Cat-faced Trees

The plentiful natural resources found in St. Tammany Parish not only made it possible for the Europeans and Americans to live off the land as the Native Americans had done for thousands of years, it was possible for them to prosper though their industries. They harvested and manufactured things they needed to construct and sustain their homesteads and to help build and maintain the new city across lake. Besides growing crops and livestock for themselves and for market, they also provided building materials like masonry by baking clay into bricks, digging up sand and gravel and adding burned, crushed clamshells for lime to make the mortar needed to stick it all together. And then there were the hundred-and-one things one could do with a pine tree.

 

The giant Longleaf Pine trees (Pinus palustris) that dominated the original local forest were cut down and laboriously fashioned into diverse, wood products like lumber, barrel staves, shingles, charcoal and of course, the beautiful wooden boats needed to deliver these materials to market. Back then, charcoal was simply partly burned chunks of wood slowly cooked under a vented mound of dirt to reduce obnoxious fumes and smoke and make it more desirable for use in home fireplaces and stoves.

 

The Longleaf happens to bleed copious amounts of sap when wounded and this was collected and refined into Naval Stores like tar, pitch, resin and turpentine. The hard, plastic-like pitch, or resin or rosin, was used to caulk seams in barrels and boats and other uses. The more pliable tar could also do this or it could be diluted and applied to rope and sails to preserve them. The smelly turpentine refined from the sap had solvent properties that could be used in paint, or for cleaning up tar smudges and sticky pine tree sap. It was even used in medicines – Vick’s VapoRub, anyone?

 

The sap was collected from the forest by hacking a scar in the tree’s bark to tap the tree’s circulatory system or “phloem” - sort of like how maple syrup is made excepting pine sap does not taste quite as good. An artful pattern was developed when a v-shaped scar was repeated each year, higher and higher up the tree’s trunk, giving it the odd name of a Cat-faced tree. This scar pattern actually helped the tree avoid harmful infections by healing over. The bleeding sap was directed from the bottom of the V, into a container and collected for refining at the work shed.

 

The industrial might of early St. Tammany Parish produced tons of these messy materials that were shipped far and wide. With its strong links to eighteenth and nineteenth century history, one can envision the Salmen Lodge becoming the centerpiece of a Camp Salmen Nature and History Park. We could have interpretive recreations just like at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, except, instead of nice, pretty handcrafts like woodworking, cooperage, weaving and silversmithing we would have traditional St. Tammany occupations like the grimy, black art of charcoal-making, brick cooking in searing hot furnaces, bubbling tar works and a reeking turpentine refinery. It would be hard work but somebody once had to do it.

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