A Tar Kiln

By Marcus Fry

Previous to the year 1800 there were but few settlers in the vicinity of Vineland east of the Maurice River, excepting in the villages of Miliville, Port Elizabeth and Mays Landing. The land had not been located, that was taken up by individuals from the Council of Proprietors, who owned all the rights. The cedar swamps, which were of more value, had been located as far back as 1730 to 1750 by farmers from the vicinity of Deerfield and Bridgeton for fence rails, shingles and lumber.

The pine trees had never been cut, and as they grew the knots became very large, often measuring eighteen inches in length and three to four inches in diameter. As the trees matured some were blown over and the wood rotted away leaving the knots lying on the ground. "A pine knot never rots," was a common saying among woodsmen, and while this is not literally true, one could in the early days of Vineland find the knots lying at regular distances apart, where evidently a tree had fallen and no other signs of the tree left.

Between the years 1800 and 1850 these knots were gathered together and the tar taken out, and what was left was the best charcoal. A place was secured on dry ground slightly elevated and the bottom of a circle about twenty-five feet in diameter, the land was cleared off and the bottom made into the shape of a saucer. After tamping the ground, it was covered with a coat of clay, and on one side a conduit was made for the tar to run into a basin made by a hole in the ground lined with clay. In some cases a wooden trough was used and the tar run into a receptacle.

The pine knots were set on edge close togethers the whole widtn of the bottom of the pit and upwards in the shape of a cone about fifteen feet high. In the center an opening was left to drop down hot coals to start the burning. The whole outside surface was then covered with turf pressed tightly together to prevent air going through into the pit. Around the bottom in four or five places an opening was left for draft. The pit was now ready to start the fire, which was done by dropping hot coals down the center opening. When the wind blew, the openings at the bottom on the side it came from were closed up. This was done to equalize the heat in the pit and also to prevent it from burning too fast. It required skill and experience to burn these pits. It had to be watched day and night, and any break in the covering had to be closed up with fresh turf. Too hot a fire would burn up the tar and charcoal also. It took from two to three weeks to burn a kiln. A log cabin would generally be built for the man who attended to the work to stay in.

The places where these kilns were located can yet be seen, and in many instances are referred to in old conveyances of land as being near corners.