Florida’s Not-So-Native Tung

No, there’s no typo in the title of today’s blog. For several decades, northern Florida was home to thousands of acres of tung trees. Tung nuts, the fruit of these trees, contain an oil that could be used in paints, varnishes, inks, and even some medicines. The tree was imported from China, where it had been grown commercially for centuries. After a period of trial and error, Florida growers were able to cultivate the trees and produce thousands of tons of tung nuts per year.

African-American workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

Workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

For all the largesse it would later bring to the Sunshine State, the origins of the industry were humble. In 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture imported 200 pounds of tung nuts from China and planted them in Chico, California as an experiment. Of the seedlings that resulted, the U.S.D.A. sent several hundred to agricultural experiment stations around the country, especially in the South, where the climate was most similar to that of the Yangtze valley in China.

Five of the tung seedlings ended up in the possession of the superintendent of the old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, who in turn gave them to William H. Raynes, who managed a small estate off Miccosukee Road. Raynes planted the five seedlings in November 1906 and tended them closely, yet by the spring of 1907 all but one had died, and the one was badly damaged in a storm. Raynes cut the tree back, and in the ensuing years it began producing a considerable number of tung nuts. Eventually, this tree would produce the first complete bushel of tung nuts grown in North America.

The

The “Raynes Tree,” the one tree of five given to William H. Raynes in 1906 that lived, and produced the first bushel of tung nuts ever grown in Florida. Raynes died in 1914, but the tree continued to grow at his home on Miccosukee Road until 1940. It died from injuries sustained when it was moved about thirty feet to make room for an access road to nearby Sunland Hospital (photo circa 1930s).

In 1913, Raynes sent a bushel of shelled tung seeds to the Educational Bureau of the Paint Manufacturers’ Association of the United States, which was then able to extract over two gallons of useable oil. The potential for a new lucrative industry was clear, and more investors began taking interest. Soon the trees were appearing in Levy, Clay, Jefferson, Okaloosa, and other counties. Tung processing factories emerged in Altha, Capps, Compass Lake, Gainesville, Lloyd, and Monticello. The American Tung Oil Association, formed in 1924 by a group of paint and varnish manufacturers with familiar names like Sherwin-Williams, Valspar, and DuPont, encouraged the growth of the new industry and funneled money into it.

Tung trees growing in an orchard near Capps, headquarters of the aptly named

Tung trees growing in an orchard near Capps, headquarters of the aptly named “Tungston” tung processing plant. Jefferson County was host to a number of other tung operations, including the Jumpy Run mill at Monticello, General Tung mill at Lamont, and Leon Tung in Tallahassee (photo circa 1950s).

A worker feeds tung nuts into a machine inside a tung oil plant in Tallahassee. A single plant could purchase as much as 400 tons of tung nuts in a single day (1949).

A worker feeds tung nuts into a machine inside a tung oil plant in Tallahassee. A single factory could purchase as much as 400 tons of tung nuts in a single day (1949).

National and international events spurred the tung growers onward. The arrival of the Great Depression left many Floridians out of work and hungry for the kind of jobs a healthy tung industry could provide. Across the Pacific, China’s ability to produce and ship tung oil was curtailed by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and harassment of ports like Shanghai. U.S. producers had an excellent opportunity to fill the void with tung oil made at home. Enthusiasm for the industry in Florida was high. There was even a “Tung Blossom Festival” in Gainesville in the 1930s, featuring games and a parade of decorated floats. In 1931 alone, the parade featured over 70 entries and 13 lady contestants vying for the title of “Tung Oil Queen.”

A car pulling a float in the Tung Blossom Festival in Gainesville (circa 1930s).

A car pulling a float in the Tung Blossom Festival in Gainesville (circa 1930s).

During World War II, the U.S. military’s demand for tung oil products sky-rocketed, which proved to be both a boon and a curse to the industry in Florida. While it kept the factories busy, the continual shortage of oil led experts to favor research into synthetic substitutes. In the postwar years, tung oil consumption fell off as other substances took its place. Freezes, devastating hurricanes, and an overall decline in purchases of tung oil products all but killed off the industry over the next few decades.

A field of bulldozed tung trees off U.S. Highway 27 between Capps and Tallahassee (1976).

A field of bulldozed tung trees off U.S. Highway 27 between Capps and Tallahassee (1976).

Despite its sagging fortunes over the past few decades, the tung tree may yet have a role to play in Florida’s economy. A small number of growers are experimenting with tung oil production, including in Leon County. What will be the outcome of this experiment? Well, as the saying goes, that’s the question on every… tongue, at least here at Florida Memory.

Do you recall seeing tung trees blooming in years gone by? Do you know of tung trees still living in Florida? Share with us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post using Facebook or Twitter.

Dr. Andrew Turnbull and the Origins of New Smyrna Beach

The British only owned Florida for a brief moment (1763-1783), but during that time they did take a stab at turning the territory into a productive colony.  In 1764, the British Parliament set aside £500 (British pounds sterling) as a bounty for cultivating silk, cotton, and indigo in East Florida, and authorized generous land grants for citizens who stepped forward to develop these industries.

