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Controversial toll road could wipe out historic turpentine camp

Archaeologist Scott Bierly holds a shard of pottery found at the Etna Camp, a Citrus County turpentine camp that’s on the National Historic Register. The second leg of the Suncoast Parkway could wipe out the camp.
Archaeologist Scott Bierly holds a shard of pottery found at the Etna Camp, a Citrus County turpentine camp that’s on the National Historic Register. The second leg of the Suncoast Parkway could wipe out the camp.
Published Jan. 20, 2016

ETNA CAMP — To someone strolling along the edge of the woods, the tangled metal straps, shards of broken pottery, and bits of crumbled bricks on the ground look like litter.

But to an archaeologist like Scott Bierly, the items are artifacts of a bygone era, relics from when men toiled amid heat and insects to collect tree sap and refine it into turpentine.

The Etna Camp, on state-owned land in the Withlacoochee State Forest, is so important an archaeological site that it's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Yet the Florida Department of Transportation's plans call for obliterating it.

Etna, once a town of 200 people, lies in the path of the second leg of the Suncoast Parkway toll road. The parkway now ends at U.S. 98 near the Citrus-Hernando line. The 13-mile extension would bring the limited-access highway north to State Road 44.

Plans for the controversial eight-lane road, originally conceived back in the 1990s, stalled in 2008 because of the recession. So little traffic uses the original Suncoast Parkway that a SuperTarget built next to the road in Odessa is closing. The store is surrounded by land that was expected to be developed once the road was built, but it never was.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott revived the Suncoast extension with an infusion of $150 million in taxpayer funds. Now the $256.7 million project is slated to start construction this year and be completed by 2019. Officials with Scott's office and the DOT were unable to explain why he chose to resuscitate this particular toll road, except to say it had been requested by Citrus and Hernando county officials to help boost development.

As a result, the project is rolling straight at Etna.

DOT officials are exploring how much money and time the agency would lose by bending the proposed road around Etna. If the highway does have to be built through the historic site, the DOT has some ideas about how to make up for the damage.

For instance, said spokeswoman Christa Deason, they could build a duplicate camp in a place where Citrus County residents could visit it more easily. The duplicate might even have a working turpentine still.

Etna hasn't appeared on a map in decades, but it was buzzing with activity from the 1890s to the 1920s. Its 31-acre site lies at the edge of the Withalacoochee State Forest, about 4 miles east of Chassahowitzka, just off a dirt path that runs beneath electrical transmission line towers.

No buildings or boilers remain, but archaeologists surveying the site in recent years have found signs it once contained some 50 structures — workers' shanties, supervisors' homes, stables, barns, a cooper shop and two stills for boiling down the pine sap the laborers harvested to make turpentine.

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In the 1800s, turpentine, sometimes known as "naval stores," was valuable for caulking wooden boats and a variety of other uses, including the original version of Vicks VapoRub.

"Before we started using petroleum-based products, everything used turpentine," said Bierly, 48, who has toured the Etna site with his father Jim, 81, who lives in the nearby Sugarmill Woods subdivision.

In Citrus County, turpentine was a leading industry, with nearly a dozen worker camps set up in the woods far from any civilization. It was a difficult and dangerous way to make a living, with overseers on horseback often carrying guns and whips to ensure no one slipped away.

Many Southern turpentine camps used leased convicts, some of them arrested on minor charges at the behest of the camp's owner who gave the sheriff a bribe and a wish list of workers. Etna appears to have been the exception. Families lived in the dirt-floor shanties, as indicated by the discovery of porcelain doll parts and other broken toys, Scott Bierly said.

Still, the turpentine workers — usually impoverished African-American men — were paid in scrip that they could spend nowhere but the Etna company store. The store prices were so inflated that they wound up owing more than they made, locking them into the job. Once the sap supply was exhausted, Etna's workers began cutting down the trees for lumber. That stretched its life out longer than nearly all the other turpentine camps, which adds to the site's significance, according to historians.

The National Historic Register designation might protect Etna from demolition if the DOT was using federal funding, an expert on registered properties said. But it won't help Etna because, according to Deason, no federal funds are involved in the project.

When the DOT held a public meeting on its Suncoast plan last summer, more than 250 people showed up, many of them to object to its impact on the environment and their neighborhoods. Some of them complained that the road would destroy Etna. The next meeting is slated for Jan. 25.

Jim Bierly, picking his way among the artifacts one recent afternoon, holding up some rusty barrel straps he'd found, said it wouldn't take much effort by DOT to save what's left of the old camp from the Suncoast.

"All they have to do is jog it," Bierly said, shaking his head.

To DOT, though, Etna doesn't seem all that special.

"There are much better preserved turpentine campsites around the state," Deason said.

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.