HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
A history of the Lacoochee school is here. Pictures of Lacoochee are here. A wonderful collection of modern photos taken in Lacoochee by Chris Arnade is here. This page was last revised on Sept. 3, 2012.
May 22, 1888. A post office is established at Lacoochee.
Jan. 5, 1894. The Tampa Weekly Tribune reports on the Commercial Hotel, Lacoochee, Mrs. W. T. Johns, proprietor.
Sept. 15, 1894. A newspaper reports: “T. W. Miller was assassinated near Lacoochee, Fla., while cutting timber. His body was riddled with bullets, and was found at noon by his wife, who had gone to call him to dinner.
Sept. 18, 1894. The Times Union reports that Abe McGirt, a farmer, was found dead near Lacoochee today. Examination of the corpse showed that McGirt’s neck had been broken and his skull crushed. [On Oct. 12, 1894, the Tampa Tribune reported that Judge Barron Phillips sentenced Lewis Raymond, Will Mitchell, Henry Morris, and Zelina McGirt, all colored, to hang, for killing Abe McGirt, husband of Zelina McGirt, on Sept. 15, 1894. He also sentenced Milton Higgs to hang for killing his wife Susie on Aug. 18, 1894. On Dec. 14, 1894, the newspaper reported the sentences of Zelene McGirt and her two sons and Will Raymond were commuted to life imprisonment.]
June 1896. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports:
June 18, 1915. The Pasco County Weekly News of Trilby in a section of Lacoochee news items, has “J. T. Neal has been appointed deputy sheriff here.” A letter from the Mayor of Lacoochee expresses support for a proposed merger of Trilby and Lacoochee.
1918-1919. The Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory shows Lacoochee with a population of 50 and lists Charles Jensen, general store and express agent and postmaster; J. W. Dutton & Co., turpentine and general store; Lacoochee Machine Works.
1922. The Cummer Sons Cypress Company sawmill is constructed at Lacoochee. [The last timber was milled on June 5, 1959.]
June 18, 1923. The Janesville Daily Gazette reports that three masked bandits in an automobile held up Elwood Wilson, manager of the Cummer Cypress Company at Lacoochee and escaped with $11,700, the company’s payroll.
Aug. 12, 1923. The Tampa Morning Tribune reports:
Day by day the time for the starting of the great mill of the Cummer Cypress Company, a subsidiary of the Cummer company of Jacksonville, draws nearer, and day by day millwrights and electricians are rushing to get the last finishing touches done so that the power can be turned on, the wheels begin to turn, and the saws to cut up the great cypress logs that are already stocked in great piles in the yard. The mill, which is to be electrically driven, will be one of the most modernly equipped in the state of Florida. Cutting only cypress, its capacity will be in the neighborhood of 100,000 feet of lumber a day.
June 15, 1924. Fire damages the Jensen building, causing the destruction of almost the entire stock of the Miller Mercantile Co. and of the Almi Mercantile Co. Records and fixtures of the post office, located in the store of the Almi Mercantile Co., were badly damaged by smoke and water, and the supply of postage stamps was ruined. Total damage was estimated at $11,000.
July 18, 1924. The Dade City Banner reported, “Building is again booming in Lacoochee. Two new picture theaters are now going up. Both expect to be in operation in about five weeks.”
June 19, 1925. Rep. Edwin S. Dew writes in the New Port Richey Press: “Application was made for charter for Lacoochee but upon investigation it appeared that there was not sufficient sentiment in favor of incorporation and consequently the bill was not introduced.”
Aug. 1, 1941. The New Port Richey Press reports that an estimated 800 or more workers at the Cummer Sons Cypress Co. plant at Lacoochee were made idle starting yesterday when the mill closed on account of a strike by the workers.
April 4, 1958. An early morning fire destroys or badly damages seven buildings in the business district. An Associated Press report quoted Constable J. E. Stanley as saying that if the Dade City fire department had not lent a helping hand, the entire business area would have been destroyed. Buildings housing a beer hall, pool room, two groceries, a barber shop, and a drug store were damaged. Stanley awakened the volunteer fire department to battle the fire until the Dade City fire department arrived.
June 1, 2003. Lieutenant Charles “Bo” Harrison is shot and killed while sitting in his patrol car in Lacoochee. [Harrison was a 31- year veteran of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and the highest ranking black deputy in the history of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office. Alfredie Steele Jr. was convicted of the murder on April 26, 2007.]
