“Three [railway] carloads of materials for the new sawmill above the water tank at Samville were moved over the new spur this morning. There will be boarding houses, residences, mill building, stables and office and the name of the new town will be ‘Slater.’”
Fort Myers Press, “Across the River Building News,” May 31, 1924
The Slater lumber mill, across the river in New Prospect (North Fort Myers), was to become the largest pine milling operation in Florida. For 19 years, the smoke from its three, 150-foot-high smokestacks seemed elemental to the landscape of Lee County. In 1944, however, having consumed to the last wood chip every yellow pine its owners had to feed it, the great engines driving the machinery of the mill shut down. The huffing locomotives that brought the timber into the mill and carried the dressed wood out, the clanging conveyor that carried the logs up to the mill’s massive, screaming band saws and whining circular saw, the blacksmith’s earth-shaking steam hammer, the furnaces firing the boilers that drove the smoke of burning wood shavings through 150 feet of funnels so high in the sky that the smoke was visible for miles around, stopped. With the last, long groan of its deep-toned steam whistle, the beating heart of the mill halted, and like a last exhalation from the bellows of its lungs, the smoke from the boiler stacks collapsed and dissipated forever into the morning air.
Slater was 9 miles northeast of Fort Myers, about 3 miles above Samville. Samville was another small community across the river. Named for the Georgia cattleman who moved to the area in the 19teens and built a store and sawmill by the railway tracks, Samville, like Slater, has vanished virtually without a trace. All that remains of either today are the Slater and Samville roads that intersect with Bayshore Road in east North Fort Myers.
Southern Yellow Pine
Ernest Archer “Frog” Smith (1896-1993), local folklore historian and former Slater Mill worker, said that back in the early 20th century, there was “a big sawmill every few miles along every railroad in the state,” claiming that “Railroad trains hauled more lumber than any other freight.” Long before Florida was made over with coconut palms and other imported exotics into a “tropical paradise,” the peninsula was forested with pine trees, from the hill country in the north to the Everglades in the south.
Southern yellow pine is prized for its strength and durability. A dense wood, with heartwood so tough it dulls the blades of industrial saws, it is ideal for use in house and bridge construction. The trees processed through the Slater Mill went all over the U.S.—wooden laundry tub manufacturers especially loved the wood because it wore smoothly without splintering. Slater lumber was exported also to the Caribbean and all over South America—in Argentina they used the pine for railroad ties; to western Europe—the Germans coveted it for use in their dye works because it stands up under the assault of acid; to England for chemical tanks; and to Africa, where the timber was used to brace the walls in gold mines.
Florida Crackers loved the yellow pine because it was full of pitch. They called it “lightered wood,” because like the Southern temperament, it flared up quickly. The high resin content of yellow pine also made it impervious to termites; the golden, fragrant resin gums up their terrible little teeth, as it gums up the teeth of the saw blades in the milling process.
In 1924, J. W. McWilliams hired a timber cruiser to scout out the land north of the Caloosahatchee for its probable yield of timber. A man driving three yoke of oxen hauled a wagon filled with tools and camping equipment around the wilds there for about a week, and on the basis of his report, McWilliams paid $410,000 for 102,000 thousand acres of trees covering the area of present-day Cape Coral.
McWilliams built his mill, which he named after the very good friend who helped finance the venture, alongside the Atlantic Coastline Railroad tracks a few miles northeast of Weaver’s Corner. The plant reportedly covered six acres and in the beginning, processed 50,000 feet of timber per day.
In 1929, McWilliams sold the operation to lumberman W.H Dowling and his partner, Vaughn Camp, a Tampa banker. Dowling and Camp logged east of Fort Myers toward LaBelle and Alva. By 1930, the mill employed 250 men who were turning out 1,750,000 feet of planed lumber a month.
When Dowling died in 1941 and his wife took over the operation, the mill was cutting up to two million feet of timber a day with a workforce of 500 men.
The mill town of Slater, which had begun in 1925 with a single boarding house, grew to a town of over 100 houses. The white and Negro sections of town were separated by Daughtrey’s creek. The town had a general store, or commissary, a post office and church. There were no paved roads in or out of Slater until 1936, when Dowling pressured the county to allot WPA funds to the construction of a three-mile road from the mill to Bayshore Road.
The houses were lit with kerosene lamps. In wet weather, the yards of the houses turned to deep, shoe-sucking mud and the odor from outhouses overcame the fragrance of pine resin from the mill. The lakes of water produced by the plunging, summer rains teemed with so many croaking frogs you could scarcely walk to the outhouse without stepping on one. The water from the wells stank, like Dante’s hell, of sulfur.
The mill employed laborers, mechanics and skilled machinists. Before the stock market crash in 1929, mill workers were paid 90 cents a day for more than ten hours labor. During the subsequent economic depression, they were paid in tin coins called, “babbitt.” Four dollars’ worth of babbitt equaled $2 worth of real money.
The woodsmen went out on the locomotives on Monday morning and were brought back to town on Saturday afternoon. Out in the woods they lived in camp shacks that, like the tracks for the small, log-hauling locomotives, were picked up and moved as sections were timbered out.
Most of the timber men were black men. Some of them lived while in the woods in old railway boxcars and passenger cars fitted out as dormitories and dining cars. Such accommodations were luxurious, as they were floored with hardwood, dry in wet weather and warm in cold. After dark, the windows of these cars glowed softly, and from them drifted voices and laughter, as if a passenger train had stopped there in the woods for the night.
In the woods, the men ate wild game for dinner. They fried fish and grilled red meats on wood or gas stoves. The smoke from the cooking fires drifted through the woods, attracting the interest of racoons and opossum, panthers and bears.
When the men who sawed the three-foot-wide trunks until, with a sharp crack, over 115 feet of tree came crashing down, came rolling back into town on Saturday afternoons, their women were waiting to spread quilts on the open flat cars and lay out platters of meats and bowls of cooked greens and rice and cornbread and biscuits, and with whatever instruments the men had, they made music and danced and had the bit of fun that human beings must have in order to live. White people said, without malice, that the sight reminded them of a colorful picnic on a Ringling Brothers’ train, pausing enroute to its next stop.
Generally, having the advantage of education and training, white men were the mechanics and machinists at the mill site. Most of them were not local men, but workers hired from out of town. One such man was Marshall Jackson Barfield, a machinist who had come down from Georgia with his wife, Dorothy, the two of them moving from sawmill to sawmill until 1928, when they arrived at Slater with the five children they had had along the way.
One of their daughters, who was 13 when her father went to work in the Slater mill, later remembered the experience of living in a mill town. She said that during the Depression, “They paid off in babbitt. We had no money, and you had to go to the commissary to buy groceries. Everything was twice the price in the commissary as it was anyplace else. It was really really hard.”
Bernese Barfield graduated from Fort Myers High School in 1933 and in 1939 married the 37-year-old owner of the Sydney Davis Men’s Shop, who affectionately called her “Berne.”
Sydney Davis died in 1989, and before her own passing in 2016, Berne Davis gave millions of dollars to civic improvements, cultural endowments and philanthropic causes in Fort Myers, including, most notably, the endowment of a professorship of horticulture and landscape design at FGCU; the restoration of the neglected and endangered Edison-Ford Winter Estate; and a cumulative $2 million to resurrect the deteriorating former courthouse on First Street downtown as the Sydney & Berne Davis Art Center.
For her many contributions to the cultural advancement of this city, Fort Myers would honor the Slater sawmill worker’s daughter has it had only one other—Berne would assume the title, formerly belonging only to Mina Edison, of first lady of Fort Myers.