If the combination of humor and offbeat Florida history turns you on, then, settle back and enjoy.
William P. Beck 1-23-73
There surely must be more to history than just the memorizing of dates and the recording of wars. It has been substantially proven that "history is written by the victorious". It must follow that the losers might have some interesting tales to tell.
It was back in 1912 President William Howard Taft, after listening
to the wailing and pleading of many Florida politicians, decided to open
up for settlement a very small portion of the forest land reserved by
his predecessor, Teddy Roosevelt, for the public domain. On Washington's birthday 1912 most all of the land on Merrit Island, in the
Indian River, was thrown open to homesteaders. Any adult, except
a wife, was entitled to 160 acres of public land who would build a
house upon it the first year and the second year "cultivate" five
acres and complete the necessary three-year life on the land
producing 10 acres of planting. Most all of the homesteads were composed of approximately 60 percent scrub palmetto and pine trees and
40 percent "savannah", or prairie land under about 3 inches of water.
My father and I, early on the morning of February 22, 1912, in
a small launch with a guide named Jim, started from Cocoa for the
village of Courtenay, on the island nine miles to the north. We selected what we thought to be "a good piece of land" and paid a man
named Pierce $ 100.00 to survey it for us and place large pine "staubs"
defining each corner. We then rushed to Gainesville, Florida, to "sign
up" and file on my dad's claim. I recall we signed all papers before
the Registrar of the U.S. Land Office, a jovial federal politician who
insisted we all call him "Bob". He was "Our Bob" Davis whose son
Bob Davis later became a good friend of mine while I was assistant
sergeant-at-arms in the Florida Senate and he was Secretary of the
Senate. Dad was third man to file when Merrit Island was opened.
About this time a small-town Baptist preacher came down from
Alabama to Florida to "settle". He brought with him a friend whose
job was to pass the hat and make collections while he, Sydney J. Catts,
campaigned for governor. The man who is still well known in Florida
politics and long time with the Utilities Commission was Jerry Carter
and neither had been in the state of Florida the necessary year to claim
While "stumping the state" the ex-Baptist parson would shout to
his awe stricken backwoods audience "the poor man has only three
friends, "Jesus Christ, Sears & Roebuck and Sydney J. Catts". He
had but one good eye but it would bore a hole "clean through a person"
it was claimed.
As there was no television those days and candidates for any office
were forced to hire a horse and buggy to transport them from village
to town. Often times two candidates, foes on the platform, would cut
expenses by using the same "rig". After Governor Catts completed
his term he decided he should be sent to Washington and challenged
the incumbent, Duncan U. Fletcher, for his seat in the United States
One day the people of Cocoa were given "throw aways" handed to
them by Jerry Carter telling them that the next day Governor Sydney
J. Catts and Honorable Duncan U. Fletcher would speak to them at
10:00 a.m. at the Cocoa Baseball Park and then they could decide
which statesman should be sent to Washington.
Nearly all in the town who could vote turned out -- I was representing "the press", the Cocoa Tribune, and soon the old war horses
were at it hammer and tongs and Fletcher began to get the worst of
it. He stood up and glared at Catts and roared "I'm not going to mention any names but if a certain no-good cattle thief and claim jumper
don't quit telling lies about me, I'm going to knock out his other eye."
That broke up the speaking. Jerry rushed through the laughing crowd
to take up his collection. Both Catts and Fletcher seemed mighty
friendly as they crawled into their rig which had been tied behind the
bleachers at the ball field. I never did learn if Catts divided the day's
"take" with Fletcher. This rather faltering foreword will give you
some idea of some Florida lore not found in the state's school books.
| MERRITT ISLAND -- COCOA -- INDIAN RIVER |
Wish one could write of the wonder and beauty of Florida as I
knew it 60 years ago. I have been able only to hack at it with a dull
axe, chipping off crude pictures of a land completely beautiful. The
mere thoughts fill one with compelling awe permeated with an indescribable reverence.
A picture of Florida in the early 1900's is almost unbelievable.
Let us take the Indian River, unhindered by bridges from its source
to the inlet near Fort Pierce. It was in reality a lagoon - in most
places more than a mile wide (six miles across near Titusville) its
water saltier than the seas, and teeming with fish. At Cocoa the mile
and a half river was often covered from shore to shore with ducks.
A speed boat splashed through the hordes of game on a trip to Courtenay and the ducks would not be disturbed by the wakes of the speedster on either shore the flock was so huge.
And when the tropic night had come the fiery fish streaked the
river with flame. Of course the phosphorus was abundant in the water
as there was no inlet between Mosquito Inlet south of New Smyrna
and the mouth of the St. Lucie River. Schools of mullet over one mile
long attacked by sharks would bring about a pyrotechnic display unequalled by any Fourth of July fire-works ever witnessed.
The speckled trout (weakfish) caught in the Indian River were so
large and plentiful, many fish house managers would not buy them unless they had to be bent to go into a fish barrel.
I fished commercially for shrimp (prawn) off Fernandina, receiving one dollar for a bushel, and two of us averaged each day between
50 and 60 bushels. Have you priced prawn lately?
The Caribbean pine trees on Merrit Island stood so close to each
other, a two-wheeled cart drawn by 4 yoke of oxen could make no
road through them - many were five feet in diameter and it was almost
impossible to drive a nail into the lumber until it was seasoned.
Magnificent flocks of pink curlews (Roseate Spoonbills) could be
found in the lagoons. Nearly every homesteader boasted of a bald
eagle's nest on his property. And a little farther south were the egrets,
millions of them, although the hunters even then were thinning out the
flocks to adorn the society ladies millinery with their plumes.
I recall when the State of Florida clamped down a law that no
hunters should kill more than six deer in one season. One of the old
timers on Merritt Island indignantly exclaimed, "Shucks, I can kill
that many before noon on the first day."
| A TROPIC NIGHT AND THE FIERY FISH
When the homesteaders came to Merritt Island they built homes
with an eye to the weather, location and their pocketbooks. A great majority of the residences were mere unpainted "shacks" with corregated
iron roofs and if real fancy, here and there you could find a front
porch. Those early builders who gave a thought to the housewife constructed a back porch for a "pitcher pump," a hand affair to draw
water from a depth of about 20 feet. It did not occur to any of us that
we were an underprivileged people. We didn't even ask the government to reduce the requirements of the homestead code and permit us
to "cultivate" but five acres instead of 10. We bought grub hoes and
yanked out acres of palmetto roots at the rate of one acre every 30
days per man -- and then we had to attempt to plow through the remaining rooty tendrils, harrow and then plow again before we could
even plant an orange tree. I just happened to think that if we placed
all those homesteaders' homes along one side of any city today --
boy, that would be a slum to shame all slums. However, we didn't
realize it -- we were poverty stricken and didn't know it.
We surely missed a bet!
Just imagine -- nearly 200 adults from nearly every state in the
nation gathered together in one community with no houses, no roads,
no bridges, no plows, no axes, or other tools, no schools, no groceries,
with the desire only to build a better country. What an opportunity
for the do-gooders.
I don't see how we got along on the Island, no PTA, no social security (we had a number of homesteaders over 65 including one with
a wooden leg and another but one arm with a large steel hook on the
stub). There was no homestead exemption and paid taxes as soon as
we "proved up" (3 years). We did have one Spanish American War
"Vet" who received from the government eight dollars a month.
When he received it we would have a party at his cabin to help him
celebrate. He had to walk seven miles and back to collect his check
in the mail.
Just think what we could have done with the surplus foods and
other surplus products, we might have wrangled from a paternal congress. We might even have written CARE and received a free plow and
axe. We might have wrestled mightily and come up with enough
money for our roads and bridges (we built them ourselves, working
every Monday -- every able-bodied settler).
There were no unemployment checks, no free nurses, no hospital
and no undertaker -- we did not need one. The outdoor, rugged life seemed to agree with everyone. The only death I can remember was an old
man who had not been seen about for a couple of days and the buzzards
were seen flying their gruesome figure-eights over his shack. We who
found his body agree it must have been his heart, but noticed there was
no evidence of rigor mortis. We sent for a mortician from Cocoa.
The homesteader's shack was nearly a quarter of a mile from the
nearest road and surrounded by very healthy scrub palmetto, with their
enormous overground roots. We had made a rough box for the body of
our old friend.
Crossing the scrub (there was no road to the cabin) with the box
and the undertaker, I mentioned the fact we had no difficulty in dressing
the corpse - no sign of rigor mortis (no physician on the island to
declare the man dead), and holding tightly to his springless seat as
we bumped toward the woods road, the mortician answered, "Well,
if he wasn't dead then, he is now after ridin' over these durn palmetto roots".
There was no county welfare so we dug a grave for him ourselves and one of his closest friends "said a few words".
You know it was real tough getting on without the government.
We occasionally see an empty freight car going north on the F.E.C.
trains with the name on the side "Miller High Life Beer". Never any
empties of other beers. Can it be the other brands of beer flow into
Miami by pipeline?
| WE WONDER HOW WE GOT ALONG |
I am reminded of the time when the only publicity the town of Cocoa
received (and there wasn't any town of Cocoa Beach) was sent out by
traveling salesmen (drummers) who told their fellow sufferers that
the best place to eat on the territory was The Cocoa House at Cocoa
where Ed Grimes, an old drummer himself, was host. This was in
1912 and the land was listed on what is now Cocoa Beach at $20 per
acre -- and no sales . . . too many mosquitos.
