The Naval Stores Industry of Old-Time Brunswick, Georgia
By Tyler E. Bagwell
In the late 1800s the city of Brunswick prospered from the shipping of cotton, lumber, and naval stores to locations around the globe. While many are familiar with the importance of cotton and lumber as commerce, fewer seem knowledgeable about naval stores. Naval stores, the collective name for various pinesap products such as rosin (tar) and turpentine, were needed for the calking and waterproofing of wooden sailing ships. Brunswick, because it is situated on a harbor, became an ideal center for the distribution of naval stores. According to Patricia Barefoot in her book Brunswick: The City By the Sea, by 1902 Brunswick was "the second largest shipping port in the world for naval stores..."
A popular naval stores firm in Brunswick at the turn of the 19th century was the Downing Company. Columbus Downing, a local resident and philanthropist from the 1880s to the 1920s, owned and operated the Downing Company in the vicinity of the present-day Mary Ross Park, a recreational area located along Brunswick's waterfront at the foot of Gloucester Street. The Downing Company advertised in the 1901-2 City Directory as being Naval Stores Factors and Commission Merchants. The rarely used term Factors meant that the company brokered or bought and sold naval stores produced by people not directly employed by the Downing Company.
C. S. Tait, Jr., born in 1907, recalls that the Downing Company typically loaned money, food, and/or supplies to men gathering pinesap in the North Florida or South Georgia region. Following conversion of the sap into rosin and turpentine, the Downing Company purchased the finished products and credited any open accounts. C.S. Tait Jr.'s father managed the Downing Company commissary and was in charge of sending supplies such as flour, bacon, and turpentine tools to the men requesting such items.
From spring to fall, raw pinesap was turned into naval stores by means of a still. Throughout the countryside of South Georgia, privately owned stills were used to refine the sap by a heating and cooling process that produced turpentine and rosin. This same procedure was also used to make liquor or "moonshine" from corn. From the stills, mule wagons, trucks, and flatbed train cars delivered barrels of rosin and turpentine to Brunswick. In a Brunswick News article dated Feb. 11, 1949, local resident Oscar Hensel briefly described the docks of the city as he remembered them in 1899. He recalled, "One thing that greatly impressed me...was the number of sailing vessels in Brunswick's harbor. The port was lined along the entire river front, there being some 35 or 40 vessels loading naval stores, lumber crossties, etc."
The Downing Company operated a storage yard and dock near their four-storied office building. Thousands of barrels containing rosin and turpentine were stacked in their yard in preparation of loading the products onto sailing ships. Two train tracks, which ultimately encircled the city of Brunswick, were located between the Downing Company building and their naval stores yard.
Contrary to the way the Downing Company operated, some naval stores businesses manufactured rosin and turpentine themselves, avoiding the use of non-employees as much as possible in the production process. A Brunswick company that did business this way in the 1910s was the Yaryarn Naval Stores Company. Yaryarn, now called the Hercules Corporation, purchased pine stumps and produced naval stores on site at their plant.
In the 1930s the Downing Company was sold to another business from New Orleans. By the sixties, a business called Whittle's Furniture Company was operating in the Downing Company's naval stores building on the waterfront. In 1974 this building, one of the last vestiges of Brunswick's naval stores industry, was demolished in the name of urbanization. Today, rosin and turpentine are used in many soaps, paints, and varnishes, as well as in the manufacturing of fire works and the attachment of bristles to hairbrushes.