The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Works in the Jim Crow South by William Powell Jones (2005) has:
When Cummer and Sons approached the end of its timber supply [at Sumner] around 1920, company managers prepared to “get out” by establishing a second mill a hundred miles away in Lacoochee, Florida. Workers began to leave Rosewood as production slowed in Sumner, leaving a core of thirty black families and one white store owner by 1923. ... Having turned a blind eye to the destruction of their employees’ property, Cummer and Sons managers arranged for a train to drive through the swamps, picking up survivors of the Rosewood massacre and offering them housing and employment in the brand new “colored quarters” in Lacoochee.
Lacoochee, the Coming Town of the Withlacoochee (1922)
This article appeared in the Dade City Banner on March 17, 1922.
By C. B. TAYLOR
Situated at the junction of the Sanford branch of the Coast Line and the Seaboard railways, in the northeast corner of the county is the thriving little community of Lacoochee. The traveler by rail who merely sees the few buildings around the station would get an entirely false idea of this little neighborhood; for, following the custom so common in many of the large cities, the depot is in the most unattractive section. Really there are a number of very fertile and well tilled farms, to be found if one will only brave the soft white sand and tramp about a little.
The business activities of Lacoochee consist of two well stocked general stores, one of them also containing the post office, a blacksmith shop, and a garage. A very neat but small lunch room and cold drink stand did a good business there also with travelers on the Dixie highway, but the proprietor added to his stock in trade some of the beverages now prohibited by the constitution of the United States and the State of Florida, so the citizens of the community persuaded him to emigrate to a less law abiding place.
A nice little church with its well kept “God’s Acre” cares for the spiritual welfare of the people while the education of the children is carefully looked after in the combined Trilby-Lacoochee school.
The Dixie highway enters Pasco county about a mile from town, passing through it and continuing to Trilby, a mile distant, where it turns south towards Dade City and Tampa. This will be one of the first roads to be paved by the Highlands bond issue and doubtless will assist greatly in building up this place.
The people here are quiet, hard-working, progressive and kind-hearted. They all think well of each other, and there is no evidence of jealousy, cliques or divisions among them to be seen. They welcome the stranger, be he visitor or intending new resident, cordially, assist him in every way and speed the parting guest in such a manner that he looks on the prospect of returning with pleasure.
The principal industry of this neighborhood is, of course, farming—and until this year it has been all-round variety—corn, forage, stock and hog feeds of various kinds, and cane. This year while there is no falling off in the acreage planted to these staple crops, considerable trucking is also being done. Cukes and tomatoes being the main crops. These are all coming along nicely and if no late frost or other unavoidable contingency intervenes will soon be bringing substantial profits to the growers.
Eleven Thousand Dollar Fire in Lacoochee (1924)
Stock of Two Stores Almost Entirely Destroyed
The following article appeared in the Dade City Banner on June 20, 1924.
Fire of unknown origin damaged the Jensen building at Lacoochee, eight miles north of here Sunday afternoon, causing the almost entire destruction of the stock of the Miller Mercantile company, and of the Almi Mercantile company, while the records and fixtures of the post office, which was located in the store of the Almi Mercantile company, were badly damaged by smoke and water, and the supply of postage stamps ruined. The total damages is estimated as approximately $11,000 with very little insurance.
The fire apparently started in one corner of the store of the Miller Mercantile company, though its origin appears to be a complete mystery. Mr. Miller had been in the store a short while in the morning, but left about 11:30. During the time the store was open it is said there was no one inside smoking or doing anything else that might have caused a fire to start. About 1:30 p.m. smoke was discovered issuing from the store and almost immediately afterwards a ball of flame burst through the walls and rapidly spread all over the side and up on the roof.
A large crowd of people quickly gathered, and the hose reels of the Cummer Cypress Company were soon on the scene. By hard work the flames were kept from spreading all over the building and the fire gotten under control. But not before the stock of the Miller Mercantile company, consisting largely of dry goods and shoes, was almost entirely destroyed, while the general merchandise stock of the Alma Mercantile company was ruined by smoke and water.
The building itself, which is owned by Charles Jensen, a pioneer resident of this place, was badly damaged, one wall being burned out, the partition between the two stores burned through and the roof about half destroyed. This building is an old landmark here, having been used as a post office and store for nearly 30 years. In addition to the damage done to his building, Mr. Jensen, who had his office in the rear of the Miller Mercantile Company’s store, lost office equipment amounting to several hundred dollars.
