K I N G S L E Y L A K E . O R G
With the opening of Camp Blanding as a regular Army camp at the start of World War II, Starke experienced a boom such as few small towns in the U.S. have known. It became the typical Army town of that period and was the subject of much publicity, good and bad, in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast. It became known as Boom Town U.S.A., and was featured in articles in "Colliers", "McCall's", "The Saturday Evening Post", TIME Magazine, and many daily newspapers. It was the experience of a lifetime, and few who lived through it would want to do so again, in spite of the monetary benefits.
It was crazy... it was incredible... there aren't enough words in the English language to describe what was happening in Starke during World War II.
In a front page streamer headline, the Florida Times Union hailed Camp Blanding as Florida's Fourth Largest City", comparing the story of the Blanding era to "the magic of a city springing up in the wilderness at the crossroads of two pioneer wagon trains."
Newspapers and magazines across the nation picked up the theme and Starke soon became known as "Boomtown U.S.A.", resulting from its overnight change from a sleepy crossroads town of 1,500 to "a teeming, bulging, false-fronted, frenzied, dollar=grabbing I-don't-know-what!", as famed journalist Ward Morehouse described it in a blistering article in "The New York Sun". Similar articles appeared in "Colliers", "McCall's", the "Saturday Evening Post" and "Time" Magazine, making Starke a household word across the nation.
"From a forest of underbrush and scrub oak (on the east side of Kingsley Lake), there came into being: Florida's fourth largest city, named for Major General Albert H. Blanding, retired commanding general of the 31st (Dixie) Division and on-time head of the Army's National Guard Bureau," the Times Union reported.
Blanding started out to be a National Guard training site to replace old Camp Foster, which, with the threat of possible war, had been selected by the War Department for location of a Naval Air Station.
Work began on preparing the 28,200 acre site acquired by the State Armory Board for $199,000, making it suitable for diversified training, including artillery ranges in the sandhill area east of Kingsley Lake. Salvage materials were brought from Camp Foster and work on the housing area at Blanding started in the last quarter of 1939.
This modest program had hardly been completed when the "Day of Infamy" as President Roosevelt called it Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941 launched World War II, and Blanding became a sprawling regular Army post teeming with 100,000 infantry trainees at its peak.
The impact on Starke was immediate, and one for which the town was totally unprepared. Emergency construction of facilities at Blanding to accommodate 2,800 beds, instead of the 25 capacity originally planned, required an influx of 21,000 laborers with a monthly payroll of $2,500,000.
Barracks and other buildings were assembled and erected on the site almost overnight. Starke was thrust into a building program of its own, to accommodate bars, restaurants, amusement spots, and novelty shops appealing to the trade of servicemen, some of whom were followed by their families. Every vacant room in town was rented, to help house workers at Blanding, as well as wives and children of the military.
The media attention to conditions here was overwhelmingsome of it favorable, some not. The "Colliers" story contained beautiful color photographs of Kingsley Lake, and predicted that Starke would become a city of 30,000 based on data that estimated every two soldiers in a military camp would attract one new civilian to the nearest town.
In a story captioned "Boom Town U.S.A." McCall's said:"Down close to the Caribbean, Starke, Florida embodies mathematical problems of humans and defense. Normal population 1,500; construction workers now 18,000; army coming soon with 60,000.Local sewage, water, light and phone systems were overwhelmed. Opening its office in Starke in November 1941 with 27 employees, Southern Bell handled over 6,000 long distance calls to all parts of the country during its first 23 days. In December the number jumped to 11,000 and 15,000 in January.
"I think Starke must have been a very pleasant village not very long ago. It has some leading characters in its company of older residents who might have been figures in a mildly amusing plan about the sleepier, colder part of Florida: the young mayor who was unexpectedly elected to the boom, the leisurely editor of the clever local paper making more money but having less fun doing it, and the hearty, goodlooking Evelyn Stephens, secretary of the Starke Chamber of Commerce.
