- Historic Sites
"The Woods Were Tossing With Jewels”
A Childhood in the Florida Wilderness
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Papa took his family wherever he went except when he went deer hunting. This is when I wept because I was not a boy. My big brothers, aged eight and eleven, were crack shots with a rifle and always accompanied him. The three of them never failed in the hunt. King Richard in his gluttony never sat at a table more sumptuous than ours was three times a day.
Our list of providers grew when papa’s young nephews and cousins migrated to join him. These five boys had lived with us off and on all their lives. They slept with my brothers in the tent until, with their help, we finished our big house. There were several weeks when the building activity was intense. During this time it was up to my mother, my baby brother, and myself to supply meat for the table. Thus we often caught fish or dug mussels. Once, after a nice catch of sheepshead, mama remarked on how prettily they had browned. Hal, who was the first to taste one, said happily, “The fish down here sure are sweet!” They were to his liking, but mama sadly discovered she had used sugar instead of salt on them.
During this same period, this sweet-toothed boy stayed home from the building site to take us farther afield for the day’s catch. Hal took our small bateau into a deep, clear channel no wider than a creek and stopped in the shade of the overhanging mangroves so we could fish. Suddenly he turned white and pointed down through the water. We looked, and protruding from beneath the boat was a huge fishtail, waving rhythmically. Then we looked on the other side of the boat and saw the body and head of a giant sawfish. Slowly and silently we eased the boat away and reached home, still shaken. One flip of that powerful tail and the tiny boat would have capsized like a toy. My little brother, Orr, who had not yet learned to swim, could have been caught in the current and carried out to sea.
Papa returned to the spot with his rifle and killed the fish. We still have the saw, with a picture painted on it by a young teacher who boarded with us years later. Papa cooked the flesh outdoors for the hounds and extracted the oil, which he bottled for use on guns and boots.
Orr came home safely that time, but I almost lost my little brother on Gopher Key. Frequently he was put in my charge, and to further ensure our safety, my parents asked us to play in a part of the yard that was surrounded by tall, slender cacti that kept the panthers away. But once Orr wandered out and down to the creek. When I missed him and ran to get him, I saw he was being stalked by an alligator who had come up behind him and was opening his mouth. The alligator, although large enough to take us both for hors d’oeuvres, was surprised by my running feet and backed away. I took Orr’s hand and fairly jerked him through the air to get him back to the house. The gator literally got its hide tanned by papa.
These frights were soon forgotten because Christmas was approaching. This meant a big box was coming all the way from Palmetto. My grandmother packed something for everyone in this wonderful box; for me there was a small doll. She was made of china and as straight as a little post. She stood no taller than a woman’s hand, but I loved her at once. Through the years, some eighty of them, I’ve kept her safe and unbroken. Grandma sent me a storybook, too, which I memorized from cover to cover. These two gifts meant much to me because we had received word that our home in Palmetto had burned to the ground and that only the piano and parlor furniture had been saved. I had lost the large family of beautiful dolls I had left there.
Of all that happened to us on Gopher Key, I remember one thing the best. Every night, mama read to us until bedtime. Everybody in the family and any visitors gathered around to hear Dickens, Thackeray, and the Bible. During that first year, mama read our entire set of Dickens, and I remember much of it.
Our new, two-story house was finished that spring. Papa had built it on an old homesite known as the Chevalier place. The original settler had been a Frenchman by that name. He had planted guava and avocado pears, and they were now huge trees. The site had a nice gradient up from the sea; the big house in the trees looked safe and sturdy.
Our new home was more than safe; it was a joy. We had beds to sleep in and chairs to sit on. It took many trips, however, to bring all our things from Gopher Key. I was allowed to go on these exciting hauls. Once as we entered the long creek that led to the old place through a tunnel of mangroves, we were hit by a flock of ducks flying through. In self-defense the boys batted them down with oars, and there was our supper.
As soon as we got moved in, papa and the seven boys planted a crop of tomatoes on our large, fertile island. The tomatoes grew enormous, and our family kept growing, too. Papa’s mother came to live with us, and his brother, my Uncle John, migrated down and was living between our place and the Watson plantation.