The total loss is estimated at approximately $11,000, divided as follows: Charles Jensen, building and office equipment, $1,000, no insurance; Miller Mercantile Company, stock, $4,500, no insurance; Almi Mercantile company, $5,000, amount of insurance not known, but much less than the loss; post office, equipment, records and postage stamps, $500. The work of repairing the damage to the building was started early Monday morning, and it is understood that the two business firms who suffered plan to re-open as soon as they can make the necessary arrangements, and replace their stock.
History of Lacoochee (1976)
The following article by Lorise Abraham appeared in East Pasco’s Heritage.
Prior to the year 1922, when Cummer first began construction of a sawmill in Lacoochee, the anticipated growth of this community in northeast Pasco County had not materialized. Prospective land buyers had once been brought in by train to invest in what promised to be a large manufacturing center. The area surrounding Lacoochee had prospered for a while by growing strawberries and running turpentine stills. At one time orange groves had lined the banks of the Withlacoochee River, just one-half mile from the center of town. It is said that the "Big Freeze" of 1898 completely wiped out every trace of any orange trees there. Eventually the remains of the homes of the grove owners also vanished.
In 1922 Cummer acquired the land in Lacoochee needed to construct a modern, completely electrified sawmill and box factory, the largest of its kind in the South. This continued in operation until 1959, bringing the long-promised prosperity to this area. At one time Cummer offered the largest payroll in Pasco County.
While the mill plant, company office, commissary, hotel, and doctor’s office were being built, as well as many homes for individual employees, a flurry of building activity began in the town of Lacoochee itself. In addition to the postoffice and general merchandise stores already there, many new private businesses were built. These included more general merchandise stores, garages and filling stations, restaurants, bakeries, dairy, drug stores, theaters, barber shops and shoeshine stands, grocery stores and meat markets, dry cleaners, pool rooms and bars, hardware stores, inns, and a social club, the Woodmen of the World.
The spiritual lives of the residents were enriched by the construction of several Protestant houses of worship, which included First Baptist Church, Oak Ridge Baptist Church, United Methodist Church, and Assembly of God Church. Christian fellowship in Lacoochee was not only a Sunday affair. The townspeople practiced their religion in an everyday manner by helping those of the community who were in need from sickness, poverty, or loss of personal belongings by fire or floods. To a community constructed mainly of lumber, fire was a daily hazard, not only to the mill site but to all the homes and businesses. Each fire was valiantly fought by Cummer’s own fire department, assisted by local volunteers, and when needed by the Dade City Volunteer Fire Department.
During the Second World War, labor at the mill became a problem because so many of the young men were called to the service and so many people went to work in the shipyards at Tampa. Lacoochee contributed more than vitally needed lumber to the war effort, giving up five native sons in this conflict. Lost in the European theater of war were the Lessig twins, Gerald C. and Harold L. Lessig, Robert Holt, and L. Hawkins. Paratrooper Carmen Thompson gave his life in the Pacific. Killed in action also were Francis Woods and James Mills of Trilby, both of whom had worked at the mill, and whose loss was deeply felt by Lacoochee people too.
Like so many Americans, Lacoochee people were devotees of our national sport, baseball. For many years the team enjoyed a friendly rivalry with the teams from Dade City and Brooksville. Almost everyone in town turned out for Sunday afternoon ball games. These were held at a ball park built on land donated for that purpose by Cummer.
The history of Lacoochee is unique because of the feeling prevailing throughout the community of "one family." Many young people who grew up there have ventured out into the world to become leaders in their chosen professions. Lacoochee people take great pride in the achievements of their friends and neighbors. These accomplishments are spoken of without envy whenever two or more people from Lacoochee get together.
After Cummer reluctantly closed down the mill operation, the location was purchased by Wood Mosaic Corporation of Louisville, Kentucky in 1960. Wood Mosaic operated a plywood mill there until 1964. From then until 1971 the site remained unused, at which time the property was purchased by Interpace Corporation of Parsippany, New Jersey.
At present Interpace, with a work force of about 110 people, is specializing in the making of reinforced concrete pressure pipes for the transmission of water. Interpace is now one of the three main industries in east Pasco County, and the only industry in Lacoochee.
The town of Lacoochee still has a large population; several businesses continue to operate there. One of the most modern schools in the county was built there several years ago. This school operates day and night for the continued education of adults as well as children.
