- The Washington Times - Friday, December 31, 2004

WILLACOOCHEE, Ga. (AP) — The dome-shaped copper building nestled in the pines on the outskirts of town was modeled after an old-fashioned liquor still, but 100-proof white lightning never flowed from this post-Prohibition contraption.

Instead, the McCranie Brothers’ still spilled forth the rural cure-all of turpentine and rosin, the sticky substance that gives baseball players a better grip and makes violin strings sing.

“It’s kind of like a big kettle,” said Shasta McCranie, whose ancestors built the still in 1936. “It makes steam and water cools the steam coming out in the spirit room. The end product is turpentine and rosin.”

The still is maintained by the family to this day. It remains both a relic and a symbol of the South’s naval stores industry, when workers went into the forests to attach cups to longleaf and slash pines, “chipped” the trees to start the gum flowing and then carried it to the stills in wooden barrels.

“It’s the only one in Georgia that is original on its original site,” Mr. McCranie said. “The copper still was designed after the liquor stills in Scotland.”

Mr. McCranie never fires up the Willacoochee still, but those in Portal and Tifton continue turpentine production on special occasions. Grady Williams, one of the Georgia Forestry Commission’s last naval stores specialists, said people quickly exhausted a 50-gallon supply produced at the one in Portal, near Statesboro, one year.

“They remember the old times,” he said. “Farmers would always keep some pine products — turpentine — to relieve soreness in the throat and sore joints.”

The term “naval stores” comes from the days of wooden sailing ships, when pine tar and pitch were used to caulk seams and protect rope from the elements. Chemicals extracted from pines are still used today in adhesives, solvents, perfumes and other products.

John Johnson, curator of the Georgia Agrirama in Tifton, the state’s official museum of agriculture, said naval stores date back even to biblical days, when Noah was instructed to cover his ark with pitch.

North Carolina became a prime producer in the early 1800s. As its trees were exhausted, production shifted to south Georgia in the 1870s and then on to other states as far west as eastern Texas, Mr. Johnson said.

“For south Georgia, it was phenomenal,” he said. “It helped open this area up for settlement and provided one of the few alternative cash crops. Other than cotton, you didn’t really have that many cash crops.”

Many of the old stills closed in the 1940s, when the extraction of turpentine, gum and other chemicals began shifting to pulp mills, which could do it cheaply.

Mr. McCranie said tourists traveling U.S. Route 82 between Tifton and Waycross still stop to see the McCranie still.

The McCranie still sits on the west side of Willacoochee, a town of 1,400, located about 186 miles southeast of Atlanta. The town’s other landmark, the No-Name Bar, sits on the east side.

Mr. McCranie said he never even considered switching the still from turpentine to moonshine.

“It could be done,” he said. “But we’re about as law-abiding people as you’d find in Georgia.”

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