Sunday, October 3, 1999
controversies of Dozier School
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of two articles on Arthur G.
Dozier School, Florida's oldest training facility, located in Marianna.)
A century ago when Marianna residents built the Florida Industrial School for Boys, which later became Dozier
School, few envisioned the numerous controversies the institution would experience or the many secrets the
grounds would hold.
The concept of a reformatory for juvenile delinquents was a new idea in 1847 when Henry Hayes Lewis, a freshman
in the Florida Legislature, introduced a bill to establish this type school for both "white and colored boys" in
As early as 1825, New York City founded a "house of refuge," the predecessor of this country's reform schools.
Other large cities such as Boston and Philadelphia soon followed. All were supported through private donations
and rehabilitation was attempted through education and work.
But it remained for England to pass the Reformatory Schools Act in 1854, demonstrating the success of separate
institutional treatment facilities for juveniles, for the idea to spread in the United States. These training facilities
became known as state industrial schools.
Determining the age when teen-agers should be sentenced as youthful offenders or adults continued to be the
issue, however. The courts finally decided to attempt reform with those who appeared not to be unduly vicious on
the presumption that they had acted without exercising clear judgement. Those the court deemed incapable of
reform were sent to ordinary prisons.
Marianna had a population of approximately 2,000 at the turn of the century. Surrounded by numerous farms that
had once been huge antebellum plantations, this prosperous town of the Old South had yet to construct electrical
lighting, a sewerage system, a public waterworks, telephone lines or an ice plant. Cotton ranked as Jackson
County's number one crop with bales of cotton often lining Marianna's streets.
Houses were built on large lots with room for horses, chickens and spacious gardens. Hogs and cows roamed free
and often slept on the wooden sidewalks at night.
Meat sold for 5 cents per pound and syrup at 20 cents per gallon. In the cooler winter months, fish peddlers drove
wooden covered wagons up from St. Andrew Bay to sell salt fish and oysters in a vacant lot near Green Street.
Trains on the Louisville and Nashville Railroad stopped at the depot as they had since 1882 when the tracks were
first constructed through town.
In Marianna the jail remained a major concern. Although the town had the only secure jail west of the Apalachicola
River through the 1850s, Jackson County grand jurors recommended the facility's windows be enlarged to admit
more pure air into the dank hollow that bred disease just prior to the Civil War. After the war numerous jailbreaks
occurred. But in 1899, Marianna proudly boasted a new secure jail, and townspeople breathed a sigh of relief.
Citizens gave the 1,200 acres, covered by rolling hills, for the site southwest of town, along with $1,400 to help start
the reform school. The Legislature appropriated $10,000 for the construction of the two reformatory buildings to
segregate the black and white inmates, but not funds for fencing.
The training school was built at a time when conditions at the adult prisons and convict-leasing stockades were still
cruel and inhumane in Florida. Prisoners frequently worked from sunup to sundown, 12 to 15 hours per day. Food
was poor, housing often filthy, sanitary conditions vile and medical care inadequate.
Guards inflicted corporal punishment for the slightest infractions or disobedience with 10 lashes at the whipping
post considered mild treatment. Some of these policies, especially the work system, became part of the program at
the Marianna Industrial School in the beginning until changes occurred in the juvenile and adult penal systems.
THE EARLY YEARS
In her book Our Yesterdays, J.S. Rhyne tells of the first years at the reform school when inmates "worked in fields
with their feet shackled by chains."
During that time, the management was under constant pressure to turn out "enough bundles of hay and bushels of
corn, peanuts and other products" to justify the amount the state paid for fertilizer for the farm.
The superintendent answered the complaints in 1913 by reminding the legislative committee reviewing the school's
proceeds that "with the work done by the boys, some little and 'very bad boys' at that, the show in produce
compares favorably with that of other farms."
He called their attention to the fact that this was not only a farm, "but a home and a reformatory where boys also
received an education."
Marianna State Reform School, as the facility was commonly called, accepted boys of all ages. On Aug. 28, 1913,
the Panama City Pilot listed 9-year-old Robert C. Mitchell as "unmanageable." His mother appeared before Judge
D.K. Middleton and gave her story. After Middleton committed Mitchell to the institution, Sheriff W.A. Brown escorted
him to Marianna.
One year later on Nov. 17, 1914, the school experienced one of its worst scandals. The headlines of the Times
Courier of Marianna reported: "TEN LIVES LOST IN INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL FIRE - White School Building No. 1
Destroyed - Victims of Death on Second Floor - Fire Escapes Could Not be Opened. THOUGHT TO BE
The burned building was designed to house 100 boys. It was built of brick with much interior woodwork, which made
it a veritable firetrap. It had, however, recently been equipped with fire escapes, and the institution had a
fire-fighting organization, but not adequate water supply.
The newspaper reports stated that "not one body could be identified in the fire. Flames spread while all slept except
two inmates, detailed as guards, who rushed upstairs to fire escapes that have never been opened and screaming
for help, "were soon mercifully smothered to unconsciousness."
I.A. Hutchison, Panama City's representative in management at the reform school, left immediately for Marianna. He
attempted to clear up some of the conflicting stories. Later, he reported "the horrible holocaust" was
sensationalized by false accounts "of locked doors and keys that could not be reached."
Although evidence was circumstantial, Walton County Sheriff Murdock Bell arrested George Caldwell of Laurel Hill
for setting the fire. Earlier that year Caldwell's son Bill ha been convicted in criminal court of aggravated assault for
cutting another boy with a knife. In May 1914 Bill had been sent to the Marianna reform school while his attorney
appealed his case to the Florida Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision of the lower court.
Next week: More about the Caldwell case, the flu epidemic and improvements at the school.
The News Herald
Out of the Past
Dozier remains a
residential facility that incarcerates
juvenile felons from all over Florida
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second of two articles on Arthur G. Dozier School, Florida's oldest training facility for
youth, located in Marianna.)
After the great fire of Nov. 17, 1914, that claimed the lives of 10 boys in Dormitory No. 1 at the Florida Industrial
School for Boys in Marianna, George Caldwell of Laurel Hill was arrested for setting the blaze.
According to the Defuniak Springs Breeze of Dec. 3, 1914, the elder Caldwell remained "very much wrought up
over his son's commitment to the reform school." After all efforts failed to get him released, Caldwell threatened to
"blow the damn thing up with dynamite but that he could get his boy out."
Some reports stated that Caldwell had been at the reform school the day of the fire to visit his son, Bill, who had
been sent to Marianna on a charge of cutting another boy with a knife. That day Bill escaped. One person reported
seeing the elder Caldwell run around the corner of the building just before the discovery of the fire.
Now the "boy must not only answer the charge of escaping but is charged with his father being responsible for the
fire," reported the Breeze.
But later that month, the grand jury of Jackson County exonerated Caldwell and recommended that his son be
pardoned. They determined that Caldwell had been made a scapegoat.
An investigation revealed that "officials higher up" had neglected their responsibilities. Those in immediate charge
were found to be "frequenters of houses of ill fame" while on duty. Several others reported absent from work,
grossly neglecting the care of the boys.
In 1915, a second investigation committee, appointed by the state to ascertain the cause of the fire, blamed
management. Then, according to the Panama City Pilot, instead of confining themselves to the issue, the
committee and candidates for public office turned the fire into a political issue.
They recommended the removal of the facility to some point in Central or South Florida. "Why should West Florida
be the seat of any of the state's institutions," queried other newspapers, echoing the comments of downstate
But in an allocation lost to passerby on the grounds, a small wire-fenced cemetery, marked with white crosses,
remains from the big fire in 1914.