Lumber Mill Was Town’s Foundation (2003)The following article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on June 13, 2003.
By CAROL JEFFARES HEDMAN
LACOOCHEE - Several historic sites still dot the countryside. But many pieces of the past are no longer standing in this once-thriving mill town in northeast Pasco County.
One such place was the old kindling house, which was still around in the mid-1980s. The house - the last of several built in Lacoochee during the 1930s - finally is gone, according to Lewis Abraham, a Dade City Realtor.
Abraham grew up in Lacoochee during the days when the town prospered after Cummer and Sons Cypress Co. established the lumber mill.
Earlier in its history, Lacoochee was home to many wealthy citrus and strawberry farmers until the freeze of 1895 wiped out those industries and the town.
Things changed when the Cummers came from Michigan, building a modern, fully electric cypress sawmill and box factory in Lacoochee in 1922. The mill was used to cut the company’s cypress, pine and hardwood timber holdings in Central Florida.
The company also built rental houses for employees and company stores. But the town grew quickly after the mill opened, and soon there was a two-story, 30-room hotel, four churches, two bakeries, two drugstores, three garages, two service stations, two department stores, three barbershops, several restaurants, two doctors, two train depots and more than 1,000 registered voters.
Lacoochee survived the Great Depression - mainly because the mill remained open and continued employing the majority of the town’s residents. During those hard days of the 1930s, some residents built their homes from the kindling wood the mill gave away free, Abraham said.
When a log came into the mill, it would be steamed. Lumber was cooked and moisturized so it could be sheared and would come off in smooth strips. Cypress boards would be air dried outside on slanted slats.
Pecky cypress, now an expensive lumber used as a decorative wood, was considered a “nuisance lumber” then, Abraham said. “We use to call the stuff cockroach hotel.”
Mill workers cut pines for veneer to be used at the crate mill. But when the lumber was too hard, the company would give away the kindling wood. Most people wanted it for fuel for wood-burning stoves. But a few industrious folks took the kindling and transformed it into houses, Abraham said.
Few of the kindling houses survived the years. The kindling particularly was vulnerable to sparks from wood-burning stoves and overturned oil lamps. Electricity didn't come to the outlying areas of Lacoochee until the 1940s when Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative Inc. provided access.
But in the mid-1980s there was one surviving kindling house beneath moss-covered oaks in Coulter Hammock where Abraham played as a child. Already vacant and deteriorating in the mid-1980s, the house was beyond restoration and since has been lost to time, Abraham said.
The kindling on that house had been used on the inside and outside walls. The kindling on the outside walls was made into shingles by cutting the wood into rectangles and then angling the bottom by hand. The basic roofs in those days were made of cypress shingles, but in later years tar paper was nailed over the cypress roof on the kindling house.
Cummer and Sons Cypress Co. closed in 1959 and with it the town of Lacoochee began to dwindle. But the bond that was formed between its residents and the town during those prosperous years has remained. Many return year after year for a reunion to rekindle old friendships. Others have never left.
Lumber Mill Helped Lacoochee To Prosper During Its Heyday (2003)
This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on June 7, 2003.
By CAROL JEFFARES HEDMAN
LACOOCHEE - The community’s reputation has been in decline for years, capped by the fatal shooting on Sunday of Pasco County sheriff’s Lt. Charles ``Bo'' Harrison during an early morning surveillance across the street from the Rumors nightclub.
But in its heyday, Lacoochee was a thriving community residents were proud to call home.
The name comes from a shortened version of the Withlacoochee River, which skirts the town. Withlacoochee is Creek Indian for “little big water.”
In the late 1800s, a number of wealthy residents built their homes on the banks of this ``little big water'' with profits made from citrus and strawberry farming. A post office was established in Lacoochee in 1888, with William Ascosta as the first postmaster.
But the freeze of 1895 killed the crops and put an end to the prosperity.
That changed in 1922 when the Cummer family came to town.
Jacob Cummer, founder of the lumber empire, had worked in his father’s mill in Canada and eventually formed his own company, purchasing timber land in Michigan. But by 1893, timber supplies there were depleted and Cummer sought other properties.
He bought land in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. He started the Florida operations in 1896 and the next year organized the Cummer Lumber Co. in Michigan to operate his interests in Florida.
The company built the Jacksonville and Southwestern Railroad to transport the logs. The line later was sold to the Atlantic Coastline System.
