MEMORIES OF OSCEOLA, FLORIDA
By Mary (Riley) Henderson
I was the first Riley child born in Osceola, Florida, on January 2, 1921, delivered by Dr. W. H. Martin. I was 15 when we left there, so my memories are through the eyes of a young teen. My dad, John F. Riley, was the Superintendent of the Osceola Cypress Mill. He indeed bossed everybody and he hired and fired. My mother, Clara (Erwin) Riley, was the mother of us seven children: John Francis, Kathleen, Nora, Mary, Alice, Bill, and Pete. She was famous for her good cooking. We especially liked the peanut butter fudge.
Our town was small and kinda isolated but we didn’t lack anything, you know; we were kinda modern for those days. A paved road brought you in and you went out the same way you came in. At the end of the road you came face to face with the Big Mill (the Industrial Park), a sawmill, planing mill, lumber yard and some small shops that kept things in running order. There were two big engines, No. 10 and No. 50. No. 50 had its own name, Summersill, because he was the driver. It went on the East Coast Railroad Lines to far away places like Okeechobee to pick up logs from the cypress swamps. No. 10 stayed on local tracks and moved the logs around. They were dumped into a log pond on the St. Johns River and then were run through the sawmill and planing mill, then to lumber yard to drier. A funny little machine called a Ross Carrier moved the lumber around to different places.
Turning around and coming back out from the mill (see map at end of article), first on the right was the Business Area (the office complex). It was one building with about four offices in it, plus the bank. The bank was a big brick vault where they kept coupons that were used for money, plus some real money too. It got robbed once! What great excitement! The old vault is still standing there as a silent reminder of bygone days. (Photo at right is of 2004 Cleanup Crew trying to preserve the Osceola Vault)
Next came the Shopping Center. We called it a Commissary. Kinda like a small Wal-Mart. You could buy most anything from overalls to penny candy. Everything was served over the counter, which kept you away from the merchandise. On the Meat Counter was a big roller of wrapping paper and a big glass jar of pickled pigs feet, mmm good! On the Clothes Counter were two slot machines, used freely while one waited their turn to be waited on. We kids even sacrificed a nickel or two if we could get past the Candy Counter. Oh! the Candy Counter! It was a Glass Show Case. It had big Baby Ruth bars, maybe 8 inches long. We thought they were named after Babe Ruth, our baseball idol. Also had Hershey Bars, all day suckers, gum balls, jaw breakers, bubble gum, Cracker Jacks, prize candy, balloon candy, candy kisses, licorice, Black Cows, penny candy. Under the Grocery Counter they had the makin’s for Home Brew. Some got pretty good at making their own. Oh yes, we had pop: Orange Crush, Root Beer, and Coca- Cola which everyone called dopes. You know, I think they really were!
They also had powdered milk called KLIM - milk spelled backwards. It was mostly for babies. They always had a good supply of penny pencils and nickel tablets. There were spittoons on the floor for those who chewed Red Mule, or was it Red Apple tobacco? Some users weren’t very good aimers, ugh!
We also had our own Home Shopping Center. Good old Sears Roebuck Catalog! What a treasure! The old catalog provided good paper dolls when the new ones came in the mail.
The Filling Station was in front of the Commissary. It was a lot like our modern filling stations today. You pumped your own gas by hand, up into big glass containers that measured it and then let it down by hose into the tank. You paid in the store. Yes, the pump was kept locked. You had to ask for a key.
Next came the accommodations, called a Boarding House. It had bedrooms with iron bedsteads with flat springs and cotton mattresses and a mirrored dresser. You learned early to never shut the drawers all-the-way-in, or you might never get them open again. It had a big kitchen and wooden tables where meals were served by those in charge. I remember Mrs. T. C. Fuller -- she gave me a dollar once -- never been so rich in all my life. They later moved to Georgia to cook for the state prison there.
Next came the Professional Building. The doctor’s office was first, served by Dr. W. H. Martin, and then by Dr. T. G. Moore. They did everything from delivering babies to removing splinters.
The Post Office was next. Mrs. Ritchie was Post Master. The mail came in on the mail train that dropped it off at the railroad station about one-half mile away on the East Coast Rail Line. It was picked up and brought to the Post Office, sorted and put in individual mailboxes with combination locks. Always they had big posters on the front of the Post Office advertising the latest movies being shown in Sanford.
The third and last was the Barber Shop. Dick, a black man, was the barber. He kept the girls’ hair in the latest style, whether shingled or bowl cut. He cut the men’s hair too, and even shaved some of them. He sharpened his razor on a big leather razor strop.
School comes next: a Little Red School House. Our teachers came from Geneva mostly. We remember Mrs. M. E. Dooley best. She ruled us with a big fat ruler -- could give a real sting to one’s hand! She gave us crystallized grapefruit for Christmas. She made us learn lots of poems. She had a stereopticon viewer, which showed 3-D pictures of World War I, wow! What an invention! We thought, what would they think of next? She told us the capitol of Florida was going to be moved to Orlando: “Shouldn’t ever have been put a-way up there in Tallahassee in the first place.” We’re still waiting - maybe Disney has put a stop to that rumor. Mr. Lawton, Superintendent of Seminole County schools, came to check on us once a year. We thought he was awesome. Some people used the schoolhouse for Sunday school and church. We didn’t have a church building.
Next comes the Residential Area:
Ø First was for the Elite. Mr. and Mrs. Peter Feitner lived there on a House Boat, anchored in the St Johns River. He drove a big car, maybe a Cadillac? He came from up north. He was a banker too -- even had his name printed on a dollar bill.
Ø Second was the Main Street. The white-collar workers lived there in big houses: Lands, Rileys, Redpaths, Haldemans and Moores. They took care of all business of the mill.
Ø Third was what we called the other row in smaller houses. They were maybe the blue-collar workers. They mostly held the main working positions in the mill: Meyers, Paramores, Silvers, McLaughlins, Geigers, Fews, Wilcoxes, Roberts, etc.
Ø Fourth was the colored quarters (a term of respect). They took care of the many jobs connected to the millwork. They had their own school and church and Juke joint. There were Carrie, Bee, Annie Bee, Christopher, and Robert Meriweather, etc. They lived in small portable houses.
Ø Fifth were the other people who owned their own property across the railroad tracks bordering the river, not connected with the mill: the Ritchies, Metcalfs, and Lindseys.
Ø Sixth was the railroad - the Georges who operated the railroad draw bridge over the St Johns River, and the Hollamans who kept the tracks in repair. They lived in the Yellow houses near the bridge.
Ø Seventh: Guess I should mention the cattle that freely roamed the land around us. In spite of fences and cattle guards, they did come into town from time to time - what a mess they made!
What was it like living in Osceola? Our lives were ruled by the saw mill and we were there to keep it alive and healthy. A whistle blew to keep us all in step with things. The first came in early morning, time to get up - another time to go to work, another at lunch time and then one to go back to work. Ah! At last the quitting whistle. In return we were supplied and equipped with many conveniences:
We were aware that others were here before us. There were those v-scarred pine trees with ceramic pots nailed to them, but the pitch was never gathered. Indian mounds, pottery shards, and arrowheads spoke of others who lived here and fished these waters and hunted these forests. Yes, we were named after Indian chief Osceola.
John F & Clara Riley – John F Jr., Kathleen, Nora, Mary, Alice, Billy and Pete
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