Gene Barber

Gene Barber

  • From Out of Our Past (1965 - 1966)
  • Index to Baker County "The Way It Was"
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1975
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1976
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1977
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1978
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1979
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1980
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1981
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1982
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1983
  • Baker County "The Way It Was" 1984
  • In the past I have often assumed a Joan of Arc role for myself and crusaded for facts rather than fancies in the telling of history. Too often I'm afraid I came off more like a comical Don Quixote. Never having completely learned my lesson, I tried once again at my little art show at the Beaches this summer.

    I'm sending some copies of the info sheets I had posted in the fervent, pleading hope that you someday use the marvels of the electronic communication world to help me put a couple of myths to rest, i.e. the whip cracking ---?? of the term "Cracker" and the newsroom invented term "Cowboy".

    Nobody changes the course of history more than historians, especially amateur historians. I guess I really should stop trying.

    Gene Barber
    Nov. 1999

    THE CRACKERS

    The word "cracker" has been used as a derogatory appellation for most of its history. As events and people came and went it was applied to various groups and always to those with traits of unsophistication and boisterousness.

    English writers, including Shakespeare, mentioned cracks four hundred years ago when they wrote of young fellows heckling performers at plays and other events (the equivalent of today's "good ol' boys").

    When Georgians and Carolinians of the poorer classes (ancestors of Crackers) began crossing the Florida line during the first Spanish colonial period, they did so for the purpose of stealing slaves and Indian cattle and horses. In the British period of Florida's history many Georgians and Carolinians, conservative in their politics, came to Florida during the Revolution as loyal British subjects. They were generally unwelcomed by the British born citizens of the colony who referred to them as "those Crackers."

    The Spanish during their second possession of Florida took up the term and spat it out as "Quaqueros", their word for low born British Protestants.

    The Miccosuki and Seminole told the U.S. Army and Indian Affairs brass, "The Crackers are not our friends."

    Wishing to distinguish themselves from the poorer native Floridians, the new comers from the North to Palm Beach and Miami were careful to refer to their domestics and yard workers, if white, as "Florida Crackers." But the most vitriolic use of the word was by the "better class" of the old Southern plantation society descendents (that 90% of those claiming a glorious Confederate plantation past were stretching the blanket to the ripping point seemed to not bother most of them a single bit).

    Most Cracker stock was only too pleased with the distinctions nurtured and perpetuated by other groups, and they gradually, sometime in the 1950's, began to happily assume the designation as a compliment (as has happened so many times with other slurring appellations in the past).

    As is the wont of so many amateur historians and genealogists a story just had to be invented to give an origin to an unusual title from the past. In the case of a theory becoming a fact and perpetuated myth, these well meaning but benighted souls decided that Georgians driving their cattle down into Florida while cracking their cow whips gave rise to the label "Cracker." These folks did their research in an armchair, or they would have discovered that Crackers were Crackers in Great Britain about a couple hundred years before the common use of the cow whip in the Americas. The early Crackers were too poor to own enough (if any) cattle to necessitate driving them with a whip. And to cap it off a Cracker POPS his cow whip (although the later rich ones "cracked" a buggy whip).

    A clue as to how many of our British ancestors talked can be had by listening to old time Cracker speech (if you can find any old time Crackers).

    Sadly, the Cracker is a dying species. Before you pass off the passing away of the Crackers in a cavalier manner, be advised that without the Cracker to "crack" Florida, without his menial labor to canal and fill, without his native guide abilities, without his 200 years holding this often inhospitable peninsula, there would probably be no Miami, Disney World (perish the thought), Flagler, retirement communities, etc. ad nauseum. "Cowboy" is a term created by 19th century eastern newsmen. In Florida he was a "cow puncher" or "cow hunter", and Florida was the first North American cow country. The Diego Plains, now the general area of Ponte Vedra and Palm Valley was the nation's first cattle range.

    From the early Spanish vaqueros along the Guano River almost 400 years ago, through the English herdsmen on the lower St. Johns and the Anglo/Celtic American cowhunters of territorial days, down to the modern beef industry of central Florida, this state has remained among the country's top beef producers.

    The descendents of those Spanish cattle were tough and were known to the Crackers as "scrub cattle" or "piney woodsers" and were important in combining with later introduced breed cattle to create the perfect animal on the hoof for the unfriendly Florida climate and habitats.