Cocoa was a quiet, peaceful hamlet of about 650 persons -- fishermen, citrus growers, guides and homesteaders. There was no blacktop paving -- if any at all the holes in the streets were filled with oyster
shell from Indian mounds in the area. There were no Federal highways
and the Dixie highway passed through the center of town. This highway
was also made by filling the car ruts with oyster shell. I recall one
of the members of the "faster set" who made a wager of $50 he could
drive from Cocoa to Jacksonville by car "all the same day -- 176
miles away." The gamblers argued a day meant from sun up to sundown -- and the poor fellow lost his money. "Gator" Travis ran the
general store in Cocoa (his father Col. Travis was president of Brevard
County State Bank -- it gave up during the great depression of the 30s)
and the first real estate operator on Cocoa Beach was Gus Edwards,
an attorney in Cocoa. The Cocoa Real Estate authority, back in those
days was Roy Trafford. A man by the name of Canfield also sold some
real estate on commission -- he claimed to be some kin to the nationally
known gambler whose name is still known as a game of solitaire.
The summer days in early Cocoa were long but it was cool under
the huge oak tree which shaded the bench outside the entrance to Johnny
Weather's Pool Hall -- and most of the merchants in town stopped there
sometime during those lazy, pleasant days. Even Homesteaders from
Merritt Island stopped to rest after a brisk shopping tour of the Cocoa
stores, to listen to the tales of the even earlier days along Indian River.
Dr. Noah Counts would stop occasionally to check on the health of
some of his rare patients -- no one seemed to ail much in those days.
It was about this time that Marie Holderman brought her newspaper,
"The Tribune", from Palmetto, across from Bradentown (yes, they
didn't change the city's name until much later) and started the "Cocoa
Tribune." I soon became a correspondent to the Tribune from Courtenay
on Merritt Island and wrote of the goings and comings there for a few
months when Marie asked if I would like to work on the paper in Cocoa --
I did. Her husband Chauncey (we called him "Chance") would sit in
his wheelchair and give customers prices on job printing. I believe
we got $35 for a full page of advertising in that 8-col. sheet.
| $20 BOUGHT AN ACRE ON COCOA BEACH |
Today the kitchen in most houses is still the center of the household
especially when cocktails are served and the guests cluster around.
Back on our Merritt Island homestead fifty years ago the kitchen was
also the center of interest. It was here the great wood range was queen.
No electric stoves then, in fact there was no electricity "on the Island"
and of course there was no coal to be had. Many of the native oldtimers
had never seen coal in their lives.
There was plenty of good wood on the Island. I chopped it up by
the cords. The principal timber was of course Pine with a scattering
of water oak and some hickory. Where it came from no one knew but
there were some pretty good stands of cedar. Some even thought of
starting a lead pencil factory. We saved the cedar wood for the fireplace as the perfume was delightful.
In the woods which surrounded the home place were Caribbean
pines over five feet in diameter and in some places they grew so close
together, one could not drive an ox team through them. Here we would
always find, close to the house, what the natives called a "harricane".
It was a fallen tree with its giant roots pointing to the heavens. The
trees would become top heavy with growth and the land was so low,
the roots would seldom grow far below the surface and they would topple
over. Some of the monsters had fallen and become a part of the land;
the outer wood would have rotted away leaving only the roots and the
heart filled with turpentine. This was the famed "litered" or "lightwood" which one could light by merely applying a match, no matter the
size. This lightwood was the thing to start the fires in the wood stove
but to obtain the even heat necessary to bake the best bread and pies
we had to keep a goodly pile of oak wood for use.
When we first took up our abode on the Island and mother would bake
her luscious great loaves of bread as she did back in Kansas, the natives
would drop in and marvel. There was no bread as we know it today
in the stores and everyone baked cornbread. They sometimes fried a
"pone" on a flat skillet but baked nothing but cornbread and "soda
biscuits". We soon learned to bake biscuits, however, and with Florida
corn syrup they were sure "fitten".
Another small bit of Florida history I never saw in the school books.
When Fred Cone gave his first reception at the Governor's Mansion
in Tallahassee, his sister said her ambition had always been to slide
down the wide bannister from the second floor to the reception room.
Fred told her to go ahead. She did -- and broke her leg.
| THE CENTER OF THE HOUSEHOLD |
You know, I believe folks are getting smarter. Once upon a time
when I was affiliated with the Island citrus industry, old man Ned
Whaley had just about the best orange grove on Merritt Island and I
spread fertilizer and hoed trees for him.
Smart city salesmen from the fertilizer companies in Jacksonville would come down right after a grower had picked his grove
clean and point out that the trees look bad - all yellow. They told
the countrymen that this was caused by the fact the trees had just
been separated from the fruit and the shock was detrimental and they
had a special fertilizer mixed just to remedy this, what old man Whaley
thought was a preposterous situation.
I noticed he did not purchase any of this special mixture and when
asked he would say, "Humpf, does a woman feel better or worse after
she gives birth to her baby? She feels better and so does an orange
tree - the yellowish cast to the tree is caused by the showing of the
under side of the leaf. As the heavily laden limbs give up their fruit
they lift up and for several days the under side of their leaves show.
It only takes a few days for the tops of the leaves to again adjust
themselves to lick up the rays of the sun and it takes on that oily
green color sought after by all good growers". Don't believe any
growers today would fall for a "special mix".
The only thing that old man Whaley ever fell for was Napolean.
He was a great admirer of Napolean and along in the heat of the afternoon when the weeds grew higher than usual I would call the old man
and talk to him about Napolean. I read everything I could find about
the Little Corporal and we would sit in the shade and swap stories to
while away a weary afternoon.
Way back in 1912 when I first inhaled the heavenly aroma of orange
blossoms on Merritt Island, folks, even those with "schoolin' " had
few of the worries that attack us today. Not only did they never dream
of a guided missile, carrying utter destruction, balanced on its speeding
nose, but actually knew little of the Nation's economy -- and cared less.
That was all left to Wall Street. Now we not only worry over our
country's financial progress, but seem vitally concerned over the
internal affairs of even the smallest of Africa's "Republics".
A little knowledge is still a dangerous thing.
| COULDN'T FOOL OLD MAN WHALEY |
There was very little drinking on Merritt Island when we "homesteaded" there. Some of the new settlers made excellent wine from
grapefruit juice. . . we would sit around a neighbors one-room shack
wishin' we were back home and would be asked by our host to try
some of the "last batch" he had just "aged" ... the conversations
would dwell on "the war" (World War I, just starting) . . . the earthen jug would make the rounds. . . tin cups and glasses which once
held "store bought" Jelly would be used. . . no kick to the stuff. . .
until we started back to our own shacks. . . those who had cars were
afraid to "go into high" and would creep through the massive Caribbean
pines in low gear . . . potent . . . that grapefruit wine spoke softly but
with authority . . . It might be of interest to describe in more detail
the characters who "homesteaded" when the Government opened the
Island to settlers in 1912. . .
My Mother . . . when we were able to get her into a small
boat to make the trip from Cocoa to the island, insisted she would not
go to "that God-forsaken land", insisting it was not in the United
States and she wanted no part of it. . . she soon learned to love it
however. . . it was ten degrees cooler in the summer and the same
number of degrees warmer in the winter, surrounded as it is by great
stretches of warm tropical waters. . . one of the first men we met when
we landed was Herr Doktor Peter von Braun, professor of Philosophy
and Psychology at Heidelberg, Germany. . . he left Germany because
he claimed the country was headed for oblivion (he didn't miss his
prophecy very far). . . Prof. Braun, was a writer, musician, a biologist of note and soon to be a horticulturist... he was a small man
and made but few friends... the homesteaders were afraid of him. . .
he used so many large words and like many foreigners, when he learned our language he learned to speak and write it with great precision. . .
and we were not accustomed to that... people are always most afraid
of that which they cannot understand. . . and few of us understood
Prof. Braun. . . most of us firmly believed he was run out of Germany. . . he mentioned once to me, he had been a priest and had left
the Church. . . and being called a renegade had left Arkansas and hid
himself in the wilds of Florida. . . and Florida was wild. . . bears,
panthers ("painters"), wild cats, crocodiles and rattlesnakes made
their home on the island ... Braun told me in 1913 that Germany would
soon be at war in Europe ... we went into his well kept dwelling which
he had built himself from native pine and among his files brought out
a copy of a magazine printed in Germany in 1904... nearly ten years
before. . . it was printed in German and being a student at a German
Lutheran college (Midland College in Atchison, Kansas), I could pick
out a word here and there and of course could read the printed dates. . .
Braun told me he had been "half asleep and half awake" and had a vision
and got up from his bed and jotted down what he had seen.. and then
had published it. . . he wrote that he seemed to be in the air gazing
down upon all of Europe and that he saw a strange black cloud coming
from Germany and spreading across all of the nations of Europe...
that this cloud was finally pierced by a strong light from "the new
country" (United States) and when the cloud had dissipated itself the
Kaiser was able to stand on his throne "and spit across his entire
kingdom". . . Braun might have been run out of Germany at that . .
remember this was written in 1904 and I read it in 1913... Braun's
printed prophecy went further and he saw a great pestilence coming
from Spain which covered the entire earth, killing hundreds of thousands of people in all countries. . . I thought little of this prediction
and of course I could not visualize the deaths to come from Spanish
Influenza which spread across the earth during the late years of the
first world war. . . Many tales such as this one could be told of this
strange man who we found on Merritt Island walking like a prophet
of old, through the wilds of the new-old country.
The first time I read Ted Pratt's "Barefoot Mailman" I had never
even seen a Paper Nautilus. The story is about Hypoluxo Island
during the time when Juno, in what is now Palm Beach County, was
the county seat of Dade County and outvoted Miami.
It is always difficult for me to read of mail delivery in Florida
in the early days without harking back to about 1912 when the homesteaders on Merritt Island waited until 9:00 p.m. for the mail to come
over the "star route" from Cocoa.
Mail left Courtenay early in the morning and Deveaux Sams, one
of the old families on the Island, drove his one-mule "team" south
along the east bank of the Indian River. At the village of Merritt
he moved his mail, freight and an occasional passenger to a small
boat and would putt-putt across the river to Cocoa on the mainland
where Flagler's train came down from Jacksonville every day with
Deveaux was a devoted husband. Tall, thin and weather tanned, he
wore a scrawny mustache, which he continuously sucked, stopping only
to eat - he talked very little. On his "route" he would stop wherever
there was a telephone and call his wife in Courtenay to tell her he
was alright and inquire about her health.
