Saturday, August 29, 2015

The 1880 Hurricane

Screengrab of NOAA satellite image of hurricane, with sepia tone added
NOAA satellite image of hurricane, with sepia tone added.
Florida has been in a frenzy in recent days, as Tropical Storm Erika churned in the Atlantic. The system has dissipated but hasn't fully expired. Rain, wind, and some flooding are in store.

As unnerving as the steady stream of media coverage can be, I'm glad I can track every millisecond of a tropical system's activity. Pioneers couldn't. People often relied on weather lore, close reading of atmospheric conditions, and lived experience of longtime residents.

 Forecasting was still young when a  hurricane hit Central Florida in 1880. That particular storm interests me for two reasons: pioneer Girard M. Parce, a boy at the time, wrote about it in his late-in-life recollections; and the steamship Vera Cruz sank in it, just off the Central Florida coast.

The book Florida's Hurricane History notes that early 20th century assessments considered the 1880 storm a "Great Hurricane" with winds over 125 mph. Fairly recent re-analysis data from NOAA puts it at a Category 2 with maximum winds of 90 mph. Having lived through hurricanes, I can say that anything over 70 mph is very scary indeed.

Girard's recollections corroborate the book's comment that countless trees were downed in the storm, which made landfall between Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach, and then traveled northwest across the state. Girard was in DeLand, where he wrote that:
"... we were kept in the house for two days, not daring to go out except to feed the stock, because so many of the big pine trees were being blown down."
I wish he'd written more about the actual hurricane, which he referred to as "The Big Storm." He focused more on what happened afterward. It's fascinating. Because he says the storm wrecked three ships off the local coast, not just one.
"A short time after the storm I drove [by horse-drawn cart] a party of several men to Port Orange. While there we went up to Daytona and ferried over to the peninsula where lay on the beach the wreckage of a large ship, the Vera Cruz, and two lumber schooners. I believe one could have walked a half mile in either direction without stepping on the ground."
He notes that a salvage company "with a large gang of men" was busy on the scene, and that his older brother William thought the Vera Cruz had carried a cargo of mahogany. You can read a richly detailed account of the steamship - and some of its passengers -  on

Girard recorded his memories in the 1920s at the request of his cousin - the daughter of the city of DeLand's founder. She (Helen DeLand) was collecting material for her history of the city, published in 1928 as The Story of DeLand and Lake Helen, Florida.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Colorful names all that remain

Handful of Costoluto Genovese heirloom-variety tomatoes ripen on a table
Early Floridians weren't growing Costoluto Genovese
tomatoes like these, one of today's popular heirloom
tomato varieties. Many of the cultivars grown in pioneer
days are hard to find now.  (Photo by Gerri Bauer)
A year ago, I wrote about heirloom vegetables and fruits and promised to follow up with a post about heirloom tomato cultivars. Finally, here it is.

I'm both excited and perplexed by what I found about tomatoes in the pages of Florida newspapers dated 1901-1919. Excited because there were more named varieties in ads and articles than I expected to find. Perplexed because only two were familiar to me: Ponderosa and Spark's Earliana, and the latter is a variation of a name known to me.

I've grown a number of heirloom tomato varieties in my garden over the years. They've included a couple believed to have been grown in Florida until as late as the 1920s and 1930s: June Pink and Earliana -  probably shortened from Spark's Earliana. The June Pink didn't show up in my (admittedly unscientific and limited) research. Nor did Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Eva Purple Ball, Riesentraube, Costoloto Genovese, or Arkansas Traveler. All have produced tasty tomatoes in my Florida yard. As for Ponderosa - it was a fail in my garden the one time I tried to grow it.

So what did Florida pioneers grow when they set out their tomato seeds? My earliest find was also the most comprehensive. A December 1901 issue of the New Enterprise newspaper of Madison had a Farm and Garden article that addressed "newer introductions" of tomatoes. The names are great: Best of All, Dwarf Golden Champion, Early Nuby, Freedom, Fordhook Fancy, Improved Trophy, Lemon Yellow, Matchless, New Combination, State Fair, World's Fair.

A couple of other references made note of a tomato variously named Stone, Dwarf Stone, New Stone, and Livingston's Stone or Livingston's Globe. An October 1911 issue of the Pensacola Journal highlighted Stone as a "general favorite" for shipping purposes. Other tomatoes said to ship well were Beauty and Perfection.

The Ocala Seed Store in 1913 highlighted six types of tomato seeds for sale, according to a February 1913 issue of the Ocala Evening Star: Dwarf Champion, Early Detroit, Livingston's Globe, New Stone, Redfield Beauty, and Spark's Earliana. Seed cost $2 per pound.

Although the types of heirloom tomato varieties available to us has changed through the decades, one gardening caveat from the past remains true now. As the Pensacola Journal advised readers in 1911, "There are a great many seedsmen in this country, and very little attention should be paid to the many glowing descriptions given in catalogs."

Newspaper references in this blog post are from the Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers website of the Library of Congress.