"It's a wonderful thing for Starke that Mrs. Stephens arrived before the Camp Blanding builders did. She is a migrant, who luckily came here from Oklahoma at just the right time because she liked the Spanish moss. She lived near Fort Sill during the last war and knew what to do to help solve the problems of Army towns. She organized probably the only Chamber of Commerce in the world, certainly in Florida, that tells tourists to stay away. Mrs. Stephens went to work and placed 3,500 new people in private homes, and today almost every house in Starke is a boarding house. The little town of 1,500 has jumped to more than 5,000, not counting a surrounding 4,000 in tourist camps, trailers or worse; and 1,800 to 2,000 more in construction barracks, where bunk occupants pay 25 cents a night for the privilege of sleeping.""With a steady stream of worker-commuters who couldn't find a bed in the Starke area, there are accidents every day on the traffic-beaten highway to Jacksonville and Gainesville, but there is no hospital or ambulance service here. Even the town jail is inadequate with its six or seven drunks to a cell, which has often been the quota on Saturday nights. There are neither enough doctors nor cops. It has been wet and cold."Under the heading "Defense Boom in Dixie", TIME Magazine said that in Florida 15,000 men were throwing up a tent city at Camp Blanding for 75,000 soldiers. Starke's rents jumped from $19-$25 to $50-$60. Old residents complained that Negro cooks and maids they had paid $4-$7 per week were quitting to work for families of Army and Navy officers for $10-$12 a week. The 'sporting houses' on Jacksonville's drab Houston Street raised their prices and expanded their personnel by 200. The local Health Department shocked some staid residents by publishing figures on the high rate of venereal disease in the Starke area. Officers at Blanding warned the City administration that something must be done to clean up the town or it would be declared 'off limits'. The Telegraph was criticized by some for publishing such information.
TIME commented: "Into such spectacular activity, sober-minded Southerners could read little long term meaning. Once the camps are built, the jobs will be gone. For a South that needs the tools and factories of modern industry, abandoned dance halls and beer parlors will solve no problems."
At two o'clock Saturday afternoon Walter McFashion, boot-black at Bill Mundy's Three Friends Barber Shop, chased a speeding laundry truck down the middle of Call Street. "Hey! Stop!" he parted. "We're outta everything! Mr. Bill says gimme 200 towels right now! Sho is a good thing I caught you 'fore you lef' townman oh man!"
Walter's plight was symbolic. The rush that was taking place at the barber shop was going on in every business in town. Twenty thousand laborers whose job was to build a military camp in 90 days had descended on Starke population 1,395 like a swarm of locusts. Unbelievable! Barber shop customers had to take numbered tickets and wait their turn in the chairs. Clipped hair piled up on the floor faster than it could be swept up.
Natives had been forewarned of an impending boom and had made some effort to prepare themselves. Here and there a store had been enlarged, an outmoded facade replaced with neon lights and plate glass, and attics and garages turned into makeshift sleeping quarters. Starke considered itself prepared... but no way!
The town became a teeming center of humanity... the crossroads of North Florida... from 1,500 inhabitants to 5,000 almost overnight... "No Vacancy" signs everywhere... 18 people rooming in one small bungalow... prospecting investors arriving daily, but leaving in disgust for lack of carpenters and materials for building... housewives waiting in line for groceries... crow-bars needed to get into the post office... Waitresses and service station attendants all frazzle-nerved and sleepy-eyed... stores open until midnight to rake in the last dollar... Local farmers amazed at carnival atmosphere... street hawkers, shooting galleries, instant photo shops, fortune tellers... bumper-to-bumper traffic on highways... some workers forced to commute from Ocala, 70 miles away... roads lined with hitchhikers carrying tools and suitcases... Oakies camped along the road... Blanding brass appealing for sightseers to stay away...
County jailer Ben Rowe summed it all up: Somebody knocking at the front door and the back door, and the telephone ringing off the hook at the same time. NUTS!