Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 30 no. 1, March 1977
by Bill Packard
Sometime about 1910 to 1912, there were several spruce oil stills around Plainfield, Massachusetts. The Morann brothers had one on the grant that is now a part of a potato farm. There was one near where West Street and Bird Road meet on the old Johnson farm. This one was probably run by F.G. Sears and his son, George. ‘There was one where Bert Longley built his house, now Tex Gilbert’s.
There was a spruce oil still a few rods above the old high bridge on Prospect Street. This one I remember most, as my cousin who lived with us at what is now the Betts place ran this one. I drew the brush for it with a pair of horses. It was my first experience in driving team. We used the brush from the old Rice place above Winters’ place and also the brush from the Winters’ place. My cousin had two men cutting the brush beside me with the team.
The pictured one was run by my cousin, Charles Packard, and Bert Bird. They had a yoke of oxen that they used to haul the brush to the still and when the oxen were not needed, they were turned into the nearby pasture.
The still was built over a stone arch large enough to burn wood three or four feet long. It consisted of of a pan of iron, four or five feet across, with sides a few inches high, and the sides of the still were wooden staves somewhat like a silo, only they tapered so the tub was much longer on top.
The top of the tub had a three-foot square cover in the top on hinges to put the brush in. It was padded around the edge with wool felt about a quarter of an inch thick to make it as tight as possible. As I remember, it probably held a couple of two-horse loads of brush.
My cousin would sometimes go with me for brush, but most of the time he would stay at the still to remove the old brush from the day before. To remove the old brush from the tub, we used a five-tine manure fork on a long pole. This fork was hung on an angle, much like a hoe or potato hook. We would reach down into the steaming tub and pull out as much of the brush as possible and then, dressed only in a pair of pants and rubber boots, would get down into the still. The still had a false bottom of wood that kept the brush from burning on the pan. We would throw out the rest of the brush. Sometimes we would crawl out through the steam and cool off a bit before finishing the job.
We had a four-inch iron pipe stuck through the logs on the old dam nearby and we used to take showers under it. These steam baths made you feel wonderful, and I think they were very healthful.
Water was piped into the tub from the old mill pond to make the steam that was piped out into a wooden trough of cold water to cool it. Here the oil rose to the top and into a settling can from which the water, if any remained, was drawn from the bottom. This was much the same principle as the old Cooley can milk system.
The brush was cut from small spruce trees, using the ends of the boughs up to around eighteen inches long. The limbs were cut from the trees and laid in piles. Then you held each one in one hand and trimmed off the small brush with a knife about eighteen inches long that had a wooden handle. Sometimes a knife was made from an old scythe but the “boughten” ones were much handier.
As I remember, an average of about thirty pounds was the yield of a still full of brush. It was stored in steel drums and shipped to Fritzie Brothers in New York City. The price was around $1.00 a pound. The oil was used in medicine, we were told. You can light a fire with a few drops of spruce oil, as you would use kerosene. I doubt if it has ever been used for motor fuel but I feel sure it could be used this way. However, it would be too expensive to be practicable.
My cousin would keep an alarm clock and a blanket at the still so he could stay there at night. He always kept a pail of bran middlings stirred up in water in a pail to paste around the cover of the still to keep the steam from leaking out.
The used brush was burned nearby. Some people used a two-tined hay fork like those used to unload hay. Also, wood had to be cut to burn at the still.
I think the two men’s wages were $2.00 a day, and I received $4.50 for the team of horses, a total of $8.50 for the two men and the man and team of horses. After buying the brush and getting wood for the still, I did not think it was a very good paying job as we didn’t always get out a still-full every day.
After we had used most of the brush nearby, my cousin moved his still to Heath and made spruce oil there. Finally he traded the still to a neighbor for a yoke of Holstein oxen and brought the oxen to Plainfield. He later sold them.
George Sears went to Ludlow, Vermont and made spruce oil for a while. The market dropped, so they held a lot of oil waiting for the price to come back. Finally he shipped about 2,000 pounds of oil to Charlemont and my father drew it to West Cummington. I remember there were several drums of oil. He finally sold it, but I don’t think the price ever reached a dollar a pound again.
Earl Rodgers ran a spruce oil still in Windsor Bush about a mile south of Fred Bird’s. I can remember it years ago. later Fred Bird made oil there, I am told.
Alden Miller of Savoy handled a lot of spruce oil but I never knew if he made it himself. I have been told there was once a still on the Richmond Place in Plainfield (now Hardwick’s), but I don’t remember it. The tub my cousin used was made by Arthur Coleman of Windsor Bush.