Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Cotton Gin - A Village No More

By Vic Campbell September, 2014 ---- (Prior Column LINK) (Printable Version LINK)
(see extra story resources and picture albums at the end of this column. A sad note - before this was even published - George Causey passed away. See comments at the end for information - Funeral in Milton, Sept. 20 . Notes on the Johnson house are corrected this version)

For the last 50 years, people from Chumuckla have given directions by naming structures that have not existed for half a century. “You go down the the gin (cotton gin) and turn right”. The cotton gin burned down about 1969 or 70. The commissary Pace Company store burned down about 1956.
The Gin - About 1946

Cotton was not ginned at that location for about ten years before it burned down. In that time it became an agricultural farm support center with a feed crusher and small supply store. Cotton ginning was by then more economical to do in Jay, Florida and Atmore, Alabama. In those ten years the community built around the gin and the company store gradually disintegrated. People moved along to work at the chemical plants at the South End of the county or the paper mill across the river, or to cities around the country.

Here we are, nearly fifty years later and great - grand children of people who lived here, who never saw a cotton gin, give directions to people using the “gin” as a marker in their mental map.

A dying man, recently introduced to me through a series of circumstances has revived my curiosity about what happened to all the people who used to live in the supporting village surrounding the gin. The village is gone. Vanished. One of the old mill houses remains on the road down to “the gin”. It is refurbished and occupied. People who lived some of their early lives there are now elders among us. George Causey is one of those. He is dying of lung cancer. He is in hospice care at home, in Pensacola. His sister, Irma, cares for him at her home.
Irma and Her Brother, George Causey

George's mother was Nezzie (Presley Causey) Holley. Nezzie was a fixture in Chumuckla for many years. She provided care for elderly and children and did laundry and other home value work for many people in town. It was extra income in an area where jobs were scarce except for field work and the labor and mechanical work around the gin. She was highly valued for her cooking and cleaning and attention to detail. Yes, there were white ladies that did similar work who were valued as well. Nearly all the families in the area were living “close to the bone” and any manner of work was to be appreciated and sought after.

I recall seeing Miss Neezie walking from Campbell Salter's house to home – a mile distant but it was more common that she would be brought to and from home by car if one was available. Janice Campbell Engert recalls her aunt Juanita Salter having the greatest admiration of Miss Nezzie”. “Miss Nezzie” or “Aunt Mit” were commonly used formal address by the younger chidren (“Miss” and “Mister” being commonly used by children in front of all adult's first names).

George was the only child of E.L. Causey and Nezzie (Presley). George began working at the gin when he was 12 (about 1950. He managed the suction tube to pull cotton up from the wagons into the enGINe. (I learned recently that “gin” is just short for cotton ENGINE). The Causey's divorced and Nezzie married Buster Holley. Meanwhile, E.L. Married Buster's niece, Pearl. Irma, who now cares for George at her home in Pensacola is their child.
The location of the Gin - Now a Machinery Shed

Irma and George visited the old village area that is long turned to dust around the gin. I showed them the old gin area, the road down to the river, and the location of the old Missionary Baptist Church and cemetery. We talked with Copeland Griswold about the old days. He remembered the families with fondness. Nezzie helped with his children when they were young. I myself, remember working for Tom Salter in the fields and preparing vegetables for market with Buster Holley in charge of scrawny boys in the late night. The vegetables had to be delivered – clean and nicely presented – to the produce buyers in Pensacola before daylight. Haber Produce was the main buyer. I recall once having help from Frank Holley to harvest some okra from our own crop, late In the season.
Preacher Harris was too old to plow his mule but our Dad loved to plow with it.
This is him with Jim, Wanda and Me (Vic) - 1960

As the gin connected village began to decline in population, the Pace Company Store fell into disuse. In the early 1950's A group planned a dance at the large Company Store building. Copeland Griswold tells me he heard someone say “that building will burn down in a week”. Sure enough it did. Mrs. "R" said "We must stop the devil from coming to our town". Mrs. "K" said "The devil is already here". Dancing and other sins were not popular among the working folks of Chumuckla. This was about the time Elvis Presley swung his hips and girls fainted. It was getting hot somewhere, but it was not going to be hot in Chumuckla unless there was a fire to remove temptation. The building might have been built about 1910 when John Pace bought out the Skinner operation. Lavern Howell said that as Skinner lay dying, he said he was sorry he never did anything for the community, and he respected how John Pace, who followed him, gave back to the community in so many ways. Skinner plundered the first cutting of timber off the land and sold out to Pace. To John Pace,  it was not just about jobs, but about the community itself. He gave the land for the Elizabeth Chapel Church and Cemetery for instance. His heirs helped fund the University of West Florida.

