Lacoochee – Sawmill company doctors



Company Doctors in a Sawmill Town

An aerial view of the Cummer Sons Cypress Co. hotel and its housing for the mill supervisors. Courtesy of Ginger Webster Oliver, daughter of Arno Surls Webster. larger picture


Mindful of the isolated swamps where men harvested Cypress logs from the Withlacoochee River, and the rural Lacoochee, FL, area where those logs were milled into building material, Cummer Sons Cypress Company maintained a company doctor on its payroll. A doctor’s perks included an office, a place to live and free utilities in each.

When the Cummer brothers, A.G. and W.E., moved their operation from Sumner, FL (near Cedar Key) in 1923 to Lacoochee after the Sumner mill was destroyed by fire, Dr. A. B. Cannon came with them. About the same time, Cummer’s phosphate mining operations at Newberry, FL, (near Gainesville) had played out and a Dr. McCloud and his wife moved into the Cummer Hotel. Lacoochee was booming and Dr. McCloud found a small storage area behind a store downtown for his office and hung up his shingle. He later retired and moved to the east coast. The date of Dr. Cannon’s death has not been determined.

I have no personal memory of either doctor and rely here on the written and oral histories of descendants of the Abraham families who moved to Lacoochee from Newberry in 1924: the late Lorise Abraham (1928-2007), whose father Elias owned a drug store, and her first cousin Jeanette Abraham Mercer of Leesburg, whose mother Marvin owned the restaurant next door. Jeanette has her original birth certificate signed by Dr. Cannon in 1928.

Buddy Weeks, whose family moved to Lacoochee from Sumner, recalls that the doctor’s full name was Agustus Bartow Cannon. Buddy and his wife live in Winter Park. Margie McClure North recalls that Dr. Cannon prescribed pot liquor and corn bread for some minor illnesses and that he delivered her brother Edward in 1931. She and her husband live in Jacksonville.

Cummer had a physician by the name of Dr. Harrel at Cumpressco, an arm of the mill in Lacoochee located east of Dade City accessible by the River Road. It was connected to Lacoochee by a railroad spur and dirt road.

I was a young girl in February 1937 when a flamboyant young man arrived in town driving his black convertible with the top down headed for the Cummer quarters located across the railroad tracks from the town of Lacoochee.

William Haywood Walters III, M.D. had recently graduated from Tulane University of Medicine. Cummer Sons Cypress Company, with headquarters in Jacksonville, had hired the North Carolina native to care for its sick or injured employees, families included.

This news spread quickly when, as was their custom, a few men gathered around the radio at Abe’s Drug Store that evening. While others relaxed and shared the news of the day from their rocking chairs on the front porch at the Cummer Hotel.

Dr. Walters shared a company house with another young bachelor, James T. “Bill” McKinstry, who at that time was the company’s logging superintendent from Gainesville, Florida. They lived near the hotel and within a block of the company office and company commissary. They awoke to the roar created when the electric powered machines at the multi-mill complex were simultaneously fired up at the beginning of a new work day.

I was 12 years old in the summer of 1938 when I first began to relate to Dr. Walters. It was the summer my sister Emma Lou Groover died after giving birth to a still-born baby boy. Ms. Jarvis, a mid-wife, had attended Emma Lou during the delivery at the Groover’s home in the company quarters. Dr. Walters immediately brought in two registered nurses from Dade City to care for Emma Lou around the clock. She died two weeks later of peritonitis. She was 23-years old and became the first patient the young doctor had ever lost.

During her pregnancy I had spent nights with Emma Lou and her husband Josh. My parents were living in a two-room apartment upstairs at the Cummer Hotel a block away. My bedroom was across the hall from theirs at the top of the stairs. After the nurses arrived, I went back to the hotel. On the morning of July 22, 1938, I remember daddy waking me saying, “Nolly, the worst has come.”

That evening when people came to Josh’s home to console him and the family, Claude Andrews was there. He and I sat on the front steps to the porch away from the adults and talked about life and music. He offered to teach me to play the violin. That mental picture, along with his positive attitude about life and death, remain with me until this day. Claude worked at Cummer’s office, his wife Agatha (Gate) taught at the Lacoochee school.

Over the years in Lacoochee with my parents F. E. and Emma Jane Moody, we lived in at least a dozen different locations. Not all of them inside the lodging quarters Cummer provided for its employees. Daddy’s work at the crate mill was seasonal, he often moved his family back to his hometown in Baxley, Georgia for a month or two. When we returned to Lacoochee before the beginning of a new school year, Daddy had to find another place to live.

During this time, Dr. Walters attended to the needs of my mother who had epilepsy, primarily the grand mal seizures which often resulted in broken bones and other injuries. The first signs of this neurological disorder surfaced at the time of my birth 1926. Her condition improved dramatically when she was in her early 50’s and drugs such as Dilantin were used to curtail them. Until then she always had someone with her when she left the house.