    Cow dogs, wiry mongrels with a strong serving of bull dog in them were indispensable in bringing cattle out of the scrubs and swamps. Old time cattle were wild and the cow puncher often had to sic the dogs on the meaner ones to hold them until the roper could arrive.

    CRACKER HOUSES

    Crackers houses were built mainly for the summer. They were high off the ground for air movement and, incidentally, for sheltering hogs in some cases. The ceilings were high and the more affluent erected houses with a breezeway through the center (called double pen houses).

    There were porches front and back and sometimes on the side and rarely on all four sides. These porches were used for relaxing, pea shelling, gossiping, and, if screened, for summer time sleeping.

    Kitchens were either totally detached out in the back yard or were semi-detached and connected to the dwelling house by an open-air "dog trot." Kitchens were subject to fire and their separation from the main house was precautionary. An added precaution was to floor the kitchen with clean white river sand.

    A single sprig of grass in the yard was considered poor housekeeping (or yard keeping), not to mention another precaution against fire (and who had time or equipment to mow grass?).

    If you're a'fixing to say, "How quaint" and "How absolutely primitive", I must apprise you of Uncle Brantley Fraser's comment about city living .... he said "city people are nasty; they cook in the yard and ---- in the house."

    Photo by Terry Lankford

    Local artist and historian Gene Barber displays the result of another one of his passions - orchids. This particular variety, which blooms year round and produces blossoms that are nearly black, actually bears Barber's name. It seems that some years ago, while purchasing several other varieties of orchids, Gene was offered the plant, which was barely alive. He nurtured the plant for several years before it began to thrive.

    One day, when giving some professional orchid growers a tour of his collection, his guests became excited about the plant, not having seen one like it before, and asked if he would give them a portion of it, which he gladly did. Not too many years later, the heater in Barber's greenhouse failed and he lost many of his orchids, including this particular variety.

    He came across this plant one day, recognized it as the same variety as the one that had died and asked if he could buy it. When the clerk returned, she asked him, "What did you say your name was?" When he told her, she exclaimed, "This is your plant!" The classification of the plant now ends in "Barber."

    The Standard Weekend Edition June 25, 1999
    Gene Barber - "Life is good"
    By Terry Lankford Staff Writer

    Nowadays, it is difficult to be outstanding at what you do and maintain a sense of privacy, but Gene Barber, local artist, historian, author and horticulturalist, is able to enjoy his public life while tenaciously guarding the time he sets aside for life at his own personal retreat - his home. In fact, this humble gentleman doesn't even consider himself famous, although his paintings have hung in the White House.

    "I've been too busy perfecting my craft to be famous!" he claims.

    Barber's Baker County roots are almost as old as Baker County itself. One side of his family goes back in the county for six generations and the other, nine generations in Florida. When his ancestors settled in this area in 1829, they came in covered wagons from Georgia, and there were only three families living in the county at the time. In fact, the whole area was called "Barbers" until about 1870, and the first community west of the Little St. Mary's River was known as "Barbers Station."

    Barber's love of local history goes back to when he was just a boy, when he was fascinated by the stories that would fly about the "olden days" when his father's family would gather. He heard stories of the relative who killed a bear with his bare hands ("I found out later that it was only a cub and he didn't kill it with his hands!"), how the old Barber Plantation House was used as a Federal Hospital during the Civil War, and how many of the Federal troops fell in love with the area and people here and either didn't rejoin their units or came back to settle here when the war was over.

    "I have been interviewing older people and writing down the information since I was a boy," he tells us.

    Gene has been gifted with a tremendous memory, which can be good and bad, he says, tongue in cheek - good for retaining information from an interview and bad if you're trying to claim that you forgot to pay a bill! - and can remember things from his early childhood, even before he could walk.

    He can even pinpoint his very first great artistic endeavor, and the payment he received for it, when he was all of three years old. His family was living in a nice little apartment in Miami, and Gene took his mother's nail polish and mascara and decorated the walls and the screen door of the abode. When his mother discovered what he had done, she asked Gene what he had created before she rendered payment. He described the little clusters of fruit that he had seen on slot machines and tried to duplicate in his artwork.

