The Land of Flowers Mid-century

Palatka hammock
Palatka hammock via Florida Memory

Florida 40 Years Ago

RANDALL’S REMINISCENCES OF THE LAND OF FLOWERS

Beckoning of the Unseen Hand-staging Across the Peninsula – Chronicles of a Dead Village with a Living Memory

For The Times-Democrat.

Some months ago I picked up a census bulletin of Florida and curiously scanned the report from a little settlement or village called Bayport on the Gulf coast. If anything the population, which was a mere handful, nearly forty years ago, has diminished. My interest in Bayport is founded upon some youthful experience, and I am not apt to forget the spot “while memory holds seat in this distracted globe.” Once, a few years ago, when in transformed Florida I had a great desire to revisit the scenes of my boyhood in the Land of Flowers, but circumstance, “the unspiritual god,” prevented.

land of flowers. I had a great desire to revisit the scenes of my boyhood in the Land of Flowers

I happened, about 1858, when residing in Baltimore, my birthplace, to be consumed with a “grand discontent,” which presumably, impels so many persons, great and small, to seek fresh fields and pastures new, for African or Polar discovery, for gold or glory, for the love of self or for the love of God. The motives for such movements are multiform just as the impelling agencies are as varied as contradictory. I saw, or thought I saw, in my boyhood after leaving college, that my birthplace was not favourable for my material development. Perhaps I was, even then, like a hero of Guy Mannering, stirred to action by the voice mysterious which says we must not stay, and by the providential hand that beckons us away. About this restless period there came to Baltimore, on a visit, a relative of my mother, who had long resided in Florida, and, being something of a local politician, was enjoying a small government position at Bayport for headquarters. This gentleman and kinsman, Mr. C. T. Jenkins, stimulated my imagination about Florida and stated that, if I cared to go there, he would do whatever he could for me. Meanwhile I ransacked a public library for knowledge of the State and really absorbed considerable historic and other useful information on the subject. My mind was fired with stories of Ribault, Ponce de Leon, Osceola, Coachocee and other conspicuous persons, who had, in different times and varied fashions, illustrated the lands. Pending any final determination to discover Bayport, my cousin gave me a letter of introduction to the then “king bee” of the Commonwealth, Senator David L. Yulee, asking him, if possible, to secure for me a government office. I called promptly on the Senator, who lived in comfort and some style at Washington, for he was a rich man, what we call “a man of affairs,” and he grew richer and richer, I believe, in spite of political retirement, war, reconstruction and the multitude of schemes devised by the knowing ones to pluck the traditional goose. Senator Yulee, at his leisure, answered my card in person. He was a rather short, sturdy man, with decided Hebraic countenance of an Oriental cast. The face [botchered] serious shrewdness and an absence of sunshine or humor. he made quick, frank work with my business, gave me no encouragement at all and dismissed me with frigid politeness. I was much galled at the time by this jejune experience of the Washington politician, not expecting that, in years to come, when Mr. Yulee was practically forgotten, and much afflicted, in spite of opulence, at the Federal capital, my intercourse with much greater men there would come later on, after tarrying at Jericho for the growth of beard. Mr. Yulee’s name was originally Levy, and I think that Charleston was his native place. There used to be some story about one of his progenitors having played a notable part in the Kingdom of Morocco, but how much truth or fiction there is in this I do not know. He certainly looked like a man who had a swarthy Semitic ancestor.

land of flowers. I ransacked a public library for knowledge of the State

When Senator Yulee, much against my will and quite indifferently on his part, saved me from becoming at the outset of my career, in the working world, a department clerk, I resolved to make a trip, if possible, to the State he partly represented. My dear mother, with many misgivings and much sorrow, helped me on the way. She gave me a diamond ring, one of the few left of many, and permitted me to dispose of it. I did not see her dear face again for six or seven years. A German-American merchant friend advanced me $75 on the bauble, and, at the age of nineteen, in rather delicate health, I started for Bayport, via Savannah, on an old-fashioned steamship. Though I had previously gone thousands of miles, by sailing craft, on an ocean voyage, and escaped sickness peculiar to the sea, I experienced on that venerable tub, with its convulsive motions, a sharp attack of the malady that, while it lasts, permits the sufferer to fear life more than death. I understand that a dose of one teaspoonful of chloroform in a tumblerful of water, taken when one goes on board ship, and, if necessary, repeated an hour afterward, is a specific remedy. I was well, however, when we steamed off Tybee and up the muddy and then shallow Savannah river. Incidentally I heard that, far up the river, there was a city called Augusta, and I was tempted to visit it, but did not yield to the seduction. Indeed, when I presently boarded the steamboat for inland passage to Palatka, on the St. Johns river, nothing was remoter from my thoughts than the possibility of my ever seeing Augusta, to which I was curiously led after much tribulation and numerous vicissitudes interspersed here and there with some happy times and some romantic episodes in Florida and Louisiana.

