks, called chipping, in the trunks of the pine trees from which resin would flow. Ezra would tack sections of tin to the tree which guided the flowing sap into a bucket. The team had to chip 100 pines a day. The punishment was severe if they fell short of the goal. At the slightest infraction, Cap’n Brown gleefully doled out lashes with his whip. He only whipped the black workers. If Louie & Karl disappointed, he would club them with the whip handle. The work in the pine forest was dangerous. The high heat and humidity sapped the workers strength. Many collapsed with heat stroke. Several workers had fallen victim to poisonous copperhead snakes. Some men broke completely from the heat and the beatings. It was almost impossible to leave the camp. A barbed wire fence surrounded the living area, its perimeter patrolled by armed guards. In the woods, armed men on horseback made sure no one slipped away. Ezra realized the system of the camp was a form of peonage. The management of the camp deducted all expenses from the workers pay, and everything in the camp store was outrageously priced. Foremen, like Brown, forced their work teams to gamble on Saturday nights. If a worker lost all of their money at cards, the foremen would loan them cash and deduct it from their pay. Anyone trying to leave the gambling hall was beaten. It was believed several men had been beaten to death.
One morning a sour looking Cap’n Brown trotted up to Ezra and his friends. “The manager wants the three of y’all to head back to camp and clean up. They’s a group of folks from the WPA coming to talk to workers about camp life. They’s posed to take some pitchers too. If they talk to y’all, dummy up. Say things are great. If I hear of any complaints, the’ll be hell to pay! Y’all got it? Now git!”
The WPA team did meet with Ezra, Louis & Karl. The camp managers watched, with great intensity, while the three of them provided short, polite answers as to the “favorable” conditions in the camp. Someone asked to take their photo so they mugged it up for the camera. The camp managers all had big grins. Ezra walked over to the WPA person who had interviewed them. Shaking her hand, he smiled and said, “Thank you for caring Ma’am.” And he walked away. She stuck her right hand in her pocket after the hand shake. She hoped no one noticed the piece of paper Ezra had squeezed into her palm.
The Chatham Writers Group
October 24, 2022