By Charles Nelson
The community of Keysville, about 12 miles southeast of Plant City, is one of the oldest settlements in eastern Hillsborough County. Surprisingly, in 1880 its population was around 500, second in size only to Tampa.
Keysville was settled in the early 1870s when pioneers trekked to the Alafia River’s North Prong, centered around today’s Porter Road. Typical of those first settlers were Stephen and Elizabeth Lightsey who migrated by oxen cart from Georgia. They owned a small herd of cattle and established an orange grove, along with other crops, on homesteaded property. Lightsey became known as the ‘sweet potato king’ of Keysville.
It was lumber, however, that fueled Keysville’s growth. The land was heavily timbered with dense pine forests and occasional stands of oak trees. Hewn lumber was in heavy demand, and the forests around Keysville provided a large supply.
The father of Keysville’s lumber industry was a Georgian: ‘Captain’ Daniel McQueen Blue. Blue was appointed as the town’s first postmaster and named the town of Keysville, in honor of US Postmaster General David Key.f
Captain Blue’s most significant contribution, however, was in establishing a lumber mill on the south bank of the Alafia. The saw mill was driven by a large steam engine that alternately powered the lumber mill, a grist mill and two cotton gins. His mill even changed the face of Keysville as early log houses were torn down and rebuilt as full-porched, frame houses with lumber cut at his mill.
Blue used the Alafia River to transport lumber to ports serving distant markets. His products, among many others, included small cedar slats exported to the Peninsula Pencil Factory in New York City and citrus crates that were produced in large numbers. The mill became a mainstay of the community and Keysville’s largest employer, hiring many area farmers seeking a necessary supplement to their farming income. Keysville’s economy boomed in the late 19th century.
After the turn of the century however, the mill and the community’s farming fortunes, both began to falter.
Timber resources became increasingly scarce and were depleted by 1918. In 1906 Blue’s mill, renamed Keysville Mill Co., closed following his death. The loss of the mill was a devastating blow to Keysville’s economy as it eliminated a source of supplemental income for some Keysville farmers.
Coronet (phosphate) mines opened in 1908, providing a few replacement jobs, but the mines drew many farmers away from Keysville. By 1916, Keysville’s population dropped to a mere 85. The Great Depression years that followed were exceedingly hard on small farmers who had little opportunity to earn additional income despite a small increase in mining jobs.
Compounding farmers’ problems, Seaboard Railroad ceased operating its Keysville tracks around 1930 restricting access to markets. Roads, which could aid access, were not paved until the 1940s.
A significant blow to Keysville’s small farm economy occurred in 1956 when, the ‘Strawberry’ school schedule was eliminated. A two-month winter break allowing school kids to help their families pick strawberries was replaced with normal school scheduling. Many strawberry farmers could not afford to pay outsiders to do work previously performed by their kids.
As a result, many small farmers were forced to sell their farms. Not until the 1970s did strawberry farming rebound when migrant workers helped revitalize strawberry farming, but the accumulated economic damage to Keysville had been done.
Keysville, once Hillsborough County’s second largest town, had all but disappeared as a result of fifty years of economic damage to the once booming community.