South of Courtenay about six miles was his first stop to pick up
mail. The hamlet was Indianola with about 20 orange growers living
there abouts. Here the inhabitants had built a large hall where they
held dances every Saturday night. Here also was the winter home
of an Ohio newspaper editor, Warren Harding, who later became
President of the United States. Harding loved to dance, play poker
and "shoot-craps" with the natives. Everyone seemed to like Harding
except for the fact he was a Republican.
I recall that when he ran for Chief Executive a story filled all
the papers telling of Harding playing at dice while in Indianola, which
was greatly distorted, stating he shot craps with negro boys. You can
imagine how we "crackers" felt about the canard. Let's get back to Deveaux.
After the mail man called his wife at Cocoa, we would help him
load his mail, all except the locked first class bags, and small freight
and made the mile and a quarter cruise back across the river. It
was now past 3:00 o'clock but the mullet were still jumping in front
of the boat.
Do you get the picture of the scrawny mule standing in the scrub
palmetto at Merritt awaiting the return of Deveaux late that afternoon, pestered by mosquitoes?
Usually the passengers would have a new hair cut after visiting
Cocoa and would also suffer from "the bugs". My father said Merritt
Island mosquitoes "could stand flat footed and drink out of a pint
Deveaux would drive his "team" back north nine miles, through
Indianola, where he always stopped to call his wife and tell her he
was O.K. and on his way home, and reached Courtenay around 9:00
p.m., where natives and homesteaders from the "backwoods" would
be waiting for their mail and news of the outside world. I remember
that World War One was five days old before we first heard of the
The Courtenay post office was in Dick LaRoche's store and
Deveaux would always call home to announce his safe arrival.
We in America should take heed of the accomplishment of Red
China in the field of nuclear research. Too often the free people of the
Earth belittle the ability of the Chinese scientists, forgetting the Chinese
invented gun powder, glass - and a legend has it - roast pork.
| DEVEAUX AND HIS ONE MULE "TEAM" |
About 1912 those who spent their winters in Florida built homes
along Indian River. . . at Rockledge, Daytona, Ormond . . . and of
course Palm Beach. When I visited Miami that year there were but
6,000 mosquito-bitten residents living there. . . all travel was
done by boat along the rivers and the East Coast Canal (now the Intracoastal Waterway) . . . excursion or rather sight-seeing boats
left Jacksonville early each morning with about thirty passengers
and their luggage. . . reservations were made for them to stop that
night at St. Augustine. . . they left the next morning and sailed as
far as Daytona Beach where they spent the next night going to Cocoa-
Rockledge the next night... then to Palm Beach and the next day found
them in Miami. . . the same route was traveled on the return trip. . .
I recall the names of several of these sightseeing craft. . . there
was "The Constitution" and "The United States" ... and a large Mississippi River steamboat named the "Swan" skippered by Capt. Frank
Houston also plied these waters carrying both passengers and freight. . .
and I understand the passengers many times included the old time
"river boat gamblers" as well . . . the Clyde Line of steamships ran
a large steamer up the St. John's river from Jacksonville as far south
as Sanford, leaving about 4 p.m. serving supper aboard as the ship silently glided along. . . under the famous Florida full moon.. it was
quite an experience for the traveler to watch the freight being unloaded by the singing darkies (hope the NAACP won't get mad at us) at the
different boat stops. . . and about 1 o'clock at night each trip south the
man at the wheel would show the waiting group of stayer-uppers a
lone light ashore where there was no town and he would tell them the
story of the demented old lady who waited each night with her lantern
for a sweetheart that was supposed to come back to her on that very
boat. . . 40 years and ... and she would drop the light as the boat went
by saluting her with a low moaning whistle.. . it was quite romantic...
in those days there were "tourist hotels" owned by the FEC railroad at
St. Augustine, Ormond, Palm Beach, Miami, Nassau and Long Key
which opened about Jan. 12 and closed when Washington's Birthday
Ball was presented at the old Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach on
February 22... the old families who spent the winters in Florida owned
their own homes there and did little winter traveling except along the
rivers. . . then came good roads... and the travel started... old winter homes were sold and turned into "rooms for rent" . . . instead of
the same old faces each winter, now total strangers would drop into
town enquiring where they could find a good place to eat ... more hotels soon sprung up . . . some almost overnight... with the good
roads, Florida was growing up.
| GOOD ROADS CHANGED GROWING FLORIDA |
The Bible tells us that we should crush a snake's head with our
heel, but I never did use that method of destruction on the Diamondback Rattlesnakes we encountered while homesteading during the 'teen
years of the 1900's.
Accompanying me on most of my trips through the woods and
savannahs to the store at Courtenay and into the unexplored back country was my old faithful .45 colt pistol, given to me by my father back
in Kansas. When he handed me the hand gun he told me "Son, don't
ever draw this weapon unless you expect to kill whoever or whatever
you want to point it at" and then he continued, "this pistol is big enough
so that if you hit a man on his front porch, his whole house falls down".
About all I ever used it for was snakes.
When I met my first rattlesnake, head-on, out in the open and not in a
zoo or cage, I really believed it to be at least 14 feet long. I shot her
through the head and she looked but 10 feet over all. When I measured
the carcass before skinning she was only a bare 7 ft. 10 inches.
We tacked the hide with the raw side to the sun to the side of the
barn (after we buried the head with its deadly fangs). In a couple of
days we could take it down, as stiff as a board and then rub oil into it sufficiently to soften it in order to roll it into a small parcel -- we sold
them for 50 cents each. Any homesteader's shack would have from 3
to 5 hides drying on the south side, where there would be the most sun.
One could easily tell the male from the female rattler by the more
vivid coloring and the "diamonds" on the male were more perfectly
formed. Rattlers like most venomous snakes are born and receive the
venom from the mother just a short time before birth.
Now let me tell you of a most unusual experience with a rattlesnake -- one which attempted to "charm" me, like a bird or rabbit.
I was in my early 20's and should have known better.
The reptile was coiled and rattling, hid in a clump of sawtooth
palmetto. I had always wondered what a rattler's eyes looked like. I
knew the snake could jump one-half its length forward, so I would be safe
if I came no nearer to him than 5 feet, and besides he could not "strike"
because of the palmetto fans above him.
I was soon flat in the open, on the ground -- eye to eye-- neither
of us moving a muscle. A friendly feeling toward the serpent came over
me -- this I had not expected. The rattler's eye (I concentrated on but
one) grew as large as a dime and seemed to open and shut like the shutter of a camera. It was fascinating. I lost all fear and it occurred to me
that all the stories I had heard about snakes must have been wrong.
Very soon I was aware the rattler, no longer rattling, was slowly moving and I snapped out of it and jumped up as the reptile slithered toward me. I no longer felt friendly and shot him through the eye.
| ALMOST CHARMED BY RATTLER! |
While I am a dog man myself, here's a cat story that must be told.
In the early years of this century, when we filed a homestead
claim on Merritt Island, it was a rough and rugged life and we had some
rough and rugged pets -- a small black bear cub and a frowsy, huge
tawny house cat answering the name of Tom. Tom grew up with young
panthers and picked up many of their habits.
We were awakened early one morning by the wails of a scrawny,
half starved female kitty on our back porch and my mother immediately
brought her a saucer of canned Pet milk. I could see old Tom watching
from a clump of scrub palmetto and wondered if that old scoundrel
had brought the abandoned kitten home with him. They got along fine
together and in the due course of time five mysterious wee kittens
appeared on our back porch, and mother fixed up a box with an old
but clean gunny sack and placed the mother cat and her young'uns in
When all was quiet on the back porch and Tom could not see us
watching him, he delighted to play with his offspring - we could tell
they were his by the tawny markings. If Tom saw one of us or heard a
noise in the kitchen he would push the playful kittens aside and pretend he had nothing to do with them. I noticed he seemed to "talk"
with them, making a crooning sound never heard at any other time. I
am sure he talked with the mother cat.
Tom spent little time on the porch but he could be seen throughout
the day in his clump of palmetto. Occasionally we would find near the
back door the carcass of a field rat or two. He wanted us to be sure
he was earning his keep. He prowled the woods at night but I do not
think he was ever was far from his home with us. He seemed to have
no fear of the night-prowling panthers (the natives called 'em "painters")
nor anything else.
One morning I was watching the kittens at play when a calico cat
of a neighbor jumped on the porch and grabbed the head of one of the
youngters in his mouth as he leaped from the box I hurled an old boot
I was cleaning and caught him on the side of his head. The intruder
dropped his prey and scurried across our south forty heading for
When our Tom showed up an hour or so later, after I had set
the injured kitten's little broken jaw, one never heard such "talking"
between two animals as when the mother cat reported the assault
of the calico cat to old Tom. Tom was furious and with not a single
word of reply leaped from the porch and followed the trail of his neighbor across the south forty.
Several hours later our neighboring homesteader came to visit
and wanted to know what was ailing our cat. He said, -Your Tom, without any excuse jumped on our cat and with but one bite of his jaws
broke his neck"
I told him what had occurred -- but he didn't believe it. But I do.
In Florida before World War One there was little gambling except
in Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and Key West. In Cocoa, at that time
if a homesteader was looking for action he would head for the pool hall.
Beside the pool and billiard games one could nearly always find a poker
game in progress. There were no professional gamblers of whom I ever
heard but there was a man who hung around the pool hall who claimed his
uncle was a big sporting man in the West who owned a saloon called
"The Silver Dollar" -- and that the lobby of the place was paved with
silver dollars. The Cocoa man's name was "Canfield" and he claimed
the great solitaire card game "Canfield" was named for him.