When Cummer died in 1902, his son, W.W. Cummer, and grandsons carried on the business. Cummer Sons Cypress Co. established an electric cypress sawmill and box factory in Lacoochee in 1922.
The company also built houses for employees, renting rooms for 50 cents a week. Electricity was an extra 5 cents a week. There also was a company store where employees shopped. Paychecks were paid partially in store coupons.
The town of Lacoochee also grew quickly. Downtown Lacoochee soon boasted a two-story, 30-room hotel, four churches, two bakeries, two drugstores, three garages, two service stations, two department stores, three barbershops, several restaurants, two doctors, two train depots, a constable and more than 1,000 registered voters.
Lacoochee continued to prosper, even during the Great Depression. The mill remained in operation during those days. Employees were paid just 10 cents an hour but were glad to have jobs.
Mill Fades Into History
During its heyday, the mill employed thousands to log cypress trees from the Withlacoochee and Cumpressco swamps. The last timber was milled June 5, 1959. The mill closed with the timber depleted as far south as the Everglades.
Many of Lacoochee’s historical sites are related to the Cummer Sons Cypress Co. operation. Most are just that - sites where the structures once stood.
The 100-acre site of the Cummer Sons Cypress Co. mill is southeast of town along Bower Avenue. The complex consisted of a large cypress mill, a crate mill for making wire-bound vegetable boxes, a smaller sawmill for cutting timber and a large open-air lumberyard. The operation was self-contained and included an elevated water tank, along with the company store and housing for its employees.
Dilapidated sheds and abandoned portions of the mill remain today.
Cummer Sons Commissary, at 20851 Bower Ave., was built about 1922 and also housed the company doctor. W.H. Walters was the last Cummer physician and kept his office there even after the mill closed. Walters continued to practice there until he died in 1982. The commissary building is now Winkler’s Custom Machining and Repairs.
An old Cummer bungalow at 21045 Pine Products Road also has survived. Now owned by Roy D. Polk, the cypress structure was built to house company officials while they were in Lacoochee.
Particularly noteworthy is the upstairs sleeping area that looks as if a large room full of windows was set down atop the house. It was built that way to provide ventilation. People called it the ``airplane room'' because of the unusual design.
A number of other houses, including one in Dade City and another in Plant City, followed the same construction plan.
Museum Preserves Pieces Of Past
Other historic Lacoochee structures have survived thanks to the Pioneer Florida Museum Association.
The old C.C. Smith General Store once located northwest of County Road 575 and the railroad intersection was donated to the museum in 2000 by Smith’s niece, Ruth Smith.
C.C. Smith was the paymaster for Cummer Sons Cypress Co. at Cedar Key. In 1927 he left the company and moved to Lacoochee, built the store and lived in the back. There were gasoline pumps outside, and inside he sold dry goods, hardware and notions. The C.C. Smith General Store was a fixture in the community for more than half a century, closing in 1980.
The nonprofit museum association moved and restored the old store with money from the Dr. Helen Delight Walters Memorial Fund. Walters, who died in 2001, was the daughter of the Lacoochee physician and was raised in town.
Other businesses prospering in downtown Lacoochee along County Road 575 in the 1950s were a row of stores that included Merritt’s Grocery Store, Howard’s Bar, Maple’s Barbershop and Abe’s Drug Store, operated by Elias A. Abraham. The remaining structures there are vacant and boarded up.
The first school classes in Lacoochee were held in 1910 in two wooden stores on the west side of what is now U.S. 301, across from Cummer Road. The old classrooms burned and were replaced with a brick schoolhouse that also burned.
The one-room Lacoochee School that now stands at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village grounds was located in the vicinity of the Cummer mill. The museum saved the structure in 1975, just days before it was scheduled to be torn down, and moved it to the museum grounds. Although it was built in 1927, it is typical of one-room schoolhouses of much earlier times.
In 1995, two buildings built in the 1930s by Cummer Sons Cypress Co. also were moved from Lacoochee to the museum. Known as the ranch, the buildings include a guesthouse, dining room and kitchen. At the museum, they serve as a fiber arts building, where quilts are exhibited. They also house a pictorial display of Cummer sawmill days.
A 1913 13-ton steam locomotive once used by Cummer Sons to haul timber to its sawmill in Lacoochee also is displayed at the museum.
Life in a Mill TownThis article appeared in the Tampa Tribune, date unknown.
By CAROL JEFFARES HEDMAN
The Cummers came from Michigan in the 1920s, when the standing timber was exhausted near their sawmills there. And with the company came new hope for the tiny town of Lacoochee in northeast Pasco County.
