Tarkiln Branch and Appalachian Resourcefulness

Today’s guest post was written by Ed Ammons. Ed was reminded of the tar kiln at Needmore after reading G.W. Newton’s guest post Mama and the Splinters.


North Carolina Tar Kiln –  Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/CA Museum of Photography, University of CA at Riverside

There was a place over on Needmore called Tarkiln Branch. A tarkiln is a process that also produces tar and pitch. Instead of draining sap from a live pine tree you use the whole tree. You dig a pit into the hillside and fill it with trees, cover it with dirt and set it on fire. Because it is covered the incomplete combustion builds up heat and effectively renders tar and pitch as it slowly burns. A drain at the lower end of the pit allows the end product to flow out and be caught in buckets or barrels.

Tar and pitch were mainly produced along the coastal plain from Virginia all the way to Texas and used on wooden ships to seal cracks and coat ropes and such. It was a big industry in the 16th and 17 centuries. All shipping before metal began being used to build ships was dependent on these products called naval stores in our history books.

So why a tarkiln up on the Little Tennessee hundreds of miles from any oceans or major rivers? Well at first I could think of nothing, but the more the wheels in my head turned the more things I thought of. Those people along the river didn’t have ships but they did have boats. Flat bottomed wooden boats. Wooden boats have joints and seams just like ships only on a smaller scale. So why try to get the precious commodities you need from many miles away when you can make it yourself. And that they did!

Think about other uses for tar and pitch. Wooden barrels and buckets. Water troughs and flumes. Leaky roofs and cracks in walls where all manner of vermin can enter not to mention the howling winter winds. How about something to hold the feathers on when you need to convince someone that you don’t want them around any longer.

This is just another example of how independent our mountain ancestors where. You need something, you make it yourself! Isolated maybe, but that was by choice.



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  • Reply
    Robert Wasmer
    May 11, 2018 at 4:57 pm

    I love the comment about something to hold the feathers on someone …

  • Reply
    Papaw Ammons
    May 8, 2018 at 1:56 pm

    Outsiders think all we made was moonshine. We did! We made the best! But we also made most everything else we needed too. Not saying we needed moonshine but it was a handy way to turn corn into cash.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Fascinating! It reminded me of 2 things: 1) a PBS special about trying to build Noah’s ark according to the instructions in the Bible. Their biggest problem seemed to be the pitch – they “mined” it, then experimented with “cooking it”. Perhaps if they’d had some experts from Appalachia with them they could have successfully floated their ark! 2) going to South Padre island as a kid – this was before it was developed and claimed by “Spring Breakers” – sometimes after a storm in the gulf the beaches would have “tar” in balls and slimey spots on the beach (and in the water). We kids had fun anyway but our swimsuits were never the same again and it took several days for the stuff to wear off our feet and hands. Made nice decorations on sand castles though. 😉

  • Reply
    May 8, 2018 at 10:49 am

    I learned something today. Ed remembers well, and told the story of how tar is made in the mountains. Me and The Deer Hunter cut a bunch of Birch trees on our property, and since he was very good with a saw, I didn’t even use mine. When we got close to the Branch and started cutting, water just poured out, and I mean lots of water. It amazed us cause 2 or 3 gallon come pouring out as soon as he started cutting. The Deer Hunter had to stop and pull his saw free to re-oil his bar and chain, and let the tree drain. Don Casada suggested that we should have caught that water and had us some Birch Beer. ha …Ken

  • Reply
    aw griffgrowin
    May 8, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Ed got me to thinking of many things people don’t do anymore.
    Dad would pick a nice straight oak tree,cut it down, and take his froe and rive out tobacco sticks, Later on sawmills got to sawing them out. They were not near as strong as the rived sticks that were split with the grain.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    May 8, 2018 at 8:07 am

    I wonder if the tarkiln of Tarkiln Branch was a big commercial one but some people made tar in small batches at home by cooking pine knots in a big iron pot. Or maybe they would make a household sized kiln. Kinda makes me want to try it. Reckon I could use my wife’s crock pot?

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    May 8, 2018 at 7:50 am

    I learn something new everyday from your blog. Thanks.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    May 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

    What a story! Thank you, Ed. I love the resourcefulness of our people. We found a way to get things done. I can look around this old house I live in and see lots of examples of ways to get things done without running to the store. I see this especially in the sheds out back. There is even tar on one of the old tin roofs to patch some leaky seams.

  • Reply
    Sheryl A. Paule
    May 8, 2018 at 6:54 am

    That is independence, there are so many skills people used to have that they have relinquished to others.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2018 at 5:36 am

    I think even Ole Noah used pitch inside and out, now days you go to the homedepot and by a bucket of tar, or even got it in a handy dandy spray can call it flex seal nice thing about it is when it’s dry, it’s like rubber and not sticky, when I was a boy, my Mamaw and Aunt lived in a trailer out beside us and that was my job about once a year to take a gallon bucket of tar and seal up leaks around the top edges of the trailer.

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