Friday, November 28, 2014

Utopia it wasn't

Historic photo of log cabin in Tillman, Florida, in the 1890s.
This 1890s Florida Memory photo shows a log cabin in
Tillman. The settlement predated the Indian River Catholic
Colony, which predated today's Palm Bay.
Photo credit: Florida Memory
My acquaintance with Palm Bay has always been from the interstate, as we travel to and from my in-laws' home farther south. To me, Palm Bay was a midcentury fabrication that had been planted in wilderness in the 1960s, and then had swelled to vast proportions. Another Deltona. It certainly wasn't where I expected to find remains of the pioneer Florida Indian River Catholic Colony.

I was intrigued when I first learned of the Catholic Colony, which existed from about 1911 to 1914. My enthusiasm waned when I saw references to the colony as being a "land company." Florida's history is riddled with land company endeavors. Given the name Catholic Colony, I had half-expected a utopian community - an exercise in communal life rooted in faith. The reality was more mundane. The colony was a settlement attempt that failed, and decades later Palm Bay steamrolled over the ghost town's remains. Except for St. Joseph Catholic Church, the colony's church and possibly the oldest building in Palm Bay. The church's website says the settlers were so disillusioned with the land company they refused to use the place of worship provided for them, and instead built one by themselves.

Just how bad could the Florida Indian River Catholic Colony have been? For one, it started in a spot that already had a name, Tillman, and some settlers. Second, it apparently oversold Florida's virtues to such an extent that reality proved unbearable.  The rise and fall was swift: The company filed as a for-profit corporation in 1911, and by 1914 a Fr. Gabriel Ruppert was guiding disgruntled settlers in the building of their own simple church. The church's website says the people "were not favorably disposed to anyone closely associated with the Florida Indian River Catholic Colony."

The colony was a development company based in North Dakota, according to the diary of a Dr. Watson who treated the settlers in Florida. He wrote that German and Slavic farmers from the Midwest had been lured to Florida by promises of two crops a year in a tropical paradise.

Online sleuthing has uncovered what appears to be a slim promotional booklet published by the company. The only copy available is in the Special Collections Department of the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries. I hope I get to read it. In keeping with my optimistic nature, I like to think that somewhere within its 14 pages, good intentions abound. A settlement scheme that flounders because of ignorance or inexperience would be understandable. One rooted in the efforts of get-rich-quick schemers would not be. Nor would it be very Catholic.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Slowing down with a horse and buggy

Photo of carriage and drum horse giving rides at Pioneer Art Settlement's Fall Country Jamboree
American drum horse Mariah's Boon pulls the
Moonlit Acre carriage. Photo by Gerri Bauer
A couple of weeks ago, I was wandering around the Pioneer Art Settlement during the annual Fall Country Jamboree when I came upon the horse and buggy in the first photo in this post. What a happy surprise. Moonlit Acre Carriage Rides' owner Laura Moon was offering short, complimentary rides to and from the Underhill House, the oldest brick home in Volusia County and a current restoration project for the Settlement.

Of course I jumped in, to get a taste of 19th century transportation. My husband and I have been on horse-and-buggy tours in St. Augustine and Charleston, but this one was in a country setting dressed for the period. It made a big difference.

True, this carriage wasn't your typical pioneer buggy. It resembled a barouche. Nor was the horse typical. Laura's carriage was pulled by her beautiful American drum horse, Mariah's Boon. Such a horse-and-buggy combination was rarely - if ever - seen on the backwoods roadways of frontier Central Florida. More common were the cart and wagon shown in the other photographs. Both are on display at the Settlement.

The ride to and from the Underhill house was primarily on unpaved land, which gave a pleasant, rhythmic bounce to the journey. The day was gorgeous, the scenery lush, the carriage and horse beautiful. I could have ridden around for hours in a haze of romanticism.

But when writing about 19th century life, I always have to be careful to balance nostalgic impressions with the realities experienced by Florida pioneers. Both human and horse - or mule or oxen - had to venture out in all kinds of weather. Nobody went anywhere fast. Imagine driving your car between 5 and 8 miles an hour. That's average speed for a horse and buggy (according to an Ohio Department of Transportation safety sheet about driving in Amish country).

The distance between my house and the Settlement is about 15 miles. Since I'd never push a horse hard, it would take me 3 hours to reach the Jamboree, and then another 3 hours to get home. Such time factors help explain why pioneer residents's visits to far-away friends and relatives lasted days instead of hours. Given the slower movements through time  - and given how we rush through our 21st century life - I can't help but wonder: Did people back in the day live more in the moment than we do today? Maybe nostalgic views and realities can learn from one another.

Photo of 1879 Underhill House
Circa 1879 Underhill House - photo by Gerri Bauer

Photo of wagon at Pioneer Art Settlement
Wagon on display at Pioneer Art Settlement
Photo by Gerri Bauer

Photo of pioneer buggy at Pioneer Art Settlement
Buggy on display at Pioneer Art Settlement
Photo by Gerri Bauer