There were no barrooms in Cocoa in those early days but it seemed
all the men folk congregated at Johnny Weathers' pool hall, sitting on the
benches backed up against the front of the building under one of the
largest live-oak trees I ever saw. Sitting with the town marshal,
"Bubber" Hatter would be found probably a deputy sheriff from Titusville, the leading real estate and insurance man, clientless attorney, "Gator" Travis, a son of the president of the Brevard County
State Bank (purchased later by the Barnett Bank Interests of Jacksonville) and "Doc" Counts would always stop for a time before opening
his office in the Library building.
Early one morning I left Merritt Island and as I tied up our launch
at the dock in Cocoa I noticed a much larger crowd than usual at the pool
hall and soon found the excitement was caused by a bet between the two
most prominent business men in the community, C. Sweet Smith, Who
owned the Ford Agency in Cocoa and "Pop" Bryan who owned the electric light plant and ice house.
"Pop" had laughed at the younger Ford dealer because he would
not acknowledge that if a common wash tub filled with water was placed
on a platform scales and a live two pound or more mullet was placed in
it, the scales would not register any gain in weight. This would indicate
according to "Pop" that a live fish swimming in its nature habitat had
no weight whatever.
The argument pro and con became louder and louder.
Sweet Smith, who later was appointed a member of the Florida
State Racing Commission, proclaimed he would wager his Ford Agency
against "Pop's" power plant that the fish would not lose weight --
" Pop " replied in a great display of rage " Put up or shut up" and a wash
tub half filled with water was soon placed on a platform scales in
"Gator" Travis' hardware store and all headed for the river (Indian)
with a 6-ft. cast net to produce the live fish. An indignant mullet was
soon splashing around in the tub -- and the scales revealed a 2-1b.
increase. However, "Pop" and his followers contended the fish had
touched the sides of the tub in its floundering and the gamblers agreed
to get some minnows and weigh one of them in a small container at
the drug store where the pharmacist would measure the weight in
grams. An "old colored lady" soon netted some "shiners" and all
again rushed to the drug store. This experiment also failed and because I worked on the Cocoa Tribune and I was supposed to know everything and everybody was asked to write the president of the University
of Florida at Gainesville and both gamblers would abide by the reply
of this popular educator.
The answer soon came back, I cannot recall the reply verbatim
but it went something like this: "Dear Sir: I did not believe anyone in
Florida could be so dumb. Everyone knows matter cannot be destroyed and all matter has weight-- even gas and smoke. Of course the
fish retains its weight in water and Mr. C. Sweet Smith wins".
"Pop" paid up with $4,000 in cash and a note for $6,000. It was a
pretty big bet for a little bitty town of about 800 inhabitants.
| HOW COULD YOU BE SO DUMB? |
Tales of unusually large fish being landed bring to mind many
old fishing experiences in south Florida. Did you ever dive with a
hook made from an old coat hanger to jerk stone crabs from their
holes in rocks? Did you ever "firefish" for flounder with grains or
In the "old days" on Indian River it would sometimes be quite
late as we motored by small boat from Cocoa to Courtenay 9 miles
north on Merritt Island and if it were after dark we would set up in the
bow a pole which held a chicken wire "basket" and in this we would
start a fire of "lightwood" (heart pine) which would burn quite merrily
giving off a dense black smoke by the way. As we chugged northward
mullet would be attracted by the light and there was seldom a trip we
didn't "catch" from seven to a dozen fine fish weighing up to 4 pounds
which leaped at the fire and dropped into our boats. Sport? No. Good
On Chases's dock on the Banana River side of Merrit Island many
boxes of oranges from the island would be stacked waiting for a steamer
to haul them to Jacksonville's Clyde Line ships which would sail for
New York each day. The end of this dock boasted of but four feet of
water. Banana River was literally filled with fish back about 1913.
Three or four of us homesteaders would oftimes get clubs from
limbs of fallen pine trees on shore and go out on the dock to about three
feet of water and string out to the north (fish in flight seldom run under
a pier in shallow water) and when we were about six feet apart in the
water we would rush toward the shore driving the "red fish" (channel
bass) ahead of us and when they reached the shallow waters near
shore they would mill around and we were able to pound them over their
heads with our clubs. We could have killed any number we chose but
we would take a dozen or more ashore and cutting off about 8 inches of
the tender parts of the tail, have a fish-fry that far surpassed any
which delight Floridians today.
For ten years I lived under the friendly glow of Canaveral light
(light house) and that light still brings to mind the time I was sure I
was seeing a real ghost.
This "ha'nt" appeared on the Island, in 1914. A young lady school
teacher from Miami had filed on a claim with her mother - and made
a practice of going for her mail at Courtenay which was about 6 miles
from her abode. One evening we saw her pass our house on the road
to town (the mail came in from Cocoa about 9:00 p.m.) and she was
seen leaving the general store about 9:30 p.m. We did not see her
pass our place going back and some of us started worrying about
her alone in those back woods. She seemed to know nothing about
"roughing it", coming as she did from the big city. Several of the
neighbors hustled out to her place only to learn from her mother that
she had not returned, though long overdue.
We went back over the road to pick up her tracks and followed
into the woods the only female shoe prints in evidence. About midnight
(the mosquitoes were attacking more furiously now) the tracks turned
into the yard of one of the homesteaders who told us he had worn his
wife's shoes when he went to the store that night as his boots were
soaking wet. We made torches of dead palmetto fans, and he joined us
as we spread out in our search, crying her name every few minutes.
Once in awhile we could hear a panther scream in the distance We
There was no moon but the light from Canaveral made its appearance once every few minutes. The beam in each lighthouse on the sea has
a different sequence in order that mariners can always determine their
Position, knowing which light they were watching.
I decided finally to go back to my place and hitch a couple of mules
to a wagon and get my shotgun, hoping to attract her attention if she
had wandered off the road and was lost. Going back to my homestead
by myself I heard a lot of water splashing and attracted by the sound, as
there was now no moon at all, I observed coming toward me, gliding
smoothly across the top of the switch-grass in the savannah, a huge,
white, undefined object. The unknown always scares us. here was
something I had never seen before on land or sea. I was petrified --
I couldn't move -- my legs refused to function on demand. Never before nor since have I been so scared. Never hesitating, the shapeless
white object came even closer toward me. I wanted to run but couldn't.
I said to myself: "If this is a ghost I will never have a better
chance to get myself a "ha'nt". I slowly picked up an oid palmetto
root from the roadway and literally forced my legs to move toward the
approaching "spook". With all the strength left me I heaved the heavy
root at the specter. It was a coal black cow with a huge white spot
on her side which reached down to the grass tops as she splashed
through the sloppy prairie. The relief was so great I had to sit for a
few minutes before hurrying back for my shotgun and the mules.
We found the girl nearly a half mile from the road, fighting the
mosquitoes under a spreading live oak tree, listening to the panthers.
When I told her to climb into the wagon seat, she drew herself erect
and proudly exclaimed: "Why, of all the nerve -- we have never been
introduced -- I do not know you!" I answered in no uncertain language:
"this ain't no ballroom floor -- get in that wagon". And she got in.
Just about daybreak we triumphantly escorted her home and found
her mother sound asleep.
The panthers stopped screaming, but I never was scared of them --
I knew what they were.
| NEVER SEEN BEFORE -- ON LAND OR SEA |
Of all the vote collectors in Florida history, the least known was
one of the greatest -- he never lost a race and he was elected, first
as Mayor of Lakeland (when he was not quite 21 years old), State House
of Representatives, (Polk County), Florida Attorney General, Governor and U.S. Senator -- Park Trammell.
My Mother's brother, Harley "Pete" Bell, in the early 1920's,
courted and married the daughter of one of the oldest families on
Merritt Island - Fanny Sams. Her family had extensive holdings of
citrus groves on the Island -- the largest was the famous Happy Alligator grove. I first met Park Trammell when he came to Merritt Island and purchased an orange grove from my uncle's wife, Fanny.
Senator Trammell, while visiting in the Indian River area, stopped
at the old Knox Hotel in Cocoa, owned by Uncle Pete - and there I
first met the Florida Junior U.S. Senator. He was seated at a desk
in his hotel room one day when I attempted an interview for the Cocoa
Tribune, a weekly paper on which I labored. I asked Park to what did
he contribute his success and he replied with this bit of political wisdom which I will never forget: "if you can manage to get elected one
time you are all set for a long career if you just do nothing and you
will be sure of re-election. Too many young politicians when first
elected start rantin' and ravin' and try to put over some pet idea and
immediately antagonize half their constituents and we never hear of
them any more". The sage solon added: "don't ever do anything and
you don't make anyone mad and all who voted for you the first time
will vote for you again to back up their first time judgment."
Of course that was not all there was to it. I believe Park Trammell
was an honest man - I know he was a poor man. I recall that on one of
his visits to Cocoa he asked me to introduce him to Colonel Travis,
President of the Brevard County State Bank there. When they shook
hands, Trammell asked the Colonel: "would your bank loan me $200
to get me on my way back to Washington?" This little matter was soon
Many years later he was again running for the U.S. Senate - this
time against whom he called "a young upstart, Claude Pepper". It
looked bad for the old war horse when Peter 0. Knight of Tampa
called Park to his office to talk over the situation - Knight was a
power throughout the state at the time. The Tampa hardware man
told Park: "if you can't carry Hillsboro County (Tampa) by a whoppin"
majority, you are going to lose. Do you think you can do it?" The Senator told him he was afraid not.
Tell you what you must do, it is alleged Knight told him: "there
is a gambler from Ybor City (in Tampa) now in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta on a narcotics rap of which he is innocent. He took
the rap for a big politician in Ybor City. The gambler's name is Saturday and if you can get your friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to exercise executive clemency and have Saturday on the streets in Ybor
City on Saturday, before election, you can win."
Park, it is claimed, called the President at once and Saturday,
who told me the story himself, was in Ybor City the next Saturday
Wish you could check the Hillsboro vote by precincts: it ran
something like this; Pepper 16 - Trammell 389,- Pepper 18 - Trammell 642; Pepper 7 - Trammell 401.
