- Historic Sites
"The Woods Were Tossing With Jewels”
A Childhood in the Florida Wilderness
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
That first night we stopped in a pine forest. Chiggers can’t tolerate turpentine, so we were free of this small pest. The thick ground of straw was sweet to inhale. Added to this was the smell of mama’s cooking ham and coffee. While mama and I fixed supper, papa and the boys pitched the tent. Then it was to bed inside a cozy tent where we could drift off listening to night sounds.
The second morning, like so many to come, I woke up smelling bacon. It was dark, still night, but time to get started. The morning did not turn bright; the sky was overcast all day. By early afternoon the rain came in torrents. Papa knew a man out there in this sparsely settled backwoods and was able to find his house. We drove up to his gate. Dogs met dogs and there were dogfights. This brought the man’s family out on the. porch. They peeked at us as though we were creatures from another world. As soon as the man recognized papa, we were made welcome. Dave was fed and given a dry stable to sleep in. The man’s wife asked us to eat with them. Mama told Hal and Bubba to get food from the wagon and she spread it on the table. This was a treat for these people, but we liked their boiled greens and fried pork equally well. The rain and wind sounded like wild horses on the tin roof, but we were warm and dry. All that night, mama sat up, going from one to the other of her family to keep the bedbugs from devouring us, a hazard of the Florida backwoods of those days.
The rain stopped and we were on our way at dawn. Mama kept her fingers crossed with the hope that none of the little bedfellows had elected to go with us.
This third day out, and the days to come, found us in the unsettled wilds of Florida. Sometimes we would strike camp early enough for papa and the boys to shoot fox squirrels or quail for supper. No matter what time of day we came to a good fishing place, we would stay for the rest of the day. One such place was a white-clear stream that ran out of a spring in a vast cypress swamp. Its underwater grasses looked like green ribbons constantly unrolling, and the trees held thick sprays of wild orchids. Papa had given each of us a pole, and what with six of us fishing and the fish so plentiful, we usually had a catch in a matter of minutes. As an added treat papa sometimes would cut the heart out of a cabbage palmetto, and mama would cook it, slowly, in the black kettle. There was no shortage of these groves. Always, it seems, we were in or near a grove of cabbage palmettos.
One day I got sick and had a high fever. We were near Arcadia but still too far to drive on. So papa pitched camp and went on into town on horseback and brought a doctor back with him. We had to stay in camp for several days until I was well. Then we drove on to a small crossroads and stopped at a hotel, a two-story frame building no larger than a big house, until I was strong enough to resume the journey.
As we drove off, Arcadia with its dirt streets and free-roaming cattle, its barns and outhouses, looked like a metropolis. We were not to see such a city again for over a year. Soon enough our eyes were bugging at the size of the oak trees that grew in clusters wherever the earth rose up from the flood plains of the creeks and rivers. These lush hammocks were green with ferns. The burly arms of the oaks were hairy with fern and blooming bromeliads. Redbirds, tanagers, and painted buntings flew back and forth across the trail, leaving a child with the impression that the woods were tossing with jewels.
One bright morning we came to a wide river, the Caloosahatchee, at Alva. Alva was a dot on the road marked by the fact that it had a ferry. This ferry was a huge, flat barge that had to be poled. The river was swift and deep and Dave balked, but papa led him onto the ferry and we were soon on the other bank, driving off to Esterr. Esterr was a commune of Koreshians, folks who believed that they were living inside the earth like the figures in a paperweight. Their leader, Silverhorn, taught the communist manifesto but, at the same time, claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus. This Messiah had accepted the possessions of his followers. They appeared to be his slaves, and indeed, they did worship him. He instructed them that when he died he would be resurrected (but he wasn’t, a fact that came to our notice many years later). He had so ordered his commune that the men, women, and children lived in three separate dormitories. The children were cared for by people who did nothing else. Everyone had his or her duties to perform and there was no idleness.
Despite the order and industry, both of which my parents admired, they were stunned by the fact that children were taken away from their parents at so early an age. We stopped here for several days, and Silverhorn invited papa to join his sect. To tease us, papa said he had signed up with them. I was relieved to learn that we were leaving the next day with our family intact.