Why is a Tioga County historical artifact rusting in Morris? Because the essential oil it distilled was no longer essential after the 1960s. Now Llewellyn Butler, 81, uses what is left of his birch oil still as a potato cellar.

There were decades, though, when he and his family could make a good living by selling distilled birch oil to distributors. Some of that oil was destined for Procter & Gamble, to be used as an active ingredient in Bengay medicinal rubs.

To make that oil, they had to cut down cords of succulent sweet birch to fill large stills built for the purpose. Once loaded, it would take 48 hours for a wood-fired still to steam the birch oil out of a load of logs. The oil bubbled through copper or steel condenser pipes in a tub of water and dribbled dark, wintergreen-scented liquid into a jar. Meanwhile, two men would devotethemselves to maintaining the fire and liquids.

Butler said the family birch oil business peaked in 1946, with four stills in Leetonia and a couple elsewhere. When he returned from World War II, he joined the Butler brothers’ family business, begun by his father, Orville, and uncles Clayton and Harry.

And they weren’t alone. Grant “Skip” Cavanaugh, Jr. of Wellsboro remembers working on birch stills with his father, Grant Sr. Now retired, Skip’s hobby is researching the local birch still history. Based on his recollection and notes, there were once dozens of stills around the Tioga State Forest. Under an agreement with the foresters, distillers harvested logs from state lands.