Once Upon A Lifetime Vol No. 4
In Baker County, Florida
By La Viece Moore-Fraser Smallwood
Copies available from the author complete with photos:
Rt 2 Box 543 Macclenny, Florida 32063
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Coleman Lee Benefield
He is a tall, handsome man, impeccably groomed with a full crown of glistening white hair and sparkling hazel eyes. His memory is remarkable as he rattles off the precise dates and places of the past 93 years. With only two weeks of formal schooling to his credit, he became Baker County's first building inspector and can, says his son William, figure the lumber for a house with such precision that there will not be enough lumber left over to build an extra doorstep.
Spirited and honest, he speaks with candor. He wouldn't want to return to the era some people refer to as the good old days. He frankly doesn't think anyone living today could survive them if they were to return.
"If we were to have to go back to 'em, you couldn't dig graves fast enough," he said. "People would be killing themselves. Why? 'Cause they've never seen hard times like we had; they're raised up with too much plenty. Take my daughter, she makes as much money in an hour as I made in a month when I could find work. What in the world would young people do that's used to that if they had to drop back to a dollar a day and maybe only get to work two days a week? They'd have to build new cemeteries and they'd have to be burying them all over the yard. They can't hardly make it now with what they do have," he says with conviction.
Born August 6, 1901, four miles northwest of Enigma, Ga., four miles northeast of Brookfield, Ga., and 10 miles east of Tifton, Ga., in Tiff County, he was the son of Richard Franklin Benefield and Nellie Sullivan.
"I was born in an old log kitchen set off from the house. We didn't have an outdoor privy when I was growing up and when we had to go we went back of the barn. We took our baths in a wash tub about once a week, washing our feet at night in a foot tub. My mama cooked in a fireplace, and later on when she got a wood stove, she still preferred to use the fireplace. She used corncobs for coals."
His Georgia-born grandfather, Thomas Sullivan, who married Tabitha Willis, was half American Indian.
"They'd have big hog killings, about 25-30 at a time. My grandfather was well off for the time. He owned a 50-acre farm in Tiff County."
His first recollection of life was preparing himself something to eat one day when his mother was ill. "I was about five years old," he said, "and I remember baking me a sweet potato to eat and pouring some 'gravy' out of mama's grease pot on it.
"I had to help out when I was a real little thing," he said. "I had to help take care of my sister when mother would be working in the field, hoeing cotton. They'd put four 'stobs' out in the field, and tie a bed sheet to the four corners of the stobs so me and my sister could have shade. They placed my sister in a homemade cradle and set it on two boards to keep it from cuttin' in the ground. I'd sit and rock her but she would cry and cry. I remember thinking that was the cryingest thing I'd ever seen in my life, and I'd cry and get to hollering for my mother, and mama would sometimes be way at the other end of the field and she'd have to quit and come up there to take care of the baby and get her to hush crying. The next baby born was my brother, Virgil. He was quiet and didn't cry as much as she did. I had a little more experience by then and could take care of them better."
All together the Benefields had seven children. Coleman was their first child, and the Sullivan's first grandchild. Two sons died in infancy (one unnamed and another they named Thomas); the others were Ethel Levicy, Virgil Cleveland, Mary Jane, John Bunyon (called J.B.) and Lemmie Jay.
The men in the family became good hunters. They killed 'coons and 'possums, selling their hides for twenty-five cents, which was, he said, a great deal of money in those days. His mother cooked the meat by stewing, frying or roasting it.
"I remember when I was eight years old and we lived in a cotton mill house provided for the hands to live in who worked at the Tifton Cotton Mill. I had pneumonia and was in bed a month. I didn't go to a hospital, they didn't have too many of them things. The milling company had a doctor they furnished. It was the worst illness I've ever had, it liked to have killed me. It was about this same age that I remember seeing my first car. We were visiting at the home of my Grandpa. I was fascinated by it and was giving it a good looking over when someone blew the horn. It was one of those old timey horns that go honk, honk! Well, it almost scared me to death. I thought that thing was going to catch me!
"It was during WW I when I saw a real airplane up close. I was plowing in the field one day on a two-cylinder tractor when I saw it fly over. It just suddenly fell from the sky in the field where I was plowing. It hit a plum tree and tore the wing off. It was an old-timey airplane. I had seen airplanes flying over before, but never been up close to one until then.
"I was the only one in the family that had any luck with hogs, so they were all given to me to raise, and I had good luck with 'em. I had one hog, named Viney after my uncle's wife, and she'd have eight or nine pigs at a time and we soon had the woods full of them. Back then you didn't have to put hogs in a pen and all that kind of stuff unless we wanted to. We just mostly used the woods to raise 'em and they helped to make their own living. We'd just throw a little corn over the fence to keep 'em coming up there at night. When they'd have pigs I remember I'd get in the pen and them old hogs wouldn't bother me at all when I picked up their babies, but they wouldn't let no one else do that."
By the time Coleman was nine years old he was hoeing regularly in the field.
"My daddy and me had a two-horse farm, and I was a regular hand by then. He'd plow one row and I'd follow him up with the other mule.
" We owned our house, but mama liked to move around, and she'd say, 'Frank, you'd just as well get us a place 'cause I want to move'. One time we moved 13 times in one year," he said.
"I never did go to school but about two weeks, 'cause we moved around and I was needed to work on the farm. My mother and daddy had a pretty good education and they taught me to read, at night. Daddy couldn't make enough money by himself to feed all of us so I'd get another job hoeing in the fields for someone else. I only made 25 cents a day, but my daddy would get a dollar. If daddy was hired out regular he was paid $18 for a month's wages.
"There wasn't much time for playing and when I did get to play, maybe on a week-end, me and my sister played farm. We'd take an old spoon and pretend it was a plow and then we'd stick weeds in the rows. I'd take corn cobs and break then into pieces and fed my hogs.
"Back then we could buy sardines six cans for a quarter, so I could fasten them together and have a whole string of 'em to make me a train. I'd put dirt in 'em and haul dirt in my train, pulling them around in the yard and all such stuff as that. We didn't have toys like they do today. For Christmas, we'd get apples and oranges. We didn't think Christmas would ever come -- now it comes early -- but back in them years it seemed like two or three years.
"I was ten years old the year when I left the farm to hire out and I remember having to plow on my toes because I had a stone bruise on my heel and it would hurt too bad to stand on my feet.
"One year daddy made a good crop. When it come time for pickin' cotton, we went to gathering it and took it to town. My daddy carried it to the gin to get it skinned and ready for sale, He gave the seed to the gin'er to gin our cotton for us. We had picked two 500-pound bales and only got two cents a pound for it, so that was only $10 for all that work. Daddy said, 'we're just going to leave the rest of that cotton in the fields and I'll go get me a job at the sawmill.' So we left it there and daddy plowed it in and let it rot and we planted a crop over it the next year.
"I got my first girl friend when I was 12. We were share-cropping and so was her daddy, at the same place. She was a pretty little girl with long black hair. She was one-half Indian. I didn't know anything about courtin'. Her name was Gertie Hughes, but we got separated when her daddy moved one way and mine moved the other. When we were 14 we got back together, but it wasn't the same. She was a year older and already had another boyfriend.
"I had to work in the house a lot, doing chores and most of the washing and cooking. I'd rather work out in the fields any day than rubbing those clothes on a rub board, beatin' the dirt out of 'em on the block. I had to tote the water a hundred yards. It was the worst part about it. I told my daddy I was going to dig a well, so I got me a shovel and I went to digging out in the back yard. Daddy helped me get the dirt out and when we reached clay, the water was just as clear and it stayed about the same level all year. I never thought that housework made you less a man. It makes you more considerate.
"Once a man named Mr. Kidd offered me $15 a month to help him. It was nailing shingles on a house, and from that time on I knew what I wanted to do. I didn't like farming.
"I left home to work at a sawmill for $1.25 cents a day when I was 16. Up until that time, my daddy got all I made except what few clothes I wore. Then I went to work for a shingle mill making $2.50 a day, making almost as much in a week as daddy could make in a month. I rented me a farm, and married the same year. I was 16 and she was 25. We stayed married about six years, and then she went her way and I went mine. She died about a year after our divorce.