Trammell died in office, having never been defeated for office in
his lifetime. He was a fine man but I cannot recall anything he ever
| "DON'T EVER DO ANYTHING-" |
Religion and politics. while many philosophers claim they never
mix, we all know this isn't true. In Warsaw the church, we hear, is
being used by the politicians to keep the people from overthrowing the
Communist Control -- and they have certainly been mixing it up in
Belfast, North Ireland.
We backwoods politicians on Merritt Island had sufficient votes
to elect whomever we chose in the county as about from 4 to 6 new
homesteaders were registering every week in the early 1920's. There
were less than 1,000 electors in all of Brevard County those years.
The settlers far out-numbered the natives, and two villages emerged
from the piney-woods, Orsino in the north and another settlement near
Banana River called Audubon.
In Orsino we had what was known as the "town-hall" form of
government, where all problems of the homesteaders (called in Cocoa
and the county seat, Titusville, "the wild men of the woods") were
solved in the town hall by the vote of those attending. Audubon was
structly ruled by a dictator, one Mr. Fortenberry. Each community
boasted of around 200 votes. If Orsino decided - and they did - to
vote in a block, their votes could control the county -- the county judge,
the sheriff, the county commission and the school board.
However, Orsino must have included in its electorate a Benedict
Arnold as every year we would vote solid against the incumbents and
the dictator, Mr. Fortenberry, in Audubon would send the ballot boxes
of his villages to the county seat with a solid 200 votes marked for
those in power. Something must be done. Drastic steps must be taken.
Three homesteaders, fresh from the Cocoa barber shop, called
one early morning at the Baptist Parsonage and went into conference
with the preacher. The dominie's wife listened cautiously to the
mumbling words from her sitting room and heard "But Reverend, there
isn't a church in town and those young 'uns are growing up to be regular heathens." It seems the Reverend agreed to look into the problems
and in a few days a committee of deacons met and discussed the situation
with "Brother Fortenberry" in Audubon.
Soon there was indeed action all over Audubon - one homesteader
donated an acre of his newly acquired land on which to erect the
new church; one, who owned a small saw mill, offered to cut all the lumber
if the "good brothers" would haul the logs from their claims to his mill;
others agreed to give their labor -- all was sweetness and light in
our rival community. The hammer and the saw were heard throughout
Soon the serpent we had released started to wriggle its nefarious
journey through the Banana River settlement's Eden. When the family
which had donated the land for the new edifice argued for a church to
serve all religions, they were kicked out. Some held out for Lutherans,
others were adamant in support of the Methodists while still others
favored the Holy Rollers. All was soon pandemonium. Brother Fortenberry's little political machine was split wide open -- the church building
never was finished - neighbors no longer spoke to neighbors, and in
Orsino we voted in a solid block and defeated all incumbents of county
offices, including the cattle owning Sheriff.
The reverend brother in Coca seemed to suffer most from the defeat
in the church versus state question on Merritt island but never did
ask us if we needed a church in Orsino. He probably knew we had
a circuit rider, Reverend King, who called on us every three or four
months. He always brought a demi-john of shine with him and was very
sociable and popular among both men and women.
When you are up to your neck in trouble -- you have to use your head.
| A SERPENT IN A HOMESTEADER'S EDEN |
Movie goers and television viewers know all about the "wild
west. Wonder how many of them know about the wars with the cattlemen in the early years of the century, in the "wild south"?
When the National Forest on Merritt Island was opened for settlement nearly 60 years ago, by President William Howard Taft, there
were nearly 2,000 head of "range cattle" feeding on the luscious grasses
on the island. None of these "cow critters" was owned locally. Every
year strange 'outsiders' riding on small 'swamp ponies' came to the
island for a round-up and calves were branded -- none of the brands were recognized.
There were less than 1,000 voters in the county and it wasn't too
difficult to pass a "no fence', law by the legislature. This law required
the cattlemen to fence in their herds and no fencing was needed by the homesteaders.
We soon discovered the new law was of no help to us, as we learned
the identity of the cattle owners - the cows were owned by the sheriff and his deputies.
The cattlemen refused to obey the no-fence law -- and there was
no higher enforcement agency to which we could explain our trouble.
Soon great fires swept through the forest areas on our homesteads,
destroying many huge pine trees some five feet in diameter. The cow
men admitted setting the conflagration, stating the fire burned all the
brush, permitting the more tender grass to appear which was great for the cattle.
They tried to scare us off the land with tales of storms which
blew the waves from the Atlantic clear across the island. This we did not believe as there was no evidence.
Finally, the fires came closer and closer to the homesteaders'
houses and then -- three families were burned out. We fought one of
the fires until the flames started to burn the shrubbery around my
father's house. We almost gave up hope when a heavy rain came to
our assistance. Something must be done -- a meeting was called at one of the settler's homes and settlers all attended.
It was a sober, angry crowd and guards were placed where all
attending could be screened to keep out any spies. We soon came to a
decision. One of the men agreed to take a train at Cocoa and ride as
far as Daytona (it wasn't Daytona Beach at that time) and bring back
several hundred 22-caliber rifle cartridges. Several days later more
than 100 steers were found by the cow men dead all bloated and with their four legs reaching to the Heavens.
It seemed a mystery to the sheriff and his men as they could not
discover the cause of death. The cattle had been shot in the belly and died of lead poisoning.
The first bridge was just completed from Cocoa to the Island and
the next day the drive to the bridge was underway. Twenty-five hundred
or more beef steers soon crowded their frightened way across the
wooden, narrow bridge into the streets and shops of Cocoa. The cattle
fled unhalted by the attending cow boys, who cracked their whips
harmlessly and with no success. Firing their pistols in the air only
caused more fear. The herds were under control after fleeing from
town -- but the town of Cocoa was a shambles, a messy, foul-smelling
wreck as one can imagine.
The sheriff could find no large purchases of rifle cartridges in any
store in Brevard County.
No more fires on Merritt Island -- and no more barbed wire fences
to keep out the roving cattle. No more cattle.
In the early 1920's, Florida highways were kept in continuous
repair by "road gangs" of convicts, hauled to work in cages built
on truck chassis. Each county had constructed its own "stockade"
to house those convicted to "hard labor". Those once fearsome striped
clothes were worn by all and many of the Justices of the Peace were
accused of keeping a number of these suits on hand at all times for
any unlucky boy or man caught "beating his way through the county"
with no money and no visible means of support to be turned over immediately to the "Cap'n" of the gang as a vagrant, and some justices
were often careless about limiting the length of their sentences.
Florida's worst scandal was in 1920 when a young lad from
Wisconsin, I believe, died after a whipping by a chain gang boss.
Chain gangs are no more and the stripes are a thing of the past.
The state immediately after the pitiful death of the young boy,
abandoned the use of the whip (a three - inch wide strip of leather
about four feet long) on members of the road gangs throughout the state.
A "sweatbox" was built and used when prisoners failed to work --
I was working on the Cocoa Tribune at the time about 1921, and
the editor had received letters of complaint about the treatment of the
prisoners working on roads in the Brevard County area. I visited
one of these camps and the "captain" told me they seldom used
the sweatboxes as when a prisoner said he was ill, he always stripped
the "con" to the waist and handcuffed his wrists around a pine tree and
because of the great number of mosquito bites, the prisoner would
always go back to work. I had the opportunity to examine one of the
official sweathoxes and it was in reality an instrument of torture.
The box was but about three feet across, each way and less than six
feet high and roofed with corrugated iron sheets. There was at the
bottom an open slot where the food could be procured by the inmate
by sliding his hand down his leg and bringing the plate near his mouth --
and then dropping the pan when finished. This contrivance really was
a sweatbox as a tall prisoner would be compelled to stoop a little and
his head would touch the oven-hot galvanized tin roof -- and no ventilation at all.
I wrote the story and was offered $85 by a syndicate for the use
of it. Big Deal! I believe every paper in the United States ran the
story and as I recall very vividly the old "Grit" ran with it a full-page picture of a barebacked negro chained around a tree and blood
streaming down his back from the bites from the gigantic mosquitoes
which were swarming on him; rattlesnakes were coiled in the bushes
beside the screaming "con" and leering guards seemed to be enjoying
The poor boy who had lost his life from the lashes of the cruel
4-ft. "whip" was forgotten when the Chambers of Commerce and other
civic organizations throughout the state picked me for their target
and more than a million words were used by the newspapers and magazines demanding that I retract and admit an eight column headline which
ran: "It's a Filthy Bird that will Foul its own Nest".
The prisons were operated by the State Department of Agriculture
and Commissioner McRae demanded I go with him back to the stockade
in Brevard County and have dinner with him and the convicts there.
I accepted the loaded invitation for the next week day.
First we visited the road gang and I was not amazed to find several
of the black members resting in the shade and there was the sweatbox
constructed of all new lumber with walls four feet apart and eight
feet tall, standing in the shadow cast by an enormous chinaberry tree
(there were even mockingbirds trilling in the tree tops). I knew
I was licked but I visited the dining room after the inmates had eaten.
Many of them were lounging around smoking cigarettes and pipes
and their half empty plates showed plainly they had enjoyed a feast.
Left over pieces of apple pie and the bones of fried chicken were still
on the table.
I could not eat; I was sick, but glad the cons had enjoyed one good
meal while serving their time. I told Commissioner McRae I would
do what I could. I made no retraction.
The next session of the Florida Legislature abolished the road
gangs, the use of the whip and the sweathoxes. Some good came from
the story -- and I received a nice letter from the unfortunate Wisconsin
Wouldn't it be a remarkable "archaeological find" to unearth the
marriage license of Adam and Eve?
Father's parents resided in Santa Ana and Long Beach, California
and he yearned to visit them. They were in Santa Ana at the time.