My spirits lifted when I had snug passage on the steamboat, after escaping the wiles of an adventurous acquaintance, with small pecuniary loss. I was delighted with Savannah and the novel sights of semi-tropical slave States. I wondered what Providence had in store for me, and I built many castles in the air. In those days Col. Randolph Spalding was the great man most admired and talked about around the Sea Islands. Possibly he had just figured in some “affair of honor,” and I was gravely assured by some talkative gossip that in such matters Col. Spalding was a most valuable ally.

land of flowers. I was delighted with Savannah and the novel sights of semi-tropical slave States.

Our steamboat, despite occasional impediment, made very fair headway, and it was with a thrill of delight that I saw her nose pointed to the open sea and knew that the mouth of the St. Johns river was not far off. At sea I had a glimpse of the devil fish, a monster of those waters, and as we crossed the St. Johns bar marine birds of nearly every variety and incredibly numerous either darkened the air with their flight or had dress parade on the beach. Patent rifles or shotguns had not yet been invented for exterminating wild fowls and beasts, so Florida, a comparative wilderness, abounded superlatively in all manner of game common to this part of the continent.

land of flowers. In those days Palatka was a shabby village when contrasted with present splendour

The trip up the river to Palatka is still an enchanting one, and I, in that early period, hugely enjoyed my freedom and all the sights and sounds of nature calculated to stimulate a poetic fancy. In those days Palatka was a shabby village when contrasted with present splendour, and the tavern I slept at was a sorry barn compared with the palaces that have since replaced it. After breakfast next morning I was introduced to the stage driver, who also had charge of the United States mail. He was a young Irishman of stalwart frame and pretty well educated. He was a very amiable man, but resolute. He drove the stage, really a hack, from the St. Johns river at Palatka to Bayport, on the Gulf coast, a pretty long trip over sandy roads. I suppose that the tedious journey rather daunted me prospectively, but only for a moment, for I was young, eager and visionary and anxious to try what the world had in store for me. So Magrath and I started together overland, and what with my frequent questions and his gracious answers constituting time absorbing conversation, I managed to be patient. After travelling all day through a rather monotonous country, where settlements were few and far between, we halted for the night at the spacious cabin of a farmer near the Withlacoochee river and in the vicinity of Dade’s massacre. As we talked by the light of a pine knot fire hounds under the house emitted yelps of fear or excitement. I asked what was the matter and learned that wolves were prowling around. They had killed a calf in the cow-pen the night before, and had evidently returned for another bait. The hunting dogs did not evidently care to venture forth, and the farmer, though a keen sportsman, kept his place and preferred, apparently, to tell me his droll yarns and politely listen to some of mine. It was a pleasure in those days for people in the wilderness to meet strangers from outside civilization. Next morning the hack started early, and we expected to reach Bayport some time in the early nightfall. On the road we saw deer in some abundance, although many thousands had just died of the black tongue. Wolf and bear tracks were visible, I believe, to Magrath’s expert eye, but we saw none of these animals. Afterward, when I lived at Bayport, deer ran through the village, it was said betimes, panthers were killed or committed ravage in neighboring fields, and wagoners declared that they had to beat bear out of the road. We took dinner, I think, at Brooksville, which was the county site of Hernando, whose rolling, hammock lands, rich and productive, were then largely given to profitable cotton culture.

land of flowers. It was a pleasure in those days for people in the wilderness to meet strangers from outside civilization.

There is a railway belonging to my friend Mr. Plant that now terminates at Brooksville, but I suspect, unless the improbably should happen freakishly, steel track and locomotive will never, in our day, be pushed to Bayport, which, somehow, appears to be, even at the threshold of the tremendous 20th century, a hamlet that barely keeps from being actually dead.  Well, my spirits were somewhat dampened when I saw the poor place, in the gloaming, but I did not realize until the following day what was really in store for me, a child of civilization. My cousin, then an old bachelor, that is old to my youthful eyes, received me kindly. The one grand place was that of Maj. John Parsons who had accumulated a fortune during the Seminole war, and, being a practical as well as a highly educated man, was adding to it by stores and other commercial ventures on this coast. The Parsons house was a large one, substantially built, handsomely furnished and amply surrounded with a magnificent grove. The Major had married a niece of Commodore Decatur, a most estimable lady, whose brother and sister lived with her. Major Parsons had a nephew who was also one of the family. That night of my arrival there was a big party at the Parsons mansion. I went of course and had a fine time. I took for granted that all present were Bayport folks and, as some of the girls were very pretty and accomplished, I concluded that my lines had not fallen in such bad places after all. To my consternation, next morning, I had discovered that all of the bright young company had come from Cedar Keys and would take the steamboat to that place about noon. When they vanished my heart fairly sank within me. The whole prospect grew desolate, for, with the few exceptions I have mentioned, there was no congenial society at all and how I was to make a living, in such a quasi-barbarism, passed all understanding.

