A Model Convict Camp

Marion Co., FL - 1901

As Good Treatment for the Prisoners As Is Compatible With Their Safe Treatment


The editor of the Star had long had a desire to see the only convict camp in Marion county, but circumstances did not permit themselves to inspect same until Wednesday, when the Hon. W. K. Zewadski, Marion’s able and efficient legislator, went to inspect the Hillman turpentine convict camp, four miles west of Summerfield, in the Proctor settlement, and as the question of their release is the leading question of the day and will be the foremost question for the legislature to convene April 2, we were not slow to accept Mr. Zewadski’s invitation to join him on the trip and in the inspection of the camp.

    The camp is situated some fourteen miles southwest of Ocala. Several hours drive brought us to it. In this trip across country it was evident the “tiller of the soil” was abroad in the land. Plowing was the order of the day and the planting of the spring crop the thought uppermost in the mind of the farmer. The blossoms of the plumb and peach trees presented a lovely picture in their robes of pure white and purple and a reminder that these delicious fruits would add zest to our meals during the long summer days.
    We were fortunate in finding Captain Powell at home and gave us a most cordial welcome and he and his charming wife entertained us most hospitably. Mrs. Powell provided us a meal that would have excited the palate of a potentate and we certainly did justice to its merits.
    When we stated the object of our visit, Mr. Powell, who is Colonel Hillman’s manager and in sole charge, Colonel Hillman residing in and operating a turpentine farm in Citrus county, he readily assented and said it would afford him pleasure in doing so.
    The first place visited was the stockade, the home of the forty-five convicts employed when not at work and on Sunday at this camp. We found the buildings’ enclosure white with a new coat of whitewash. The first building as you enter the high enclosure is the cook house and where the guards, white, have their quarters. Twenty feet distant is the home of the guards, built in the shape of an L As you enter this building a vestibule is picketed off and inside of it and running south is the dining room for the convicts. A long table, running the length of the building, with seats on either side and three large box stoves and a barber’s chair constitutes its furniture.
    The sleeping apartment occupies the base of the L running west. In this apartment are two raised platforms, fifteen inches from the floor, on which the cots of the convicts are placed. Two occupy a cot and between each there is sufficient room for the men to pass and hang up their garments, dress and undress. Each convict is given three changes of undergarments and every night on retiring, which is 8 o’clock, he puts on clean underclothing and when the weather is pleasant and the weather not too cold, each person must take a bath before retiring.
     The convicts are served three meals a day---good wholesome food and plenty of it; a warm breakfast and supper, while dinner is taken in the woods packed in pails. A woman convict takes care of the convicts sleeping quarters, makes the cots and sweeps the floor daily and she also assists in doing the washing of their bedding and clothes and mending, assisted by a male convict.
    Two guards occupy the sleeping quarters, one inside the apartment proper and the other in the vestibule, with two guns at his side ready for any emergency.
    The sleeping room is well ventilated, the windows barred and shutters close them. There is a small room inside the stockade for the sick, but it is seldom used. A doctor from Summerfield attends to their ailments. Captain Powell says the doctor’s service averages $5 a month.
    Connected with the stockade is a splendid garden which furnishes the table of the convicts with plenty of savory and nutritious greens. Tasks, a fair day’s work, are given each man and if he completes the same by Saturday morning, he can rest for the remainder of the day and Sunday.
    To each convict, a plug of tobacco is given as a week’s ration. If he does not use it, he trades it off or sells it for something else.
    When convicts do not perform their tasks assigned them, they are reasoned with and if no reason exists why they should not do them, they are punished by being flogged. Captain Powell administers the floggings. The application is given standing, from three to ten lashes according to the offense. It invariably proves efficacious. The average of three convicts are whipped a month. The guards average about one to four convicts. A wagon with a barrel of good water follows the choppers and scrapers. We saw the convicts at work, talked with them, asked them of their experience in camp and field and spoke of the highest terms of Captain Powell and the care of them and said they had received at this camp the best treatment they had received in their convict experience, some of the convicts having been in other camps.
    The only white men on the place is Captain Powell, his turpentine distiller and other guards.
    Sunday the amuse themselves as best as they can, generally by social converse and having a barber, one of their gang, shave and do the haircutting, for which Captain Powell pays the man. When a preacher can be had he is welcome and Captain Powell compels every convict to attend service and give the preacher a respectful hearing. Lately they have had no one to administer spiritual consolation to them, but Rev. R. F. Rogers, state superintendent of convicts, has promised to secure the camp a spiritual advisor.
    Captain Powell said the cost of feeding a convict is $6 a month. They receive four pair of shoes a year and suits enough to keep them decently clad; and we were quite surprised to note how well clad they were and neatly and cleanly they kept their clothes, while the men themselves were a picture of health. We saw none over forty years of age and the majority were in for life, having killed someone or been accessory to the death of some one.
    Hope springs eternal in the human breast and a convict is no exception to the rule, but some day hope, by faithful service to get a pardon.
    During the year past Captain Powell made 1664 barrels of spirits, that sold for $30,000 and said the business had been profitable, clearing $24,000. The shipping point for resin and turpentine is from Captain West’s big mill, not quite a mile distant from the still. It is sent to the Jacksonville Naval Stores Co.
    The guards are paid $22 a month and board. Besides seeing that the convicts do not escape, they also note their work around the trees is properly done.
    Captain Powell is yet a young man, but has risen from the ranks. He is a Georgian by birth and came to Florida fourteen years ago and began the turpentine business as guard and has risen to his present position of responsibility and trust, by close attention to business, demonstrating that ability, with capacity, is certain to assert itself. He is considered one of the most efficient and successful turpentine managers in the state and the success that has attended his efforts in placing profits on the right side of the ledger attests this fact. Speaking of convict labor, he said it is the best that can be had, always on hand and ready for work and with humane treatment, that work would be easily and promptly given. He said his camp were subleasers  and that Colonel J. H. Hillman paid $150 a year for each of his convicts though the original leasers from the state gave the commonwealth only $30 a man. It is needless to add that convict service is in demand all over the state.
    Speaking of the present condition of the convicts Captain Powell said there was no comparison between that accorded them now and what it was when he first entered the service. Then it was barbarous and inhuman, but now it is humane and he was glad the state took the interest they did in these unfortunates and by law and the state superintendent, compelled the indifferent and hard-hearted task masters to observe the just rules and regulations for their treatment and comfort.

Source: Ocala Evening Star: 3-8-1901

Transcribed, Formatted and Submitted by Linda Flowers by Linda Flowers


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