He thought because of the beating I was taking in the Florida papers
after the fatal whipping and sweat box story I would like to go with him
I did and we Landed in Los Angeles in due time. In the Times
classified ads under "Help Wanted" I found that a reporter and special
writer on a small daily paper was desired in Culver City (the home
of Sam Goldwyn. Harold Lloyd, Thomas H. Ince and others). The ad
further stated to appear for questioning at 9:00 a.m. the next day.
I arrived at the rather ornate office of the Culver City Star
at the requested hour and soon was joined by 19 other aspirants. I
felt I had but little chance as I knew no one in Culver City nor in the
state. We were all told to go out onto the streets and return with a story.
There was a small park near the Star Office and I found the
benches under the Eucalyptus trees dotted with tourists from the
East. Talking with them I learned their names and home state (none
from Florida). They all wanted to tell me how much they just adored
the California climate. I suggested Culver City and they liked that, too.
Rushing back to the office I grabbed an ancient typewriter and
headed my column "Half Minute Interviews" (giving myself a by-line
of course) and having a few inches to spare created a couple of fake
names and under "Miss Polly Ticks", made a smart crack about
national politics and coined another "Short Hicks" because I was not
short and I felt I had lost all my hickish habits for the short time I
was in New York helping with the publicity of Ziegfield's new "Century Girl" show at the Century Theatre in 1916.
I turned in my story and after reading my offering he excused the
others, saying he would let them know the next day -- and told me
My first assignment was to interview Elinor Glynn, author of the
great best seller "Three Weeks" which she was supposed to be
making into a motion picture at Sam Goldwyn's studio. (This was
before the days of MGM) and in my ignorance after no difficulty at the
gate because of my press card, I asked to see Mr. Goldwyn. The
` amiable Mr. Goldwyn led me to one of his studios' eight stages and
there enthroned in the canvas chair with the word "director" painted
on the back was the fabulous Madam Glynn.
The interview was interesting of course (and brought me a raise
at the Star office) but it was soon revealed the famous author was not
the director of Three Weeks. Rather, it was Alan Crosland, the father
of the present movie and T.V. director.
I had friends among many of the stars of silent pictures and even
had a "bit" part in a picture made at the Thomas H. Ince Studio
shown as "Those Who Dance", with Adolph Menjou. I played the part
of a cop and had one line "Stay where you are - it's the police". They
didn't show the movie in Culver City and I wasn't interested sufficiently to make the trip to L.A.
Hearing of the real estate "boom" in Florida I was anxious to
return to my adopted state. The life in Hollywood and Culver City was
really too much for the country boy and leaving my father in Santa
Ana headed east and after a few stops arrived in Fort Myers in time
for the 1926 hurricane - the same "blow" which had destroyed Miami
the night before.
| FORT MYERS - NAPLES - KEY WEST |
BACK TO FLORIDA AFTER "BIT" IN MOVIES
When working with a wire service, like in many other jobs, it is
more important who you know than what you know.
While with INS in 1925, I was on vacation, fishing in and out of Boca
Grande Pass, stopping on Gasparilla Island at a little hotel, Palmetto
Lodge. I had just returned from California. The golf course at the big
hotel was lorded over by an old friend of mine and we had many a gin
fizz together that two weeks. Even if his name was Andy Campbell he
didn't care for Scotch.
Everyone at the big hotel was talking about the disappearance after
the wedding the past week of Consuela Vanderbilt and her latest, "young
Smith, the sugar baron from San Francisco."
It was a regular game -- first newsmen thought they were "somewhere in the Bahamas" -- then on "the French Riviera". Even
an AP (Associate Press) correspondent thought he saw the romantic
couple in Sydney, Australia -- I was on vacation and just laughed and
"jumped" another tarpon.
One morning Andy, the golf pro, showed me a telegram making a
reservation the next day for a "locker for Mr. & Mrs. Smith of San
Francisco." Andy was sure it was the publicity dodging honeymooners.
There were but two means of travel to Boca Grande on Gasparilla,
Island - by boat or by the "Plug line" of the CH. and N (Charlotte
Harbor and Northern R.R. - later sold to the Seaboard). The next
day we met the one-coach train and a beautiful but scowling lady and
her smiling Prince Charming stepped down and soon were surrounded
by their 16 pieces of luggage -- they admitted they were "traveling
light". I welcomed them to Boca Grande and turning to the lady I
said "You are Consuela, aren't you?" She replied "yes, but I hope
you won't tell anyone". Turning then to the grinning bridegroom, I
asked "and you are the dashing young sugar baron from Frisco?" He
admitted it and I dashed for the telegraph station at the depot -- and
told the world of the joyful news -- through the wire of INS of course.
This was one time I had beat the world. All because I had a friend
named Andy Campbell -- and a little luck
| SOMETIMES IT'S WHO YOU KNOW -- |
We often hear reference to "the Prohibition Era" -- it had little
effect on the followers of John Barley Corn in Florida.
In the little village of South Boca Grande on Gasparilla, Island, near
Fort Myers the inhabitants were late sleepers, back about 1925. It
was a friendly and hospitable group living there, busy as they were
tending the transfer of phosphate rock from the freight cars filled
with that principal ingredient of fertilizer coming in over the rails
of the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railway from Polk County mines,
to lead the 30 or more huge ships flying the flags of nations all over the
world, anchored in Charlotte Harbor Bay. There were neither a U.S.
Customs nor Immigration office in South Boca Grande at that time.
It was the nightly parties given the Captains and officers of these
ships which caused the late sleeping of the landsmen. The social life
of the little shipping village whirled around the homes of the pilots
which brought in the ships through Boca Grande Pass.
Liquors of all nations were plentiful. Seamen on all the ships
were given a quota of the country's tipple to last them for the voyage
but the great majority of the old tars would save the bottles until they
reached America, then they would discover the competition from the other ships.
A man could go out with the pilot who "brought in the ship". Say
for instance the great 10,000 ton freighter was from Spain. As soon as
one could climb aboard he would be approached by the crewman who
would offer imperial quarts of Three Palm Brandy for $1.25 American
money. The sailors would whine "for so little dollars you should buy
at least three, adding "it's 15 years old." The entire supply of the
crew would change hands before the ship reached the pier.
The Dutch ships would have real Holland gin in pottery bottles;
English ships brought in "3-star Hennesey" but the Germans had only
Pilsener Beer -- and it all went. The Marus from Japan had mostly
Sake (a rice wine). There was Canadian whiskey and Irish whiskey
and even Vodka from Russia -- an inebriate's dream.
I don't believe the natives of Key West ever heard of "prohibition".
I visited there in 1930 and all the bars were going full blast, their brass
rails well polished by the feet of satisfied tourists. I spoke to an old
friend of mine, Federal District Judge, John Holland, who was holding
court there and asked how he was doing. He answered "no one ever
expects to get a conviction in Key West -- they are a clannish people
and stick together.
I published a small newspaper in Naples, on the West Coast in the
early 1930's. "The Transcript" and included among my subscribers 26
millionaires and 22 rum runners. We could purchase a demijohn of
Bacardi from Havana, four-fifths of a gallon for $7.50. By the time it
arrived in Ft. Myers it was $10 and $15 when it got to Tampa, if you
lived as far away as Jacksonville it would cost you $20.
In Tallahassee during the sessions of the State Legislature,
the law protected all legislators from search of their persons or their
cars and the law makers would drag croker sacks filled with liquor
bottles across the hotel lobbies as they headed for the elevators
to their rooms. It was not an unusual sight to see some man place a
glass gallon jug on the hotel desk while he registered. Other Tallahasseeans who had no such protection didn't suffer much as 6-year
ole shine could be had for $2.00 a jug or for $3.00 if you wanted
"the kind the Supreme Court Judges drank".
| LIQUORS OF ALL NATIONS PLENTIFUL |
There were three daily newspapers in Fort Myers when I finally
arrived there before the 1926 "big blow": The Fort Myers Press, owned and edited by George Hosmer; The Tropical News, edited by Carl
Hanton and the Palm Leaf, owned by Captain Jack DeLysle. Later the
Press was brought by Barron Collier and then he purchased the Tropical
News and combined them as the News-Press, as it is today.
Those were hectic times in Fort Myers -- our paper the Palm
Leaf issued both a morning and afternoon sheet, averaging about 12 -
In the earlier part of that period the "Florida Boom" was in full
cry, and the competition was furious, a dog-eat-dog affair. Page-ads
of real estate operators were turned down because of deadlines --
editors became so personal in their comments against their competitors that the Fort Myers police on several occasions walked home
from the editorial offices to protect the writers from assault. I worked
from about 10 a.m. until press time on the afternoon Palm Leaf and
continued until around 3 am. to get out the morning edition. About
2 one morning, a bullet, shot from a pistol fired through a window
barely missed my head, evidenced by the location of the projectile
when we dug it out of the far wall.
I recall when the Palm Leaf in a series of articles attacked the
operations of the Koreshan Unity at Estero (it is now a state park) and
anxious people waited in large groups for the paper "to come out."
I recall there was one of the officers of the Koreshans (named for their
president Cyrus Teed of Chicago -- "Koresh" he claimed was Greek
for Cyrus), a gentleman of Hebrew faith, named Silverfriend. It was
too much of a temptation, and we always referred to him editorially
as "Silverfiend." You can imagine!
We came to work one morning and discovered that some miscreants had entered our press room, early that morning and had started up the big flat-bed press and when going at full speed, had thrown
into it a page-size type-high "metal" casting which caused as much
damage as would a bundle of dynamite. That day we drove a truck
to LaBelle in Hendry County with all the pages in type, under guard of
the sheriff and three of his deputies and under their protection used
the Hendry County News Press --and didn't miss an edition. We blamed
the Koreshans of course but whoever started up that old press and who
knew what a casting of type-high metal would accomplish, must have
been a trained newspaper pressman. And the editor of the Tropical
News wore a smile on his face for a week.
There were so many odd characters in Fort Myers -- we even
had a Chinese laundryman and the official gravedigger was over 70
and rode a bicycle everywhere he went and always wanted people to
feel his muscles -- and he had them. He was hard as an anvil and ate
only, "fruit, nuts, and cereals."