land of flowers. I interested myself in some rather remarkable persons whom I can never forget

However, I plucked up my courage by its drowning lock, and prepared for the best or worst. How I passed the time there, how I interested myself in some rather remarkable persons whom I can never forget, and how I emerged from the wilderness back again to civilization may be left to another occasion, when the reader, if he or she choose, after the manner of the serial novel, may continue the narrative, which, possibly, shall increase in interest. There was, all the time, a providential magnet drawing me to another sphere of action which largely determined the bent of my whole after existence in this world, and it may divert, if not instruct, some of my kind readers to learn how a fellow mortal was strangely, providentially guided in his earthly pilgrimage.

JAMES R. RANDALL

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Marsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

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Encouragement for Prospective Florida Gardeners

Florida Photographic Collection
Colonel H.L Hart’s Garden via Florida Memory

Interesting letter from the South

Slave Labor and Slave ??? – Planting and Raising Cotton – Collection of the Sweet Potatoes – Climate, Soil and Productions of Florida – Sugar Cane – Tobacco – Fruit – Gardening, &c, &c

They have been planting cotton on this plantation since we have been here. My curiosity has led me, often, to go out and see the negroes work. They always seem pleased with our visits, and treat us with the greatest deference. The children appear to be special favorites with them. One was heard to say: “I wish Mistress would sell me to Miss Lizzie.” But I do not intend to write about the negroes this time, as I intend to tell how they raise cotton.

encouragement. They have been planting cotton on this plantation since we have been here.

The first thing that would attract your attention, would be the superficial manner of preparing the ground. You spend more labor in fitting one acre for wheat, than they do three for cotton. The soil is sandy, and easily cultivated. They first mark a field, or “list it,” as they call it. The lines are made with a how, about six feet apart: then turn a furrow on each side of the line with a plow, forming beds, on which the cotton is planted in hills, about six inches apart, so that the rows have a space of some five feet apart. You would think they might double the crop, by planting all the land, and planting the rows nearer together. I inquired why they left so much space. They gave several reasons; the first was, they have so much land there is no need of crowding. They do not use fertilizers, so they must allow more room for a given crop. Then there is a necessity for space between the rows of cotton and corn, so that the air may pass through freely, otherwise the hot sun would crisp the leaves, or “fire it,” as the negroes call it.

They tell me a cotton field requires attention from the time it is planted, in March, until it is all gathered, in October or November. The weeds must be all kept down with a hoe, as the side branches shoot out so near the ground a plow would injure them. The seeds of weeds will spoil the cotton, so they must all be destroyed before the bowls or buds of the plant begin to open. The bowls ripen first on the lower branches, and open successively, like the pods of the milk weed. We saw the short cotton in the Carolinas, as it was not all gathered when we passed through. The Sea Island, or long staple cotton, which they raise here, is far superior to that.

An agent of some of the manufacturing companies in England has been here lately. He says they consider the Florida cotton the best in the world. They use it for the finest fabrics, and the supply has never been equal to the demand. He urged the planters to raise more cotton, and to gather it in a perfect condition, and he said they could demand from seventy-five cents to a dollar a pound for it. One acre of good land planted to cotton, and well tended, will yield from three to four hundred pounds of the first quality, and as much more of the second. It will be very strange if the northern men leave Florida a wilderness many years longer.

encouragement. It will be very strange if the northern men leave Florida a wilderness many years longer.

I will tell you now how they cultivate  sweet potatoes – they are planted in the month of February in rows about five feet apart. The sprouts come up and run on the ground like a vine, from six to eight feet long. In June, their vines are cut off and laid on beds formed by turning two furrows together, as they do for cotton. The earth is then hoed on them in places about six inches apart. The potatoe vines thus covered take root, and make hills of large potatoes. The yield is astounding – often three and four hundred bushels in the acre.

I could tell you much more that would astonish you, for I observe something new every day. But I want to give you some condensed extracts from a report of the president of the Florida Railroad Company, Mr. [D. D. Yulee].

He gives information that is reliable and interesting – particularly that which relates to climate, soil and production. He says the meteorological statistics published by Surgeon General Lawson show that the climate of Florida is more equitable in temperature than any other part of the United States – that it even surpasses Italy. As regards healthiness, the vital statistics collected by the Government with the census of 1850, show that the Peninsula portion of Florida exceeds every part of the Union. The soil, he says, is generally very productive, and yields all the richest [staples]; that that portion of Florida lying east and south of Swanee River, he believes to be the most desirable planting country in the South. It produces the long staple, or Sea Island cotton of commerce, with a productiveness surpassing the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. And for the cultivation of the sugar cane, he thinks the climate superior to that of Louisiana or Texas. He says there are sugar lands enough in Florida to supply a large part of the consumption of the United States.