    "My reward for all of my efforts was to get the tar beaten out of me," he says. "I never figured out if it was because of the condition of the walls and the door, because I ruined my mother's mascara and nail polish, or if she was afraid that I'd tell my grandparents that they had been playing the slot machines!"

    When Barber was fifteen years old and living in Juneau, Alaska, he was struck with a serious and mysterious illness. Looking back, he believes now that he was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning, but the malady left him legally blind for a period of time. The doctor recommended to Gene's parents that he do some kind of art - not too much to strain, but enough to strengthen the eyes. Gene promptly ordered a beginner's oil set from Sears and Roebuck, and when it arrived, he immediately put it to use.

    "I didn't know that I wasn't good," he chuckles. "No one ever told me you had to be talented to paint! The very first picture I ever painted was a portrait of my kitten, which was even recognizable as a kitten."

    After the kitten, came a painting of a glacier, followed by portraits of his parents. Except for very short periods of time, Barber has painted ever since.

    Back in Florida, Gene graduated from high school in 1953, one of a class of twenty-three. He ventured to Gainesville and the University of Florida, but found the environment and 14,000 students a bit overwhelming for a small town boy whose rural city measured one square mile at the time. He came home twice before he decided to go in a different direction, enlisting in the Army, where he served in the Signal Corps as a cryptographer.

    He was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, which he found a wonderful place to live, being the incurable romantic, as far as the arts go, that he is. Barber took every advantage of traveling he could.

    After his tour of duty in the Army, Gene was determined to finish his schooling, which he finally did, receiving a Bachelor of Design from the University of Florida. From there, he found himself in the thick of projects surrounding the Baker County Centennial Celebration.

    He had an opportunity to go to work for Disney Studios in California, but just could not see doing it at the time. A cousin asked Barber to help in his restaurant, washing dishes ("pearl diving," we used to call it, he says), which was where he was when the next great opportunity and challenge presented itself.

    In those days, the school board would meet in various establishments throughout the county. Gene had been after the school board and each superintendent in turn to offer art classes in the school system.

    "They were all very nice," he recalls, "but they really didn't seem to see a need for such a program. They considered it a frill, in addition to the fact that they had no money to do it."

    That was why it caught him by such surprise when, on the night the board was meeting at the restaurant where he was washing dishes, the superintendent came back into the kitchen after the meeting and told him, "We have that art program you have been talking about. You start tomorrow."

    Barber was absolutely astounded and, although he was an artist, had not considered teaching the program. He was told, "If you want it, you have to teach it!"

    Faced with a shoestring budget, he "wrote, visited and called anyone I knew who dealt in art supplies." Armed with donations and samples he had been able to amass, he put together sketch books, text books and just about everything else he needed to launch an art program in the school system. He taught at the high school, junior high, and most of the elementary schools in the area, traveling to Taylor, Sanderson, Glen St. Mary and Macclenny Elementary to teach classes.

    "I just thought I had an education," he says. "My real education came from teaching those children. Maybe I knew just a little bit more than they did." His principal confessed to Barber, "I don't know anything about art, but I will know if you are teaching!"

    In the early 60s, Mr. Harold Milton, whom Gene describes as "a saint in education" in Baker County, approached him and asked Barber to teach an adult community education art program. If teaching children was unnerving, the thought of instructing adults scared him to death! But, always dedicated to the cause, he agreed to teach the class, and by the end of the year, it was the only one still going, with the other classes such as bookkeeping and typing falling by the wayside.

    "However," says Barber, "our funding had run out, so one dear lady got some space for the class over her husband's appliance store. We called it "the garret." It had no heat, and we would all huddle around and old-fashioned two burner oil heater to paint, many times wrapped in blankets and quilts."

    He has moved dozens of places since then. Today, Gene teaches ten classes each week in a total of seven locations, with studios as far as Jacksonville Beach. Most of his artwork is done on a commission basis these days, with one of his most recent projects, a mural depicting early life in Macclenny, painted for the recently renovated Macclenny City Hall. His work has graced lounges, churches and even the White House.

    Barber's talents spill over to the written art as well. He has collaborated on several projects on regional history with a relative, and spent nine years writing a weekly newspaper column.