"When I was 22 years old the rain fell hard on my 22 acres of cotton, 10 acres of corn and three acres of peanuts. The bo-weevil hit that year too. I got disheartened and when one of my cousins came along and said, 'let's go to Oklahoma and get a job in the oil fields,' well, I was ready for that. I owed the man I was sharecropping with $35 so I gave him my part of the field crops for my debt and went to Oklahoma.
"When we got there they were on strike and everything around there was dead. We stayed two weeks and our money was giving out. I said, 'let's go to Florida' so we did and I been in Florida ever since. We left there in August of 1923 and arrived in Deland on September 3rd. I found me a job working in a ice house for two dollars a day. I paid three dollars a week for room and board. One day a man came up and bought some ice and said, 'I'll give you $5 a day if you'll come work for me,' so I quit and that's when I went into carpentry work, helping to build houses. I learned how to lay out windows and doors and things. It was hot work, right in the middle of August. I went to work at Putnam Lumber Company and stayed there for five years. I started out as a sweep-up boy, went to foreman.
"During this time I had an old '22 Model-T coupe and one day when I was driving down the road in it I saw this pretty little girl and I said, 'Don't you want a ride?' and she said, 'What'd you say?,' and I said, 'It's raining, if you want a ride, get in, and I'll take you home.' I'd seen her a time or two before but had never talked to her. So she got in and I took her home. Her name was Sinnova Thomas, daughter of Oscar and Ida Raulerson Thomas and granddaughter of Ivy Thomas of Baker County. She had been born there on September 22, 1906." At the time the two met her father was working for his brother in Deland.
"We decided to get married on August 10, 1926, but my old car had broke down or something, so a friend took us to Palatka to the Judge's office. The woman in the office said, 'Is there something I can do for you?' and I said, ' Well, is the Judge in?' and she said, 'No he won't be in today.' Then she said, 'Is there something I can do for you?' and I said, 'Well, we come to get married,' and she said, 'That's alright, I can do that, too'. So she fixed up the license and I gave her the four dollars, and we went on our way happily married.
"I rented a house and had some money saved to buy some furniture. We lived in Pierson and I got a job building some chicken houses for a fellow, and I hate to say it, but I sold a little whiskey and got started drinking it, too. I had come down with the whooping cough and I couldn't sleep at night. I just coughed all the time, but my brother-in-law said he'd fix me a tablespoon of whiskey in a glass of water with a little sugar. He called it a 'toddy.' Well, I'd never drank no whiskey before and I didn't know what it would actually do or what it tasted like. You can imagine what it done to me having never drank before. I went to sleep and it was the first good sleep I'd had in a long time. When I got up he said, 'I'll fix you another,' and he did and I went back to sleep again. From there my whooping cough got well, and I got to drinking before our first baby was born on May 9, 1928. I got my drinking up to a quart a day. I'd carry a pint of it with me on the job and when I'd go home at lunch I'd fill it up again for the afternoon. It all started with a tablespoon of whiskey.
"I was working at the lumber company in Glenwood and making seven dollars a day which was a considerable amount of money then. My boss never did know how much I was drinking. Our little girl, named Geneva Louise, was born April 9, 1928. We were living in DeLeon Springs at the time and I'd go to dances and take my wife and little baby everywhere I went. Sometimes I would keep them out all night. I wouldn't let anyone drive my car but my wife. I didn't fight, I just got drunk.
"Then, before the baby was a year old, she got colitis. The company furnished a doctor, the same one that delivered her, and he came to the house. He said he was going to put her in the hospital in Deland. She stayed there 13 days before she died. I went in that morning and they had her little stomach punched full of needle holes, and the doctor said, 'I've done everything I can do for her but she's developed spinal meningitis and there's no chance for her.' I said, 'Doctor, I'm going to tell you, this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but if that's all you can do for her, and if those needles are all that's keeping her alive, then don't make her suffer.' I went back to the mill and around noon they called and told me she was dead. I liked to have went crazy because I thought the world of that baby. That didn't stop my drinking. I drank to try and kill my troubles and found out it didn't do no good.
"I promised the Lord if He would give me another child, I would never let it see me drink, nor use God's name in vain in no way shape or form.
"My wife's father, Oscar Thomas, had moved back to Baker County by this time, so when the Hoover Days hit we decided to move to his place south of Glen. The sawmill had cut our wages from $7 a day to $1.60, which came to 16 cents an hour for a 10-hour day. My wife was pregnant with our son William Richard, and he was born on January 23, 1932, delivered by a midwife named Lossie Wilkerson.
"Just a few weeks later, I was saved at a bush arbor revival in a place they call Opossum Trot. Right there under the oak tree, I got down on my knees and the Lord saved me. Brother Willie Crews baptized me into the Congregational Methodist Church in Vaughn's Washhole in the little Saint Mary's River.
"At this time I was farming and sometimes I could get work about two days a week with the WPA making a dollar a day, building a lot of sanitary outdoor toilets with a six-foot hole. Other times I could get hired for a dollar a day getting the dirt out of ditches and throwing it up on the roads. When I came to Baker County not one road was paved.
"I had a buggy, but no mule, but I'd borrow one and when I finished working I'd come in, bathe, eat if I had time, shave and she'd have the baby ready and we'd go about six miles where the arbor was. Then we'd go back home after church was over that night and I'd get up and go to work the next day. From then on we went every Sunday, whether we had a way to go or didn't. One time the water was running two feet deep over the Glen St. Mary's River and me and my wife pulled our shoes off, I rolled my pants up and she pulled her dress up and with me toting William, we crossed the water. We'd do the same thing coming back from church. Nowadays, you can hardly get people to go to church and them with an automobile. I never drank again.
"At Christmas, my wife's father got killed. His son was drinking and he was trying to get the gun away from him and it went off accidently. The bullet went right through the big end of his heart. I remember his last words were, 'Lord have mercy.'
"Although we were living south of Glen, and it was the closest town, we were on a Macclenny mail route. After about three years, I sold out and moved to Glen. At the time I had 13 hogs in the field fat, and I put them in the cold storage in Lake City and had 'em cured and bacon made out of them. I rented me a place in Glen with an old barn that had been made into an old house. Our daughter, Dorethea, was born in it on November 24, 1934, delivered by Dr. E.W. Crockett.
"I went to work with Southern Resin Chemical Company on Thanksgiving day at one o'clock for Will Kersop. I worked under Henry Beckman, a German. I walked from Glen to Macclenny and got this hardware man to open up his store, bought me a hammer, a saw, and a square, and went to work. I had 125 head of chickens at the time and one sow and I sold her for $10 and two weeks after I sold her she had 10 pigs. That's the last hogs I ever owned.
"On October 26, 1936, our daughter Willeane was born, delivered by Dr. P.A. Brinson. I was making $2.50 a day. Later I was raised to $2.75. Then I had a chance to buy five acres of land and I built me a house across the road from where we were renting. I paid $250 for the land.
"Then we moved to Macclenny when Willeane was a month old and rented a house from Mrs. Mae Wolfe for $5 a month. We lived there five years and she never did go up on my rent the whole time we lived there. Just before I moved from there, I bought a whole city block just down from where we were renting near the Macclenny Elementary School. It was going to be sold for taxes for $32.25. My mother-in-law loaned me the money to buy it. The City Manager wanted to buy it, too, and was hanging around for the auction to start, so the Clerk of the Court told me to leave in my car and drive around until two minutes to noon. He said, 'The city manager will get tired and leave.' So I did and when I walked up at the appointed time, he started the auction. He said, '$32.25 once, $32.25 twice, $32.25 three times. Sold to Mr. Benefield for $32.25.' I paid my mother-in-law back as quick as I could. Anyway, them were the good old days," he said.
That wasn't all the good fortune Coleman said he had. About this time his company at Pine Top was closing down one of their camps and was selling the camp houses.
