Ambrose Hart, a Northern lad seeking his fortune arrived in Clay County in January of 1867. It’s a wonder he didn’t turn around and go right back home to New York because that January it rained …
Ambrose Hart, a Northern lad seeking his fortune arrived in Clay County in January of 1867. It’s a wonder he didn’t turn around and go right back home to New York because that January it rained all day every day, some said. This wasn’t a light rain or a sprinkle. It was a frog strangler. People wondered what they would do next … rust or mildew.
He was one of many Yankees, young and old, who were inspired by stories of Florida’s vast resources and raw potential told by Union soldiers returning home after the Civil War.
Unlike many others, Hart was well prepared with capital, a shrewd business sense and a charming willingness to work hard and learn about the people and the place.
He was also lucky because on the docks in Jacksonville just fresh off the boat he attracted the attention of Col. S.B. Thompson. Thompson was a powerful and influential Middleburg landowner and early settler with additional plantations and business interests in Madison and Lake City.
In 1850, there were two main streets in Middleburg, Main and Thompson. Col. Thompson owned the hotel, general store and three large cotton warehouses. But in the War Between the States he was on the wrong side.
On October 24, 1864, the Fourth Massachusetts Cavalry attacked the settlement and burned his hotel and all three warehouses to the ground.
Col. Thompson was luckier than most because he owned vast acres of land, which gave him the raw material required to rebuild and this was what he and his neighbors set about doing. The Colonel recruited young Hart as a partner and they began to build a fortune (Thompson’s second and Hart’s first) in the logging business along Black Creek.
They put together a huge operation. Their basic equipment included 20 mules and carts, sufficient hand tools for cutting, overhand hauling and rafting for replacements when repair was required. Critical to the efficient operation was a portable forge to routinely maintain iron tools, harness and wagon parts. Their smithy became an additional money maker by taking in jobs for other timber operations.
A full crew of 15 men was expected to harvest 6,000 board feet per day from standing live in the woods to floating a mile and half to three miles overland in a nearby creek. That represents enough wood to frame three 1,800 square foot homes today. Men with hand tools and mules did it all. Employers fed and housed workers in crude housing and paid from $1 to $1.50.
The work was demanding but, unless rain turned the ground soft, the Thompson and Hart crews never missed their quotas.
They felled pine trees then cut them into lengths ranging from 20-to-35 feet to produce a log averaging 300 board feet of lumber each. There was an art to the cutting so that it fell in a way that the wheels of a cart could be straddled over the wider butt end and the log hauled up and chained to the underside of the cart, suspended between the eight-foot tall wheels.
Then, depending on the condition of the ground, either four or six mules were hitched to the assembly and dragged the log a mile or so into a nearby creek. There they floated restrained by a temporary corral that kept them from meandering off down the creek until sufficient logs were accumulated for sale. Just before deposit in the water, every log was branded on each end with the owner’s initials.
This arduous work was done in all kinds of weather under the most punishing conditions. The only real help a man got was from the mules and it is kind to say that a mule is a temperamental beast. Worse yet, man and mule worked with the constant threat of the other residents of the woods and creeks. Mosquitoes and sand flies were as certain as the sunrise. Water moccasins patrolled the areas near the water and diamond back rattlers infested pine woods. Hart swore he saw an eighteen-foot alligator.
Ambrose Hart remained in Clay County almost a year to the day then moved on to the Lake City area with the Thompson family to investigate opportunities there. Thankfully, he wrote frequent letters home vividly describing the land, people and their day to day lives. Over a century later, his words recall rural Clay County struggling to recover from a vicious war with dignity, hard work and humor.