Friday, December 20, 2019

Secret sanctuary a holy place

Colorized postcard from 1938 showing Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs in Lake Wales, Florida
Segment from a colorized postcard from 1938 shows the
Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs in Lake Wales, Florida.
Photo credit: Florida Memory
Tucked away in Lake Wales is a small, serene Catholic shrine. It once drew hundreds - maybe thousands - of people on pilgrimages in the early 20th century. The shrine even has an entry in the 1939 Federal Writers Project's Florida, A Guide to the Southernmost State.

Today, only handfuls of the faithful and the curious make their way to the lakefront Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs. Stonework crumbles in places and chipped inlaid tiles tell of past glory. An ornately decorated church once on the property is long gone.

But the essence and spirituality of the shrine remain.  Many visitors describe feeling a sense of peace when they stop -  and perhaps pray - before a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a grotto built to resemble the one at Lourdes. In a 2015 article, the Lakeland Ledger dubbed the shrine a secret sanctuary.

Secret, indeed. I've lived in Florida a long time and love to explore historic sites and Catholic-related places. How can I have been ignorant of the very existence of the Ste. Anne des Lacs shrine? The site is apparently overseen by the Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lake Wales. But I found no mention of the shrine on the parish's website.

Instead, I cobbled together the place's history from the WPA guide, the Ledger article, YouTube videos, Wikipedia, and Florida Memory, which is where I located the colorized postcard pictured with this post. Among things I learned is that the local neighborhood has a protective attitude toward the shrine. Local residents look after the property, tend the grounds, and share information with tourists who find their way there.

Thanks for the shrine's very existence are due to a long-ago resident named Napoleon Pelletier. He was among a group of Canadian Catholics who wintered in Lake Wales to escape harsh weather in the early 20th century. Different sources diverge on why the shrine was built. One says the devout Pelletier was the driving force behind creation of a shrine in the group's winter retreat. Another source says either Pelletier's son - or French artist Francois Morsollier's son - recovered from a serious illness while in Florida. The recovery was attributed in part to the healing waters of Saint Anne Lake. The shine was then built in gratitude for the child's recovery.

Either way, we do know the date of the shrine's construction: 1920. By the time of the WPA guidebook's write-up in 1939, the property contained stone grottoes, statuary, and a little church in which Morsollier had painted scenes from the Holy Land. Even relics were kept at the shrine.

Here's how the guidebook describes shrine activity:
"Pilgrimages are made here annually as to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France and the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in Canada. High dignitaries and priests of the Roman Catholic church in the United States and Canada assist the local priest in conducting the ceremonies." (page 466)
Those days are long gone. The place's faded grandeur - but also is current dignity - are evident in the YouTube video I embedded below and in the photos on Facebook. The Shrine of Ste. Anne des Lacs continues to nurture all who find their way to her doorstep. You can find the wooded retreat at 1207 St. Anne Shrine Road, a circular road that winds around the lake a few miles east of town center. Say a prayer for me if you get there before I do. I'll return the favor.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

In search of Dr. Annie Mae Walker

Closeup of gravestone
Dr. Annie Mae McClary Walker is buried in Greenwood
Cemetery in Daytona Beach. This image is from the
 Find A Grave website. 
Born in a Florida turpentine camp in 1913. Died with a string of "firsts" and awards to her name in 1998. Why hasn't anyone written an in-depth biography of Dr. Annie Mae McClary Walker?

I'd write the bio, but this is an #ownvoices story if ever there was one. I say that even though I'm ambivalent about that movement. I believe writers, actors, artists - all creatives - deserve the freedom to create at will, with no barriers placed. So my former-journalism self could write her life story. But I instinctively know an #ownvoices writer would produce a deeper bio than I could achieve.

1944 head-and-shoulders image of Annie Mae Walker  when she was known as Annie Mae Tooks
Screengrab is from an article,
"The American Negro in
College, 1943-1944," in a 1944
issue of The Crisis Magazine.
Annie Mae McClary Walker
was known as Annie Mae
Tooks at the time.
Dr. Walker was a pioneering African-American-Seminole educator whose strong personality and amazing life shine in a conversational biography penned by Dr. Lynn Hawkins, Always the First, The Story of Annie Mae Walker (Taylor and Seale Publishing, 2016)The book is based on hundreds of hours of recorded interviews between the two educators, who were friends. But when my Ravenclaw self went searching for more information about Dr. Walker, I found almost nothing.  A search of academic databases turned up zilch. She doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. Dr. Walker, where are you?

This was a woman who created Black Studies programs, was integral to the Head Start program, fought hard for civil rights, integrated neighborhoods, and was the first black professor of Black Studies at SUNY Stony Brook in New York. Among other achievements. And she knew what it was like to have a cross burned on her front lawn.

Her life journey intersected with an incredible roster of people. She was related by marriage to Mary McCleod Bethune and was taught by Zora Neale Hurston during the writer's brief tenure at Bethune-Cookman College (now University). She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and had Malcolm X as a houseguest.