"They weren't but about four or five years old and the lumber was good. I paid $30 for the house and me and my brother-in-law, Frank, and all my younguns went there and tore it down. We pulled the nails out of it and took the tin off, being particular not to bend it or tear it up so I could use it again. My boss charged me $10 to use the company truck to move it. I asked for a couple a days off and me and a friend, Bertie Davis, and two of his boys put that house up on my land in two days. They didn't charge me nothing."
Coleman's city block was located on Michigan Street between Second and Third. The clapboard beauty still stands today, although the cattle guard that was constructed to keep roaming cows and pigs out is no longer a part of the scene.
Over the years, Coleman added on to the house, taking loans out with the local bank if it became necessary.
When World War II began he was among the first to become employed to build Camp Blanding. The pay was $1 an hour with a grand weekly total of $40 a week, more than he'd ever made before. After he left there, he went to Green Cove to help build barracks. From there he went to an air base in Orlando and on to Deland to help build a hospital. Last, he worked for the Jacksonville shipyards where he had to handle a 20# hammer.
"I finally told them I wasn't man enough to handle that hammer, so they let me off for two weeks and when I came back they gave me another job and I stayed there until after the war making pretty good money. I bought a bond a week and had saved $1,000. I had a chance to buy 40 acres of land with timber for the money, but I foolishly bought a car and built another big room on the house. Our son, Jimmy Lee, was born June 8, 1946 in the room I built.
"I helped build and launch 52 liberty ships before leaving the ship yard. They wanted me to go to Merrill Stevens, but I returned to Baker County and began building homes. My first contract was with Lonnie Jones," he said.
In 1950, the city began to install sewage and water on his city block located in the south part of town. "I didn't like it, so I sold that place for $2,400 and all the land. I sold two lots for $70 and a half acre lot for $20."
Coleman went over to the north side of town, well out of range of the city limits. He purchased two and a half acres there for $250 and built a home. After about five years, the city limits were once again expanded within his reach. By this time, most of the children were grown and gone from home, so he and his wife built a smaller, two-bedroom house near-by. They lived there for 21 years, but not before expanding once more when his daughter, Willeane, and three of his grandchildren moved in.
"I raised my three grandchildren. They stayed with me until they were out of school. They've all done real good and I'm so proud of them."
His wife of more than 50 years died September 23, 1976.
"We had a good life, all 50 years," he said. "We never had no trouble, never separated, never any mention of leaving. If I was down, she was with me; if I was up, she was with me. She always stuck by me no matter what."
A few years later he met and married Lillie Mae Morris. "She was a good woman, a Christian. She died in her sleep while we were visiting my sister in Georgia, June 13, 1988."
When Coleman left Georgia at age 23, he never returned except to visit. He claims Baker County as his home, but he has kept in touch with his family through the years. His parent's home burned after he left, destroying photographs and other family mementos. His mother died a few years before his father.
Coleman was visiting in the home of one of his brothers a few years before his father died. "My daddy had wore a mustache all the time I ever knew him. I had not seen him in about five years, and meanwhile he had shaved it off. My brother took me aside and said, 'Coleman, ain't you going to speak to dad?' and I said, 'Where is dad?' and he pointed to him. I didn't even recognize him."
He described his father as being 5 feet 5 inches tall with light brown hair. "He was a good man," he said. "Hardly ever raised his voice.
"My mama, who was a tall woman with long brown hair, was a good Christian woman of the Primitive Baptist faith. She did most of the discipline, but I learned a little trick on her. When she was going to get a hold of me, I just fell down in front of her and started praying, and she'd quit."
Coleman built his last home at the age of 78. He remembers that when he built homes in the '60's and '70's the average cost was $8,000.
"When I built a home I wouldn't put a piece of wood in the other fellow's house that I wouldn't put in mine. After I got to be building inspector in 1975, I made them take out such things as 2x4s that were half rotten, same thing with inadequate wiring. Sometimes they'd be building a firetrap."
Coleman served as the county's building inspector from 1975 until 1978. "The first year, I worked on a commission. They gave me 80 percent on each permit I issued," he said. "I sold the trailer permits for $10 and could keep $8. I had to furnish all of my supplies; they didn't even furnish me paper. I used a receipt book I bought from the five and ten cent store. My office was in the east end of the court house. In 1976, they paid me $700 a month and $140 a month for my car expenses."
His children proclaim that he was a good provider for his family. "If our shoes were worn out and the sole flapping, somehow daddy would have us down at the shoe store buying some new ones. He took care of a lot of people other than his children, like his grandchildren and his mother-in-law and other relatives that all lived in our home at one time or another," said the daughter he admits is his favorite, Dorethea Lewis.
"Daddy's always been very thoughtful. I remember that on wash day he'd bring us all a Pepsi Cola when he came home from work, and I can still remember how wonderful we all thought that was. Daddy was a strict disciplinarian when we needed it but he gave us lots of love and security that went along with it," she said.
His oldest son, William, a city of Macclenny employee, cherishes many memories of his dad. "I remember one time mama got after me and I went under the house. I must have been about eight years old," he said. "Mama couldn't crawl under the house to get me, so she said, 'That's alright, just stay under there until your daddy comes in.' And that's what I did. That evening when daddy came home, Mama said, 'You're going to have to go under the house and get William.' So daddy came around there and I was fast thinking how to get from under there. He got down on his hands and knees and started under there, and I said, 'Daddy, what's wrong, Mama after you, too?' And he got real tickled and couldn't do nothing. He said, 'Just come on out of there,' and everything was ok."
Coleman's favorite pastime is his Saturday fishing excursions with William, with whom he makes his home.
"We usually go on the other side of White Springs, it's a good 62 miles," he said with a big smile. "We go up there and we catch them catfish that weigh two to two-and-a-half pounds. We stop in White Springs to buy us some bait, and some crackers and something to drink for a little lunch, you know, then we go on and put our boat in and William baits my hook and most of the time he even throws it out for me and hands me the rod. When the fish bites, I reel him in, pull him upside the boat, and William takes him off and puts him in the live box. Then he baits my hook again, throws it back out there, and I catch another fish. When we get home, William cleans and fixes them ready for Lettie Mae to cook for our supper. He don't save the heads like we used to back when I was young."
Coleman said that the fish head was not the only thing his family cleaned and ate the head of. "Mama would cut the bill of the chicken off, cut it's eyes out and we ate the head, too. They don't do too much of that anymore," he said.
His favorite food is chicken skin, if it's from PopEye's Chicken. "When we go out to eat, I eat everyone's skin while they eat the meat," he said. "Otherwise, I love Lettie's cooking. No one can beat her since my wife died. My wife's the one who taught her how to cook."
The most important thing in his life is his church. He attends the Christian Fellowship Temple. His son, William, regularly reads to him from the Bible.
Asked what he would do differently if he had his life to live over, he is quick to answer.
"I'd serve the Lord quicker. I was 30 years old when I was saved. And I'd try and get an education."
His favorite American president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. "He brought the people out of the Hoover Days and set them up and they been going ever since," he said.
He admired President John F. Kennedy and was saddened by his assassination.
"I think that was a hired job, by communists, that's what I think. I think Russia had it done."
About today's president, Bill Clinton. "I don't think nothing of him, and I don't like his wife, Hillary, either; she's too nosey."
Local politics? -- "May the best man win!"
"I'll tell you what I don't like about any of them politicians," he said with conviction. "I don't believe in this abortion. Noooooo, I sure don't. It's a sin. It's just as well for me to take a gun and shoot you as it is for that doctor to take a needle and shoot that little baby, just as much harm."
On discipline: "Back when I was being raised I don't think anyone could tell you what you could and couldn't do to your children, but today the government is trying to tell the parents how to raise their children and I don't believe in it. Of course, I have to put up with it, there's nothing I can do about it. I was strict with my children, I used the rod, and I ain't killed any of 'em. I didn't have problems with the ones I was strict with either. I loved my children then and I love them now.
"Children today rule the parents. There's not much a parent can do. If they spank one of their children and were to leave any kind of a mark or sign, they would be in trouble. They don't want to take a chance on going to jail, so they just let them go. I see it everyday, children roaming the street, even 12 o'clock at night. Where are their parents? You know they don't have any business at 12 o'clock at night."
