Lacoochee – Lumber mill helped



Lumber Mill Helped Lacoochee To Prosper During Its Heyday (2003)

This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on June 7, 2003.


LACOOCHEE – The community’s reputation has been in decline for years, capped by the fatal shooting on Sunday of Pasco County sheriff’s Lt. Charles “Bo” Harrison during an early morning surveillance across the street from the Rumors nightclub.

But in its heyday, Lacoochee was a thriving community residents were proud to call home.

The name comes from a shortened version of the Withlacoochee River, which skirts the town. Withlacoochee is Creek Indian for “little big water.”

In the late 1800s, a number of wealthy residents built their homes on the banks of this “little big water” with profits made from citrus and strawberry farming. A post office was established in Lacoochee in 1888, with William Ascosta as the first postmaster.

But the freeze of 1895 killed the crops and put an end to the prosperity.

That changed in 1922 when the Cummer family came to town.

Jacob Cummer, founder of the lumber empire, had worked in his father’s mill in Canada and eventually formed his own company, purchasing timber land in Michigan. But by 1893, timber supplies there were depleted and Cummer sought other properties.

He bought land in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. He started the Florida operations in 1896 and the next year organized the Cummer Lumber Co. in Michigan to operate his interests in Florida.

The company built the Jacksonville and Southwestern Railroad to transport the logs. The line later was sold to the Atlantic Coastline System.

When Cummer died in 1902, his son, W.W. Cummer, and grandsons carried on the business. Cummer Sons Cypress Co. established an electric cypress sawmill and box factory in Lacoochee in 1922.

The company also built houses for employees, renting rooms for 50 cents a week. Electricity was an extra 5 cents a week. There also was a company store where employees shopped. Paychecks were paid partially in store coupons.

The town of Lacoochee also grew quickly. Downtown Lacoochee soon boasted a two-story, 30-room hotel, four churches, two bakeries, two drugstores, three garages, two service stations, two department stores, three barbershops, several restaurants, two doctors, two train depots, a constable and more than 1,000 registered voters.

Lacoochee continued to prosper, even during the Great Depression. The mill remained in operation during those days. Employees were paid just 10 cents an hour but were glad to have jobs.

Mill Fades Into History

During its heyday, the mill employed thousands to log cypress trees from the Withlacoochee and Cumpressco swamps. The last timber was milled June 5, 1959. The mill closed with the timber depleted as far south as the Everglades.

Many of Lacoochee’s historical sites are related to the Cummer Sons Cypress Co. operation. Most are just that – sites where the structures once stood.

The 100-acre site of the Cummer Sons Cypress Co. mill is southeast of town along Bower Avenue. The complex consisted of a large cypress mill, a crate mill for making wire-bound vegetable boxes, a smaller sawmill for cutting timber and a large open-air lumberyard. The operation was self-contained and included an elevated water tank, along with the company store and housing for its employees.

Dilapidated sheds and abandoned portions of the mill remain today.

Cummer Sons Commissary, at 20851 Bower Ave., was built about 1922 and also housed the company doctor. W.H. Walters was the last Cummer physician and kept his office there even after the mill closed. Walters continued to practice there until he died in 1982. The commissary building is now Winkler’s Custom Machining and Repairs.

An old Cummer bungalow at 21045 Pine Products Road also has survived. Now owned by Roy D. Polk, the cypress structure was built to house company officials while they were in Lacoochee.

Particularly noteworthy is the upstairs sleeping area that looks as if a large room full of windows was set down atop the house. It was built that way to provide ventilation. People called it the “airplane room” because of the unusual design.

A number of other houses, including one in Dade City and another in Plant City, followed the same construction plan.

Museum Preserves Pieces Of Past

Other historic Lacoochee structures have survived thanks to the Pioneer Florida Museum Association.

The old C.C. Smith General Store once located northwest of County Road 575 and the railroad intersection was donated to the museum in 2000 by Smith’s niece, Ruth Smith.

C.C. Smith was the paymaster for Cummer Sons Cypress Co. at Cedar Key. In 1927 he left the company and moved to Lacoochee, built the store and lived in the back. There were gasoline pumps outside, and inside he sold dry goods, hardware and notions. The C.C. Smith General Store was a fixture in the community for more than half a century, closing in 1980.

The nonprofit museum association moved and restored the old store with money from the Dr. Helen Delight Walters Memorial Fund. Walters, who died in 2001, was the daughter of the Lacoochee physician and was raised in town.

Other businesses prospering in downtown Lacoochee along County Road 575 in the 1950s were a row of stores that included Merritt’s Grocery Store, Howard’s Bar, Maple’s Barbershop and Abe’s Drug Store, operated by Elias A. Abraham. The remaining structures there are vacant and boarded up.

The first school classes in Lacoochee were held in 1910 in two wooden stores on the west side of what is now U.S. 301, across from Cummer Road. The old classrooms burned and were replaced with a brick schoolhouse that also burned.

The one-room Lacoochee School that now stands at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village grounds was located in the vicinity of the Cummer mill. The museum saved the structure in 1975, just days before it was scheduled to be torn down, and moved it to the museum grounds. Although it was built in 1927, it is typical of one-room schoolhouses of much earlier times.

In 1995, two buildings built in the 1930s by Cummer Sons Cypress Co. also were moved from Lacoochee to the museum. Known as the ranch, the buildings include a guesthouse, dining room and kitchen. At the museum, they serve as a fiber arts building, where quilts are exhibited. They also house a pictorial display of Cummer sawmill days.

A 1913 13-ton steam locomotive once used by Cummer Sons to haul timber to its sawmill in Lacoochee also is displayed at the museum.

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