Monday, May 16, 2016

Smell the salt air, feel the ocean breeze

19th century scene showing the seawall, street, and houses in St. Augustine, Florida
Walking along the seawall, pictured here, is one of the ways
people passed the time in St. Augustine in the 19th century.
(Photo credit: Library of Congress)
Part 2 of 2

Today I revisit 19th century author and travel writer Constance Fenimore Woolson to share excerpts from some of her letters. Specifically, to share snippets from letters in which she talks about frontier Florida. She wintered in Florida in the mid-1870s. For more on Woolson herself and her contributions to the literary canon, see Part 1 of this post.

There are so many things to share, I'm going to save some for future use. Woolson's observations are wonderful windows into an earlier time. Granted, she was writing from a privileged perspective. But her sensitivity to people and place make it easy for the modern reader to step back into the past ... from air-conditioned comfort. This is Florida.

All the following excerpts are from The Complete Letters of Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Sharon L. Dean (University Press of Florida, 2012). They reference St. Augustine except where noted.

Dec. 4, 1874 (estimate): "Then we came by cars to Jacksonville, and thence by boat to our landing, Tocoi, where an important little locomotive was 'tooting' on the dock. Think of it - a railroad to the 'ancient city'! It will soon be 'ancient' no longer."

Dec. 4, 1874 (estimate): "In the mornings she [Woolson's mother] walks on the sea wall; then she embroiders, then dinner and a nap, then the piazza, a little reading, then tea, the mail. Bezique and bed. When Clara [Woolson's sister] arrives, Bezique will be varied by cribbage."

April 17, 1876: "I am glad you liked the St. Augustine oranges. ... I myself am very fond of oranges, and you would be astonished to see how many we eat ... among the groves."

Feb. 24, 1878: "I have a row boat and row daily on the broad, still, chocolate-colored river." [St. Johns River in Hibernia]

Dec. 4, 1874 (estimate): "To day, for instance, we are sitting with open windows, there is a lovely breeze blowing in from the ocean, and the soft Florida sky is as blue as June in Ohio."

[No month] 1876: "It has been very warm here - too warm to exercise much; foggy, but I like the sea fog. It seemed so pleasant to catch the smell of salt marshes as the [railroad?] cars neared the city. Two long winters in St. Augustine have given me a great liking for salt air."

Dec. 12, 1876: "The inlet is just as blue as ever and the pine-barrens as green."

Feb. 24, 1878:  "... this [Hibernia] is an island in the St. John[s] river, a quiet pleasant place, neither so gay nor so delightful as St. Augustine, but still an epitome of peace."

May 5, 1878: "Hundreds of snakes here [Hibernia]. I saw last Thursday one, just killed in the road, 5 feet 5 inches long, 13 rattles! Moccasin snakes numerous."

Woolson bonded with Florida, in particular with St. Augustine. She retained a fondness for the area for the rest of her life. In an 1883 letter written from Venice, Italy, where she lived at the time, Woolson noted: "If I could have a little coquina cottage by the southern sea at St. Augustine, I would come home & stay forever."

Wouldn't we all.

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