Only the older folks remained in the village surrounding the gin by the late 60's. By then, George had moved with his family to Milton to be nearer his work with the school board. There were some sad memories from the days these families lived in Chumuckla. Irma recalled stories of her aunts who lived on the road to the river. One of the family of three girls left home one night to visit other family about a mile down in “the flats”. She left with her shoe strings tied together and shoes hanging about her neck – to protect the good shoes from the dirt. That was the last she was seen. A search party looked for days and found no trace of her. The disappearance of that young girl drove fear into the two other sisters. Over time they became reclusive and eventually went insane. One of them died in the state insane asylum. George lost a baby son to a car accident at his house. The baby crawled behind a car when put down for just a moment and the driver, not knowing the danger, backed over the baby. You can imagine the pain for all involved from such a terrible accident.
Winona Griswold remembers Irma and George's Family well. 

Will Thomas' Store near the gin served mostly the black community that surrounded it, and the remaining white families until about 1964. Another couple of stores including a liquor store were just about a quarter mile East of the current school – which in those days was segregated. All the black children were bussed to an all black school in Milton. That is how George eventually came to work for the county. He began by driving the bus to Milton after J.W. Harris (the son of Preacher Harris, who is said to have been the son of slaves) lost use of a leg and had to give up the position. (I am including a photo of Preacher Harris with me and my sister and brother). Later, George became Janitor at the all-black school and then joined the county maintenance department. By the time segregation was outlawed, there was perhaps only one child remaining in the village who was black. The lack of jobs after the cotton gin shut down, and the lack of other work brought on a steady emigration of residents, both black and white. The village eventually faded away.
Lavern Howell remembered the moving of the old Alonzo Johnson House to Pace

Most of the houses were torn down or burned. The cotton gin was destroyed by a tornado in 1972. The commissary burned down earlier. Will Thomas' store burned down. The other stores mostly burned or were torn down, perhaps the last to burn being Burgess' store near the crossroads. One of the old houses from the black village near the gin was moved to Pace and used as a home in the '70's by Paul Cook. Lavern Howell gave us that bit of information. It is a bit of preserved history.It is said to be the former home of Alonzo and Mit Johnson. Before they occupied it – the house was used as a canning facility for cane syrup – a side business of the Pace Company. (correction: The house pictured here, it turns out, is NOT the Johnson house, but what remains of it is behind it on the same property). People recall going by those houses back in the 40's and 50's when they were alive with working and prospering families where the smell of pork roasting or the sight of laundry in the breeze were mesmerizing.

By the time I came to the area in 1957, these iconic houses and stores were already in decline and nobody actually knew it. Film was expensive then and few pictures exist of any of the structures that once lined the roads.
A Grand Memory for the day -- A house similar to the old Johnson House - in great shape in Pace, FL
the ACTUAL old house and former cane molasses bottle shed is not far behind this house on the same property.

 It was a ten year process of slow transition from an active commercial center to rows of empty houses that, over the next few years were erased from the land.  A commercial center never redeveloped for Chumuckla, although there is some hope for service like a grocery to find a home here in the area again.

Young families that want the rural experience are filling up the woods with three and five acre ranchettes. It will be a rural experience, but it will never be the rugged and self reliant rural experience that was embedded in the lives of those hardy souls of times gone by.

This blog sponsored by Angie Pennell - My Plexus

A printable version is available AT THIS LINK.

This column is also sponsored by BUZZCREEK
MORE RESOURCES:  PHOTOS - STORIES… (please send corrections or extended explanations to - I might add your comments at the end - below -  thanks)
Myrtlene Pendleton Langham (Lena) posted memories from her time living near the gin. I recall her telling me of the sound of machinery all night long - actually a peaceful sound that brought comfort - knowing the world was turning yet -- or something like that.
Stories from Joyce Joiner Schultz ( A wonderful school mate - deceased)

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