A town had existed in earlier years, when “a number of well-to-do people” lived there, said Bill Dayton, a Dade City lawyer and local historian. The residents made their homes on the banks of the Withlacoochee River, raising citrus and strawberries.
But the freeze of 1895 wiped out agriculture, and the small population of Lacoochee dwindled to only a handful, Dayton said.
That all changed in 1922, when Cummer Sons Cypress Co. built a modern, fully electric cypress sawmill and box factory in Lacoochee. The mill was used to cut the company’s cypress, pine, and hardwood timber holdings in central Florida.
Jacob Cummer, founder of the lumber empire, had worked in his father’s mill in Canada and eventually formed his own company, purchasing tracts of timber in Michigan. In the 1880s, the lumber industry prospered there, but by 1893, the supply of timber was depleted, and Cummer sought other properties.
Cummer acquired lands in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. He started operations in Florida in 1896, and in 1897, the Cummer Lumber Co. was organized in Michigan to operate the interest in Florida.
To transport the logs, the company built the Jacksonville and Southwestern Railroad, a line that eventually was sold to the Atlantic Coast System.
When Cummer died in 1904, his son, W. W. Cummer, and grandson carried on the business.
When Cummer started operations in Pasco, it transformed Lacoochee. “You could literally go from cradle to the grave living at Cummer,” Dayton said. What Dayton was referring to was the town within a town that Cummer Sons Cypress Co. created.
The company built houses for employees, renting a room for 50 cents per week. Electricity was 5 cents extra per week. There were company stores, and paychecks were paid partially in coupons to be used at the stores, Dayton said.
Employees could purchase such items as “outlaw brands” of soft drinks, Dayton said. They were outlawed, he said, because the drinks were made by non-union workers. Dayton said the soda bottles, inscribed with such labels as “Budwine,” can still be found occasionally in the wooded areas where millworkers went to relax.
The town of Lacoochee also grew quickly after the mill opened. Soon after the company began operations, downtown Lacoochee boasted a two-story, 30-room hotel, four churches, two bakeries, two drug stores, three garages, two service stations, two department stores, three barber shops, several restaurants, two doctors, two train depots, a constable, and more than 1,000 registered voters.
“Cummer was a real godsend,” Dayton said, adding that the mill helped Lacoochee survive the Depression. “They (Cummer) were a major employer when most people didn't have jobs.”
Cummer paid 10 cents an hour in those days. But people were just glad to have jobs, Dayton said.
Dayton said “an old-timer in Lacoochee” related a story about his younger days working in the mill.
“He was a young boy, about 18 or so. And it was his first job,” Dayton recalled the old-timer saying. The employee was pushing a dolly carrying stacks of shingles one day when Cummer had come to the mill to show some people around. The employee came around the corner and bumped into the company’s president, knocking him to the ground, Dayton related the story.
“Get away, you old fool. Mr. Cummer ain't paying me 10 cents an hour to watch out for the likes of you,” the young man was said to have snapped, without knowing the old man was his boss.
As Cummer picked himself up and dusted himself off, someone asked if he wanted to find out who that was and fire him. Cummer said he didn't mind; he was just glad the employees were working so hard.
“They were fine people to work for,” remembered 78-year-old Leon Burnsed in an interview in 1984. Burnsed was one of those who worked at Cummer during the Depression for 10 cents an hour.
Burnsed had been working in agriculture in Winter Garden during the late 1920s. But when he was laid off, he came to Lacoochee in 1929, seeking a job in the sawmill he'd heard about.
When Burnsed began working for Cummer, he was told there were 700 employees in the company’s plant and logging industry, he said. Burnsed soon rented one of the company’s houses. And he still lived in that house when he was interviewed in 1984, although it had belonged to three different owners since Cummer owned it.
Burnsed continued to work for Cummer for 30 years and was foreman of the sawmill when it closed in 1959. “The mill shut down because there was a lack of timber,” Burnsed said. “We had timber in the Everglades, but it wouldn't support the mill.”
Burnsed moved to Georgia for a short time but returned to Lacoochee in 1960 to work for other companies that acquired the Cummer properties. He retired in 1981 from Interpace Corp. Interpace bought the old Cummer property in 1974 and began making reinforced concrete pressure pipes for carrying water.
Interpace sold out to GHA Lockjoint Inc. in 1982. The pipe-making firm is still Lacoochee’s major employer with a work force of more than 10.
