Florida’s “Turpmtine” Camps
My travels this spring took me back to Florida, where I met friends of Stetson Kennedy who put me on his trail.
Kennedy is one of the pioneer Southern folklore collectors of the first half of the twentieth century. He was Director of the Federal Writer’s Project unit on folklore, oral history and social-ethnic studies for the Works Progress Administration between 1937 and 1942.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1916, as a teenager Kennedy began collecting Cracker and African-American folksay material while he was collecting “dollar down and dollar a week” accounts for his father, a furniture merchant. He left the University of Florida in 1937 to join the WPA. Kennedy’s first book, “Palmetto Country,” appeared in 1942 as a volume in the American Folkways Series edited by Erskine Caldwell.
Having myself been drawn into Florida folklife by Dwight DeVane’s field recordings of Emmett Murray (where I learned the title cut for my third CD, a turpentine camp song: “You Better Lie Down,”), I came home from Florida and ordered all Kennedy’s books and am working my way through them now. Kennedy infiltrated the Klan and published “The Klan Unmasked” in 1954. That’s number two on my list. He is a fellow who has walked the walk.
Drawn from his work with the WPA between 1937 and 1942, “Palmetto Country” contains an entire chapter on “Turpmtine.” This was a work camp industry that, like share cropping, was rigged against black workers. Lured away from their homes with the offered pay of between $1.00 and $1.75 a day on a piece work basis depending on the number of “trees chipped, cups dipped and barrels filled, etc.” many workers became virtual slaves to the industry.
Like the share cropping plantations, it was the commissary where the real money was lost by the workers and made by the bosses. By charging inflated prices, the owners could keep workers in debt, held indefinitely in an economic form of slavery. Here are some excerpts from Kennedy’s “Palmetto Country”:
“The [commissary] manager volunteered the following information:
‘With the commissary we makes a gross profit of sixty percent and a net profit of twenty percent. You know that’s pretty good––it takes a good slice offen the salaries. We don’t hardly have to pay no salaries. The private stores around here do good to make five to eight percent profit. Of course we have to charge the niggers more, but they save in the long run. Just think how much it would cost them to drive thirty miles into town for vittals, if they had cars!’”
—p. 259, Palmetto Country
“More than any other occupational group, these Negroes are denied the rights for which the Civil War was supposedly fought. As one who knows told me, “A Negro who is foolish enough to go to work in a turpentine camp is simply signing away his birthright.” They are held in abject poverty and peonage by a combination of forces quite beyond their power to oppose.”
—p. 261, Palmetto Country
It was common for workers to be held in economic peonage by the force of guns, beatings and brute violence. Given the rigged commerce at the commissary, actually getting paid for any of their labor was next to impossible and if a worker left a camp in debt, then he would be hunted down and brought back to work off his debt. If he successfully escaped the foreman and woodsriders, then he could be apprehended and jailed by the law in town.
Kennedy’s interview with a hereditary owner of turpentine camps continues from page 284:
“Yeah, man. I was born in the turpentine business. Spent near-bout forty years in it, and woulda been in it yet if the bottom hadn’t dropped out of it. I’ve soaked up so much turpentine in my life that if you was to run me through a still I reckon you’d get about ten gallons outa me.
“My father was a manager of a twenty-crop camp near Eastman, Georgia, where I was born in 1899. There was six of us children, and as soon as us boys was old enough we shore had to work.
When I was about two years old my folks moved to a camp at Bay lake, Florida. I started school when I was six, in a little one-room log schoolhouse. When I was about ten years old we moved to another camp at Martin, and I was promoted from water-boy to talley man, whose job is to keep talley of the number of trees boxed or streaked by each nigger. At each camp there will be from fifty to 200 niggers, accordin’ to the crops worked. A crop is about 10,000 trees. . . .
“The supreme authority in the camp is the foreman. To the niggers he is the law, judge, jury, and executioner. He even ranks ahead of God to them. In speakin’ to him, they call him Capm, but among themselves they call him The Man. And believe me, he better be a man from the ground up! If he ever stands for any back-talk, or shows a streak of yellow, he’s through, and might as well quit…They like to be ruled by an iron hand and no velvet glove. . . .
“Most camps are so deep in the woods that law officers don’t bother with ‘em much. Outside of murder, the officers usually leave it up to the camp foreman to make and enforce his own laws. . . .
“In 1922, I had a job as manager of eight camps owned by a New York concern at Opal, Florida. I had charge of 400 niggers and nine white woodsriders. Then came the damndest rainy season I ever seen. It poured down bullfrogs for weeks, and water stood knee-deep all over the woods. We had to set in camp and do nothin’.
Besides the 400 niggers, there was thirty head of horses and mules eatin’ up rations; and the wet weather made the horses and mules backs so sore we couldn’ t have worked even if it had stopped rainin’. I shore had a peck of trouble on my hands. To make everything worse, the big bosses in New York kept telegraphin’ me wantin’ to know why no production. I finally got mad, told ‘em to go to Hell, and waded off the job.”
What the camp foreman doesn’t mention in this account is that the Blacks would be charged against their salaries for the food they were eating during this period, which would most likely put them irrevocably in debt, effectively robbing them of the option of wading off their jobs.
The song, “You Better Lie Down” warns in its refrain, “All of you old, longtime rounders, you better lie down.” Even the toughest rounder–a term for rough gambling men who would just as soon cut or shoot you as look at you–is advised that he’s met his match in the turpentine camp foreman. The song is a stunning portrait of the circumstances in the camps–a memorable historical document more vivid and moving than any scholarly article or dispassionate academic description could ever be.
You can view the lyrics, see introductory notes, and hear a couple minutes of the song at:
I encourage you to check out Stetson Kennedy’s work. He’s one of my newly found heroes. Thanks for reading along.