Everyone will surely remember the Sheriff during that time "Uncle
Frank" Tippens. One night he asked me to go with him to bring in some
moonshiners who were operating a near-by still. When we approached
the clearing we saw a fire which lit up the entire area; we saw the
rifles leaning against the trees and could watch the men attending the
still. Still in the shadow, Tippens called to them, "Come on out boys,
this is Uncle Frank and you all know I never carry a gun. Now what would
the good people, your customers think if you shot poor, old Frank Tippens? Answer me that?" And with no attempt to even pick up their guns
they marched out to where Frank and I were, in the shadows - no
Many years later when I was working with the U.S. Government
on investigation, I ran across Tippens: -- he was a U.S. Marshal in
What the world needs now - is several million more honest,
On the 19th of September, 1926, at 9:00 a.m. the inhabitants of
Fort Myers on the West Coast of Florida knew nothing of the ways
and dangers of a hurricane than did the great City of Miami the previous
I was publishing a little weekly booklet, "What's Doin' in Fort
Myers", and was due to be on the street in a couple of hours when all
electrical power in Fort Myers went off. Hurried calls to Florida Power
& Light brought the answer: a great storm had devastated all of Miami
it was feared hundreds of inhabitants of the lower east coast had lost their lives.
We were warned that one of the largest and most vicious hurricanes
with winds over 120 milesper hour was headed straight for Fort Myers --
the first winds would come from the northeast and as listening people
licked their forefinger and thrust them toward the Heavens -- it was
In those times there were no weather bureau radio warnings and
hurricane center in Miami was not even an idea and would have been
no help to us as Miami was in shambles with many recorded deaths.
The winds in Fort Myers increased and the last issue of my little
"What's Doin' " never reached the streets. The last recording on the
wind instruments showed 120 m.p.h. at 7:00 P.m. as they were blown
away. It was soon noticed the winds had changed after a brief calm (we
later learned the eye of the tempest had just passed over Fort Myers) and
seemed to blow with even greater fury from the southwest. I was still
editor of a small daily newspaper, "The Palm Leaf" and news from our
outlying correspondents were soon coming to the paper's office - brought
in mostly on foot or horseback. Eight deaths were reported and one reporter told of nearly a dozen persons having been rescued from the tops
of cabbage palmetto (Sabel Palm) and one man claimed he had seen
"Several" houses floating in the Gulf of Mexico with "groups" of persons clinging to the roofs.
We were determined to get out the paper and with no power we
backed up a Fordson tractor and with leather belting we soon had an
old flathed press in working order. Then we discovered our paper supply
was water soaked and of no use.
Outside the hurricane roared - it sounded like a mighty monster,
determined to destroy you. I saw a large German Shepherd running on
the leeside of a furniture store turn the corner into the brunt of the
storm and watched him struggle as he was pinned to the front of the
building about two feet from the sidewalk. I released him and he kiyied back again in the lee of the furniture store. I watched a church
made of cement blocks collapse as the four walls bulged out and the
roof dropped (we learned later all doors and windows had been closed
and the air pressure inside was much greater than the air pressure outside).
I wanted to see what was happening on the waterfront and with the
waning winds at my back was actually blown to the city pier, reaching
into the Caloosahatchee. It was becoming darker but I could see the
long stretches of the bridge across the river was missing and was horrified to see the Collier Line steam freighter, S.S. City of Tampa,
lying on her side bound to the dock with an eight inch hemp cable --
and not a spoon full of river water under her.
The backlash of the mighty storm had actually blown the water of
the wide Caloosahatchee into the pine woods which bordered its north
shore. The winds were slacking as the rains increased and I knew I
must leave the pier as soon all the waters of the great river would be
driven back into its bed and would overflow into the Fort Myers streets.
Facing the storm I had to crawl on all fours and with fingers between
the cross planks I was soon able to haul myself ashore and rest behind
a solid structure. I soon reached the newspaper office and one of the
reporters was a "ham" radio operator and he heard from Jacksonville that the New York Daily News had a headline that morning, "Fort
Myers washed from map." Not altogether true - but close.
I went home to my room in a 3-story frame building to find my
mattress watersoaked and the wall paper loosened from the walls
and with bags of water which had been driven through the walls.
Wall paper, that gave me the idea. I went back to the office with the
ebbing winds now in gusts. It was lonely - no lights - ruptured water
mains flowing life's necessity into the streets - telephone lines all
down - not a soul on the street. I found a pressman at the plant cleaning up debris. There was little damage and I told him of my big idea.
He agreed we could get out a hand set paper using wall paper. We soon
had the paper, and the old Fordson with the belted back wheel blocked
up off the floor was soon turning over the old flat-bed press. We had
sent for the type setters and they set my story in 12 point type as fast
as I could type it and we had our morning edition with 36 point wood
type heads in the hands of the carrier boys.
Many more stories must be left untold - such as a restaurant
keeper known to us only as "the Greek" who had built a underground
cistern now filled with rain-water and the cold, rainy first morning he
had built a huge fire from debris and served everyone hot coffee free.
Too many stories - for instance 48 hours after the "big blow"
four old frame houses floated ashore on Captiva and Sanibel Islands
and 14 persons on the roofs were reported "saved." It could have been
Providence. Hurricanes are sneaky!
It is difficult to make anyone believe that a fat man can be overworked.
Miracles Everyone sees them but few are recognized. Here's
an example; there were the three daily newspapers in Fort Myers
(Florida) during the "boom" (1925 - '29) and I edited the smallest
as the "heavy weight battle of the century approached". The "Tropical News" had the AP Service tied up; George Hosmer's "Press"
had United Press printers and these two larger papers bought the
Western Union and Postal wire service as well. Our paper had ordered, and INS printers were promised us but on the day of the fight -
no printers and we had chairs from the morticians next door all set
up for the expected crowd of fans. We were stuck - we were disgraced -- then the mob began to form. Now, here is the miracle --
our spies told us that the sports editors in front of both offices were
giving reports from Philadelphia and Dempsey and Tunney were expected in the ring at any moment.
From the crowd milling in front of our plant came a rather elderly
man, unkempt with a week's growth of beard. He asked how he could be
of help and we told him of our predicament. He pointed to our old unused radio and asked if we had a head set to go with it. We found one
and he told the make-up man to set two front pages (one if Dempsey
won and one for Tunney) and clamping his head set over his ears, he
turned on the radio and sat down to the Linotype machine and began
setting two lines of type (one for each page).
The fight was on and we fed the news by rounds to our now quiet
audience. We checked with the other papers -- and we were three
rounds ahead of their printers - We got the "long count" and soon
after the referee raised the right hand of the victor. With our front
page with the fight by rounds and all the background finished we soon
rushed our news boys to the crowds in front of the News and Press
offices and sold the "fight extras" at .10 each, giving the winner while
they were listening to our rivals story now three rounds old.
We sped back to our office with the sweet taste of a "beat" on
our palate -- and discovered our benefactor had disappeared even as
he had arrived. We never even learned his name or address -- it was
a miracle even if we didn't recognize it at the time. We thought we
did it all.
Gardening is the oldest vocation in the world -- and the most
Forty years ago patients complained of hospital costs. Forty
years ago there were three daily newspapers in Fort Myers and I was
editor of the smallest and fightin'est. It was a morning sheet and
and we were accustomed to have breakfast each morning in a little
restaurant near the hospital, after "putting the paper to bed", about
I was sitting with the paper's advertising manager listening to the
gripe about the hospital not allowing his wife to go home with their new
baby until she paid the $250.00 owed for services -- and he didn't
have anywhere near that great sum of money -- no newspaper man did
back in 1930.
Little did we realize the hard-hearted hospital heads would soon
be begging our ad man to take his wife home, all charges, compliments
of the health institution. The early morning stillness was broken by
the nostalgic notes of "Sweet Adeline" and a quick glance outside revealed six nurses, arm in arm marching up the center of the avenue
leading to the hospital -- pie-eyed and soused to the gills, so to speak.
It was during prohibition, too.
We followed the revelers back to their job and watched the dancing
through the window -- doctors, nurses, interns and orderlies -- all
tight. We recalled our page one story that morning, telling of a raid
by the sheriff which brought in nearly 30 cases of "good liquor". As
was the custom, the congenial sheriff had turned over the contraband
liquor to the hospital for "medicinal purposes".
When the little mother was returned to her home and family she
was asked if she had heard the loud music and the dancing of the night
before at the hospital and she told her thankful husband, "no, the nurses
gave all of us a hypodermic and we all had a good night's sleep."
Be careful of the words you say
To keep them soft and sweet
You never know from day to day
Which ones you'll have to eat.
If everyone could spend their winters in Florida they could all
add ten years to their lives.
This was among many sage pronouncements given me by Thomas
Alva Edison during a part of his 40-year winter sojourn at Fort Myers, Florida.
Edison brought his bride to Fort Myers and returned to his winter
home and laboratory there year after year "because of the blooming
of the Royal Poinciana and the regal Royal Palms" he told me.
I was still editor of the small daily newspaper, the "Fort Myers
Palm Leaf" in 1927 and when I called the electrical wizards' wife for
an interview with the famous inventor, he told her (I could hear him because he spoke very loud, being a little hard of hearing), "if he really
spells his name as he claims, he must be some kin to my old friend
Ben Lamme. Tell him to come on up and see me."
I did go immediately to his home on MacGregor Boulevard and he
smiled as we shook hands, saying "Did you know Ben Lamme had more
electrical patents than I have?" I told him as we were seated in his
old lab, (afterwards given to his friend Henry Ford for his museum
near Detroit) that Ben was my Father's first cousin, but that I did not
know the difference between an ohm and a waft. This is not the story of
Ben Lamme, General Superintendent of Westinghouse in Pittsburgh,
but Edison told me that Ben invented and installed the dynamoes
under Niagara Falls which give power and light to the city of Buffalo,
N.Y. He said Ben invented the air brake used on trains but that the
credit went to Westinghouse because Ben worked there.
