Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Change Was Breath-Taking in 1930s-1940s Clay County

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Change Was Breath-Taking in 1930s-1940s Clay County

Article excerpt

In the waning days of the 1930s, the people of southwest Clay County stepped onto a fast-moving roller coaster of change. The ride didn't even slow down until the middle of the 1940s. When they took a breath and looked around everything and everyone was different.

The residents for miles around Kingsley Lake were summarily dispossessed of land that had been in their families for generations. Some recognized the writing on the wall, sold out, salvaged what they could and relocated. Others refused, or dawdled, hoping the problem would go away. It didn't.

With the backing of federal and state agencies, property was seized with a bond deposit and the legalities of price settled in court later. It was all some landowners could do to gather up their free-range cattle and get the clothes off the line before they were escorted off government property. Some left with the sound of bulldozers and Raiford prison work gangs clearing brush behind them.

Diehard loiterers finally packed it in and got on down the road when the 116th Field Artillery Regiment christened the firing range with a morning volley of 75mm shells. One thing a Clay County country boy understood was firepower.

As soon as a piece of land was cleared construction began. In less than six months, 41 miles of sewer pipe were laid, 555 miles of road, five water tanks and more than 1,000 structures built. That was only the beginning.

Men, black and white, had jobs. If a man could hammer a nail, he was considered a skilled craftsman. Many locals learned a trade in this harried time. The government paid well and regular in $2 bills. For a traditionally cash-poor county this was change in a big way.

To meet the labor demand, men desperate for work came from all over the country. Families countywide made money from any ragged structure they could provide for lodging. A covered place in a chicken coop or on someone's back porch went for a premium price.

Moonshiners found themselves in high cotton and adapted to the new customer base of recruits quickly. Ever watchful of revenuers, one Middleburg dry good merchant, and purveyor of homemade spirits on the side, told soldiers that a pint of shine cost five bucks. The customer was to pay the money in advance and hold a shoebox he was handed while the merchant went out back to see if he could find any shine. He waited outside until the solider looked in the box, found the jar of shine and left. Locals whiled away many a Saturday afternoon wagering on how long it would take the doughboy to look in the box.

Building materials arrived daily at the newly constructed spur line from Starke. The local timber industry worked over capacity. Sawmills operated through the night using lighter wood torches and kerosene lamps. Sawyers cut construction lumber to final specifications at the mills to reduce assembly time. …

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