A HOT SPOT — There’s an area of land, Black Point, that juts into the St. Johns River on the Westside. It’s now the site of the sprawling Naval Air Station Jacksonville, with large planes humming over Roosevelt Boulevard as they land.
Black Point has long bustled with activity. Beginning in 1909, National Guardsmen practiced in the area, only to be replaced by army men during World War I. Quartermasters trained at Camp Johnston, a complex that contained over 600 buildings and America’s second largest rifle range (behind the one at Ohio’s Camp Perry). Following the end of WWI in 1919, the National Guard returned, changing the base’s name to “Camp Foster.” This locale shifted gears yet again after the Great Depression kicked off in 1929.
THREADBARE — “Well, honey, just wasn’t nothin’.” When asked about the Great Depression, this was standard answer given by the grandmother of Glenn Emery, who wrote this entry. Born near Gainesville, Florida, “Granny” had to feed five of her children during those trying times. Later in life, she almost never talked about the era during which America’s jobless rate hit 25%.
Homeless people flooded into Florida during the Depression. These wanderers were often called “hoboes.” Many came from the North, seeking warm weather and sometimes work. So many flowed in that the governor placed guards on highways near the state line, turning back those who couldn’t provide for themselves. Jacksonville’s city officials also became alarmed, and this is where Black Point came into play. The mayor gave transient men three choices: return home, suffer internment in the city prison farm, or live at a new work facility at Camp Foster. Established in 1932, the labor encampment occupied the National Guard reservation and rifle range.
In downtown Jacksonville, Hemming Park served as the starting point for many Black Point-bound men. The police and the Salvation Army directed homeless males to the park, where a truck picked them up twice a day and carried them to Camp Foster. Up to 1,200 men lived at the facility at a time.
A NEW BEGINNING — One of the camp’s originators was local leader John P. Ingle. Some interesting details came from a 1939 federal government interview with him: “Rather than having (the men) loafing around the city, living like bums, we thought that putting them to work, giving them shelter, food, and a few other of the necessities of life… would go far towards a start at rehabilitation. We took them to the Camp, gave them a bath and a physical examination to ascertain if they were suffering from any contagious disease, providing treatment in necessary cases, and supplied clean, serviceable clothing.”
The work camp at Camp Foster proved the first of its kind in Florida. It even served as the forerunner of the Civilian Conservation Corps camps, claimed John Ingle. Starting in 1933, the successful CCC provided food, shelter, and work to young unemployed men across the nation.
FROM TREE SURGEONS TO TEXAS RANGERS — Back in Jax, the managers of Camp Foster believed that a mind was a terrible thing to waste. In Mr. Ingle’s words, “There were all kinds of men (at the camp) — a large percentage of them being college men from university and technical institutions. These men were appointed as teachers to groups forming classes in electrical work, simple engineering, carpentry work and other mechanical trades… There were a number of artists and painters, and these organized classes, instructing those who wished to avail themselves of this particular study. There were classes in English, and also classes conducted in foreign languages — French and Germen especially… We arranged with the Jacksonville Public Library to supply books for the men to read… ”
Camp Foster tried to find a niche for each of its residents. As Mr. Ingle explained, “There were cooks, laundrymen, bakers, etc., all of them were given employment at tasks for which they were particularly fitted… One man was tree surgeon who took some of the men and instructed them as to the care of the trees and shrubbery on the reservation. Another man had had medical training and had charge of the ‘first aid’ station… I remember one who was an ex-Texas Ranger. We let him head the police force, which maintained order in the Camp. Everybody was on their honor, and men arrived and left any time they desired… By the way, the policemen were distinguished by a piece of blue cloth around one arm… (Camp workers) were paid ten cents an hour (about $1.15 in today’s money) for their work. They operated a canteen, and here they could purchase small things — tobacco, cigarettes, cold drinks, candy, etc. The articles were all bought and sold at cost… ”
FIX-UPS — Little doubt that the buildings & vehicles at Camp Foster benefited from the transients. According to Mr. Ingle, “There were a lot of old army trucks out there, and these were overhauled by the mechanics — the State furnishing the material, and the men supplying the labor… There was a rusty old fire engine at the Camp, belonging to the State. Some of the men got out this old engine, cleaned it up, oiled it, put it in running order, and organized a fire department… Different work projects were started — mosquito control, draining and ditching of the swampland, road building, etc. The buildings on the reservation were put in first class condition — reroofed, repainted, and repaired generally, the electrical wiring all restrung… (The residents) dug and planted a garden, supplying all kinds of fresh vegetables for the Camp commissary…”
REST & RELAXATION — Life at Camp Foster wasn’t all toil. As Mr. Ingle noted, “(T)here were actually quite a number of athletes, and they organized boxing contests, basketball clubs, baseball clubs — challenging other teams, which developed into quite a feature of the Camp — the prize fights particularly being of much interest to the people of Duval County. On the nights these contests were held, there would be great crowds… There were well trained musicians — the place was just littered with persons who could play some musical instrument. A (camp) band was organized… When the men wished to go the Jacksonville at night, they were given a pass…”
Camp Foster attempted to maintain the dignity of its residents, according to Mr. Ingle: “We were particularly anxious that there be no women case workers assigned to the Camp, as we felt the men were sensitive (about their plight)… There was no casework and we asked no questions… We figured that a great number of them, embarrassed by lack of funds,… were hiding under assumed names.”
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED — With its population dwindling to about 175, the transient facility at Camp Foster closed its gates in October 1935. It had fulfilled the goal of providing a second chance to homeless males. True, the nation’s economic ills did continue until December 1941, when World War II finally provided the Depression’s cure. However, Camp Foster wasn’t so badly needed anymore. In part, this was because some of the homeless men had been able to establish permanent residence in Duval County, therefore becoming certified for employment under the WPA., a federal government work relief program. Furthermore, the younger men were often enrolled in the CCC, while other transients were helped to return to their former homes. But this didn’t mean an end to the activity at Black Point…