Dr. Walker's life was not without warts, as are all our lives. I haven't yet met a perfect being and won't until I meet the Lord. But the combined parts make up a fascinating whole. I look forward to reading an in-depth biography on this most interesting woman.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ma Barker haunts Florida house

Aerial view of the town of Oklawaha (historic image)
Historic image of tiny Oklawaha is part of a presentation, "The
 Records and Legend of the Kate "Ma" Barker Shootout at
Ocklawaha," by George Albright III and Carson Good.
Looking for a real haunted house this Halloween season? Try the country home made famous by the 1935 gun battle between the FBI and the Ma Barker Bang in the Florida hamlet of Ocklawaha. The 1930 house is named the Bradford-Ma Barker House and is open for tours by appointment. But watch out for ghosts. More than one person believes Ma's spirit still lurks there.

In the 1930s, Ma Barker was said to be the mastermind behind the gang, which consisted of her sons and other men. Gang members robbed banks, killed, kidnapped, and hijacked with cold-blooded ruthlessness. At the time, Ma was in the nation's collective consciousness as a Most Wanted Woman, a harridan who presided over an evil empire. But modern history discounts that theory as something promoted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Ma's full name was Arizona Clark Barker, but she used the name Kate. Three of her four sons were active in the famous gang along with other young men. She traveled with them and seems to have served as a protective cover. For example, she was the one who arranged to rent the rural hideaway on Lake Weir in Ocklawaha. But her full role remains murky, at least to me.

On the one hand, her four sons were in and out of trouble and prison, starting at young ages. Something was seriously amiss from the start in that household. Online sites that borrow heavily from one another portray her as an early version of today's helicopter parents. She thought her boys could do no wrong and she intervened with the law to save their hides more than once.

Face of Ma Barker
Ma  Barker
On the other hand, Ma's husband left her after the boys were grown. Like many another woman during the Great Depression, Ma seems to have done what was necessary to survive. Somehow that evolved into being a permanent member of a vicious gang. Yet one of the group's most notorious members - Alvin Karpis - wrote in a memoir that Ma was just a country woman who didn't have the smarts to organize kidnappings and bank robbings. He says gang members hid their activities from Ma. They'd leave her home or send her to the movies when they went out on a job. According to the Alcatraz History website, Karpis claims that "Ma saw a lot of movies."

So who knows. Ma's true story is buried beneath lore, legend, and speculation. What is a known fact is that she and her son Fred were in the lakefront house in Ocklawaha the day the FBI came gunning. The other gang members had left for reasons unknown to me.

Ma and Fred refused to surrender. The gun battle lasted hours, and burned itself into local lore. With good reason! You see from the photo that Ocklawaha was about as small and quiet as a Florida town could get in that era. Having bank robbers, the FBI, and a Wild West shootout in town sent shockwaves through the region.

Among local residents who witnessed the shootout was the great-grandfather of Marion County Tax Collector George Albright III. In fact, the younger Albright grew up next to the famous house. He's done a  lot of research on the subject and is involved in the renovation effort, which included relocating the house to the Carney Island Recreation and Conservation Area in Ocklawaha.

Before, during, and after the project, stories surfaced about how Ma haunts the house. These recollections came from reputable people. Don't laugh. Read at least this article from the Tampa Bay Times before you decide to dismiss the idea.

If you prefer only verified facts, check out the treasure trove of shootout documents and photos collected in a presentation by Albright III and Carson Good, whose family owned the house. The PDF and an accompanying video are generously shared online. Go to the Online Forms page of the Marion County Tax Collector website and scroll down to the "Other" heading near the bottom of the page. There, you'll find links to "The Records and Legend of the Kate 'Ma' Barker Shootout at Ocklawaha."

After that, go visit and tour the house. If you dare.

Here's a video of the house tour by the Ocala Star-Banner:

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Sr. Clotilde a woman for our times

Black-and-while photo of Sister Anna Clotilde Kohler, SSJ, in her religious habit
Sister Clotilde forged a firm path in the first half of the
20th century. She is remembered for her commitment to
 Christ and to the students she taught. (Photo credit:
Sisters of Saint Joseph, St. Augustine - July 2017 archive)
Finding online archival information on religious sisters who served in pioneer Florida can be challenging. So when resources readily popped up about Sister Anna Clotilde Kohler, SSJ, I took it as a sign from above. I even found two photos of her.

Granted, Sr. Clotilde, as she was known, died in modern times - 1962. She was in her 80s. But she'd spent 65 years as a Sister of St. Joseph in Florida. She dedicated almost 50 of those years to educating African-American children in Ybor City and Fernandina. Segregation was the law for all of those years. Anti-Catholicism was pretty strong for most of the era, too.

But politics and bigotry don't surface in the records I found about Sr. Clotilde. Instead, I learned of her religiosity, steadfastness, and strong personality. The expression on her face in the SSJ photo, shown with this post, speaks of an individuality that religious orders of the time tried to squash. Strength is also seen in an Amelia Island Museum of History photo of her in the 1950s, when she was in Fernandina.

Could a strong will and individualism be why Sr. Clotilde kept being reassigned during her early years? We'll never know. That isn't in the public record. But there are hints that this woman forged her own way when possible.