We were living in the Walter Miner cottage near the school and across the road from Cummer’s lumber yard the year I was sure my Mother would die because of my negligence.

Daddy was at work. I was home alone with Mama who was sick. A seizure struck her while I was trying to take her temperature and her teeth clamped down on the thermometer in her mouth. I was left holding a half of it in my hand. Mama swallowed the other half. Terrified I ran as fast as I could to the doctor’s office located in the commissary building near the mill. As I ran I was thinking she had swallowed a piece of glass and might be dead by the time I returned with Dr. Walters. He calmly assured me that “this too shall pass” and sent me home alone. I was 10 years old and unaware of the under arm method of taking temperatures.

I was 16 when Dr. Walters came to a different temporary home. He was summoned in the middle of the night to a garage at the rear of Walter Brown’s home. They were located down a narrow dirt lane north of State Road 575 between Couey’s Grocery Store and Shorty Daley’s garage on the way to Trilacoochee. I was rushed in the doctor’s car to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Dade City where my appendix were removed. Typical of a 16-year-old girl, the operation didn’t bother me but I was embarrassed that Dr. Walters could see where we lived: a garage with nothing more covering the dirt floor than a few croaker sacks. I’ve often wondered if Dr. Walter’s had anything to do with the house daddy “found” soon after that.

By the time I graduated from Pasco High School in 1944 we were living in a company house (our fourth) across the street from the Jason McElveen family. My brother-in-law Josh Groover had married Alice Lee, a school teacher, from Orlando. They had two children, Wayne and Melanie, and were living in the house at the rear of Cummer’s office. Josh was the bookkeeper in the pay office department and Claude Andrews was manager of the office. I moved to Dade City in 1946 when I married my high school sweetheart and continued to work in the Company’s survey department in Lacoochee until 1952.

Remember, when Dr. Walters (1905-1982) first came to town he shared a house with another bachelor Bill McKinstry (1906-1978) who became a Cummer Company Vice President and general manager. McKinstry married first and Dr. Walters moved into the house next door. McKinstry had met his bride, Bertha Cox Gillespie, in Gainesville where he was being treated for crippling arthritis. They had two children, Elsie and Bob. Dr. Walters married Helen Hancock, a daughter of John Henry Hancock and Zerue Peterson Hancock, from nearby Trilby, FL, a thriving railroad town in the 30’s. They had four children, William, Henry, Martha and Helen. Both families eventually moved to Dade City. But the doctor maintained his office in Lacoochee. The last timber milled there was on June 5, 1959.

Dr. Walters never abandoned his Lacoochee patients.

My family moved to Dade City too. My father needed attention for a bleeding ulcer when in Dr. Walter’s absence, he was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital by Dr. Dwayne Deal. When Dr. Walters returned to the hospital I couldn’t believe my ears when the two men got into a heated argument in the hall outside of Daddy’s room. Seems they couldn’t agree on whose patient was in that hospital bed. Dedication or professional jealousy, I’m not sure which but Dr. Willie won.

Shortly before Dr. Walters retired in 1976 he was with my father when he succumbed to a fatal heart attack. My mother was in a Hillsborough County hospital when she died six years later. In his final act of service to my father, Dr. Walter’s was one of his pall bearers. Looking back now to the summer of 1938 I wonder if this final act on the doctor’s part was also a tribute to that young woman who died on his watch at the beginning of his medical career.

I am fully aware that horrible accidents occurred at the various mills in Lacoochee and in the swamps and forests where Cummer’s logging operations in Florida existed and that Dr. Walters also cared for thousands of other families over the years. But I have no facts concerning any of that. Maybe those who do will share their stories.

While reminiscing with Buddy Weeks about Cummer’s company doctors, he shared the following:

Most of the kids our age in Lacoochee were delivered by Dr. Cannon, either in Lacoochee or Sumner. Dr. Cannon’s name was Agustus Bartow Cannon. I have an uncle that was born in Sumner in 1923… he was one of three boys born on the same day. Dr. Cannon gave each of the boys one of his names. The first boy I have forgotten, but the second he gave to my uncle, Carl Bartow Walker, and the third, to Cannon McElveen. Dr. Cannon also delivered me and Betty (his wife).

Of course everybody remembers Dr. Walters. Who in Lacoochee hasn’t been sewed up, patched up, splinted or castor oiled, by Dr. Walters. He kept us all healthy enough to survive the “Lacoochee Experience.”

Emma Lou Moody Groover and Eula Lee Anderson Hunnicutt at the Withlacoochee River; courtesy of J. W. Hunnicutt, son of Eula Lee.

Additional information concerning this story can be found by clicking on the following links: A Place Called Cumpressco by Nell Moody Woodcock Dr. Walters by J. W. Hunnicutt The Marks House by Nell Moody Woodcock Whatever Happened To The Claud Andrews Family by Nell Moody Woodcock

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