“I don’t think it was as bad as it sounds. You have to understand back then times were hard, people were starving and they didn’t have any money. The county couldn’t afford to feed and house prisoners at the jail, so they rented them out to the camps. Times were different; it was a way of life back then.”
Thus reacted one of the descendants of the late T.J. Knabb and William Knabb to last week’s unflattering feature in The Florida Times-Union recounting how they built fortunes in land and cash on the backs of inmates and the Depression-ridden poor.
The piece by Clifford Davis, a T-U reporter whose regular beat includes Baker County, also told of death and disease in the work camps operated nearly 100 years ago by the Knabb brothers.
The most culpable of the two, as outlined by Mr. Davis, was T.J., a state senator in the 1920s who used his position for years to wrest contracts for inmate laborers in Baker, Alachua and Bradford counties.
The inmates, leased legally from their home counties using a system that was later banned amid tales of death and physical abuse in Florida and other states, labored on Knabb-owned and leased land harvesting turpentine from pine trees.
The Florida Legislature, in large part due to testimony about the Baker County camps, outlawed the practice in 1923 and the turpentine kings modified the camp system, staffing them with indebted destitute laborers who were kept in servitude and in further debt via company stores.
T.J. Knabb died in 1937 and Will Knabb in 1971.
The Press solicited reaction from its readers following publication of the T-U article and got a mixed bag of responses ranging from “it’s old news, let it be” to “they should be ashamed” (see Facebook on page three).
All of the Knabb family members of those generations are long gone, as are Baker County citizens who would be old enough to know about the turpentine camps and scandal surrounding a federal trial in the 1930s during which Will Knabb and his son, the late Earl Knabb, were tried and acquitted in Jacksonville for peonage (debtors held in servitude).
Mr. Davis, whose family has roots in other rural north Florida counties, said during an interview last week the Knabb piece grew out of an interest in the work camps that dotted the Florida landscape and typically involved hardscrabble laborers who found themselves indebted to their masters.
In March of this year, he penned a feature on Road Prison Camp 36 that was located near present-day Sunbeam Rd. in south Jacksonville and once held an incorrigible inmate named Arthur Maillefert — the inspiration for Cool Hand Luke, a Paul Newman classic.
Just last month, Mr. Davis wrote about the Pine Top turpentine operation west of Glen St. Mary, and interviewed Macclenny CPAs and brothers Clay and Greg Lyons, who often sweated among the pine trees as youngsters.
In his Knabb feature, Mr. Davis alludes to the curious fact that the fire that virtually destroyed downtown Macclenny in May, 1923 came just days after several prominent businessmen anted up money to pay off fines and secure the release of every inmate in T.J. Knabb’s camp. No connection was ever proven.
“I made an attempt to find out the names of those donors to see if I could match them with the names of persons who then owned businesses downtown, but got nowhere with it,” said Mr. Davis in the interview.
James Knabb said this week several acquaintances brought up the feature article during the week since it was published on September 10, and he’s responded similarly — times were different then, and he has great respect for and memories of his grandfather Will Knabb, who he recalls helped out ordinary people in need until his death.