The Barrel Makers

In 1910 John Whitford was an African-american living and working in Ray’s Mill (nka Ray City), Georgia.  He was working as a wage employee making barrels.   Although the census of 1910 does not give further detail about his employment, it is most likely that John Whitford worked for one of the turpentine and naval stores concerns in the area.  His neighbor, Brass McKnight, was employed as “stiller” in the turpentine industry.  Another area turpentine barrel maker was William Watson.  Men like Jessie Norris, Elbert Thomas, John Fox, Levey Jones, Jack Jackson, Harrison McClain, Jessie Williams, Tom Thompson, Jim Stripling, George Taylor, and Daniel Holden and others worked on turpentine farms.  Many of these men may have worked for Lorenzo D. Carter, a naval stores operator and employer in Ray’s Mill (aka Ray City), GA in the early 1900s

While barrel making was essential to many 19th and 20th century industries, in the Wiregrass region the production of turpentine and  naval stores probably accounted for the majority of demand for the wooden containers. Baker Block Museum, of north Florida describes the  important role, tools, and processes of the turpentine barrel maker, and provides the following  explanation of  the trade:

” Differing sized barrels were necessary for the storage and shipping of the products (called Naval Stores), pitch, tar, turpentine and such. Most of the larger camps had their own Cooper, often trained by his father or grandfather. Many were Scots while some were blacks who had been taught by the barrel maker on the plantation where they lived. These men were skilled technicians, fashioning barrels from raw wood through many processes. Often they had to fell a tree, cut it into boards, fashion the correctly sized and shaped staves for a particular type of barrel and dry the wood before they could even start building a barrel. A keen eye was needed to assure there were no knots or weak grain in the wood used. Each stave must be strong and well made. Selecting the right tree for the job was quite a knack and took a lot of experience.”

Barrel maker working in Indianola, GA early 1900s. An expert cooper was part of the turpentine still operation. Here, Anthony Head makes barrels to hold rosin. Image source:,9321


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