Clay Sink remains; others fade away

Small communities with names such as “Mexico,” “Drexel,” “Ehren,” and  “Chipco” appeared on Pasco County maps more than 100 years ago.

They were located along the Orange Belt Railway, the first — and last — railroad to cross Central Pasco with a potential for future development.

Still moss-draped as it was when the Slaughters buried their infant daughter in 1873, the Clay Sink Cemetery is located on a hill and is the final resting place for six generations. Descendants still live in Pasco County. (Courtesy of Doug Sanders)

The names of those small towns now are mere footnotes in Pasco County’s history.

But, a tiny community has survived.

Surrounded by hundreds of acres of the Withlacoochee State Forest, a 2-square-mile area is still known as “Clay Sink.”

Call it a quirk of fate.

Unlike many of Florida’s rural outposts, by the 1930s, the greater Clay Sink area had a complex economy.

In addition to farming and ranching, the expansion of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad spurred a timber harvesting industry and a turpentine business.

“It was lonely living oftentimes, but we had the radio to listen to programs like the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ and ‘Fibber McGee and Molly,’” recalled Jean Brinson Ward, who was 7 years old when her father monitored the area in the 1940s from the fire tower for the U.S. Forestry Service.

A wood-frame building, erected in 1904 on this site, served as the Clay Sink Missionary Baptist Church until the present building was constructed of heart pine in 1956. It remains one of the few churches still located on state forestland. (Courtesy of Doug Sanders)

The settlement has been known by different names.

In a land transaction on May 20, 1862, Jesse Sumner sold 120 acres to Harrison H. Slaughter and Martha Ann McKinney Slaughter.

Martha had three children from a first marriage in 1859, and at least 10 children with Harrison, who had escaped a Yankee POW camp at the start of the Civil War and fled to the Everglades.

The settlement that soon developed initially was called Slaughter, after this pioneering family.

But later, it was called Clay Sink, after the local clay sinkhole.

Life wasn’t exactly easy.

Farms were worked in the intense heat of a Florida sun without the benefit of modern air conditioning or diesel tractors.

Families grew their own pork, chicken, beef, and planted gardens for vegetables.

And, they saw plenty of wildlife.

During an oral history with the Citrus County Historical Society on August 26, 2006, Frances Pritchell, a lifelong resident of Clay Sink, described what happened to her husband when he came home from a late shift at Pasco Packing in Dade City: “It was dark, and when he turned out the lights at the front gate and opened the gate, something ran into him and like to have knocked him down. He thought it was a dog. He came out around the house, but the dog was in the yard. Well, when he got along there about the chimney, it squalled out. It was a panther, and he had to go on around it to come in the house. About that time, it hollered again. A panther. And then about that time the dogs taken after it, and that was it. But, there are panthers here.”

Built as a one-room schoolhouse in 1912, this structure has served as the fellowship hall for the Clay Sink Missionary Baptist Church since school consolidation in 1943. (Courtesy of Doug Sanders)

During Prohibition, the Dade City Banner reported this news item on Sept. 22, 1925:

“Saturday a raid in the Slaughter neighborhood resulted in the capture of two stills, both small ones.”

No arrests were made in one instance, the newspaper reported. But in the other, “Bob Johnson, colored, not only lost his lard can outfit and a gallon of shine, but was also lodged in Jail.”

A year later, the Dade City Banner reported on the burial of Roy Slaughter at Clay Sink Cemetery. He was a veteran of World War I and also…”a member of Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico during the border troubles caused by the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).”

During World War II, a bombing range less than a mile east of Clay Sink was operated by the U.S. Army for testing Mustard Gas, an oily liquid used as a shell filling, according to Jean Brinson Ward, vice chairman of the Dade City Historic Preservation Advisory Board.

Now the home of the Florida Bass Conservation Center—the state’s major freshwater fish production hatchery—the bombing range was used to test the effects on goats and rabbits.

Details from a 1956 Pasco County map show Slaughter as a settlement in the extreme northwest corner of Pasco County. Richloam is locatedDetails from a 1956 Pasco County map show Slaughter as a settlement in the extreme northwest corner of Pasco County. Richloam is located across the county line in Hernando County. (Courtesy of Fivay.org)

“We could feel the earth shake when the bombs were dropped, and our house was in Richloam, which was about 9 (miles) or 10 miles from the range,” Ward said.

In an article published by The Tampa Tribune on Dec. 26, 2007, Pasco County Attorney Robert Sumner said people wanted to live in Clay Sink “where they were free to do what they wanted to do without being fenced in, where they could develop their own church.”

Back then, Sumner added, “the people who came to Florida came for the same reasons people originally came to the United States.”

Sumner’s own family history dates back to the 1820s, before Pasco County was created.

In October 1936, the federal government started buying forestland around Clay Sink, first from the Schroeder Land and Timber Company for $3 an acre, and then from area families such as the ancestors of 84-year-old Henry Boyett.

“They didn’t want our cattle eating the young pine trees they had planted,” Boyett recalled during an interview at the fellowship hall. “We tried to convince them there was too much turpentine in those saplings for cattle to digest.”

By 1939, the purchase of private-owned farms was completed to begin restoring the forests and wetlands under the U.S government’s Withlacoochee Resettlement Act.

To this day, Clay Sink remains a small cluster of farmsteads and homes due to the Great Depression and the loss of grazing lands.

For Boyett, though, it’s a desirable place.

He describes it as “peace and quiet, and it can never be developed.

“It’s the most fantastic thing I can tell you,” Boyette said.

In the stillness of this place, rainfall could be heard falling on the tin roof of the fellowship hall.

Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .

Published July 24, 2019

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