As we continued through the interview young men on loud motorcycles roared up and down the street in front of his house, drowning out our voices.
"Just think about it. The killing of so many children and right in our schools, and on the streets. That wasn't so 20 years ago. That just wasn't happening. And little boys carrying guns to school. Think about it."
Would you get a strap to your children today if they were doing something you thought was wrong? "I sure would!" he quipped.
What do you think about man going to the moon? "I don't believe he did. That wasn't intended to be."
What about the photographs of it that we saw on television? "You know what I seen on one of them pictures they showed on TV? Why I saw a rail fence on one of 'em. It was on a satellite. I saw it just as plain as I ever saw a rail fence in my life. It's just all a made up piece of business, just like this star trek stuff. Do you believe in that?," he wants to know. "Well that's just the way with that moon business."
How do you feel about life today? "Well, they treat me like a baby. Lettie cooks me anything I want to eat, and says, 'Now, Papa, if there is anything you want, go get it, you have a home here just as long as you want, just as long as we've got a roof over our head, so have you.' And William," he says slowly looking over at his son with a great fatherly love, "Well, if William comes in to check on me and he thinks I'm cold, he gets another piece of cover and puts on me."
And could anything make him happier? "Well," he says slowly, looking forlornly out toward the street that runs in front of his comfortable abode, "The only time I ever feel down and out is when I get to missing my family. They're all so busy they just don't come around much anymore."
If anyone's keeping score out there, the last of men like Coleman Benefield is fast fading away. He was born the year that President McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and Theodore Roosevelt became President. He remembers when a nickel would buy an ice cream cone, a soft drink, or enough stamps to mail two letters and a postal card. He remembers when grass was mowed, coke was a cold drink and pot was something you cooked in. He came on the scene when 5 and 10 cent stores were where you bought things for five and ten cents and an education was 'learning how to make a living pushing a plow behind a mule.' He didn't grow up nibbling on candy bars or drinking soda pop, ice cream cones or Wendy's hamburgers for snacks. Instead, he learned to survive on turnip greens and sweet potatoes, corn bread and gravy along with the 'coons and opossums he trapped in the woods.
Generation gap? Not Coleman Benefield. He keeps up with the times. He may not agree with them, but you can bet he doesn't miss out on much that's going on. Few men have ever possessed such intelligence and overcome the odds to use it with perfection as he has. This self-made man stands as proud as he is tall, and rightfully so. His legacy of honor, and integrity is a shining pennant to his large posterity and a credit to Baker County.
Coleman Lee Benefield, Born August 6, 1901
Richard Franklin Benefield, Born February 23, 1872 in Barrian County, near Enigma, Ga. Buried in Colquitt County, Ga.
Nellie Sullivan Benefield, Born May 30, 1884 in Tift County near Brookfield, Ga. Buried in Colquitt Co., Ga. Nellie was daughter of Thomas Sullivan, full-blooded Indian, and Debythe Willis Sullivan born in Ervinsville, Ga. and buried in Tyty, Ga.
SINNOVA THOMAS BENEFIELD born Baker County Sept. 22, 1906, died Sept. 23, 1976 Buried in Macedonia Cemetery. She was the daughter of Oscar and Ida Raulerson Thomas.
CHILDREN OF COLEMAN AND SINNOVA THOMAS BENEFIELD
Geneva Louise Benefield born Apr 9, 1928, died Jan 1929, age 9 mos. 13 days, buried in DeLeon Springs, Ga.
William Richard Benefield, born Baker Co., Jan 23, 1932
Dorethea Lamar Benefield Lewis born Glen St. Mary, Nov. 24, 1934.
Ida Willeane Benefield Lyons Wysocki, born Baker Co., Oct. 26, 1936
Jimmy Lee Benefield born Baker County June 8, 1946
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Jewell Lewis is an extraordinary person who lived in extraordinary times. Like most people in Baker County around the turn of the century, she experienced rural country life on the farms of her parents and grandparents. When circumstances occurred in her life that would ordinarily dampen the dreams and spirits of others, she found courage and inspiration to be her best allies. A woman of great faith, respect and endurance, her life began on January 15, 1920, and she has been touching the lives of others in a positive way since.
Her great-grandfather Silvester Lyons, a Methodist minister, moved from Texas to the Georgia Bend to claim land after his service in the Civil War. The Confederate veteran sustained a head wound and drew a pension for the metal plate he carried in his forehead. Great-grandmother Harriet smoked a corncob pipe and wore high top button-up shoes and long dresses. Her head was always covered with a starched sun bonnet, remembers Jewell.
One of their sons was Silvester Middleton Lyons. He was a gentle and kind man who taught school when he was not farming. His wife, Arabella Johnson Lyons, was also a school teacher and Jewell remembers her grandmother as loving and kind.
"She was a wonderful cook, and I loved eating clabber cornbread at her house," said Jewell.
Jewell's father, James Cordalero Lyons, was born in the Georgia Bend to the couple on November 16, 1890. For a while he worked in the saw mill business, but soon moved to the Macedonia section of Baker County to farm a 30-acre spread, near Ode Yarborough Road. He often took his family to visit his parents.
"Back in those days it was so hard to travel and people just didn't go and come in an hour or two like today," said Jewell. "It usually meant overnight. When we went to visit grandma and grandpa, we crossed the river on an old wooden bridge that was so narrow I was always afraid the mule wouldn't be able to pull our wagon safely across on the wood rut. Then there was a creek we had to cross. Sometimes it had water in it and sometimes not, but it was scary when we crossed in the water with the mule and wagon.
"My grandparents had this old-fashioned log house with the rooms built around the main room. The kitchen was separated from the main house because in those days having the kitchen connected was a fire hazard. I remember we'd all get up in the morning and grandpa would gather us into the main room where we'd kneel to pray before going in to the kitchen for breakfast. Grandma cooked on a wood stove and sometimes in the fireplace and she served the best clabber cornbread in the world. I loved going there just to get a scrumptious piece of it," she exclaimed.
Silvester and Arabella's son, James C. Lyons, married Nealie Rhoden, the oldest child of Rosa and Isaac (Son) Rhoden on September 3, 1912. They were the parents of Leslie, Kenneth, Emil, Jewell, Irene and James C., Jr.
Jewell remembers growing up with her parents from an early age.
"Mama was always sick and I had to take over a lot of her responsibilities," said Jewell. "About the first thing I remember was wanting a sister. I was about three years old when Dr. Markee arrived at our house with his big black bag one day. He said, 'I've come to bring you a baby', and I said, 'is it a girl?', and he said, 'That's going to be a surprise,' so they had me wait on the back porch. After awhile daddy came out and said I could come in and see what they had, and it was a baby girl. I was so thrilled.
"My daddy was a jack-of-all trades sort of man who could do just about anything. The thing I remember most about daddy is that I never saw him fail at anything he started to do from the lowest menial job to county judge. He was a farmer and a good one. He could also effectively supervise a bunch of men for various companies like Southern Resin at Pine Top. He was elected a school trustee, school board member, and county commissioner before serving as County Judge."
Her father made many caskets for Baker County's citizens. "And they were really nice," said his daughter. "He had a pattern and they'd cut the lumber to be smaller at the head and larger in the shoulder area and smaller at the feet," she explained. "Then he'd put the casket in a big box to protect it. Daddy never charged for his labor, that was free, and if the people couldn't pay for the lumber, daddy did. I don't know how he managed because at the time he and mama didn't have extra."
When Jewell was about six her father took his family to Okeechobee in south Florida by train where he worked as an overseer in the fields for his brother-in-law, Arthur Wells. His father, Middleton, was retired and also living there. The trip on the train was a great experience for the little girl.
"I remember we lived in a wood-frame tar-papered shanty," said Jewell. "It was built up slightly off the ground, and I remember when a big storm came and when the water began coming in our house we had to move to my grandparent's house that was on higher ground. When we returned home to see the damage, Mama was trying to get some of our linens and clothes from the shelves of a closet and something moved. Mama found two big cotton mouth moccasins. Then we looked up in the rafters and there were many cotton mouth moccasins hanging from the rafters. I'll never forget that experience," she said shuddering.
