MACCLENNY, Fla. (AP) - The historic Baker County jail certainly was not seen as a refuge by most prisoners who spent time there.
The simple brick structure - with its trap door in the kitchen ceiling meant for hangings - offered little relief from scalding Florida summers. For the scarred, battered prisoners fortunate enough to return there from Sen. T.J. Knabb’s turpentine camp in Glen St. Mary in the 1920s, it was a refuge.
T.J. Knabb, and later his brother William, used cunning, intelligence and an iron fist to build the largest turpentine empire in the world. In what was Florida’s second-largest industry until the middle of the 20th century, that was no laughing matter.
Knabb Turpentine eventually owned over 200,000 acres of pine forest - more than half of Baker County.
The family’s power and influence shaped the county to such an extent that it is still obvious today.
Children play Little League baseball at Knabb Sports Complex in Macclenny on land donated by the family. A turpentine display at Heritage Park “was constructed by Knabb offspring to honor their family’s contribution to Baker County’s growth and development,” according to the park’s website.
However, underneath the façade of wealth and power is a dark legacy built on the blood, sweat and sometimes the lives of those unlucky enough to become entangled in its web.
Thomas Jefferson Knabb was born in Baker County in 1880. He built his fortune on turpentine and timber, using peonage and convict labor. He also served as a state senator for 10 years and, at the time of his death in 1937, owned 10,000 head of cattle and 50,000 acres of land.
“The old saying was that if T.J. didn’t pay his taxes, Baker County would go bankrupt,” one family member told the Times-Union.
Knabb crafted his empire, in part, on the convict-lease system in place in Florida at the time. By 1919, the state outlawed the leasing of state prisoners to private companies, but counties could still lease theirs. For counties like Baker, it provided substantial and much-needed revenue.
In 1920, the first year records were found of the county leasing its prisoners, only two bids were submitted. Knabb eventually won the bid and paid the county $35 per able-bodied prisoner per month.
Baker County wasn’t his only customer. He also had contracts with Alachua and Bradford counties for their prisoners as well.
For three years, both Knabb and the county seemed content with the arrangement, even after a startling number of prisoners went missing or died at Knabb’s camps. In 1921, 1922 and 1923, the contract was renewed with Knabb as the only bidder.
That changed on Feb. 24, 1923, when a prison inspector named John B. Thomas and Baker County Sheriff Joe Jones Jr. visited the camp and found a prisoner, Paul Revere White, 19, nearly dead.
Thomas reported Knabb was running “a human slaughter pen,” according to the Associated Press.
“(White’s) hands and feet were minus skin, ulcers were found on his legs, and one or more ribs were fractured,” said R.L. Lamb of Macclenny, the physician who treated the teen at the Baker County jail.
White said he had been beaten and whipped nearly every day by the camp’s whipping boss, John Roddenberry.
Roddenberry refused to listen to White’s complaints that he was sick, telling him “sick convicts always ended up in the Evergreen Cemetery back of the camp,” White said.
White, from Washington, D.C., where his brother worked for the IRS, had been arrested for vagrancy while walking down an Alachua County road. He was leased out to work at Knabb’s camp in Glen St. Mary because he could not pay the fine.
A 1907 state law made it legal for local law enforcement to arrest for vagrancy “all able-bodied males over 18 without means of support and who remain in idleness.”
Though White asked the Florida Legislature for a full investigation, nothing was done until the North Dakota Legislature demanded one in 1923.
Martin Tabert, 22, the son of a prominent farming family in North Dakota, was beaten and died of fever in 1922 at a camp owned by a Wisconsin timber company near Cross City in Dixie County.
Florida Gov. Cary Hardee initially was dismissive of the incident, calling it an isolated case.
But the Legislature’s investigation widened when revelations surfaced about White’s story and that of others at Knabb’s camps.
On May 9, 1923, Thelma Franklin, a social worker, former school teacher and wife of the Glen St. Mary’s postmaster shocked the investigative committee with her specific and graphic testimony of what she’d discovered in Knabb’s turpentine camps.
“I have nothing personal against Mr. Knabb,” she said as the senator sat directly across from her, according to the Times-Union report of her testimony. “What I have to testify is for the sake of humanity and to allow the people of the country to know the real truth.”
Franklin said 21 prisoners, including nine from Baker County, had died in the last year at Knabb’s camps - then she began to give specifics.
