ORANGE PARK – In the mid-1920s, a newly-married young black couple found themselves trapped in a dangerous situation when somewhere in the Big Bend area of Florida they accepted what seemed like an …
ORANGE PARK – In the mid-1920s, a newly-married young black couple found themselves trapped in a dangerous situation when somewhere in the Big Bend area of Florida they accepted what seemed like an opportunity to work and create a nest egg to begin their lives together in Middleburg with relatives. Instead, Tan and Annie McDower found themselves trapped in one of the infamous Knapp turpentine camps.
They had heard stories of these camps where workers were isolated from help and the men in charge were ruthless. Now, turpentine is hard work under the best of conditions but in these camps, it was notoriously brutal with living circumstances to crush the soul.
Tan and Annie escaped in the night as soon as Tan could repair one of the rattletrap cars scattered through the woods. It took a day or two because Annie had to scavenge parts from other junkers scattered around. Only Tan could have coaxed it to run. They pushed the near ruin down the two-rut road almost a mile before they dared crank it up. With its last gasp, the heap of metal got them to a hard road and close enough to civilization to call family in Middleburg to come get them.
Tan worked first for the Howard brothers at their camp in Middleburg then, in 1928, they moved into worker housing at the Howard’s Orange Park camp.
He understood that working turpentine for someone else even under the best of conditions was simply treading water.
So, owning land came first. Tan and Annie began paying for six acres on Railroad Avenue with a house much in need of repair. Next, they found better jobs working together for the proprietor of Pruitt Tire Company. Tan drove for the couple and Annie managed their huge home in Jacksonville six days a week. They spent their day off in Orange Park working.
Ingenious and frugal, they saved every penny that didn’t go to paying for the land until enough was accumulated for Tan and brother Ed to start their own turpentine operation. It was a shoestring venture but all independents were in those days.
Tan and Ed could walk a stand of trees and know to the barrel how much gum it would produce over its life span. The McDowers tended to trees leased into their care with minute attention to both production and longevity. They soon had all the work they could handle and were careful to make deals with only reputable land owners.
Selling raw gum to local processors was a cutthroat affair. Local markets were glutted with product with long lines and low prices. Conditions produced a hotbed of corruption, payoffs and racism.
The McDowers went without sleep and drove a truck loaded with barrels of sap north into Waycross, Ga. or Valdosta, Ga., where prices were better and buyers were glad to see them. Sleep was pretty rare most nights because it was only after a full day’s work, in the dark, under lights rigged up in the yard that machinery was repaired and maintained.
There were other blacks in Orange Park who were determined to own land and work for themselves during this time. Louis Gainers and Eddie McWhite owned taverns. Fred Maynor and Ruth Paul both owned confectionary stores. Louise Knowles and Virginia Gordon owned beauty shops. Louis Williams contracted landscaping. George Allen operated in pulpwood. The Filmore brothers, Bub, George, Dave and Sonny, were commercial fishermen. With patriarch Preston, they acquired vast acreage a portion of which was improved to house a tavern, restaurant and rental property managed by Mary Filmore.
They worked hard, saved just as hard and prayed even harder to build lives and a community.