J.C. Sr. brought his family back to Baker County and farmed and did some carpentry for a living. "It was during the Depression and times were hard for everyone around us," remembered Jewell. "I remember daddy would take the mule and wagon to get our necessary supplies from Macclenny and on his return I'd run to meet him. I'd say, 'Daddy, did you get some, did you get some?' and he knew what I meant. I wanted to know if he got some rice. Rice was a luxury, and oh, how we loved it with chicken. It was so good."
When the family killed a chicken to eat, they usually made some dumplings with flour or ate cornbread with it. "We cleaned and cooked every inch of that chicken," said Jewell. "Mama would snip the chicken's beak off, pluck out the eyeballs, skin it, and cook the head. We loved the brains. And we'd clean and cook the chicken's feet, too," she said.
"We children were taught to never take the best piece of chicken when we had company. We passed the bowl of chicken around and the best was for the older people. We were told what piece we could have, and we were glad to get it.
"When we'd kill hogs, mama would scramble the brains of the hog together with eggs for breakfast and we'd eat them with grits. All of us loved it," she said.
"And I learned to eat tomatoes with breakfast, especially when fresh ones were in season. We loved tomatoes with our grits and eggs and biscuits and sausage. We kids drank the fresh milk from the cow; mama and daddy drank coffee."
Jewell recalls that on Christmas morning each child got a stocking. "It would always have Brazil nuts and apples and a small toy on top," she said. "Daddy would get up early and build a fire and I can still smell the aroma from the apples that would permeate the air. Oh, I still love to smell apples to this day," she said.
Jewell remembers those days with much happiness. "Everything we ate we grew on the farm, or they hunted it and killed it. We had to eat it immediately unless we canned it or cured it because we had no refrigeration."
Like everyone else in the area, the family had no indoor plumbing or running water.
"We took our overall bath once a week out on the porch in big tubs. Every night we washed our feet in a number-eight foot tub, all using the same water because it was too much to go to the well as deep as it was and bring up buckets of water.
"We had a good home, but it was strict. We jumped when daddy spoke, but we laughed at mama. We could soft-soap her, she was so good and kind and sweet. We'd get her tickled and she'd forget what she was trying to make us do. We respected both of them. Occasionally mama would get serious with us."
When Jewell was about 14 years old, three of the children -- Irene, Emil and J.C. Jr. -- came down with pneumonia.
"Mama wasn't well, either, so it was me who mostly took care of them and the family chores," she said. " They were so ill we had a nurse come out to check on them daily. They had to be fed chicken soup every day, so I had to kill the chicken and dress it and make the soup."
In addition, the young Jewell had to scrub clothes on a rub board on wash day, and pull water up from a well that was so deep she couldn't even see the bottom. And there was cooking for the family and other farm chores as well. When it didn't look as though J.C. and Emil would live through the illness, they were taken to St. Luke's Hospital in Jacksonville.
"Back then, they didn't have the right kind of antibiotic like they do today, so they had to drain their lungs with tubes."
When the children recovered and the hospital bills mounted, J.C. Sr. sold his farm to Will Rhoden. Then his brother-in-law, Arthur Wells, offered to get him work once again in Okeechobee to earn the needed money to pay the bills.
"I was in the eighth grade when we moved back to Okeechobee. I had the most wonderful teacher named Mr. Kocher who made a lasting impression on me." said Jewell. "He made things so clear and he was a friend, someone I could talk to. He and his wife would come out to our house to visit. The soil around the lake in Okeechobee is very rich and someone had scattered some spinach seeds, the kind that grow big, tender leaves, and they grew all over our front yard. We just left them and made pathways through it. Well, Mr. Kocher and his wife would come and get it by the bag full."
Jewell was in the 11th grade when her family returned to Baker County from Okeechobee. Her father bought a farm in north Glen St. Mary. As she rode the school bus each day she became acquainted with the bus driver, Johnny Burnsed.
"I loved school. I loved my teachers, especially Lonnie Dugger, he was my algebra teacher and he always called me brown eyes," she said. "I remember how we would always share stories in school and the children were fascinated by my experiences in Okeechobee because very few of them had ever been out of the county."
She remembers a few of her favorite school mates back then were Alabama Dicks (Mobley) Lyons, Clara Sue Lott, Mary Virginia Davis, Lois Fraser, Mary Estelle Padgett (Ferry), Charles and Bill Barber, J.J. Crews, Alan Boyd, Van Reynolds and Houston Sapp and Lucille Rowe. She graduated in 1939 in a class of 18.
"We didn't call ourselves dating too much back then because our parents were so strict." However she and the school bus driver, Johnny Burnsed, often got together at parties. And sometimes, with younger brother J.C. Jr. chaperoning, they went to the local Chessman Theater in downtown Macclenny to see a movie.
"I wanted to be a nurse because I had loved the times when I took care of mama when she was sick and my brothers and sisters. I considered myself a nurse because I loved taking care of them," she said. "But daddy, for some reason, thought nurses had bad reputations and because his parents and his sisters were all teachers, that's what he wanted me to do."
While Jewell was a senior she had taken the State Board Exam for teachers at the county court house and qualified for a teaching certificate. After graduation she went to see the school superintendent who referred her to Mr. Harold Milton, the principal at Glen St. Mary. Mr. Milton informed her she would need to take some additional courses in summer school to teach young children. He was, she said, someone you quickly learned to love and respect, and was a genuine and true friend to her and others in the teaching profession.
"I took his counsel and borrowed $75 and took two sessions in Gainesville. It paid my rent, my tuition, my food and lodging," she remembered.
She went to work for $60 a month teaching the second and third grades. That amounted to $3 a day for her service.
"When it came time to pay me they didn't have the money. They paid me $40, so I put that on my $75 debt," she said. "We can laugh about that now, but to me that was lots of money in those days."
Jewell was living at home with her parents riding the bus back and forth daily to teach school.
The following year, on December 20, 1940, she married the bus driver, Johnny Burnsed, in the court house office of Judge Frank Dowling.
"His mother told me about an incident that occurred years before when I rode Johnny's bus. She said he came home one day brokenhearted after a breakup with a girl friend," said Jewell. "She tried consoling him and he said to her, 'I'm not dating anymore. I'm waiting for that Jewell Lyons to get big enough to date, then I'm going to marry her.'
"Johnny was nine years older than me. My daddy helped him build us a little home near Macedonia and we moved in before it was sealed," she said.
"When we first got married we didn't even have an ice box, so we'd buy ice and cover it up good with an old wool blanket and turn a wash tub over it. When we needed a piece to cool our water or tea we'd go chip us off a piece. Later we got a chance to buy a kerosene refrigerator and that was the nicest thing you've ever seen. I didn't have to cook on a wood stove like at mama's house. We had a kerosene stove."
During the war, Jewell said the Lion's Club raffled off an electric stove and refrigerator. "They had a meeting and Johnny's ticket won the refrigerator. You should have seen the people come flying up wanting to buy it from us because they were really scarce during the war and they knew Johnny and I didn't have electricity in our house," she said.
"I just told everyone I was going to sit it in my living room and keep it dusted and polished until I did get electricity," she laughed. "And that's what we did." Nine months later Jewell was able to use her prized refrigerator.
Two years before their marriage Johnny's sister-in-law, Zillie Coleman Burnsed, died leaving the rearing of her two-year-old twin daughters, Bonnie and Nita, to their twelve-year-old sister, Louise. When the little tykes were four years old, they wandered away from the yard one day to pick some unripened blackberries. Within hours they developed a raging fever and a severe case of dysentery. The doctor was called, but it was too late for Nita. She died.
At her sister's funeral, little Bonnie lay on a pillow, held by her Aunt Mable Burnsed Thrift of Jacksonville, too weak to walk. Later she was taken to live with her Aunt Mable, where better treatment for the infectious stomach ailment was available.
