Who Were the Tar Men?
Harvesters of the Pitch Pine Tree

The scrubby pitch pine tree was an important natural resource for the early settlers of Brookhaven.  This tree survives in near desert-like conditions by sending huge taproots and lateral roots far into sandy soil.  The plate-like bark of the pitch pine, full of insulating air pockets, allows the tree to survive fire as hot as 2,000 degrees if the crown remains intactFailing that, a charred tree may send up basal sprouts from its roots.  Pitch pines are also self-pruning, dropping their lower branches as a way of keeping their feet out of a fire. Some pitch pines exhibit epicormic buds which sprout from under the bark in the aftermath of passing brush fires.

One reason the pitch pine has survived the exploitation that has befallen other species is that it is perceived to have little modern commercial value.  However, this was not always so.  Soft, light, and durable, but too coarse-grained for fine woodwork, old virgin stands of pitch pine often ended up as railroad ties and joists in log houses.  Much pitch pine was burned to create charcoal.  At the turn of the 20th Century, pitch pine was a staple of the box manufacturing industry; today it is still fashioned into cargo pallets.  Because of its somewhat decay-resistant properties, the wood was also used for the buckets and spokes of mill wheels and occasionally for pilings.  The heartwood was suited for small boat building and ship's pumps.  Even the resinous pine knots from rotting logs had value: employing a technique brought to this country from Scandinavia, early settlers split the resinous knots into thin splints and bundled them, often on long hickory or birch handles, for torches.

Pitch pines were also a source of turpentineThe original method of collecting the resin was to "box" the tree: it was cut into, a foot above the ground, to a depth of four inches; then a wide, slanting cut angled down into the initial cut, forming a collecting "box."  Additional slanting axe cuts angling toward the box allowed the resin to drip down.  At the end of the flow, "scrape," the dried resin remaining on the cuts, was scraped off and added to the harvest.

This technique caused severe damage to the trees, which survived only three or four years of such treatment.  Tar men therefore had to regularly relocate to new stands of trees.   Later, galvanized iron "gutters" allowed for more efficient and less harmful collection.

Tar, important as wagon-axle grease, was yet another byproduct of the pitch pine.  Stumps, roots, and other waste wood were piled on clay-covered earth mounds up to twenty feet in diameter, with collecting ditches at their bases.  The stacks, or "ricks," received a very slow, controlled burn from the top down, permitting tar to ooze from the wood down to the ditch, to be quickly collected and barreled.

 

Adapted from a publication of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society

 

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