Native Americans recognized that longleaf forests needed fire. If lightning struck, they didn’t fight the fire. And, if lightening failed to ignite a fire, the natives helped it along. Call them the forest’s first land managers.
When Europeans arrived on the continent, they recognized that the sap laden trees could be very useful. Tap the sap and use it to waterproof wooden ships. Because their first use was for ships, all products derived from pine sap became known as naval stores. North Carolina was particularly important for naval stores.
When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted visited the area in 1856 he wrote: “Turpentine is the crude sap of pine-trees. It varies somewhat, in character and in freedom of flow, with the different varieties; the long-leafed pine (Pinus palustris) yielding it more freely than any other.
“There are very large forests of this tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.”
Producing tar and other naval stores was dirty work. Originally, North Carolinians were called “tar boilers” by people on the other side of the Mason Dixon line. According to historian William Powell, the term “tar boiler” was derogatory.
No one can figure out precisely when North Carolinians became known as Tarheels, but the name certainly came from the state’s naval store production.
Because of its hard yellow wood, the longleaf was also an important tree for construction. Robert Abernethy, who is president of the Longleaf Alliance, lives on the family farm in Duplin County. “Everything on the farm is made of longleaf,” he explains. “You talk about treated timber that’s guaranteed for 30 years. Well, my grandfather put a post in the ground in 1921. Four fences have been nailed to that post.”
According to Abernethy, most of the landing craft that hit the beaches at Normandy were made of longleaf. The pine is so tough that today people are harvesting timber from the bottom of the Cape Fear River, where it has lain for a century or more after the ships carrying it wrecked.