HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
Memories of the Old Section House
By KAREN RHODEN MISTRETTA
Transcribed by THERESA OSBRON SMITH
This article was written in the early 1990’s; the names and death dates have been updated in the opening lines.
This is a story of some memories that I have of growing up in Lacoochee.
My wonderful mother and father were Florence (Hazel) (died, Dec. 1967) and Ardell Rhoden (died July 1966).
Siblings: Annabelle Rhoden Miller, died May 1991; A. J. Rhoden, died April 2002; Juanita Rhoden Croft, died Jan 2006; Treva Rhoden Bailey; Judy Rhoden Russell.
In Lacoochee, Florida, a few old section houses still stand as a reminder of what the town once was. They were built in the 1920’s to house mill workers and their families. Each section of the mill (planer-mill, veneer-mill, crate-mill, lumber-yard and warehouse) was allotted housing in an attempt to provide equal housing. In each section, there were houses of various sizes, a two-story house for a large family, a bungalow with a clerestory and a garage for a supervisor, and the normal two and three bedroom type which we lived in. An exception to this was the section built to house colored workers. Compared to the other sections, these houses were pitifully small. Cummer Sons Cypress Co. owned the mill, the houses and much of the town. The town folks would remark, “Cummer owns everything, including the people.”
In the 1920’s my father worked for Cummer in Jacksonville, Florida. He helped run the timber to build the housing for the mill in Lacoochee. When the building was completed, Daddy, his brother and others from Jacksonville volunteered to move with their families to Lacoochee. In 1944, my family left Lacoochee. Daddy took a job making saws at Simon Saw & Steel Co. in Finchburg, Mass. Daddy, Momma, my sister, Judy, and I returned in 1952 when I was seven years old.
By the 1950’s, the old houses were showing their age. They needed repairing and painting. Not much repairing was done, but Cummer did hire painters to paint the rows of old houses in 1956 and 1957. Excited by the sprucing up of the old houses, everyone tried to anticipate what color their house would be painted and when the painters would be there. The painters, alternating between a dark green and a silver-gray color, seemed to have no method to the order of the rows or the choice of color.
Luckily, ours was painted the light airy silver-gray color, not the dark depressing green that was draped over many of our neighbors’ houses. The silver-gray house with white trim was nestled in between two sprawling oak trees which stood on each side of the front porch. Squirrels would chase around the tree trunks and sometimes come to rest on the porch bannister. Blue jays darted in and out of the branches, swooping down at any intruder. The front porch was a source of shade from the bearing down of the hot Florida sun by day and a comfortable place in the evening if there was a light breeze to keep you from becoming a donor to the big Florida mosquito.
It was here Momma sat most afternoons mending, shelling peas or beans, or just resting while gossiping with neighbors. The porch buzzed with talk of who had new babies and who had died, and all the details of the births and the funerals, the planning of church socials, bridal and baby showers and family reunions. The porch was a wealth of knowledge for me, my sister Judy and our friends. Usually we were allowed to listen, but occasionally we would be sent to the store or to do some task Momma made up — like “Go sweep the back porch.” It was then we wanted to listen the most. Sometimes we would overhear conversations about some man cheating on his wife or some young girl who was wild and uncontrollable or who was “pg.” It took me awhile to figure our that “pg” meant pregnant.
The front porch was Momma’s showplace for her plants. Daddy had made some wooden flower boxes. Momma had wandering Jew, coleus and other varieties of plants hanging over the edge of the boxes on the bannister below. This was the end of the porch where Momma always sat, protecting her plants.
At the other end of the porch was where Daddy sat reading or with his feet propped upon the bannister dozing in the cool of the late afternoon. He would often take his Tampa Tribune out there right after supper and finish reading whatever he may have missed that morning. I would sit on the floor by Daddy’s rocker and read the funny papers, not much interested in anything else. But sometimes Daddy would force us to listen to an article that he found to be of interest to him. Sometimes the topic would be sports or human interest stories, but often it would be about the change that was taking place in our county regarding segregation and racism. Even that was not important or interesting to me then because, to me, black people and their plight barely existed. They were as far away from my front porch as Eskimos’ igloos were from the melting heat of the Florida sun.
