February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
A Childhood in the Florida Wilderness
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.
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.
At Naples we sold the horse and wagon and bought a boat, a sloop with a cabin. Loading our things into this craft, we boldly set sail into the rollicking gulf. Things went well until, just off of Cape Romano, we encountered a squall. We headed out to sea, which frightened my landlubber mother, and I at once sensed her fear. Papa had to shout above the wind and rain so that the boys could hear his orders. When mama and I from inside the cabin heard him yell, “Let her rip,” we thought the end had come. He hastened to see what all the screaming was about and assured us that there was no danger. Just the same, I have always looked back on that event as one of the narrowest escapes I ever had!
We made port at Marco, a landing pier and little else, where we were met by people who knew papa and who gave us a grand welcome. In fact, it seemed that everyone knew papa everywhere we went. He was a small man with immense vitality. His curly red hair was worn longish in the style of the day. His sharp blue eyes were a constant clue to his wit and charm. I was quick to own up to being Jim Martin’s daughter.
We visited a few days at Marco and then sailed south for Everglades City and Chucoluskee, one a landing pier, the other a mud bank. Finally we came to Edgar Watson’s place, a sugar plantation on the Chatham River.
Watson was an infamous outlaw. Every lawman in southern Florida was acquainted with his treachery and cunning. He had secluded himself in this remote area of the Everglades because he was not welcome elsewhere; from time to time he was halfheartedly sought for trial, though few crimes seemed to lead directly to his door. The legend persisted, however. The native whites feared him as you would a rattlesnake, but the Indians and black people were susceptible to his manipulations. Frequently hungry, they would go to work for him, cutting cane. He rarely paid the money agreed upon, and if a worker rebelled, Watson was said to execute him on the spot. I heard that countless human skeletons were left bare in his bayou once when a hurricane blew the water out. The bayou filled the next day, and it was business as usual.
This merciless man had an invalid wife whom he adored. He kept fifty cats for her to pet; of course, I was intrigued with them the day we docked at the sugar plantation. I remember Mr. Watson taking me on his knee and telling me to pick one out for my own. He seemed the kindest of men.
Not without trepidation, papa made arrangements with Watson to bring lumber, roofing, and other materials needed from Fort Myers to build our house, which we would do with our own hands and the help of friends. Like other people in this lost place, we were dependent on Watson’s big boat, which made regular runs to and fro. We felt this dependency even more after we settled and commenced to farm. There was no other way to get our produce to market on a steady basis. The strangle hold Watson had over this section of Florida was not dissimilar to the unscrupulous activities of certain lawmen, other legal crooks, and even governors that our state was to suffer through its history.
We left Watson’s that same day for our destination. This first home was to be a weather-boarded shack on a small island called Gopher Key. It was twenty miles further up the river, then out into an expansive bay and through a creek that wound like a tunnel among the hundreds of islands offshore. Some of these islands were so close together that this creek often was shaded over by mangroves.
It was sundown when we arrived at Gopher Key, where we would stay until the big house was built on a neighboring island. There was the little shack, not the most gracious of living quarters, and there was a murderer for our nearest and only neighbor, about thirty miles away. Nevertheless, we moved in with our folding cots for beds and our canvas seats for chairs. I do remember a crude table, with a long bench to sit on. There was also, and most important, a cookstove.
The island was virtually a hammock. It was covered with thick green growth. There sprung to life, in no time it seems, a splendid garden under the care and interest of our entire family. We had a variety of vegetables on the table each day. These were supplemented with every kind of wild game and seafood. We had fresh venison and wild turkey any time we wanted it. We fished for sheepshead and snapper by rowing a few yards from the house. Daily, right in front of the house, papa fired the shotgun several times from behind the blind he had built on the edge of our stream, and of the thousands of ducks that quacked us awake at dawn he would bring in a dozen or more to be smothered in sage. My mother saved the down we plucked from the ducks that winter, and there was eventually enough to make a feather bed.
On our swimming excursions that winter to the outer islands, we gathered clams for fritters and chowder. The oysters we got along the sides of the clear tidal creeks were as big as a man’s foot.
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.
I’ll never forget the morning I looked out my bedroom window and saw Uncle John walking up from the landing. The night before, I had overheard papa and the boys talking about a manatee they had seen that day. I had asked what a manatee looked like, and from their description of it I got the idea it was a man covered with hair. Seeing Uncle John for the first time with a full beard, I yelled to my father, “Oh, papa, here comes the manatee!’ All in all he got an excited welcome. With the two brothers reunited, the family felt the need for some real celebration. Thus we took picnic trips.
One of these special excursions for Uncle John was, of course, to the outside beaches, the islands that fronted on the gulf. They afforded beautiful swimming all year, and once a year yielded sea turtle eggs in the hundreds. We usually took no more than half a cache, a practice, which if it had been continued through all these years, would not have depleted the turtle population. For fun we sometimes would sail out on calm moonlit nights and anchor just to watch the hundreds of female turtles coming and going about their business. They were monstrous creatures but cumbersome and harmless as long as you didn’t get near that traplike mouth. We children hopped up on their rough backs for short, bumpy rides into the water, where we were dumped. Often we found as many as five hundred eggs buried in the sand; a tenth of that number made enough soup for our big family, and how delicious it was!
