The Fredericksburg Sassafras Distillery

By Robert Hodge

SASSAFRAS VARIFOLIUM is an old species, fossil forms being found in the one-hundred-million-year-old rocks of the Cretaceous period in both North America and Eurasia. Since the ice ages, it has continued to live only in a small section of Asia and in North America from Maine to Florida and westward to the beginning of the prairies. Today it is most commonly found at the wood's edge along roadsides and fence rows as a tree growing between fifteen and fifty feet.

The sassafras tree may be recognized by the variably-lobed leaves responsible for its species name. Some of the leaves are a simple oval form, some have a mitten-like thumb on one edge and others are symmetrically lobed on both sides of the main oval. All three-leaf forms may be found on younger twigs while only the oval, non-lobed leaves are typical on the mature older branches. In the month of April, soon after the leaves begin to unfold, many clusters of yellow flowers appear. The female trees develop, by August, a deep slaty-blue, berry-like fruit seated on the thickened crimson stem. These fruits are eagerly consumed by at least eighteen species of birds and some mammals.

All parts of the tree are aromatic and the spicy lemon-licorice flavor of the green leaf stalks or woody twigs confirms the identification of Sassafras.

The Indians convinced the early settlers of this country of the value of the sassafras tea as a cure-all, and the roots and bark were among the first exports to Europe by the settlers of Virginia. These same settlers made root beer by boiling the young shoots and roots of sassafras in water to which molasses was added and the whole left to ferment.

An extract of the bark was used to dye wool a good orange color and, by the latter 1800s, the oil was obtained by steam distillation for scenting perfumes and soaps, for flavoring candy, and for flavoring drinks such as sarsaparilla.

From April 1872 until 1874, Benjamin Deshields and William Burrell paid thirty cents per hundred pounds of Sassafras roots for the distillery they operated in the recently demolished building behind the present Community Center*. After collecting one-hundred seventy-five TONS of roots, they constructed a steam-tight cask large enough to hold five-thousand pounds of wood chips, steamed them for twenty-four hours and used the dried chips for steaming the next batch. They produced two-hundred pounds of oil per week and filled orders, mostly for Breman, Germany, at seventy-cents per pound.

It is still possible in Fredericksburg to purchase the root chips for brewing sassafras tea and to purchase sassafras-flavored candy.

This article originally appeared in the December 1978 issue of The Fredericksburg Times and is used here with the author's permission.

*The community center to which Mr. Hodge refers is located at 408 Canal Street in Fredericksburg.