On Daddy’s end of the porch were Granny’s old rockers. Granny was Momma’s mother and the Grandmother I remember. When Granny had to abandon housekeeping, she gave these rockers to Momma. One was high-backed with a cowhide bottom. It had stiff hairs which stuck through your clothing and made you squirm. The other was a low-backed wicker with short rockers. I loved to rock fast and listen to the rhythm of the rockers as they walked across the wood floor. But if you worked the wicker rocker hard, it would politely dump you out. Though the rockers were well-worn, we were taught to treat them with respect. If it came up a rainstorm, Momma, as if trying to preserve the last visible evidence of Granny’s home, would reverently pull them back and turn them against the house like rare antiques.
The inside of our house was much like the other section houses. Electrical wiring on the outside of the walls and ceiling led to a single, pull-chain light bulb that dangled helplessly from the middle of the room. The colors on the walls looked as though they were picked out by the people who lived there during the Depression. Momma had covered the floors with brightly-colored linoleum which helped divert attention from the mournful walls and ceilings.
Two adjoining bedrooms led off the living room. One had a small rollaway bed where Judy and I shared secrets as we covered our heads to keep the sting of a humming mosquito away. Sometimes a violent thunderstorm would light the room before giving up to a gentle patter of rain on the roof. The smell of the wet moss and trees filled the room, and as the resounding thunder gradually faded we would be lulled to sleep.
Momma was a good cook. She made biscuits and cornbread daily, and there were always vegetables. Sunday meant a feast with fried chicken, pies, and banana pudding. Daddy got off work at 5:00 p.m. weekdays. At 5:30 p.m. — no later — we were all eating supper. Usually, this was the time for family conversations. We would sit quietly while Daddy told about his day at the mill or Momma would tell some of the more important stories she had heard that day. This was the time when we would be confronted about school grades or any problems we might be having. Sometimes our questions would make Daddy and Momma laugh as they tried to give us an honest answer.
Daddy was a strong and even-tempered man who seldom saw any wrong in his family. He supported us with gentle reminders of who we were and the values we had been taught, but always encouraged freedom of forming our own opinions. Momma, on the other hand, was short-tempered and given to much ado over trivial things, particularly, if they had anything to do with messing up her immaculately clean house.
The back porch held Momma’s wringer washing machine. Hung on the wall above it were two galvanized washtubs that glistened in the late afternoon sun. On washdays, Momma would roll the old washing machine out into the center of the porch and set the two washtubs on a stand Daddy had built. After flipping her pet rain frog from the washer, she would fill them all up with water from a hose connected to the spigot which protruded up from a shelf built along the bannister. We always scrubbed porches and watered plants with the leftover wash water. The porches, bleached to a light silvery color, were easily marred by dirty shoes. We slipped our shoes off at the top of the steps and sometimes we asked our friends to do the same. Staying in Momma’s good graces was always important.
Daddy would fall out of grace sometimes when he would come home with a bucket of fish. He would endeavor to clean fish on Momma’s clean smelling, freshly scrubbed porch. Momma would glare as Daddy flipped fish scales in all directions. I used to get angry at Momma for complaining to Daddy about the mess he was making. But it never seemed to bother Daddy. He would just keep on scraping fish scales until he was finished. Then he and Momma would clean up the porch. Momma would take the fish inside and fry them for supper.
I took my son, Kevin, back to Lacoochee with me a few years ago to see the old section house. He was unimpressed and couldn’t wait to leave. He could not see that, beyond the weeds growing up in the yard, the half falling off steps, and the sagging structure, this simple old house was an example of a dwindling American culture. It was built in the Boom Days of the 1920’s to house a progressive town. Along with the families that lived there, it had survived The Great Depression of the 1930’s. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, it had house family after family of mill workers and held all of their hopes and dreams for the future.
As people embarked upon a changing society in the 1960’s, the mill houses began to diminish like the great thickets of cypress the mill was built to destroy. They were sold off to people who could find employment and continue to live in Lacoochee after the mill closed in the early 1960’s.
Life in a small sawmill town and memories of a loving home still shape my values today. These are what continually sustain me in today’s sometimes confusing, fast-paced, materialistic world. The memories of the people and their place in my life are important to me. Though my parents passed away many years ago, the orderliness of the mother and the gentle calm of my father are still with me today.
The old house looked honorable to me, as it stood as a reminder of a simpler time.
Karen Rhoden Mistretta