Once, as a special treat, papa took us all miles and miles up our creek into the heart of the Everglades. The creek opened out into sunlit bi.ys dotted with white sand bars and edged with green islands. On one we found a deserted Indian house made of palmettos. Everywhere there were alligators and other wild creatures, untroubled by our presence. This trip took us through some dark, sluggish swamps where the water scarcely moved and we were forced to pole the boat. The orchids here were the largest and most flamboyant we had seen. As we came out into a bay, we saw thousands and thousands of white herons, snowy egrets, pink ibis, curlews, blue Johns, and flamingos. They constantly rose, circled, and landed in arcs of color and long lines of sweeping movement. We put the boat in the shade and watched for an hour.
It was here that we came upon a pelican colony. There were hundreds of young ones, as it was the nesting season. We caught one of these babies, fully grown in size, and took it home for a pet. It became an awful nuisance, chasing us to be fed every time it saw any of us.
Our new home was indeed a haven of pleasure. But there was work, too, as always. Early in the mornings and late in the afternoons, Orr and I would go with mama to the garden. How lovely the fresh vegetables did taste. We cared for them with loving hands, pulling weeds by the hour and watering the young plants with buckets of water we pumped and carried. Our reward was to gather armloads of beets, radishes, turnips, et cetera, to take to the house for lunch and supper. The meals were made more memorable with the wild food. Wild butter beans grew on the edge of our hammock. The vines climbed so high up into the trees that we would have to pull them down to get the beans (knowing they’d be back up the next week). For dessert we had ladyfingers, wild bananas that grew in our back yard.
Suddenly, sometime that summer, a day came when all work ceased. My oldest brother, Bubba, always too busy for me, took me outside and made stilts and taught me how to use them. The hard-packed shell was like pavement. It had rained, and water stood in little basins where the shell soil held it. We made a game of walking across these pools, with me as tall as Bubba on my stilts. Hal came out, and soon both big boys were on stilts of their own. Orr was too small to walk on them but he followed us around admiringly. The mosquitoes were bad everywhere except in the sunshine, so we four children spent the entire day out in the summer sun walking on stilts. Despite the unrelenting heat, we were happy to be let off from our hours of school indoors, sessions which our mother kept every day, rain or shine.
Late in the afternoon our grandmother called us in. She told us we had a new baby sister. When papa brought the tiny mite into the kitchen where we were, I thought it was a doll lying there on the pillow, a doll with a curly wig. I touched its cheek to see if it was a doll, and it moved!
“Oh, papa, I want it, I’ve got to have it, please, can I have it, papa?” Then and there he gave me that baby for my very own. We have lived a long time, this sister and I, and there has always been a precious bond between us. I have never been more proud than at the moment I took that tiny, beautiful baby into my arms. My father and grandmother had delivered her without mishap. We named her Janey.
Mama was out in the garden again in no time, and what with papa’s field of tomatoes, we soon had produce to send to market. We shipped, as contracted, with Edgar Watson. Immediately trouble arose. A messenger came from the sugar plantation bringing papa a ridiculously small sum of money for his part. Papa told this man to go back and tell Watson how much was still owed, and that he, papa, would be coming for it. The poor messenger was terrified and begged papa to let the matter drop. “He’ll just shoot you, Mr. Martin. That’s the way he settles an account. No one argues with Edgar Watson and lives to talk about it.”
The next day papa went to see Watson. Hal and Bubba accompanied him. When they drew up to the dock in their boat, papa told the boys to sit tight while he went in the house. Watson’s whole living room could be seen through a wide screen. It was an armory; the walls were lined with guns. Papa did not carry a gun.
In the argument that followed the boys could see everything. Perhaps they thought of the skeletons under their boat as Watson became more and more strident. Then came a moment when Watson started backing toward his wall of guns. Papa was unrelenting; he demanded his money, and Watson’s arm rose toward a pistol. At the height of this tense moment a smile broke on Watson’s face. From where he stood he could see the two boys in the boat fifty feet away, each with a rifle held in small, capable hands and a bead drawn on the man who threatened their father.
“Look,” Watson told papa, but papa thought it was a trick to make him turn around. Watson understood and moved away from the guns and pointed to the boat. Papa grinned at his sons and even smiled at Edgar Watson.
“Do you suppose they thought I’d shoot you, Jim?” Watson asked.
“Do you suppose you’d have had the chance?” papa sent back.
This man who never paid his debts paid my father and walked with him to the landing to get a closer look. All he saw were two nonchalant little boys sitting with their guns beside them, slapping mosquitoes.
That night papa gave each of the boys a special hug and kiss at bedtime. Kissing between Southern men was a general practice in those days. I am glad to say that this practice as well as others continues in our family. Today I can see in my grandsons and great-grandson some of those qualities of courage and caring that my father had in such abundance. It was his and my mother’s way of caring for us that made us all caring of one another. Perhaps this caring is the key to those wonderful times we had in the Ten Thousand Islands when the century took its turn.