Newsletter -- July/August, 2005.

PEONAGE IN PUTNAM - A CENTURY AGO

Recently, Putnam County found itself at the center of unwelcome national media attention following a raid upon the labor camp owned by Ronald Evans, Sr. in East Palatka. Local, state, and federal law-enforcement and other agencies raided the camp based upon accusations of EPA violations stemming from the dumping of raw sewage into Cow Creek which feeds into the St. Johns River. Included among the other potential charges for possible investigated was that Evans held workers in peonage. Peonage — a system of forced labor in which workers are compelled to work in order to pay off a debt owed to their employer — was outlawed by federal statute in 1867. In the case of Evans Labor Camp there has been some speculation that workers became indebted to him (for transportation costs to the camp (some from as far away as Louisiana), for food, lodging, alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal drugs) and were forced to work for him until the debt was paid. The typical peon is ill-educated, unskilled, desperate for work and finds himself in a position to neither seek help nor challenge the legitimacy of the debt. In the history of the South the typical peon was also an African-American. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries peonage was widespread in areas of the South where particular industries — lumber, turpentine, phosphate, plantation agriculture— needed a large number of laborers but labor was scarce. For these employers peonage could keep labor costs low while allowing individual employers to maintain possession of the laborers under their control.

A century earlier in 1906 Putnam Countians found themselves in a similar national spotlight. Local lumberman F. J. “Jack” O'Hara was charged and placed on trial for violation of the statute outlawing peonage. The unusual aspect of the case and the principal reason it came to national, and even international, attention was that the peons in question were European immigrants. The firm of Hodges & O’Hara of Buffalo Bluff had secured about fifty foreign laborers—mostly Russian and German Jews—from New York labor agents to work at the mill. The firm paid for the transportation to Florida of the laborers who had to sign contracts agreeing to pay back the firm by having it withhold a portion of their future earnings. Laborers reported that while at Buffalo Bluff they were guarded by armed men, forced to purchase goods at exorbitant prices from the firm’s commissary (thereby increasing their debt), and that those who were caught trying to escape were whipped. At least one worker who fled the camp owing money to the firm was arrested at the insistence of the firm on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses. Utilizing that 1891 Florida law was a common tactic among employers holding workers in peonage. Usually a Justice of the Peace would issue a warrant and local law enforcement officers would forcibly deliver the laborer back to the employer who would pay the laborer’s fine and court costs. The laborer would then be further indebted to his employer.

O’Hara was arrested by the U.S. Marshal in July, 1906. His case went to trial at the federal court in Jacksonville in December. At the end of the ten day trial the jury required only one vote, which was unanimous, for his acquittal. A second trial lasted three weeks but the jury required only fifteen minutes to return with a verdict of acquittal.

Scholarly opinion is that the evidence against O’Hara was overwhelming. However, Southerners were closing ranks to protect their own and the image of the South. Southern newspapers and Congressmen launched a campaign depicting the government investigators and prosecutors as unwelcome, meddling outsiders and the immigrant laborers as opportunistic scum. A typical depiction that pandered to prevailing prejudices was provided by the Palatka News who described the government witnesses as “divers and sundry, dirty, greasy, lousy, lazy and wholly irresponsible Russian Jews who told preposterous tales.”

O’Hara disappeared from the historical stage but peonage, primarily with African-Americans as victims, would remain an endemic problem in some parts of the South well into the 1940’s. After World War II the labor-intensive nature of work in the South yielded to mechanization. In agriculture much of the labor-intensive work that remains is done by seasonal workers who are often migrants. The few complaints of peonage that have been made in recent years are generally among this population.

ANNUAL MEMBERSHIP MEETING - JULY 23d

The Society's annual membership meeting will be held on Saturday July 23rd at 2:00 P.M. at the Bronson-Mulholland House. In addition to the reports to be made and the election of board members and officers for the coming year there will be a presentation about the new book on Putnam County's history. Hope to see you there!

WRITER'S WORKSHOP TO BE HELD JULY 18th

No one person is writing the new book about the history of our county. Most of the content of that book will be written by you and your neighbors - people with a story to tell about themselves, their family, their history. To assist all those with stories to tell the Society is holding a Writer's Workshop at the Price-Martin Center on July 18th at 7:00 P.M. The workshop will be led by Mr. David Bice of Heritage Publishing—the publisher of our new county history. Mr. Bice's firm will soon have published county histories for all 67 counties in Alabama. He has also published county histories for counties in Texas and Florida and is himself the author of at least nine books.

INCREASED HOURS OF OPERATION AT THE BRONSON-MULHOLLAND HOUSE

At the June 7th meeting of the Society's Board of Directors a motion was passed to increase the hours of operation of the Bronson-Mulholland House. Currently, the House is open on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 2:00 P.M. until 5:00 P.M. In addition to those days it was decided to have the House open on Monday and Wednesday for those same hours. The operating hours for the Putnam Museum, located adjacent to the House, will remain the same - Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 2:00 P.M. until 5:00 P.M.

DEACON EDDIE JULIUS VREEN

Deacon Eddie Julius “E. J.” Vreen was born on February 13, 1897, at Eureka, Florida. In his early years, he was employed by Wilson Cypress Company until a serious accident ended his carrier in the swamps. In 1926 he worked at the Hotel James and later at the Marion Hotel. He was also a salesman for several different clothing stores, including Palatka Clothing.

In 1962, he became a deputy sheriff under Sheriff Walt Pellicer and served until 1974. He was also a community news writer for the Palatka Daily News in the 1970’s as well as having a gospel music radio show on WWPF radio station. On March 28, 1978, the Putnam County Board of County Commissioners named the connecting street between the Old Jacksonville Highway and U.S. 17 North as “Eddie Vreen Road” in his honor because of his dedicated service as a school crossing guard at that location.

One of Eddie’s favorite stories was that Sheriff Pellicer had sent him to Crescent City to investigate the death of a horse. When he arrived he found that the horse had died on Eucalyptus Avenue. Eddie knew that he would have to write a report on the incident, so to make sure he would spell the street correctly in his report, he dragged the horse around the corner to Main Street.

Prior to his passing in 1999 he presented former Sheriff Taylor Douglas with a cast-iron dog. When Sheriff Douglas retired, he presented the dog to the Historical Society in memory of Deputy Sheriff Eddie Vreen. Obviously, the cast-iron dog had some significant sentimental value to Vreen but the dog’s origin remains unknown. It has been postulated that the dog was perhaps a gift to Vreen from local students in appreciation of his long service as a school crossing guard.