She told the story of five boys who were arrested for stealing a car from Knabb. They were arrested and charged with grand larceny, a felony, that would have sent them to state prison. But the charge was changed 18 days later to petit theft, meaning they would be county prisoners and eligible to work.
“One boy died before he left the camp,” Franklin testified. “He was heard to make a remark that he would get Sen. Knabb, and he did not get out alive.
“I think he was there one week.”
A recent and exhaustive Times-Union search through dusty, leather-bound record books in Baker County turned up the names of the boys thought to have been lost to history.
Carl Christianson, M.W. Turner, S.E. Simmons, Ray Rogers and L.H. Ingersoll were arrested April 20, 1922. The charge of grand larceny was changed to petit larceny May 8. It remains unknown which one perished at the camp.
The Times-Union also uncovered the arrests of J.R. Roberson and Charley Simmons on Sept. 30, 1922. Inquests were performed over their respective bodies on Oct. 9 and Oct. 20, 1922.
“Then there was Jimmy Beach, who seemed to have no home,” Franklin said. “He was a white man, about 30 years old and was arrested by Knabb when he stopped at the camp and begged for food.
“Knabb handcuffed him and a companion and took them to Live Oak, where Judge Rhoden sentenced them to six months for vagrancy, returning them to the Knabb camp to serve their sentences.
“A few days later Beach was dead.”
The Times-Union recently located the sheriff’s expense report for the inquisition over Beach’s body on Dec. 19, 1922.
The only witness was Knabb’s whipping boss, John Roddenberry.
According to Franklin’s testimony, she alerted Thomas to Paul Revere White’s deteriorating condition. As Thomas and the sheriff made their way from the camp to the jail, Knabb caught up with them at her husband’s post office between the two locations.
“A squally scene occurred in front of the post office at Glen St. Mary in the presence of the witness during which the senator attempted, she declared, to bribe Thomas,” the Associated Press reported.
Four days after White was brought to the Baker County jail, Sheriff Jones arrested Roddenberry for the “cruel and inhumane treatment” of convicts, and the Baker County Commission revoked Knabb’s lease and brought all the prisoners back to the county jail.
Knabb was the sole lessee of county convicts and, according to commission records, the county wasn’t prepared to actually house prisoners at the jail.
On March 5, the county commission ordered the sheriff to “immediately get the jail in sanitary condition.” Pads, pillows, blankets, medicine, disinfectant, soap, toilet paper and gasoline were all ordered for the jail.
A week later, a contingent of Baker County citizens including the sheriff and county commissioners B.F. Finley and J.C. Howard went to Tallahassee to inform the governor and the commissioner of agriculture of developments and determine their legal rights to terminate the lease. They were assured they had the power to do so.
Inexplicably, on March 19, in a 3-2 vote, the county commission voted to send Baker prisoners back to Knabb’s camp - something Alachua County never did.
B.F. Finley and J.C. Howard voted against it, while Jesse W. Raulerson, A.J. Harvey and M.L. Thrift voted to send them back.
However, in a heroic act of protest, an unnamed group of Macclenny businessmen paid all fines of Baker County prisoners and freed every convict held at Knabb’s camp, the Times-Union reported May 1, 1923.
Three days later, a mysterious fire almost destroyed Macclenny’s business district. The Macclenny Hotel was burned to the ground and other businesses were near total losses.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation of Franklin’s during her May 8 testimony was the killing of Mary Sheffield and her 20-year-old daughter by a man known as “Warden Thompson” at Knabb’s camp just five days before.
“Two members of the committee jumped to their feet and Senator Knabb swerved around in his chair when Mrs. Franklin related that Mary Sheffield, a negro woman, and her daughter were shot and killed last Wednesday by Warden Thompson at one of the Knabb camps,” the Times-Union reported. “The Sheffield woman was to have been used as a witness before the (legislative) committee.
“Thompson is now in a hospital, having been cut by the woman.”
Sheffield had once been a prisoner at the camp, but had “chosen” to remain there, according to Knabb.
After revealing the Sheffields’ deaths, the committee members asked for more. Franklin proceeded to tell of Jimmy Beach, the five boys arrested for stealing Knabb’s car and the multiple deaths all found to be of “natural causes.”
Prison inspector Thomas now had an opportunity to question Franklin in front of the committee.
