- Historic Sites
"The Woods Were Tossing With Jewels”
A Childhood in the Florida Wilderness
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
In 1899 when I was five years old and living in Palmetto, Florida, my father decided to take his family through the wilds of the Everglades and stake a claim on an offshore island. His purpose was to farm this island but behind this was his wish to give us a taste of the way he grew up. He had been a cowboy in the Myakka area when he was fifteen years old. These ranchlands overlapped the north end of the Everglades at a time when it was unexplored. As long as he lived, papa liked his corn bread made campfire style with boiling water and salt only, and flattened out into a brittle, tasty cracker.
His life was a series of adventures. He had lost a father and a brother in the Civil War. His father’s carriage house in Charleston, South Carolina, and his nearby plantation were in the line of Sherman’s march. His widow took her eightyear-old son, my father, and fled to Quincy, Florida. When Papa finished school at the academy there, he went to work as a cowboy on a ranch in Myakka for a friend of his dead father’s. By age thirty, he was a county sheriff, no mean job in those days, and his territory was wide ranging. The county he served was later split up into six or eight counties.
South Florida was uninviting to many because of the mosquitoes, panthers, crocodiles, swamps, and wetlands. But these marks of wild country called to my father like the legendary siren song.
He started building a covered wagon around the fourth of July and we went into the wilderness with him in the fall. We had made our home in Palmetto for a year or so where my mother’s gentle folks, the Harrisons, had settled following the Civil War. Our comfortable two-story frame house on the Manatee River was set about with live oaks, guavas, and long-leafed pine that branched out from the foot of the tree to shelter our cow and provide a roost for the chickens. My grandfather was the town doctor. He doctored the entire county and was paid in eggs and ham and vegetables when they were in season. It was an idyllic life, and we lived close to our family and to the comforts and safety a small town could afford. But Papa was a man of enterprise; he realized that the untouched Ten Thousand Islands off the southwest coast of the state were rich in soil for crops and in game for food.
I will never forget the day we started. As always when we were to go anywhere, we rose early. Papa hurried us, saying, “We don’t want the day to catch us.” I told my dolls good-bye without knowing that I would never see them again. When at last we were in the covered wagon with papa, mama, and the baby on the front seat and Bubba, Hal, and me in the back, my father lifted the reins and we were off. My stomach turned over, I was that excited.
Despite the fact that there was so much to be happy about, I began to whimper. “What’s the matter with her?” papa asked, thinking Bubba was teasing me. “I’m afraid day’s going to catch us,” I explained, wondering what great disaster might befall us if it did.
We had been keyed up for this adventure by weeks of planning. Around the supper table and again on the porch at night, papa described the wonders and pleasures this trip held. Even after we had gone to bed, the talk sometimes would continue through the open doors between our rooms. His descriptions were not exaggerated. The memories of this trip have colored my life.
The covered wagon had a wide drawer that would slide under the body of the wagon, handle and all, so it could be pulled out from the rear. In this deep and roomy box was packed our camping equipment and food supplies. The camping outfit consisted of a huge tent, a folding cot apiece, folding chairs, and a table. Our outdoor cookware was of heavy black iron. One big kettle stood up on three long legs to sit over a fire. There were dutch ovens, tin cups, cutlery, and bowls. The blankets, sheets, pillows, and other bedding was rolled in a canvas and tightly strapped. This “cushion” was fitted into the body of the wagon and served as a seat for the three of us who rode in back.
We looked forward to plentiful game and wild fruit on the road, but took ample provisions—fifty-pound lard cans full of flour, oiled sausage, coffee, lard, molasses, grits, rice, sugar, and salt. And there were two hams, a wheel of cheese, jars of fruit and jelly, and sacks of oats for the horse. Papa’s box of tools was most impressive to look at. He had every kind of implement for hand farming, plus guns and ammunition for hunting, and fishing tackle for each member of the family.
I wish I could make you see the little stores, all alone, way off in the backwoods where we would stop to replenish our food stock from time to time. They were stocked with everything from plowshares to spools of cotton thread. Occasionally a blacksmith’s shed would adjoin the store, so Dave, our big bay horse, was kept in comfortable shoes.
The first day out is as vivid to me today as it was then. We took a deeply rutted wagon trail through thick woods, across prairies, and right across ponds and creeks where the water was shallow. Each time we forded water, the horse and our hunting dogs took a long drink and we children would hop down out of the wagon and walk across, splashing each other and cooling down. Off and on all day, we jumped out and walked behind the wagon with the dogs to stretch our legs.