Sunday, August 31, 2014

Solid, sturdy, calls to prayer photo showing late 1800s image of St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Key West
St. Mary Star of the Sea, Key West.
In my research, I'm noticing that the pioneer Catholic churches in Florida seem to share a simplicity of style. That interests me, primarily because it magnifies the difference between the urban North and missionary territory of the rural South. Florida may be known today as New York South, but that wasn't the case when the area was being settled in the decades after statehood (1845). The missionary priests, religious sisters, and laity-settlers often formed minority enclaves in Protestant-majority communities. Did these Catholics build minimalist church structures because of financial constraints, supply limitations, or to refrain from calling attention to themselves? Maybe a combination of all three. 

As an example, look at this page's Florida Memory image of St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Key West, one of Florida's largest cities during the pioneer era. The parish website says St. Mary's was the fifth Roman Catholic church built in Florida, and that it opened in 1852. This photo pre-dates 1901, when the structure burned down. The basic shape, unassuming steeple, and restrained adornment remind me of photos of other Roman Catholic churches established in other Florida towns in the 1880s and even into the early 1900s. 

Key West was a population center in the 1800s, and at one point had more residents than any other city in Florida. That's relative, I know. The 18,000 people in Key West about 1890 are a blip compared to, say, the 500,000 +/-  in New York City when the neo-Gothic grandeur of St. Patrick's Cathedral started to rise in the late 1850s. But the distance between the architectural styles of the cities' prominent Roman Catholic presences is far more than miles or an imbalance in resident populations. To me, the sturdy Florida churches reflect the faithful themselves, at least those brave enough to help settle a new land: plain, solid, and sturdy, and ready to get a job done.

Friday, August 22, 2014

In search of heirloom cultivars

Types of vegetable and fruit crops grown in pioneer Florida are nothing but names now 

Close-up photo of muscadine grapes growing on grapevine
Muscadines don't seem to have changed much over the years.
(Photo by Gerri Bauer)
Every vegetable gardener knows the fun of poring over varieties and cultivars and choosing what to grow. Just about every vegetable gardener - and plenty of nongrowers - also knows how many varieties have been lost to the demands of commercialization. Hence the rise of seed savers and heirloom-tomato aficionados in search of great-tasting, complex flavors. I've grown a (usually different) heirloom-tomato variety along with a fave hybrid every year in my garden.

Those tomato varieties will be the focus of another post. Today I want to write about the vegetables and fruits that no longer sprout in the gardens and farms of Florida. I thought about them earlier this week when harvesting muscadines from the improved variety I grow. Muscadine grapes have a long history in Florida soil.

My research is a mere surface swipe - notes gleaned from the pages of an 1889 Florida Dispatch, Farmer and Fruit Grower, the 1906 DeLand Special Edition of the Florida Agriculturist newspaper, and various local histories. Here's a sampling of what I found. If anyone knows of any of the varieties being cultivated or stored in a seed bank, leave a comment. Maybe the variety can be shared with home gardeners looking to follow in the footsteps of Persimmon Hollow pioneers.

I'm assuming the following are open-pollinated rather than hybrids, being that they were being grown before and up to/including 1906:

  • Peas: Alaska, John L., Bliss Everlasting.
  • Strawberries: Hoffman, Excelsior, Lady Thompson, with the latter two being noted as best for DeLand home gardens.
  • Grapes: Duchess, Roger's No. 44, Peter Wylie, Herbemont, Ives, Goethe (aka Prince). A wine grape named Norton was said to be "marvelously adapted to our soil and climate."
  • Muscadine grapes: Flowers, James, Meisch.
  • Peaches: Peento (numerous references to that one), Bidwell's Early, Florida Crawford.
  • Oranges: Boone's Early, Enterprise Seedless.
  • Pears: LeConte (numerous references).
  • Pineapples: Enville City ("great taste, doesn't ship well"), Red Spanish ("good for home use, easy to grow"), Cayenne, Abbaka, Egyptian Queens.
What, no persimmons? Well, no, at least not in that brief survey I conducted. But DeLand did go by the name Persimmon Hollow before being settled and taking on the name of city founder Henry A. DeLand. I'm on the local persimmon trail, though, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a brief history of persimmon cultivation from Ty-Ty Nursery over the border in Georgia.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Small-town life in 1887

Front page of the April 1887 issue of the DeLand Collegiate student newspaper
The student newspaper was published monthly.
Image credit: Stetson University duPont-Ball Library
Picnics, boating excursions, and fishing parties. Such were the summer activities of Florida college students in 1887. At least the students who wrote about the summer ahead in the April 1887 issue of their student newspaper, the DeLand Collegiate. The writers advised their peers to travel and find "startling experiences" so they'd have enough material for "the appalling amount of essays which we will have to write next year." Some things don't change.

