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Lumbering Lacoochee

By Diane Bedard Posted on October 21, 2021

Mr. Sam Weston wrote an article many years ago entitled, “The Death of a Forest and Town” about Centralia, Florida. This paragraph is especially poignant to the story of Lacoochee, Florida.

“Seventy some odd years ago, a sea of virgin timber blanketed our state. Longleaf and slash pine, two and three-foot in diameter, gave forth of their resinous gum, to tar the lines and shrouds, and caulk the planks and lapstrakes of the worlds navies, and the turpentine was used for medicinal purposes, creating the first and largest industry in Florida naval stores. The lowlands and swamps contributed the greatest volume, highest grade, fastest-growing, durable, red tidewater cypress to be found anywhere in the United States of America. This wealth of timber seemed inexhaustible and lured men and industry from all corners of the earth.

Towns blossomed, nourished by the whine of the circular and band saw.”

Lacoochee Florida

Lacoochee is a small, unincorporated area of northeast Pasco County, adjacent to Trilby. It consists of approximately 4 square miles just east of US 301, between State Road 50 and the US98 cut through. County Road 575, or Trilby Road is the main thoroughfare of this once prosperous place.

On May 22, 1888, a post office was established at Lacoochee, Florida.

Lacoochee clouds by Richard Riley. Used with permission.

Several wealthy families built homes along the Withlacoochee River, farming in citrus and strawberries. In 1893, the Commercial Hotel was operated by Mrs. W.T. Johns, Proprietor.

Then the freeze of 1895 wiped out agriculture in the area and the town dwindled to a few residents.

The next few decades saw what appears to be lawlessness and shootings from newspaper accounts.

A scene in Lacoochee about 1910. Lester Crum was first on the left. He was later the president of Trilby State Bank in December 1922 when it was robbed, and his wife was locked in the vault.

While all this was going on in Lacoochee, a family of “lumber barons” from Michigan, began looking for new stands of large trees to process. In fact, Wellington Willson Cummer (1846-1909) recognized the value of Florida cypress and prolific stands of Florida’s pine timberlands. After moving his family from Morley, Michigan, to Jacksonville, Florida, he founded the Cummer Lumber Company in 1896.

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

Cummer Sons Cypress Co. steam locomotive #104, which is on display at the Florida Railroad Museum. It is a 2-6-2 Prairie Class locomotive built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in April 1920. Image by Jeff Miller.

Cummer and Sons began to run out of timber to cut at Sumner, Florida around 1920, so company managers prepared to “get out” by establishing a second mill a hundred miles away.

The Cummer and Sons Cypress Sawmill

The year was 1922 and Cummer and Sons built one of the largest lumber mills in Florida as well as an entire town to house the workers who would come. It was 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.

Cummer workers began to leave Rosewood as production slowed in Sumner, leaving a core of thirty black families and one white store owner by 1923 in the town.

The Rosewood Massacre and Evacuation

In 1923, there was a Klu Klux Klan gathering in Gainesville. A white woman in Sumner claimed one of the black workers from Rosewood had beat her and word got to the Klansmen there. “They came in night to hunt us and kill us,” said Lizzie Robinson Jenkins, niece of Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, who was a 1923 Rosewood survivor. “They burned the town to the ground. Several residents escaped by hiding in the swamp.”

Rosewood Florida 1923
Rosewood Florida, 1923, after the Rosewood Massacre, courtesy of Florida State Archives.

After turning a blind eye to the destruction of their employees’ property, Cummer and Sons managers arranged for a train to drive through the swamps, picking up survivors of the Rosewood massacre and offering them housing and employment in the brand new “colored quarters” in Lacoochee.[1]

Cypress Trees the Size of Redwoods

The Cypress logging business was big! The trees that graced this area were huge, having been here in the time that California’s giant redwood trees were seedlings according to Lewis Abraham.

You can watch cypress logging operations from the 1940s in the film below that was recorded for Cummer and Sons and is provided by the Abraham family and narrated by Lewis Abraham. It is a unique insight into life as a lumberman.

Living and Working in Lacoochee

Workers made 10-cents an hour. The company built houses for its employees, rented rooms 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, according to Bill Dayton, a Dade City attorney and local historian.

The Cummer Sons Cypress Co. hotel and its housing for the mill supervisors. Photo courtesy of Ginger Webster Oliver.

By 1923, the company’s payroll was estimated at over $11,000! The Tampa Morning Tribune reported that this electrically powered sawmill would be able to cut 100,000 feet of cypress lumber a day.

Lacoochee Grew to over 1,000 Residents

The town grew quickly after the mill opened. By the mid-1920s, 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.

The Cummer and Sons mill complex grew to include a box factory, lumber yard, and veneer factory. The work was hard, but during the Depression any paid work was a Godsend.

At its height, the mill employed more than 1,100 employees and had the largest payroll in the county.

Boiler plant, March 19, 1954. Photo courtesy of the Pioneer Florida Museum. Scan provided by Theresa Osbron Smith

The Labor Movement Comes to Lacoochee

Seventeen years later, on July 31, 1941, a strike was held by over half of the 800 workers employed at the company’s cypress mill, crate factory, pine mill and logging camp, shutting down all operations. At the time, employee wages ranged from 30-cents an hour for unskilled workers to $1.10/hour for skilled workers.

The workers won a collective bargaining election as part of the AFL-affiliated lumber and sawmill workers union and wanted a ten percent wage increase, a closed shop, and five 8-hour workdays. The company would not meet all the demands, so they walked out.

The Cummer Water Tower is the only lingering remnant of where the mill once thrived. Photo courtesy of Theresa Osbron Smith.

Lacoochee Chose to Remain Unincorporated and the Mill Closed

In 1954, Lacoochee residents held an election to incorporate their area into a municipality. The results were a resounding, “NO,” and Lacoochee remains an unincorporated part of northeast Pasco County today.

On June 5, 1959, the last lumber was milled at the Cummer Sons Cypress Mill. It had been brought up from the Everglades, where Cummer and Sons was still taking out the forests of Florida. They had used up all the lumber in this area. 

Lacoochee in the mid-1950s. Photo by E. H. Capes

After Cummer and Sons closed the Mill, a plywood company, a reinforced concrete plant and a grain mill operated in Lacoochee. None of them had the impact of the mill. More than 50 years after the mill closed, the Lacoochee economy has not approached the glory days it enjoyed when timber was king.

Learn More about Lacoochee at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village

By Ebyabe – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7093767

The Pioneer Florida Museum and Village has a display about the sawmill, along with one of the locomotives used to haul logs. It is massive. The museum is one mile north of Dade City, off U.S. 301. For information, call (352) 567-0262.

Sources:

http://www.fivay.org/lacoochee.html

http://www.fivay.org/lacoochee9.html

https://www.cummermuseum.org/

http://www.fivay.org/lacoochee8.html

https://www.pioneerfloridamuseum.org


[1] The Tribe of Black Ulysses: African American Lumber Works in the Jim Crow South by William Powell Jones (2005)

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