HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
The Lacoochee Experience
By NELL MOODY WOODCOCK
In the mid 1920’s a spell fell over the people living in a small town and farming community near the Withlacoochee River in East Pasco County, Florida. This spell held sway until the Summer of 1959.
This 40-year span in history is referred to as “The Lacoochee Experience” by many former residents who remember it. They return to the area in September each year to celebrate their heritage with relatives and friends.
It was a unique way of life in an uncommon sawmill town. Two new industrial mills had just located there. The state’s first modern, completely electrified sawmill and box factory. The largest of its kind in the South conveniently located north of the port of Tampa.
For the farming community it was a new beginning. A sense of something BIG. The population grew to about 1,500 people. The area became that proverbial village that it required to rear their children into responsible young adults.
Not all who lived there will agree, but many still recall it as the best years of their life.
Versions of their stories are shared when they gather to reflect on that time with its joys and heartaches. The 27th Annual Lacoochee Reunion is set for Saturday, September 28, 2013. It marks the third year to be held in the fellowship hall of the Methodist Church in Dade City.
Cummer Sons Cypress Company of Jacksonville constructed the mills, a hotel, a service station, a sports recreation area, a commissary with a doctor’s office, maintenance and utility departments. And provided segregated houses for their employees, as was the custom then.
In the white section the houses had electricity and in-door plumbing, the first for many employees. There were no inside toilets in the Black section and the houses were considerably smaller in size.
A few Black and white families moved to Pasco with Cummer from their former location in Levy county. Those families were welcoming committees for new people who flocked to the area seeking jobs and a place to live.
The move to Pasco brought the company closer to Florida’s Green Swamp, a multi-county area to the south with lush rivers and swamps which, like the Withlacoochee at that time, were filled with ancient cypress trees.
Cummer’s operation, with nearly 1,000 men and women on its payroll at the mill, had a big impact on the economy in Lacoochee and surrounding areas.
It caused the tax rolls to swell at the county seat of government in Dade City. Trilby was already on the map as a major railroad junction. Children from Lacoochee attended high schools in these towns. Merchants welcomed the cash brought to their stores in exchange for items not available at the company store.
Pay day at Cummer’s Office each Friday took on a carnival like atmosphere. The highpoint came at 5 o’clock in the afternoon with a blast from the mill’s wildcat whistle. A howling siren. The work week had ended. As each worker stepped away from the pay window there was a smile on his face and cash ready for his pockets. Family members, friends and vendors were waiting. It was time to celebrate.
Automobiles were scarce, passenger trains and Florida Motor Lines buses (later Greyhound) provided the needed public transportation. The lumber and wooden crates produced at Cummer’s mills were distributed by railroads throughout a sparsely settled Florida. They reached into northern states and major seaports including Jacksonville.
When Cummer left Lacoochee in 1960, the company held the record as the “last great mill to close.” Wilson Cypress Company in Palatka held the record as the state’s largest mill, according to “A History of Florida Forests” written by Baynard Kendrick.
Gone today is the town of Lacoochee that resembled a scene from the Old West movies with its arrangement of frame buildings, board walks, railroads and their agents stations. The paved road that paralleled the railroad tracks still connects Trilby and the communities of Trilacoochee and Clay Sink.
Gone is Cummer’s spectacular suite of mills constructed of steel and concrete, huge timbers and metal. There’s no trace of Cummer buildings except a few houses which in no way resemble the homes the company maintained.
Bare is the 40-acre lumber yard set aside to dry green timber in the open air under Florida’s sun. The stacks of timber all in a row appeared to reach the sky. The rows were wide enough to accommodate the Ross Carriage machines used to stack the timber, and for cars or trucks to pass through.
Gone also are the frame school buildings including Lacoochee’s Junior High School. The original one-room school house was salvaged and re-located to the Pioneer Florida Museum in Dade City.
Cummer’s steam engine and Trilby’s railroad station guard the entrance to the museum grounds. On the backside stand two of Cummer’s ranch house buildings. One contains a Lacoochee exhibit the other is used as the Museum’s history building.
A number of former Lacoochee residents are taking advantage of the computer age and putting their personal experiences into story form and bound books. Or their grandchildren are working with them to preserve a written account of their family history.
Their books are not for sale, but to encourage others to do the same, a few are mentioned here:
My Life — My Story by Betty Jean Pennington Weeks of Winter Park. Parents: Lonnie S. Pennington (11/03/1911 – 09/12/1995) Eunice Lee Elmore Pennington. (09/23/1911 – 08/07/1993) A 58 page story plus 58 pages of documentation and pictures. Betty captures every facet of the life and times in a sawmill town before and after World War 11.
Lacoochee or Bust — A trip down Memory Lane by J. W. Hunnicutt of Tampa. Parents: Joseph W. Hunnicutt, Sr. (07/12/1911- 4/08/1994) Eula Lee Osteen/Anderson Hunnicutt (8/30/1914-10/09/2003) J. W.’s maternal grandmother Lula Tobitha Brown Morgan Gideons (08/17/1878-10/20/1951) was running a boarding house in town when Cummer built their hotel.
ABE — by Lisa Abraham Rodenberry of Orlando Elias and Esther Abraham, Lisa’s grandparents immigrated from Lebanon. In Lacoochee their drugstore was a landmark. Abe was known as everyone’s friend.
The work of Jerry Cleveland Johns was on display at the 2012 Trilby Homecoming last year. A book of short stories written for his children revealing the life and times of the 1940’s and beyond. Both Jerry’s parents worked at the Lacoochee mill before his father went to work for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Trilby.
Tales of a Small Town Boy are episodes Jerry recalls from his childhood and as a young adult growing up in the triangle of Lacoochee, Trilby and Dade City. His parents were Doris E. Collins Johns (1913-1995) and Foster Columbus Johns (1913-1980). Jerry has completed a second edition awaiting publication.
Buddy Weeks of Winter Park is a frequent contributor to the EPHS website. His family moved to Lacoochee with the Cummers from Sumner in Levy County.
John Edward (Ed) Weeks (08/29/1905 – 10/18/1951) worked at the Power Plant and substituted as a company locomotive engineer and crane operator. Mollie E. (Ford) Weeks (12/28/1907 – 05/27/1970) worked at the Crate Mill
The phrase “The Lacoochee Experience” was borrowed from one of Buddy’s favorite lines, “Who in Lacoochee wasn’t sewed up, patched up, splinted or castor oiled by Dr. Walters. He kept us healthy enough to survive the Lacoochee Experience.”
William H. Walters III, M.D. (1905-1982) practiced in the area for 39 years. He was affectionately known as “Dr. Willie.”