But some things do. In the newspaper's Gleanings section, there's a mention that 14 was the average age of students entering college 100 years earlier. Meaning, the year 1787. Another difference is the 1887 school year's starting date: October, unlike the current August start dates.

The paper was issued monthly during the academic year by the Palmetto Literary Society of DeLand Academy and College, one of the early names of Stetson University. An annual subscriptions cost 50 cents.

One of my favorite sections is Around Town on Page 8. That's because I write romance novels set in an 1800s Florida town, and tidbits of period social history interest me and provide foundation for ideas. The news in 1887 DeLand included:

  • Fireflghters were to be fitted for uniforms;
  • John B. Stetson planned extensive improvements to an orange grove he purchased;
  • Performers under the name of Hamlin's Wizard Oil Troupe presented several "very good" open-air concerts in the streets;
  • A resident was trying to organize a military company in the city, and an armory would be built if he succeeded in securing a $300 appropriation from the County Commission. 
You can read the entire issue online via Stetson University duPont-Ball Library's excellent digital archives. Yes, I do work at Stetson and have a degree from there, but aside from that I'm a huge fan of libraries, and support both duPont-Ball and the DeLand Regional Library. I just found the DeLand Library's slideshow on Flickr. Visit and support your local libraries, in person or online. They're worth it. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Old books yield more than printed pages, without fail

Old books can be like treasure chests. A journey through the pages can uncover threads of a previous owner's life via notes, dog-ears, smudges, and general wear. Such is the case with my 1926 Florida Wild Flowers: An Introduction to the Flora of the Florida Peninsula. The guidebook by Mary Francis Baker was published by MacMillan, and is in excellent shape except for the standard yellowing of vintage paper.

With a few exceptions, there aren't any markings scribbled inside. The absence of inside-page notes, coupled by the inked inscription on the inside front cover, captured my interest the day I bought the book.

Snapshot of inside front page showing book owner's handwritten note
This inscription is the first thing the reader
sees on opening the 1926 Florida
wildflower guidebook.
Plant guides are purchased to be used. I once borrowed a friend's Appalachian wildflower guide for a trip the North Carolina mountains. I duly noted time, date, and place of particular discoveries next to each flower's identification photo and text.  Others had done so before me. The impromptu field notes provided a sense of closeness with other plant explorers of the same tame ilk - as in, those using plant guides on well-traveled terrain. David Fairchild we were not.

Inside the cover of Florida Wild Flowers, however, there is a stern note written in cursive:
Without fail, return this volume to Herbert Felkel, 126 Marine Street, St. Augustine Florida. Fail not!! - Herbert Felkel. 1926.
At first I thought Mr. Felkel's friends were obviously guilty of failure to return his guidebook. But the book's good condition belies that. The book is used, yes. The spine easily falls open to pages about milkweed, and Cherokee (coral) bean. But it's apparent no one dragged the book around on outdoor expeditions. So why did the owner spell out such a forceful directive?

Here's where the theme from the original Twilight Zone should play. I'm a former journalist, and I just so happened to buy a vintage guidebook that had been owned by - a journalist. I just Googled Herbert Felkel and learned he took over managing editor duties at the St. Augustine Herald's forerunner in 1917. The newspaper's Through the Years webpage says he then served as editor from 1921 to 1934.

Anyone who worked in a pre-Internet newsroom knows that books, especially reference books, always disappeared. No wonder Mr. Felkel wrote his warning. Reference books were like gold. You couldn't just do an Internet search - the Internet didn't exist. Woe to the person who reached for a reference tome on deadline, only to find an empty shelf.

My new knowledge about Mr. Felkel illuminated the few pencil markings I did find on the pages. Small, faint checkmarks highlight details that likely were pertinent to a writer or editor researching a story. I can see the journalist's mind working, when making note of such things as:

  • Florida's greater variety of wildflowers, and "plants of strange habits," than any other state;
  • how 18th century French botanist Andre Michaux actually saw the Florida flowers the modern (1926) traveler "passes by on well-made roads."
The word trilisa is underlined, a rarity in this book, in a passage about the marsh blossom's purple blooms.  In the same paragraph, a sentence about a marsh sedge with white bracts earns one of the tiny pencil marks. I'm fairly knowledgeable about uplands Florida flora, not so much about the botany of marsh plants. I would have liked to have read whatever story emerged from the notetaker, so careful not to heavily mar the pages of the treasured tome. 

Mr. Felkel's fierce protection of the book paid off. I caretake it now, two years shy of the 90th anniversary of publication. My tenure shall be inscription-less.