Franklin testified Thomas initially declined Knabb’s offer of a bribe. By the time of Franklin’s testimony before the committee, Thomas had retracted his initial report, saying he had “greatly exaggerated” conditions at the camp.
Franklin’s testimony impressed the committee to such an extent that the committee unanimously passed a resolution declaring Thomas unfit to continue in his position as supervisor and asked Governor Hardee to remove him at once, the Associated Press reported.
Although no one would do a day in prison for any of the deaths and brutality reported at the camps, the revelations prompted some victories.
A Leon County sheriff, judge and Thomas were all removed from office. Though individual efforts were made to remove T.J. Knabb from office, he continued to serve as a state senator for eight more years.
Perhaps most importantly, by the end of the 1923 session, the Florida Legislature abolished the beating or whipping of prisoners and the leasing of any convicts to private industry.
Despite the new laws and regulations, Knabb’s empire expanded with the help of his brother William.
According to the Knabb family history, “In 1927, he (William) moved to Macclenny and bought a half-interest in a naval stores (turpentine) business of his brother Jeff (T.J.).”
William bought further into his brother’s operations and expanded them after T.J.’s death in 1935.
“He became the biggest turpentiner in the United States by far,” said William’s grandson Jimmy Knabb.
But like his brother, William also found himself on the wrong side of the law.
The Legislature had taken away the use of prisoners for labor in 1923.
However, the turpentine moguls had already found another way to find cheap labor. The same year the Legislature abolished the leasing of state prisoners, it also passed the most repressive “debt-hold law” to date.
“It provided that anyone who accepted anything of value on a promise to perform labor and then failed to do so was guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $500,” wrote historian Jerrell Shofner in “Forced Labor in the Florida Forests.” ”Failure to perform was prima facie evidence of fraudulent intent.”
“Anything of value” could include anything from a ride to the camp or a small pay advance for tools.
In 1937, an FBI peonage investigation led to indictments against William Knabb, his son Earl and two of their employees. All were tried in Jacksonville’s federal court on charges of holding workers by keeping them perpetually in debt to the company.
The previous year, three of his workers had attempted to leave with their new employer paying off their debts to Knabb and his commissary, which was the proper procedure at the time.
According to U.S. Department of Justice files, when the men and their new employer attempted to leave with their belongings, William and Earl Knabb, along with their woods rider, Fred Jones, confronted the men with guns and wouldn’t allow the workers leave.
After a five-day trial, a Jacksonville jury took just 30 minutes to acquit the Knabbs - even though their bookkeeper was arrested for perjury at the trial’s conclusion.
By 1938, Knabb Turpentine, as it was now known, was working 125 crops of pines - 1,250,000 pine trees, according to a published family history.
William died in 1971. His grandson, Jimmy Knabb, now runs Knabb Lands. He still sits at the same desk, in the same room where his grandfather sat so many years ago.
Born in 1947, Jimmy Knabb remembers a kind, but stern man who strove to make money.
“He’d carry us hunting and fishing and made sure he spent time with all the grandchildren,” he said. “Grandmama carried food to the needy every day.”
Jimmy Knabb said he’d never heard of the Paul Revere White case and T.J. Knabb died 10 years before he was born. However, he vehemently denied any peonage charges against his grandfather.
“My granddaddy never kept anyone as a slave, or against their will,” he said.
However, the turpentine business of the 1950s was a far cry from that of the 1920s and ‘30s. World War II had increased opportunities, laws had been changed and growing communities provided options to over-priced, company-run commissaries.
Jimmy Knabb looks at his grandfather as a role model and county hero.
“I have what I have today because of him,” he said. “I’m not rich, but I’ve never hurt for anything because of those two people right there,” pointing to a photo on the wall of his grandfather Will and grandmother Ida.
Knabb lands is currently looking to expand the industrial park on its lands across U.S. 90 from the Wal-Mart distribution center in Macclenny. Jimmy Knabb said the park, to be named Midpoint Parkway, will create jobs for the county, a legacy he believes he carries on in his grandfather’s stead.
“One of the things I want to do out there at Midpoint Parkway is put a bronze statue of that man up there, to honor him,” he said, again pointing to the picture of his grandfather. “That’s my dream, to put a statue of him out there because he’s the cause of it all.”
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com
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