    "I received a one year grant from the state Bicentennial Commission to write about regional history, either presented in book or presented in some other way. It is nearly impossible to write a book in a year, so, when I was offered the opportunity to write weekly for a year, it seemed like the perfect thing to do," he explains. "I really enjoyed it, and at the end of the year, we just continued it."

    When he became involved with what was then named the Gene Barber Arts Foundation, the project turned into an effort that demanded most of his time and attention. Renamed Florida Arts Center for Education (FACE), the Center offered a variety of arts and craft classes, had a great gallery and featured all elements of the arts, from music to theater. People came from all over the area and beyond, but, as Barber laments, he is just no businessman, and the project was eventually abandoned.

    Although he doesn't own a computer himself, Gene's columns have recently been put on the Internet and continue to elicit quite a response from readers from all over. One result of the availability of his work has been that representatives from Universal Studios have contacted him to be a part of a potential movie project, "Florida Not Found in the Tourist Guides," based in part on his writings.

    In addition to teaching art classes, Barber presents lectures and demonstrations in art, history, horticulture and native plants, along with teaching an occasional class on orchid culture. At one point, he was lecturing from south Florida to New Jersey, but he prefers to stay closer to home nowadays.

    Every few years, he will have an art show.

    "The secret," he claims, "is to whet their appetite. When people start asking me, 'When are you going to have another show?,' then I know it's about time to begin putting one together."

    As an art teacher, Gene felt that he ought to try a little bit of everything pertaining to art. He has dabbled in every form of art, including oil, water color, acrylics, pen and ink, brush and ink, printmaking and photography. He found that only one art form - sculpture - has eluded his capabilities. Other than oil, his favorite medium is still the regular old graphite pencil. He hasn't attempted such modern areas as computer art, not that he has anything against new art forms, he simply runs out of time working with the mediums he is familiar with.

    He agonizes over the fact that so many artists today refuse to conquer the basics before they go into "fad stuff."

    "I have had art teachers - not locally, mind you - who have literally crept in my back door and asked if I would give them drawing lessons," he confides. "Some had no knowledge of the basics, and had not even tried to master the foundations."

    Although he doesn't paint much of his own these days, with most of his work being commissioned, Barber maintains that, "A good piece of art work - or an orchid - doesn't need to fit in," which brings us to another facet of this intricate man - his fascination with orchids.

    His orchid hobby, which is so elaborate that it could almost be deemed another profession, began when he discovered some beautiful native varieties while traipsing through the woods locally. He didn't know what the blooms were, so, true to his nature, he researched and found out the plants were native orchids. His collection of orchids has grown from the first one he bought in 1960 to close to 800 today. He has varieties from all over the world, including South America, where the plant is considered a weed, to Japan, Asia, Mexico, the Andes, and the Himalayas.

    Each plant is nurtured with individual care, and Gene can tell you where each came from, the climate it thrives in, and what the bloom looks like. There's even an orchid in his collection that bears his name - several scientific classifications followed by "Barber."

    Of all of his accomplishments, including being founder of the Baker County Historical Society and having served as president of the Florida Federation of Arts, the achievement he is the most proud of is bringing the arts to the county's school system.

    "Not that it was all my doing, you understand," he explains. "Art would have eventually come to the classroom. It was just a matter of being the right person in the right place at the right time, speaking often and loud enough.

    "Arts develop a part of the brain. When we deny children an opportunity to develop in the area of the arts, we deny them the opportunity to exercise that part of their brain. It's as if we make a child go through life with one arm tied behind his back, and when he reaches adulthood, we untie it and then complain that he is not 'well rounded' when the arm is useless; or like an athlete who only lifts weights with one arm - he's just not as developed as he can be."

    When he isn't working on other projects, Gene has spent the past twenty years working on his house, a one hundred year old structure.

    "I'm really no closer to being done with it than I was when I first started," he says. "Another twenty years ought to about do it."

    With all the notoriety that has come his way, Barber is reluctant to grant interviews, preferring to remain rather anonymous in his private life and let up and coming young artists who need publicity have the spotlight.

    "I would have used an interview to promote my work when I was younger," he says. "But now that's not something I care to do.

    "Life is good," he concludes, and it's hard to argue with him.

    Reprinted with permission from The Baker County Standard, July 5, 1999

  • "The Baker County Standard"
  • Invitation


    Gene Barber 50th year of Art



    The name Gene Barber is synonymous with knowledge of local history for several generations of Baker County residents alive during the 1970s and 1980s.

