HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
Lacoochee in the Beginning
By NELL MOODY WOODCOCK
Lacoochee. A town with a funny name that thrived in west central Florida for nearly 40 years. This is where Cummer Sons Cypress Company, a giant in the logging and lumber industry, made their last stand near the Withlacoochee River. It was the ideal location for the harvesting of timber.
The Withlacoochee begins in the heart of the Green Swamp and flows north before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Yankeetown in Levy County. Our little town in Pasco County is miles inland from the gulf. It is located on the northern edge of this vast swamp which stretches south toward the Everglades. The Green Swamp is the headwaters of several other major rivers in Florida.
In the 1920s the Green Swamp was a vast reservoir of 100-year-old virgin cypress trees.
Our story is about families who lived in Lacoochee and surrounding areas. Some were born here long before Cummer came to town. Some followed Cummer looking for work. And new families were started.
I, Nell Moody Woodcock, was introduced to Lacoochee in 1926 shortly after my birth in Baxley, Georgia. My parents, Emma Jane and F. E. Moody, had returned to my maternal grandmother’s home in Baxley, Georgia, for the birth of their second child. My father was back at Cummer’s crate mill before the end of that summer.
Among the early settlers was a business man named Charles Jenson (1859 – 1948) and his wife Texas Jensen (1874 – 1931) who helped make the town tick around the turn of the century. Another was E. F. Dutton who owned a turpentine company draining sap from the area’s pine forests. We will come back to them in a minute.
The story of the family and descendants of Jacob Cummer whose lumber dynasty began in Canada before moving into Michigan in 1876 is another matter.
Theirs is a tale of the scalping of vast forests of ancient trees. Some, like the cypress had bell bottoms with “knees” that anchored them to river bottoms and swamps. Hardwood and cypress were needed to provide building material and livelihood for the nation’s growing population. Cummer made a trek through North Carolina and Georgia, before settling in Florida. They chose Jacksonville’s seaport on the St. John’s River near the Florida-Georgia line for their corporate headquarters. From here they supervised their vast logging operations as they crisscrossed the state from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico inching south from one river swamp to the next. Eventually they hit Lacoochee and built one of the state’s largest sawmills in central Florida. From there they sent their logging crews into the Everglades and rail cars brought train loads of logs back to the mill in Lacoochee. But nearing the end of the state didn’t spell the end of Cummer’s operation. Before it was over, they had dipped into Honduras in South America with their eye on that country’s vast forests of virgin mahogany. They harvested mahogany for a while but eventually the loggers’ saws and axes were silenced by that country’s government in the late 1950s. Mahogany trees could no longer be shipped from their port to one in the United States, loaded on rail cars in Tampa and delivered to Cummer’s mill in Lacoochee.
One writer has described Cummer’s reign over the logging industry in Florida and the growth that followed their mills similar to the gold rush but more subtle.
Now back to Jensen. In the 1920s Jensen was sitting pretty. He was the man with his eye on a community of less than 100 families. Jensen was postmaster, express agent for a railroad company and owner of a large tract of land. Charles and Texas lived in a large house with a wrap around porch on a little hill behind the post office.
Trilby, a thriving railroad junction, was located about a mile west of Lacoochee. The county seat of government in Dade City was six miles to the south and these rural communities were connected by Sate Road 575. Families to the east in the Clay Sink area were engaged in ranching, farming and the turpentine industry.
Jensen knew Cummer was coming to town and would build a small community for its workers. Electricity for those homes and the mill operations would be produced on site from waste product at the sawmill. And the homes would have indoor plumbing.
He subdivided part of his land and began selling lots to new merchants eagerly awaiting the arrival of these families and Cummer’s payroll. He knew that a two-story hotel with spacious dining room for employees and guests would be built. The community’s first school followed Cummer’s arrival.
Cummer had a two-story bungalow built within walking distance of the railroad station in town for officials who came by rail from corporate headquarters in Jacksonville. A cook and caretaker, who lived in a cabin behind the bungalow, took care of their needs when they were in town.
The buildings were painted a bright red, in stark contrast to the drab gray of the two railroad stations.
The sawmill opened and the logging of timber began on tens of thousand of acres of land in the area known as the Cumpressco Swamp. A railroad tram and dirt road connected the Cumpressco camp with the mill in Lacoochee. Families at the camp used Dade City’s River Road to access that town with its schools, churches and courthouse.
The town of Lacoochee soon resembled those in Zane Grey novels — a line of frame buildings of different shapes and sizes connected by a boardwalk located across a dirt road and railroad tracks from the train station.
Our next story will tell about the first merchants to purchase property from Jensen. We will introduce two of them now. Elias Abraham and his brother Joseph Abraham moved to Lacoochee from Newberry, Florida, in Alachua County.
Elias, nicknamed “Abe,” was more outgoing than his younger brother Joe. Abe’s friendly manner and the drug store he built with its soda fountain and sundries soon made him one of the most popular men in town.
Joe built a pool hall a couple of doors down from Abe’s Drug Store. A few years later, Joe’s wife Marvin opened a restaurant in the building in between the two men.
The Cummer Family’s Impact on Florida’s Economy
An obituary in the Ocala Star Banner of the death of Wellington Wilson Cummer on December 31, 1909, reveals the wealth and prominence of the Cummer family who two decades later would shape the destiny of the town of Lacoochee. Mr. Cummer is described as one of Jacksonville’s most prominent citizens and her foremost philanthropist.
The obituary in part states that “Mr. Cummer came to Florida from Michigan in 1892 and immediately became prominent in business circles. The Cummer mills soon grew to be the largest in the state, and his real estate holdings were perhaps as big as some of the smaller states. His name was at once associated with the building of railroads and the establishment of steamship lines, and he was one of Florida’s largest turpentine and phosphate operators. At the time of his death he had two thousand men in his employment.”
In the early 1920s some of Cummer’s phosphate mines were in Levy County near the town of Newberry. Cummer had a large sawmill in Sumner near Rosewood located between Ocala and Cedar Key. Smaller mills and camps were scattered throughout that part of Florida including an operation in Deland.
When those phosphate mines began to decline and the mill burned at Sumner many families followed Cummer to work in their new mill in Lacoochee. At some point in time Wellington Wilson Cummer’s namesake became a member of the board of directors and helped oversee Cummer’s Lacoochee operation.
In the late 40s and early 50s the young Wellington W. Cummer would come to Lacoochee with Edward C. Roe, who by then was head of operations for The Cummer Company, formerly Cummer Sons Cypress Company. And their contact man, Bill McKinstry who was their logging superintendent, became a vice-president of the company.
I remember the young Wellington arriving in his riding gear, complete with jodhpurs and boots holding a riding crop under his arm. It was strange attire compared to the casual dress of Roe.
But reflecting on those days, while they had a bungalow in Lacoochee, staffed year-round with a cook and caretaker, they sometimes stayed at their ranch house, or hunting lodge, near Cumpressco on those visits.
Those ranch house buildings today are located at the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City. One section, which had been Cummer’s ranch house kitchen and dining room, is used as the museum’s history department. The section, which had a living room on the front and a hall separating three bedrooms on each side, is used for museum exhibits.
At the Pioneer Florida Museum’s 2010 Labor Day Celebration the front part of that building contained exhibits and history of Lacoochee and Cummer Sons Cypress Company. Visitors were greeted by men and women who grew up in Lacoochee, some of them in their 80s.
Hopefully, exhibits from historic Trilby will soon join their neighbors from Lacoochee.