The tobacco grown here, is peculiar to this climate and soil; and commands in market from fifteen to seventy-five cents per pound.

encouragement. ripe tomatoes and green corn in April and May, and ripe peaches and mellons in June!

A great variety of fruit can be grown here, and it is a very fine vegetable gardening region, in winter, as well as summer. The value of this capability of soil and climate, does not seem to be properly estimated here. There are but few gardens cultivated for market. If some of the industrious Dutch or English gardeners we have in Syracuse, would come here, they could make fortunes in a short time, sending early vegetables and fruits to Charleston and New York; green peas in January, new Irish potatoes in March, ripe tomatoes and green corn in April and May, and ripe peaches and mellons in June! to say nothing of the strawberries which blossom and ripen their fruit all winter. If the steamers ran directly from Jacksonville to New York without detention, you might see many of these Florida fruits and vegetables in Syracuse in good condition. – C.

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Marsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

Saving Florida From the Indians

timucua indian chief consults a sorcerer
Timucua Indians via Florida Memory

The late attack and murders committed on Indian Key

FLORIDA. – The late attack and murders committed on Indian Key by the Seminoles of Florida, is an additional and horrible item in the catalogue of woes to which it seems that ill fated country, is destined; and excites, as it should the wonder and astonishment of the people at the cool indifference of the Government in relation to this long pending and costly war.

There seems to be an impression on the minds of some people that every misfortune is attributable to the administration, and those who are opposed to the party in power, really hesitate to complain, for fear that unworthy motives may be attributed to these constant attacks on rulers; but we submit to the Secretary of War, who, as a citizen and a public officer long in the service of his country, has many warm friends, whether the whole manner of prosecuting this war – which is entirely under his direction – is not calculated to do serious injury to the character of his country, as well as his own personal reputation? A handful of savages in Florida has cost the people of this country, in a war of five years, nearly twenty millions of dollars; the arms of the United States have, in a great measure, been sullied by repeated discomfitures with the Indians; and what is worse, they gain strength and boldness, and massacres of a shocking character will render Florida a wilderness in a short time. There appears to be no energy, no activity, no zeal in the department in relation to the only war, and that a small war, which is now carried on in Florida. A few small vessels of war, cruising in the neighbourhood of the Keys, would have protected the inhabitants from invasion, and the division of the present army into squads of one hundred or more, spread over the country, would have kept the marauders in check. At all events, there should be a concert in action between the army and local authorities of Florida: the war never will end if it is the interest of one party to carry it on, and the interest of another party to terminate it. The most effective steps would be to require the Government of Florida to convene the Council, and to transmit to Washington the most efficient plan to terminate the war, and, if feasible, to invest the Governor with ample powers to carry it on to a successful issue. – If militia, or hunters, or marksmen from the West, or bush-fighters, are necessary, employ them and pay them liberally in money and land. Let the people of Florida, friendly to peace, take this matter in hand, and let the Governor come to their aid efficiently – let the entire system of managing this war be changed – recall the Commissaries who are making fortunes, and let the people of Florida procure the supplies at the cost of the Government, and the Indians will soon disappear.

saving florida. the war never will end if it is the interest of one party to carry it on, and the interest of another party to terminate it

The Secretary of War should not permit himself to retire from office, without doing something in this business, to retrieve the disasters we have met with in this contest with the Indians. –  N.Y. Star

marsanne

Marsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

Advice to Women in the Florida Wilderness

This letter is sensible

arch oak
Arch Oak via Shorpy

This letter is sensible, for the writer, Mrs. A. D. Hill, is carried by her sincerity into the perfectly practical advantages of the move:

“Eve up to Date – I advocate short skirts provided laced-up-at-the-side leggings are worn with them, something like the huntsman leggings ones sees in the gun-store windows, and as my husband wears on outing excursions, only they should be made from a softer fabric than canvas. While living on the Florida coast I wore such leggings on outing occasions and can vouch for their comfort and practical utility; besides, one’s shoes look much smaller peeping out from under the leggings; they are easily put on and fully protect the stockings and shoes from dust and wind, and can be made by any lady, by using one of her old stockings as a pattern, cutting away the foot, opening outside of the leg, and allowing for hem and lap, where it laces. The inclosed sketch gives my idea, as I have tried the short skirt with leggings, but only in the solitude of Florida’s wilderness, as I dared not brave the unchristian criticism of civilization. I found them pleasant to wear, cheaply made and above all other considerations, they are perfectly modest and proper.”

marsanne

Marsanne Petty conducts historical research about 18th century southern United States and environmental history. To get more great updates and original history, sign up at The Southern Sage. To get her to help you with your own research project, email mapetty[at]gmail.com.

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