    The same is true when one mentions art, painting or drawing in this county. The name of Gene Barber bubbles up into the conversation.

    He's the best and most knowledgeable historian alive in Baker County today, and though the area has some accomplished artists, Gene is prominent among them. In many cases, Gene's careful cultivation of artistic talent in others is the sole reason they took up art and stayed with it.

    Gene acquired perhaps more fame than he intended with his popular historical newspaper column "The Way It Was" from 1975-1979. It was and remains the most popular regular column, published in the newspaper during my tenure here. The topics were interesting both to readers with close Baker County ties and to others who took up residence here more recently.

    Gene spiced up his subject matter with dry wit and sometimes touching sentimen­tality. It was history as information and entertainment.

    And it was precisely because Gene Barber maintained that status as county historian that he played leading roles in both the Macclenny and Glen St. Mary cen­tennial celebrations during the 1980s. They were staged with the same dignity and appreciation for detail that have marked other aspects of Gene's professional endeavors.

    Thanks, Gene, for your many contributions and a half century of accomplishments.

    Jim McGauley, Publisher
    The Baker County Press


    Opinion & Comment, Baker County Press, April 28, 2005
    Impressions: Jim McGauley

    Gene Barber, if he were living this week, would probably try to talk me out of writing this. But of course, he is not here. He died last week at the age of 69. For more than three decades I knew Gene, I always assumed he would have preferred to live somewhere before his time in Baker County. Maybe post-Civil War through the early 20th Century. …..He kinda liked old things, even the way people dressed back then. He seemed to despise many new things, or acted like he did. Things like cell phones, pagers and answering machine. He feigned a disdain for computers, but spent a lot of time on them. So I’m not really sure that Gene fixatated on the past. Were one to query him this week, he’d probably admit he lived in a pretty interesting time. When one asked him how he’s doing, Gene would reply,” Oh, tolerably well, thank you. “ That was an old-fashioned response, or at least it sounded like one. At any rate, it sounded quaint coming from a person who prided himself knowing about personalities and events that were part of Baker County’s past. Therein lies Gene’s legacy.

    He prided himself as the depository of much of the living history of this area, taking pains to point out the role different families played in the formation of Baker County, Interspersing events with social customs that force on any community, and weaving it all in an often amusing, always informative way. He scoffed at the growth that overtook this area the past quarter century, yet welcomed new residents who quickly took to his folksy style and used his historical column and personal contacts as a conduit to find out about this interesting community in which they found themselves. History wasn’t his only avenue. He made as many friends and influenced as many people with his art classes both here and at the beaches, where one learned about painting, along with anything else he might have on his mind that week. People are more accurately defined by the way they react to adversity rather than what they actually say. Such was the case when Gene was confronted with what turned out to be a rather silly spat over the placement of Ku Klux Klan night riders in a corner of the historical mural he painted for the renovated courthouse. The judges from Gainesville raised hell, saying it didn’t belong in the halls of justice on the second floor near the courtrooms. A media circus ensued and eventually the whole thing died down when a compromise was reached and the mural was placed downstairs near the front entrance. All though it Gene said little.

    From the beginning he was resolute: the Klan depiction stays because it is history with all its warts. If the mural couldn’t hang on the second floor, so be it. There would be no airbrushing the horsemen away.

    He could have, and likely wanted to, say a bit more than that, but it would have taken away from the dignity of the mural as both art and history. Gene wasn’t going to let that happen. More people will see it now anyway; up there it would’ve been mostly criminals and divorcing couples looking at it.” He mused (I paraphrased here a bit!) Typical Gene.

    He didn’t suffer fools lightly. Gene had his favorites and there were those he avoided at all costs. He was, despite occasional attempts to throw others off track, a very charitable man who recoiled from hurting the feelings of others. Not a bad quality. We’ll miss Gene and his column here at the newspaper. I was quoted in a recent article on his illness and impending death published in The Beaches Leader that no Press writer has ever connected with the people better than Gene. He truly was a bridge between Baker County’s colorful past and it’s future. His words will continue to be read and serve as a research base long after the rest of us are forgotten. He’d be embarrassed to read that, but he’d smile just the same.

    “Tolerably so.”

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