When she was seven, Bonnie returned to Baker County and went to live with her grandmother, Emma Burnsed. Her two brothers, L.D. and Albert, were living with Louise, who had since married Woodrow Rhoden. When her grandmother died, Bonnie, still frail from her ordeal, found a permanent home with Johnny and Jewell.
Within months, Jewell began to work with the frail Bonnie, bribing her to eat vegetables by promising a trip to the movie. Bonnie began to blossom, but developed a severe speech impediment and could not work math problems. Jewell eventually learned that the high fever back in 1938 had damaged the part of the brain that deals with comprehension and math reasoning.
The little girl would need special treatment and care the rest of her life and Jewell committed herself to giving it. She started Bonnie in first grade in Glen and with Jewell constantly offering support and prodding, she graduated from high school in 1953. Bonnie never dated, held down a job, married, or had a family of her own.
"Bonnie has just always lived with me even though she often sees her sister Louise and brothers. This is her home and she is like my child," said Jewell, who never bore her own children.
In 1944 Jewell decided not to teach school anymore, but there was a shortage of teachers and Jewell was encouraged to return to the classroom. She complied with the request and taught fifth and sixth grades at Glen.
"We were so crowded the seats were pushed against walls and I had no room to even walk between the isles," she said. "I told them the next year I'd return if I could teach fourth grade only and that's what I did."
Johnny was employed as a rural mail carrier, farmed, and surveyed tobacco farms as well. In 1950, while Jewell was still teaching school, Johnny bought the Glen Cash Store from Claude Rhoden. Jewell stopped teaching one year to pursue a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, good help was hard to find and she was needed to help Johnny in the store.
"It actually profited us more for me to work at the store than it did for me to teach school, so I decided not to return," she said.
In 1965, the couple had prospered enough to build a large and spacious brick home on 40 acres of land in north Macclenny, not too far from her beloved sister Irene and brother J.C. Jr. Then in 1970, after twenty-nine years of marriage, Johnny was stricken with lung cancer.
"As I sat in the hospital waiting room while Johnny was dying in March of 1970, an employee approached me one day about Johnny. She told me he was not going to live," said Jewell, "and she asked me if I had any plans as to what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I told her I'd always wanted to be a nurse but I had waited too long and she said, 'Well, you can be,' and she told me how she had become a nurse after she raised her family. I never even found out the name of the lady who talked to me, but she gave me all the information I needed to put my application in for nursing school."
Jewell was now 50 years old, but she applied for nursing school at Jacksonville Junior College and at Lake City Community College in Columbia County. Neither had an opening, but said they would notify her if one became available.
"I've never prayed so hard in my life. I prayed and prayed and prayed, and I said, 'Lord if you want me to be a nurse, please let me train in Lake City'."
Lake City was more convenient for Jewell, but she was willing to go to either college. She took a vacation and upon return she had two letters waiting for her. She had been approved at both colleges. She accepted Lake City's offer and sold the Glen Cash Store to her two brothers, Emil and J.C., to begin her new career.
"When I sold the store I lost between $50-60 thousand dollars still owed me on outstanding credit. One person paid me a small amount years later, saying she had joined the church and become a Christian and wanted to get square," she said.
When her father had a mild heart attack, Jewell took both parents into her home so she could be close to them and assist with their needs. At night she worked at Ed Fraser Memorial Hospital. Her mother died in 1976 and her father in 1980.
"I was only too happy to keep my parents and help them as they grew older. It was truly a pleasure for me," she said.
On two occasions Jewell also cared for Johnny's brother, Lee Burnsed, in her home. He was an alcoholic who eventually had to go to North East Florida State Hospital as a patient for treatment. "He was a good old man and I felt sorry for him and his problem," she said.
At the same time she took care of the elderly Sadie Franklin Ventling, an aged aunt of Johnny's, until it became necessary to transfer her to Wells Nursing Home. Bonnie, of course, was a permanent ward of Jewell.
In 1971, a year after Johnny's death, Jewell was introduced to Larry Lewis.
"Gladys Combs Fraser said she wanted me to meet her brother-in-law from Miami. He had been married to Glady's sister, Jewell, who died a week earlier than Johnny with a heart attack," said Jewell. "I put her off a long time, but she kept being insistent. I asked her if he drank and she said that if he did it wasn't much. She called me when he was up visiting one day and I told her to bring him over and I'd meet him, but she sent Larry by himself. When he walked up I saw his face was so red and ruddy and the burnt orange shirt made it worse. I just knew he must drink and that I wouldn't like him, but I went out with him anyway because if he were drinking then I couldn't tell it. Well, we visited with some of his friends in Jacksonville that evening and I found out he had been deep sea fishing and that's why his face was so red. We started dating and that led to our marriage. I had mama and daddy and Bonnie, but he said that didn't matter. So he quit his job in Miami and moved in with us. People often ask me how I got two such good men and I tell them I didn't hunt for either, the good Lord sent them to me."
Jewell worked for ten and a half years at Ed Fraser Hospital when she began to feel the strain of overwork. A checkup revealed cancer. After an operation she was back at work within two weeks because the hospital was short on nurses. Meanwhile, she was also active in the First Baptist Church of Macclenny.
At summer camp she was in charge of cooking for more than 100 people three times a day and being the nurse on duty as well. She spent summers teaching Vacation Bible School, taught in the primary and training union organizations as well as Junior Sunday School. She is a former choir member and is now on the benevolent committee that arranges to take food to the sick and needy during times of family tragedies and deaths. She serves on the senior adult committee that plans activities for that group.
After a second bout with cancer, not quite as serious as the first, she retired from nursing to spend quality time with Larry.
"I always said I'd never marry a farmer," said Jewell, "but I did twice. Larry's middle name is even Farmer," she laughed.
Larry had never farmed until he married Jewell. "He loves farming, but since he suffers from skin cancers I encourage him to wear a wide-brim straw hat while working in the field or riding the tractor."
The couple grow peanuts in abundance, specializing in the big jumbos. They plant various kinds of tomatoes, usually having about 250 plants to harvest. Their 37 1/2 acres of part pasture and part cultivated farm yields peas and just about any other kind of vegetable you can think of.
Jewell's brother, J.C. Jr., lives close by. His land is all in timber, so the Lewis's share crop space and the cost of seeds and supplies. Between the three of them, seven families reap the annual harvest. They fatten a few hogs and beef in the pasture and when cold weather arrives, they butcher the meat and share the bounty. Jewell makes sausages and hogshead cheese just like her father and grandfathers did many years ago under much more primitive conditions.
Jewell's shelves are adorned with shining glass jars of savory fruits and vegetables. She has won numerous first-place ribbons and even Best Overall in the home-arts category and Best of Show at the Baker County Fair.
Bonnie vacations and takes regular short trips with her sister Louise and brother Albert, and continues to make her home permanently with Jewell and Larry.
Trapped in a body that knows what she'd like to do but never can, she is quick to say, in an emotional voice and with tears on the verge of spilling over, "I wish I could have married and had children."
And Jewell is quick to say, "I made peace with myself not having my own children, because if I had I would not have been able to take care of the sick and elderly as I have."
The sister she wanted so desperately as a child, Irene, lives close by and shares her family of children with Jewell.
With electricity and a telephone, television and modern conveniences in every room of the lovely spacious home she now shares with Bonnie and Larry, the versatile Jewell loves to remember the days when things were completely reversed.
It may have been humble surroundings, those days of long ago, but they are the times she loves to recall.
"My parents were Christian, but never baptized, although daddy was sprinkled in the Methodist Church as a baby," she said. "Before my mother died, she made a profession of her faith at the Baptist Church in Glen and their faith and love have sustained me always," she said.
Jewell continues her work in her beloved First Baptist Church of Macclenny and serves the local Cancer Society as treasurer. She is still the good Samaritan to friends and neighbors wherever she goes.
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Lonnie Dugger was the seventh of ten children born to Baker County pioneers Henry and Mary (Williams) Dugger, about six miles north of Sanderson March 9, 1905. The three-room house, built by his father and some neighbors, was crafted from crude pine lumber gleaned from their 200 acres of rich, fertile farmland.
