Lacoochee – Life in mill town



Life in a Mill Town

This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune, date unknown.


The Cummers came from Michigan in the 1920s, when the standing timber was exhausted near their sawmills there. And with the company came new hope for the tiny town of Lacoochee in northeast Pasco County.

A town had existed in earlier years, when “a number of well-to-do people” lived there, said Bill Dayton, a Dade City lawyer and local historian. The residents made their homes on the banks of the Withlacoochee River, raising citrus and strawberries.

But the freeze of 1895 wiped out agriculture, and the small population of Lacoochee dwindled to only a handful, Dayton said.

That all changed in 1922, when Cummer Sons Cypress Co. built a modern, fully electric cypress sawmill and box factory in Lacoochee. The mill was used to cut the company’s cypress, pine, and hardwood timber holdings in central Florida.

Jacob Cummer, founder of the lumber empire, had worked in his father’s mill in Canada and eventually formed his own company, purchasing tracts of timber in Michigan. In the 1880s, the lumber industry prospered there, but by 1893, the supply of timber was depleted, and Cummer sought other properties.

Cummer acquired lands in Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana and Florida. He started operations in Florida in 1896, and in 1897, the Cummer Lumber Co. was organized in Michigan to operate the interest in Florida.

To transport the logs, the company built the Jacksonville and Southwestern Railroad, a line that eventually was sold to the Atlantic Coast System.

When Cummer died in 1904, his son, W. W. Cummer, and grandson carried on the business.

When Cummer started operations in Pasco, it transformed Lacoochee. “You could literally go from cradle to the grave living at Cummer,” Dayton said. What Dayton was referring to was the town within a town that Cummer Sons Cypress Co. created.

The company built houses for employees, renting a room for 50 cents per week. Electricity was 5 cents extra per week. There were company stores, and paychecks were paid partially in coupons to be used at the stores, Dayton said.

Employees could purchase such items as “outlaw brands” of soft drinks, Dayton said. They were outlawed, he said, because the drinks were made by non-union workers. Dayton said the soda bottles, inscribed with such labels as “Budwine,” can still be found occasionally in the wooded areas where millworkers went to relax.

The town of Lacoochee also grew quickly after the mill opened. Soon after the company began operations, downtown Lacoochee boasted a two-story, 30-room hotel, four churches, two bakeries, two drug stores, three garages, two service stations, two department stores, three barber shops, several restaurants, two doctors, two train depots, a constable, and more than 1,000 registered voters.

“Cummer was a real godsend,” Dayton said, adding that the mill helped Lacoochee survive the Depression. “They (Cummer) were a major employer when most people didn’t have jobs.”

Cummer paid 10 cents an hour in those days. But people were just glad to have jobs, Dayton said.

Dayton said “an old-timer in Lacoochee” related a story about his younger days working in the mill.

“He was a young boy, about 18 or so. And it was his first job,” Dayton recalled the old-timer saying. The employee was pushing a dolly carrying stacks of shingles one day when Cummer had come to the mill to show some people around. The employee came around the corner and bumped into the company’s president, knocking him to the ground, Dayton related the story.

“Get away, you old fool. Mr. Cummer ain’t paying me 10 cents an hour to watch out for the likes of you,” the young man was said to have snapped, without knowing the old man was his boss.

As Cummer picked himself up and dusted himself off, someone asked if he wanted to find out who that was and fire him. Cummer said he didn’t mind; he was just glad the employees were working so hard.

“They were fine people to work for,” remembered 78-year-old Leon Burnsed in an interview in 1984. Burnsed was one of those who worked at Cummer during the Depression for 10 cents an hour.

Burnsed had been working in agriculture in Winter Garden during the late 1920s. But when he was laid off, he came to Lacoochee in 1929, seeking a job in the sawmill he’d heard about.

When Burnsed began working for Cummer, he was told there were 700 employees in the company’s plant and logging industry, he said. Burnsed soon rented one of the company’s houses. And he still lived in that house when he was interviewed in 1984, although it had belonged to three different owners since Cummer owned it.

Burnsed continued to work for Cummer for 30 years and was foreman of the sawmill when it closed in 1959. “The mill shut down because there was a lack of timber,” Burnsed said. “We had timber in the Everglades, but it wouldn’t support the mill.”

Burnsed moved to Georgia for a short time but returned to Lacoochee in 1960 to work for other companies that acquired the Cummer properties. He retired in 1981 from Interpace Corp. Interpace bought the old Cummer property in 1974 and began making reinforced concrete pressure pipes for carrying water.

Interpace sold out to GHA Lockjoint Inc. in 1982. The pipe-making firm is still Lacoochee’s major employer with a work force of more than 10.

According to U. S. Census figures, the population of Lacoochee is more than 5,000.

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