HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY

Lacoochee


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 idasukile@yahoo.com.

Lacoochee front page