"We were poor, but we didn't know it because everyone all around us lived the same way," declared the man who rose from pioneer deprivation in the backwoods of Baker County to serve as Macclenny's high school principal and eventually Baker County School Superintendent, entrusted with reconstructing the county educational system in the 1950's.
As might be expected from an educational leader, he speaks with distinction and meticulousness. Pronouncing every word properly is inherited, he says, from his maternal grandmother, Amanda Fraser Williams, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Emily Burroughs Fraser of Sanderson.
"She was very precise in her pronunciation and taught us the same," he said.
Lonnie's father, Henry, left home at the age of ten. His mother, Elizabeth Boyd, daughter of Henry and Mary Adaline (Roberts) Boyd of Sanderson, died when he was only two. His father, Zachariah, married Kizzie Nettles and ten children blessed their marriage. Feeling the burden of work in the fields and around the farm, as well as his father's expanding family, the young Henry ran away to his Uncle Ben Brannen's house for refuge. His father came looking for him with a shotgun and demanded he return home.
"Now, Zachariah," said the kind, soft-spoken Ben, "I think it's the best thing for you to leave Henry with me. I'll see that he has a good upbringing."
Surprisingly, Zachariah left his son with Ben and never returned for him.
Henry fared well in his uncle Ben's home, and when he grew to maturity, he married Mary Williams, daughter of Amanda Fraser and John Commander Williams of Sanderson. The couple were God-fearing, loving parents, who made a wonderful home for the ten children born to them in Baker County at the turn of the century. They were: Johnny, Brantly, Amanda, Annie Elizabeth, Eva, Mattie, Lonnie, Ida, Nealie and Blanche.
"The thing I remember most about dad," said Lonnie, "we worked hard six days a week and on Sunday, there was no working and, ordinarily, if there was church any where we went, and there was a bunch of us to go. However, come Monday morning, we hit that field and you worked, worked, worked. Daddy was raised that way and he raised us that way."
The first remembrance Lonnie has of life was going barefoot to the cow pen with his sister Annie to milk the cows.
"And it was my job in the mornings to get the wood chips to build a fire if they hadn't brought them in the night before," he said.
The Duggers were no different than most other families in the area. They grubbed a scant living from the land where they lived. Homes and furnishings were humble. In many instances, farm families, in the turn-of-the-century era, were without even an out house for toilet facilities.
"We had a lot of barns and corn cribs, a hay loft, stalls for mules and horses and a big building we used to sort our cotton," he said. "We used all those places when we had need. There were certain places we knew to go and we had a stash of corn cobs we used instead of paper,." he explained.
When Lonnie was about seven years old, his father built the family a one-seat outhouse or, as some called it, a privy.
"I thought that was really something," he said. "That was about the first real luxury our family had. At that time people had necessities, not luxuries.
"In our house the furniture was hand made. The chairs were made with old lumber and the seats covered with cow hides. We grew cotton and made our mattresses from it.
"We grew most of our food on the farm that our family used," he said. "We grew cane for our syrup and dad would not let anyone make his syrup. He'd sit there and would stir until it got just right and then he'd take it up. Mama was in charge of the sausage when we butchered the hogs and I have never eaten any better than what she made. She would take those entrails down to the branch and wash and wash and wash them until they were clean and white.
"On wash day she would boil our clothes in a big iron pot, and then after she let them cool, she would put them in a hollowed-out wood log and beat them with a battling stick until the dirt was out. Then with more clean water that we had to pull up by buckets from the well, she would rinse the clothes. It was a hard, all-day job and they still had to be ironed.
"We had about 30-40 geese. In the summer we would always pluck their feathers to make our feather beds and feather pillows. I remember we had to lay them in our laps, on their backs. My job was to gather the geese and pen them up. Mama and the girls would pluck their feathers and then put the feathers in a barrel.
"We also used the geese to weed our cotton patch,." he said.
"Those were hard days as far as work, but yet it seemed we had more time for family than we do now with all the modern conveniences. We'd come in at night and we would all sit around the fire in the fireplace and talk and sing. We had a social life together and we were all happy."
His parents were very devout Primitive Baptist. "We'd all go to the church in a double wagon pulled by two mules. We'd usually stay with church members because we'd go on Saturday and stay over," he said.
He remembers some of the families they stayed with were the Kell Prevatts, Uncle Buddy Williams, and Hize Combs families.
"There would always be lots of people so we slept on pallets or in the cotton crib on the cotton," he said.
Discipline at the Dugger's house was strict. "There was no such thing in our house of anyone crossing dad or ma. We could usually get around ma, but there was no getting around dad. He petted the children, he'd always have one of us on one knee and one on the other, but he never allowed us to be disrespectful."
The Dugger home was filled with the sounds of music. "The Frasers were great singers and Ma used to sing to us. She didn't have time to tell us stories, she was too busy cooking and tending to children, but we knew she loved us," he said.
With their talented voices they formed a quartet and sang for churches throughout the county and region. He and his cousin, Katie Williams, sang tenor and sister Mattie and Nero Williams sang alto. He remembers that sister Nealie, Jack Pendley and Sadie Dugger Rowe enjoyed singing together and often performed at the same singing conventions. "It was just something we really enjoyed doing," he said.
"After Johnny started running for office, we went with him to sing at churches where he would be speaking."
Lonnie occasionally rode by mule and wagon with his dad to Macclenny from Sanderson to sell their cotton.
"Dad would give me a quarter to spend and I'd buy me a drink, soda crackers, cheese and such. It was so good. I'd run all over Macclenny playing and having fun.
"Mother came with us about once a year to buy cloth to make our clothes. She made everything we wore and made good use of the flour and feed sack materials as well. We had one pair of shoes and they had to last until we wore them out," he said.
"I remember when I saw my first car," he said, chuckling. "Someone across the creek from our farm got sick and sent for Doctor Brown. We heard it coming down the road and ran to get near Ma. We didn't know what it was, but we all got on the front porch and watched it go by. I remember thinking, 'Now what is this world coming to?' It was a one-seated automobile."
Eventually, Henry Dugger would buy a 1913 Ford for his family.
As the children grew and matured, so did opportunities. "Dad was not an educated man. He had to leave home so early in life, and with the hardships he didn't get to attend much school, but he said when we came into the world that education is one of the most important things he could give us. He told us, 'I'll do all I can, but if you don't want to go to school and get an education I'll assist you all I can to get started in what you do want to do.'
"My older brother, Johnny, didn't want any part of the farm. He said he hated it, so when he was about 17 and had finished the 8th grade, because that's the highest grade we had at the time, he took a Normal School course along with one summer spent at the University of Florida to obtain a first-grade teaching certificate. His first assignment was Cedar Creek. It was while there that he married Mattie Harvey. Then he was principal at Sanderson and that was the last he worked teaching school."
Instead, he said, Johnny, who was born March 17, 1890 in Sanderson, became cashier and director of the Citizens Bank of Macclenny and served there for 21 years. His public career spanned many years as he served on the Town Council, one term as Chairman. He was Town Clerk and Tax Assessor for three terms. He served as Superintendent of Public Instruction for three years, was a member of the School Board for two terms and served as its Chairman during his last term. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1932 and re-elected in 1935 and 1937. From 1939 to 1943, he served as a member of the Florida State Senate. He received many commendations from the citizens of Baker County and the state he served.
Brantly Dugger, named for his mother's uncle, Brantly Fraser, loved being a farmer so he married Lillie Starling, who lived across the creek, and his dad supplied them with some acreage in the back field and helped them build a house.
"Brantly was very happy there," said Lonnie.
Amanda, named for her grandmother, Amanda Fraser, married early, he said. She and her husband, William, "Judge" Prevatt, were happy farming. William later worked for the state, eradicating the sweet potato weevil that plagued the farmers.
Annie decided she would be a teacher. She passed the teacher's exam and taught at Cuyler, and served as principal of Taylor School.