Edison once told me that during the time he and a select number of
inventors worked "in secret" for the government during World War
One that Ben Lamme invented the depth bomb to fight submarines.
At that time he told of a gas they invented, word of it was sent to the
German Kaiser, asking him to surrender, and Edison died with the belief that it brought about the armistice. He told me the gas would
kill everything under the surface, including earth-worms", and "that
nothing would grow for the next 50 years or more".
The wizard told me so many things he asked me not to publish, and
I did not although many a story would have swept the country by the
AP and other wire services. However, I feel that it will not harm the
memory of this great American to reveal a couple of them at this late
date. It was during the campaign for the presidency between Herbert
Hoover and Al Smith that with a sly smile he said, "you know I will
have to vote for Hoover as he is a close, personal friend but I would
like to see Al Smith win just to see how much hell the American people
would raise because of Smith's religion."
Edison was not as deaf as he pretended at times. I asked him one
day what years were his happiest and he came up with this choice
bit which I could have sold to the wire services with little trouble:
"Since about my 84th birthday I have been ailing a little, so I guess I
was happiest between my 80th and 84th year"; he added with a grin,
"you see the women didn't bother me so much".
| EDISON AND THE SMALL TOWN EDITOR |
Edison, the electrical wizard, spent forty winters at his MacGregor
Boulevard home in Fort Myers. During several of these sojourns, I had
many interviews with the famous inventor.
He told me one day that after he made his first incandescent lamp
he set one up on a pole in downtown Fort Myers and invited everyone
to come and see it at night. They came from 100 miles around -- and
were amazed and delighted. Edison said at that time there was a large
pond in the center of town and at night range cattle would come to the
pond to drink and rest on its banks, seeking the breeze off the Caloosahatchee River to drive away the mosquitoes.
Edison was so pleased with the reception of his new invention that
he told officials of the City of Fort Myers that he would furnish the
city electricity for the remainder of his life if the city would furnish
the poles and the wire to light the streets.
According to the official minutes of the City Council, at City Hall,
the City of Fort Myers turned thumbs down on the Edison offer, giving
as the reason: "the bright lights would keep the cows awake at night."
It was well known that Edison knew very little about the value of
money. I recall one morning when the great inventor was going to have
lunch at the swanky Naples Hotel ($12.00 per day with meals) and was
having his shoes shined by a little black boy on the hotel porch. After
the job was finished he asked the boy how much he owed him and Edison
was told "five dollars". He paid without question. I remember Edison
that day and about a week's growth of beard and wore neither a coat
nor a tie. Not recognizing him the desk clerk of the hotel came out on
the porch, just before lunch time and informed Edison that he could not
enter the hotel dining room without coat and tie and suggested "you
probably would be more comfortable at the little hotel down by the
river (Gordon River)". Just then the hotel manager recognized his
famous visitor and ran off his clerk, offered Edison his own tie and
coat. Edison refused with this statement, "I am sure I would be more
comfortable at the little hotel down by the river". He stalked out
and returned to Fort Myers where he was better known.
I don't believe many people knew that Henry Ford paid for Edison's
experiments in the making of synthetic rubber. I was talking with
Edison one morning in his Fort Myers laboratory as Ford was making
preparation to return to Detroit. I overheard Ford talking to Mrs.
Edison. The dialogue went something like the following:
Mrs. Edison - "He has a crew of six men working in Sumatra
$10,000, another $10,000 for his crew working in East Africa. He
will need at least $25,000 this year for his work in Hendry County
(LaBelle) and for our own household expenses, at least $5,000."
Mr. Ford - "I'll send you a check for this amount and if you
have forgotten anything, just wire me".
In later years all of Edison's financial and business affairs,
which had grown considerably, was turned over to his son who was a
U.S. Senator. The Great Man never did learn the value of money.
| EDISON NEVER LEARNED VALUE OF MONEY |
Hitch-hiking wasn't pleasant -- especially with a hole in the sole
of one's shoe and hungry to boot.
The "great depression" didn't hit Florida immediately after that
Black Friday in October, 1929, when the Market crashed. However,
it was now late in 1930 and the newspaper I edited in Fort Myers had
folded (and newsmen had no union) and jobs were few and far between
along the palm strewn shores of the Caloosahatchee.
Many families were moving about in Fort Myers. Residents in the
swankier homes sought smaller houses with lower rent and trunks had
to be hauled to the depot for those less hardy souls who were giving
up and "going back north" where there were soup kitchens and bread
lines for the unemployed. Business was brisk for the one drayman
and his three mule-drawn steel tired vehicles. No heavy trucks in
Florida those days and a select few of us white collared laborers had
jobs of sort helping to load and again unload the creaking drays. We
all sat on a bench in front of the little office on Royal Palm Boulevard
waiting for the telephone to ring and one of us (we took turns) jumped
on a waiting wagon eager for the chance to earn our 25 cents a load.
Some days we made 75 cents and on lucky days from one dollar to a
buck and a half.
As I sat hour after hour waiting, I thought of the 1-inch T-bone
steaks awaiting my anytime I made the long trip to La Belle in nearby
Hendry County. It was a long trek however. One day I could stand it
no longer and early in the morning with nothing but a cup of coffee with
no sugar or milk for breakfast I handed my father who was living with
me (my mother was with Dad's folks in California) a half dollar and
told him I was going to visit a friend of mine "up the river" and for
him to buy himself a sandwich. It was the last cent I had but I could
smell that steak. "How are you going to get there?" Dad asked, pocketing
the 4-bit piece. "Hitch-hike", I answered, bravely optimistic.
There were very few cars on the road to LaBelle but occasionally
someone who knew me when I worked on the Hendry County News, when
Mary Hayes Davis owned it would stop and I could ride for several
miles in their Model T Fords.
Along the Caloosahatchee there was occasionally seen from the
highway entire families fishing. They wouldn't wave but would sit silently
watching their corks. To them the catching of catfish was no longer a
sport. It was a matter of eating or not eating.
My friend in LaBelle was in the real estate business. Hendry County
was still cattle country and even in hard times he would sell acreage to
some enthusiastic yankee -- but he had plenty of time to play cribbage --
and he loved it. There weren't too many cribbage players in La Belle
and he was always glad when I came visiting. He would head for his
ice-box and break out a couple of 1-pound steaks as soon as I came up
on the front porch of his office -- he had a couple of rooms and kitchen
in the rear.
When I left the next morning my host had located a friend who was
driving to Fort Myers and I had been invited along. With me upon leaving,
I was handed a clean burlap bag filled with baking yams, a glass of homemade guava Jelly, one steak, half dozen roasting ears of corn and a
great loaf of home baked bread. I thanked my friend and all he said was:
"That's for your dad."
| ENTIRE FAMILIES FISHED TO EAT |
The Trail Blazers like the amateurs they were, floundered across
the Everglades from near Naples to Miami in 1923. They started in Fort
Myers April 4th.
At that time I was still suffering in the California slump and it
was another year before I arrived in the Fort Myers - Naples area. It
was then I learned of the trip across the 'Glades of Russell Kay and
Allen Andrews, a couple of newspapermen and their band of hardy
"path finders" seeking a feasible track across the then thought to be
Their great desire was to show that a super-highway was possible
to construct between Tampa and the East Coast's fast growing metropolis, Miami - even then known as "The Magic City". (When my father
and I visited Miami in 1912, eleven years before, it boasted of 6,000
Allen Andrews was editor of the American Eagle, a weekly newspaper published by the Koreshan Unity at Estero, south and west of
Fort Myers and Russell Kay was editor and feature writer of the
Florida Grower, a leading state agriculture magazine. Russell was
well liked and favorably known throughout the state. He still writes
his syndicated column "Too Late to Classify", started in 1935.
It must be remembered that while several early explorers, landing on Florida's gulf coast (they had sailed from Havana in Spanish
Cuba) had trekked inland toward the east in full armor, it had not been
very far into the Everglades and Kay's and Allen's Trail Blazers were
the first white men to complete the crossing from the Gulf of Mexico
to the Atlantic Ocean.
In discussing this feat recently with Russell Kay he said: "There
was a need for a cross-state highway and at the time, 1923, canals
had been dug and rough grades had been thrown up from Naples and
from Miami. Construction however had been halted when the money
ran out and public interest quickly began to lag. Other newspaper men
with us were Frank Whitman, managing editor of The Florida Grower,
also known at the time for his fishing prowess, and George Hosmer,
editor and owner of the Fort Myers Press.
"Stanley Hanson, the Indian Agent (called Stanee Hansee by the
Seminoles) was also a member of our group and he selected our
guides. One Indian, a tall raw boned fellow, about 30 years old, named
Assumhachee, the other was a Miccousukee leader, short and stubby
with the Indian name of Conopatchee and answering the whites to the
name of Little Billie. Both came from a small Indian Village located
on a pine knoll in the heart of the 'Glades about forty miles north of
When I asked Russell if he had a list of the names of all the original Trail Blazers, he searched through his files and struck "pay
dirt". Others than those which have been named were: Orea E. Chapin, of Fort Myers; E. P. Green, of Bradenton; L. A. Whitney, of St.
Petersburg; John E. Morris, of the Lee County Commissioners;
George W. Dunham, Fort Myers; Henry Colquit, F. C. Garmon, Fred
B. Hough, Amos Bolich, L. J. Van Duyle, Joe W. Hill, Maurice Ayrer,
Clark Taylor, C. Shawcross and Hilton D. Thompson.
Russell assured me that very few of these men had much experience as woodsmen and almost none of them had ever been in the Florida Everglades and had joined the project more as a lark than for any
other reason. Each man paid his own expenses and brought his own
camping equipment, according to Kay.
| TRAIL BLAZERS NOT CAPTURED BY SEMINOLES |