According to U. S. Census figures, the population of Lacoochee is more than 5,000.
Sawmill Builds History (2008)This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on Oct. 24, 2008.
By IMANI ASUKILE
LACOOCHEE - The Cummer and Sons Cypress Co. timber mill defined this town for decades. So, in many ways, did its closing.
But the mill’s story has never been adequately told - until now.
With help from Wilbur Dew at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village, the father-son tandem of Louie and David Holt have produced a 30-minute documentary about the mill, which dominated life in Lacoochee from 1922 to 1959.
Using digitally restored photographs and footage of the logging and mill operations filmed in 1946, 1958 and 1959, the documentary offers a firsthand glimpse of mill work.
"It’s almost like a bit of community service to preserve this for these people," said David Holt, who worked with his dad to research the mill, write a script and restore the aging photographs and film used in the documentary. "This was done for the people of Lacoochee."
The Lacoochee sawmill was as modern as any in the country when it opened. A sophisticated network of levers and racks lifted large cypress logs out of the swamps, and the logs - some as large as six feet in diameter - were taken by rail to the mill. Many were cut with an ax before the chainsaw was born. The mill became so efficient that, at one point, it produced more than 100,000 citrus crates a day.
Before the sawmill opened in 1922, the region was still reeling from the freeze of 1894-95, which had wiped out the local citrus industry. Then workers from all over flooded into Lacoochee for mill jobs that paid 10 cents an hour.
At its height, the mill employed more than 1,100 employees and had the largest payroll in the county. Many of its workers were black.
Lacoochee quickly became a company town. The mill built stores and houses for employees that rented for 50 cents a day - a little less than a day’s wages.
A booming community - including a two-story, 30-room hotel; four churches; two department stores; two train depots and three barber shops - followed.
People woke up and went to school to the sound of the mill’s whistle.
"Everybody who grew up in Lacoochee prior to 1959 is attached to that mill in some way," Holt said. "It’s very emotional, very visceral for those people."
"Without that mill, there would not have been a Lacoochee."
The Holts had a lot of raw material to help them tell the mill’s story. First, there was the 8mm footage shot by local historian Lewis Abraham and Bill McKinstry, the sawmill’s manager in the 1940s and '50s. Abraham captured the daily goings-on at the mill, including the last log cut in 1959, as part of a project to preserve local history. VHS copies of the footage, which Abraham narrated, circulated around Dade City and Lacoochee for years, but nothing was ever done with it. In July, Dew brought a copy to Louie Holt, the former Pasco County commissioner and Zephyrhills city manager, and asked if his son - a freelance video, sound and graphics editor - could clean up the film and transfer it to DVD.
With help from Dew, who had worked around the mill and seen it in operation, the Holts started researching. They relied on a series of articles that Abraham’s sister, Lorise, wrote as part of a bicentennial history project for the First Baptist Church of Dade City, along with online genealogy records and a book about family history the Cummers commissioned in the early 1900s. Then they conferred with local history buff Bill Dayton, who had interviewed several mill workers. They also digitized the Pioneer Museum’s photos of the mill.
The Holts tried to track down people who had worked at the mill, but most of the employees were either dead or had moved away. They weren't able to conduct any interviews for the documentary but met several former workers at September’s Lacoochee reunion, where they screened the documentary. It was a hit.
Sales of the DVD will help fund their next documentary - likely focusing on Zephyrhills or east Pasco County.
After all the timber was cut, several businesses tried to replace the mill, such as a plywood company and a reinforced concrete plant. A grain mill operates there today. But none of them had the impact of the mill. Nearly 50 years after the mill closed, the Lacoochee economy has not approached the glory days it enjoyed when the timber was still being cut.
LEARN ABOUT LACOOCHEE’S MILL
The Pioneer Florida Museum and Village has a display about the sawmill, along with one of the locomotives used to haul logs. There’s also a locomotive in Jacksonville Beach and another in Leesburg. The museum is one mile north of Dade City, off U.S. 301. For information, call (352) 567-0262. "A Company Town: The History of the Cummer and Sons Cypress Mill in Lacoochee, Florida" can be purchased directly from the filmmakers for $15 or at the Pioneer Museum for $20. For information, call Louie Holt at (352) 567-7744 or the museum.
Imani Asukile is a longtime Dade City resident and a founder of the African American Heritage Society of East Pasco County. To suggest a future column, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.