"It was obvious my brother Johnny didn't think too much of teaching, so he persuaded Annie to look into the purchase of a sundry store in Macclenny, just south of the railroad tracks on Fifth Street," he said. " She quit teaching school and purchased the store and ran it for several years. She married Josie Crews and eventually they bought another sundry owned by Joe Jones, who sold out to run for sheriff.
Eva married Ira Walker and they went into the general mercantile business after a stint at farming. Ira was also a barber and at that time had the only barber shop in town.
"He charged 25 cents for a haircut and kept his business, located on Main Street, opened until 12 o'clock on Saturday nights. He was always busy," Lonnie said.
Mattie married Joseph Harvey, a railroad man, and moved to Jacksonville.
Ida married Quinton Milton and he did a variety of things, including owning a grocery store that she managed, and publishing the Baker County News, a weekly newspaper.
Nealie was a school teacher at Moniac . She first married Tony Powers, then Frank Wheeless.
"I did my best to get Blanche to go to college," said Lonnie, "and she did go one summer. A group of us rented a house in Gainesville and one of my roommates, Arlie Ruis, fell in love with her and that's all the schooling she had. They married in 1936."
Lonnie opted for an education as his vocation. "I knew I didn't like farming," he said. "I didn't like to plow, I didn't like to hoe, I didn't like working in cotton. I didn't like any part of it, so after I finished 8th grade, the highest I could go in Dinkins School, dad and ma moved to Macclenny where there was a high school.
"I started high school, but in the ninth grade I took a teacher's exam and qualified for a second-grade teaching certificate. I was 17 when I taught my first time in Sapp. In those days children only went to school for four months in the fall, so when school was out at Christmas, I returned to Macclenny and enrolled in the tenth grade and passed," he said.
"You can just imagine how limited my education was, but when I finished the 10th grade I took another teacher's exam and obtained a first-grade certificate. That fall I taught at the I.D. Stone School, south of Sanderson. I taught all eight grades there in one room. During this time, I roomed and boarded at Uncle Dave Boyd's home.
On weekends, Lonnie said he walked the five miles into Sanderson to catch the greyhound bus into Macclenny.
"I'll never forget that wonderful Mr. Barney Padgett," said Lonnie. "My best friend was Harold Milton, and he was doing the same thing as me, so Mr. Padgett, who was the high school principal, would bring us some of the materials that they were teaching in high school and that is one way we kept up all year."
Lonnie continued the weekend treks and teaching part of the year and studying the other half. Finally, he graduated from the twelfth grade in 1925 with Harold Milton, Eugenia Fraser (McBride) Vesta Turner (Myrick) and Pauline Rowe (Howell).
"My dad had a grocery store by this time," he said. "Dad said he would give me the store if I would just give him and ma groceries from it as needed. Or, he told me, I could go on to college.
"It was a hard decision to make because he was making pretty good money there and had a good trade. I was working for dad at this time and Johnny came in one day and I asked what he thought would be best. He told me he believed I should go on to school, so I did. I enrolled at the University of Florida and graduated in three years in 1928."
He holds the distinction of being the first Macclenny High School graduate to receive his degree from the University of Florida and is now a member of The Grand Guard (an organization of all graduates of the University of Florida of 50 years or more). He is the oldest active member of that organization.
"When I got out, it was unfortunate for me that we had a school superintendent named Hodges that didn't like me. He said that as long as he was superintendent, I'd never work in the county. Well, it just so happened that my good friend, Harold Milton, was teaching at White House and said he'd recommend me for a job there.
"I was rooming and boarding in White House while teaching school, when my daddy was killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking along the side of the road."
Henry Dugger, though he had become a businessman, never gave up farming. He had a garden east of town on five acres owned by Harold Milton. He had taken his hoe and gone to weed and burn some trash that morning. When noon came, he started walking home, hoe slung over his shoulder. It was dinnertime and Mary was waiting.
Henry was found injured by the side of the road, the hoe broken in two by the impact. News travelled through town fast. Mary left the dinner she'd prepared on the four-burner wood stove and rushed to his side. Ten-year-old Blanche, the only child left at home, was on her way home from school for lunch. She was told by passersby and rushed to the site as well as many friends and neighbors. Seashole Ambulance Service came from Jacksonville and rushed him to St. Lukes Hospital. Henry never regained consciousness. The year was 1929.
Tears rush freely to the eyes and the pain of that day still stings the hearts of Lonnie and Blanche, the only two surviving siblings.
"We loved our dad, and our family was close. It was a sad time and great tragedy for all of us," said Lonnie.
He bought a car from the local Frank Wells Agency, and finished the year commuting back and forth to White House."I moved in with Ma and Blanche to keep them from being alone," he said.
The following year, he was contacted by his good friend and classmate Harold Milton, who by now was superintendent of schools, and asked if he would take the job as principal at Macclenny High School.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," he said. "I'd heard it was a tough job teaching there, that those boys were a tough bunch to cope with, but I took it and I tell you, that first year was an experience for me."
The rumors were true. The boys were pretty bad, and the first thing they did was give young Lonnie a bad time as well.
"They were building a new building on one side of the high school and a few of the boys went there one night and threw a bunch of rocks at the windows, breaking about fifteen or twenty of them, I think," he said." Well, I decided that was a problem, they didn't like me apparently, so I worked until finally I took one of them I suspected aside, and you know, he owned up to it, and even agreed to put the windows back in the school," he said.
"Many of those boys are dead now, but we became the best of friends."
After that things began to go smoothly for Lonnie. Besides being principal of both the elementary and high school, he taught Algebra II and Plane Geometry, because he had no teacher for that class. He also hired a new first-grade teacher, Bernice McRae. She doubled as a basketball coach for the girls, as did Lonnie for the boys. The two fell in love and were married in Georgia, October 1, 1938.
A few of the students he remembers best are Durwood Lott, J.W. Heirs, Bascomb Milton, Earle Knabb, Vernon Tutt, Cincinatti Dicks, Wilma Cook, Ada Mae Walters, Roy Hart, Rudolph Loadholtz, Nellie Farris, Mildred Fraser Green, Marie Rowe Burnsed, Edwin Fraser, Van Milton and L.D. Cox. One of the most gentlemanly persons he remembers was Paul Rhoden.
"He was truly a fine fellow," he smiled, remembering those special days when friendships were solidly formed.
One of the things desperately needed in the county was a nice place for newly- recruited teachers to live. Lonnie approached Mrs. Minnie Poythress, a widow who lived in a large two-story home adjacent to the school, about opening a boarding house for school teachers. The dwelling had once been a girl's academy, operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Florida. It closed during a tragic Yellow Fever epidemic in 1888, when it was used as a temporary hospital, and countless people died, including the school's founder, the Rev. C.S. Snowdan. Mrs. Poythress took the challenge and over a period of time the house was called the Poythress House, and became an emblem of wonderful memories for many people in the community who remember living there. Since there was no cafeteria for students in that era of time, Mrs. Poythress opened a lunch counter that was very popular with teachers and students. By the early '50's, the boarding house had served its purpose, and was closed by Mrs. Poythress.
These had been the Depression days in Baker County and finally things were beginning to look more prosperous. Lonnie and Bernice had three children, Bernice Jean, John, and Henry.
When Lonnie's brother-in-law went into the army, he approached Lonnie one day about managing his drug store in Key West. Lonnie and Bernice moved there until after the war. In 1945, an offer was made by Bernice's uncle to buy his business in Daytona. The couple did so, and stayed there until 1953 when he was approached by the Baker County School Board to return to Macclenny and once again be principal of Macclenny High School.
Devotion to his home county rose above the pain he felt when he had left, having been what he considered unjustly treated. However, the citizens of the county had voted to consolidate the outlying schools, such as the high schools at Sanderson and Taylor. The transition needed someone in control of the new approach and it was felt Lonnie could make the transition work the best.
"As it was, the hostility and fury became aimed at me by the students, parents and citizens who were angered over the advancement to consolidation. But the people had voted for it, the majority had won, and I was just there to keep the order of things," he said. "And that was the hardest of all the jobs I ever had."
He served as principal of the high school for three years and as Superintendent of Public Instruction for eight years.