The Old Time Tar Kilns
By M. E. Blinn
There appeared in the January number of the Historical Magazine an article written by Mr. Marcus Fry on the old time tar kilns of South Jersey which contained several errors. Mr. Fry discovered these, but too late to make corrections at that time. Through my association with the old tar and charcoal burners, I have gained some knowledge of the method of tar making, and at Mr. Fry's request I will here describe it. No doubt details differed somewhat with different burners and in different localities. Sizes, too, differed and depended on the supply of pine, distance to be carried and so forth.
The most desirable site for a tar kiln was at the edge of a swamp or branch and where the ground sloped, water being easy to get, and less digging being necessary in settling the barrel and "trunk." When the site was selacted the "hearth" was built. The size preferred by some was twenty two feet in diameter. This was formed saucer shape and coated with clay. At the center and lowest point was left an opening which connected with the trunk which had been placed in position before the hearth was finished. This trunk was to convey the tar to a barrel settled in the ground outside the kiln. This trunk was usually an old pump log and could be used repeatedly.
On the clay bottom large round poles or split trees of any kind (greenwood as good as any) were placed all radiating toward the center. The "dead wood," as these poles were called, formed an underdrain for the tar, giving it an unobstructed. passage toward the center and outlet. On this dead wood the pine was set, knots, hearts and stumps, all split before "setting" In the center and directly over the outlet some of the pine was set up to form a perpendicular cylinder some two and one half or three feet in diameter called the "nipple," and against this the pine was started and slanted toward the center in V shape sections called "battens." These were laid in regular form one after the other all around, three or four feet high, until filled. Then another layer on top of the first, and usually built up ten or twelve feet high. The sides were perpendicular and the top flat.
Around the sides was built a kind of fence of small logs, the ends notched together, cabin fashion, and the space left between this and the pine was filled with turf. This must be well done as no draft could be allowed anywhere around the sides. The top, too was covered with turfs called "floats," and this, too, must be tight. Some might have used sand on top. At several places around the top a float was left off temporarily. Here the fires were started-It required some skill to get the fires to "take even" and spread properly. During this process the outlet, or end of the trunk, had to be plugged to prevent any down draft. After the tar began to run, it stopped the draft. After the fires were properly spread, the openings were closed and all the regulating of draft was done from the top. The fire had to be kept on top and away from the tar. The heat at the top ends sent the tar out of the bottom ends and dripping down to and under the dead wood on the clay hearth and down to the outlet.
It took a week or ten days to burn a kiln as here described and it required constant attention, watching for any draft that might form and dipping the tar from the barrel and filling the kegs which usually held five gallons. A long slim pole was kept to run up the trunk to free frequent obstructions which prevented the flow of tar.
The charcoal made from the pine was of a superior grade and brought several times as much as the ordinary charcoal and was the kind used at the United States Mint in Philadelphia. The amount received from the sale of charcoal was supposed to pay all expenses, leaving the tar clear profit. This industry, I think, ceased about the close of the Civil War, and little or no tar has been made in South Jersey since.