A General Map of the Southern British Colonies (1776). Note the separation of East and West Florida.

A General Map of the Southern British Colonies (1776). Note the separation of East and West Florida.

Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scotsman and a physician, convinced a number of his wealthy friends in Britain to take advantage of these offers and start a new colony in East Florida.  Turnbull planned to employ a number of Greeks from Asia Minor as laborers for his new venture.  He chose a Greek labor force because he felt they would be more accustomed to the warm climate they would encounter in Florida, and because he believed he would be able to convince a good number of them to leave the Ottoman Empire, where labor conditions were tough. Turnbull’s knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean was considerable. He had spent a number of years as a British consul in the Ottoman Empire, and had married the daughter of a Greek merchant at Smyrna in Greece.

Portrait of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, founder of the New Smyrna colony (circa 1850s-60s)

Portrait of Dr. Andrew Turnbull, founder of the New Smyrna colony (circa 1850s-60s)

In 1766 and 1767, Turnbull and two of his business associates, Sir William Duncan and Sir Richard Temple, acquired  land grants of 20,000 acres each, which Turnbull was to select from unclaimed lands in East Florida. After a brief stay in St. Augustine, Turnbull sailed southward along the Atlantic coast past what we now call Ormond and Daytona beaches, and entered Mosquito Inlet, where he encountered an attractive region dotted with large magnolia, live oak, and bay trees. The Scotsman was delighted with what he saw, and decided to make this the site of his new colony. He named it New Smyrna in honor of his wife’s birthplace and the homeland of his future Greek labor force.

East Florida Governor James Grant, who received Turnbull upon his arrival at St. Augustine. This protrait was painted circa 1850 by Allen Ramsey.

East Florida Governor James Grant, who received Turnbull upon his arrival at St. Augustine. This portrait was painted circa 1850 by Allen Ramsey.

Turnbull crossed the Atlantic once again to secure more land and the assistance of the government in setting up the new colony. The British government took a considerable interest in New Smyrna, providing money for transporting laborers and developing infrastructure. In the spring of 1767, Turnbull sailed into the Mediterranean to hire workers for his new enterprise. He encountered unexpected resistance from the Ottomans over his plan to hire away Greek workers, so he made stops in southern Italy and Minorca to pick up more. By the time Turnbull finally sailed for East Florida, he had about 1,500 workers under contract, mostly Minorcans. These settlers would be indentured servants. In return for their passage to New Smyrna, the laborers would be required to work for a period of years, and then they would be entitled either to a plot of land in East Florida or passage back to their home country.

Remains of a building from Andrew Turnbull's New Smyrna colony. The structure was built of coquina cement around 1768 and was used as a warehouse. The building was built on top of a large Native American shell mound (photo 1953).

Remains of a building from Andrew Turnbull’s New Smyrna colony. The structure was built of coquina cement around 1768 and was used as a warehouse. The building was built on top of a large Native American shell mound (photo 1953).

By the end of the summer in 1768, Turnbull and his workers were settled in at New Smyrna, and the process of clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation was underway. The work was difficult, and a number of workers died from disease and as a result of raids by Native Americans in the area. The New Smyrna venture did eventually produce good crops, however, and for a few years all appeared to be working in good order. Turnbull’s relationship with his laborers deteriorated as the years went by, on account of poor working conditions and the harsh practices of his overseers. In 1777, the laborers marched northward to St. Augustine to complain to Governor Patrick Tonyn, who provided them with shelter.

East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn, who gave refuge to discontented workers from New Smyrna after they marched to St. Augustine in 1777 (circa 1774-1784).

East Florida Governor Patrick Tonyn, who gave refuge to discontented workers from New Smyrna after they marched to St. Augustine in 1777 (circa 1774-1784).

The colonists decided to stay in St. Augustine, which brought an end to the plantation at New Smyrna. Shortly afterward in 1783, the Spanish retook Florida as part of the Treaty of Paris, and Andrew Turnbull moved to Charleston, South Carolina. The New Smyrna venture had ended, but the colonists continued to live in East Florida, mostly along the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida. The Florida Photographic Collection contains several photos depicting Minorcan foodways and other traditions that have lived on into our own era, living legacies of the New Smyrna Minorcans’ journey across the Atlantic over two centuries ago.

Minorcan cheese pastries called fromajardis - baked at St. Augustine (January 1959).

Minorcan cheese pastries called fromajardis – baked at St. Augustine (January 1959).

Margaret Triay prepares vinegar sausage with datil peppers, a traditional Minorcan specialty (1983).

Margaret Triay prepares vinegar sausage with datil peppers, a traditional Minorcan specialty (1983).

A Minorcan dance group from St. Augustine (October 1983).

A Minorcan dance group from St. Augustine (October 1983). They are standing in front of a statue dedicated to the memory of Father Pedro Camps [Campos?], who accompanied the Minorcans to Florida.

Theresa Griffin displaying an example of Minorcan crochet and needlework at Elkton, Florida (January 1985).

Theresa Griffin displaying an example of Minorcan crochet and needlework at Elkton, Florida (January 1985).

Search Florida Memory for more images depicting Minorcan traditions still alive and well in Florida!