Sr. Clotilde was born in St. Augustine and donned her religious habit in 1896. That's when she took the name Anna Clotilde. Her birth name was Mary Elizabeth, according to the Sisters of Saint Joseph in St. Augustine. (Click on the SSJ's July 2017 newsletter archive to see where I found that detail and the photo.) In 1901, she landed in Ybor City. That was after she'd already had seven assignments! She soon moved on, again. In 1903, she was sent to St. Benedict the Moor parish school. And there she stayed for more than 40 years.

Michael J. McNally, author of Catholic Parish Life on Florida's West Coast, 1860-1968, cites Sr. Clotilde as "one of the most outstanding mentors of St. Benedict School..." (page 192). He also says she was remembered more for her "commitment to Christ and her students" than for her teaching abilities (192). The SSJ archive, however, says she was known for her teaching. Another source calls her an admired teacher and "a stabilizing influence in the black community" (Jane Quinn, "Nuns in Ybor City: The Sisters of St. Joseph and the Immigrant Community," Tampa Bay History, Spring/Summer 1983).

The sources agree on examples of her dedication. She:
  • every fourth Sunday, led students in a song-filled procession to special pews in church for an integrated Mass
  • formed a St. Joseph Society (boys) and St. Cecilia Society (girls) to help youth grow in Catholic piety
  • built a stage for students and helped them perform dramatic and musical events
Quinn's article says Sr. Clotilde maintained correspondence with many former pupils after she was transferred to St. Peter Claver School in Fernandina. It'd be great to read some of those letters, for they surely reveal more of her personality and shed light on what made her special enough for multiple remembrances. 

McNally, on page 193, posits that her humanity grew from suffering she went through. He writes that, early in her religious life, she was accused of having "a particular friendship." In Catholic religious life, that is a code phrase for a same-sex relationship or attraction. It was a serious accusation and resulted in her being hauled before the bishop. After the bishop heard St. Clotilde's side of the story, he deemed the accusation false.

"This experience of being unjustly accused deepened her human compassion and spiritual life, as she herself later admitted," McNally writes. Along with Sr. Clotilde's letters, I'd like to read any other writings she left behind - especially the memoir the SSJ archive mentions. As McNally says, Sr. Clotilde "had a certain independence of character which many admired" (193).  She was also moral, dedicated to others, and committed to Christ. The kind of leader we are so in need of today.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Dorian, go away

old photo showing people cleaning up after Okeechobee hurricane in 1928
The National Weather Service has a memorial page to the
1928 Okeechobee hurricane. This photo is from that page.
It depicts rescue workers pulling bodies from the water.
I write with a heavy heart. Hurricane Dorian is a monster storm and it's aiming right for Florida. At least we have the benefit of minute-by-minute forecasts, advance warning, and time to prepare. People in Florida a hundred years ago had none of that. Thousands of lives were lost as a result.

Wikipedia says more than 10,000 people have died in Florida due to what the encyclopedia's entry calls tropical cyclones. There's no footnote referencing a source, so I can't verify the accuracy of the number. There's an interesting sentence that says most of those deaths occurred before hurricane hunter flights started in mid 20th century. It takes only a brief look at a handful of early 20th century Florida hurricanes to understand that statement.

From the book Florida's Hurricane History, 1998 edition, for example, you learn that hundreds died in a Keys hurricane in 1906 (page 90), the Great Miami hurricane of 1926 (page 126), and especially the Okeechobee storm - called the Okeechobee Flood - in 1928, when thousands lost their lives (page 127). For a vivid fictional retelling of that storm and flood, read Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She includes the hurricane as part of the narrative.

In Okeechobee, floodwaters caused the horrible tragedy. The hurricane caused the lake to rise so fiercely it rushed over the dikes meant to contain it (page 130). The ensuing flood destroyed entire communities. The National Weather Service has a memorial page about the Category 4 storm that provides a lot of detail. It notes that almost three-quarters of the those who died were people of color who worked as agricultural laborers.

Rushing and rising water remain major threats today when a hurricane strikes. I live 25 miles inland from the coast, at a "high" point (high land being a relative term in Florida). Where I live, we fear the winds, storm-spawned tornadoes, and fallen trees more than rising water. People who live on the waterfront have a different set of concerns. But we're all worried. I haven't given up hope that Dorian will veer off to the east and open water. But that wish seems to be fading. Stay safe, all.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Mystery photographer revealed

Cover the journal El Escribano, Vol 53, showing a 1920s portrait of a young woman
A brief biography of R.A. Twine is featured in the Saint
Augustine Historical Society's journal, El Escribano 2016,
published in 2018. One of Twine's photos is on the cover.
Back in 2017, I  wrote about African-American Catholic photographer Richard Aloysius Twine after discovering his amazing 1920s photographs in Florida Memory's online Twine Photographic Collection.

The sharply dressed young man visually catalogued residents of St. Augustine's Lincolnville neighborhood in the early 20th century. He  photographed portraits, groups, community gatherings, and class outings and other scenes revolving around St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church and School life.

I wrote a two-part post: the first about Twine and the second about St. Benedict the Moor School, which Twine attended. But information about Twine was sparse. I wanted to know more about the photographer and his later years. Did he move away? Die young? I even titled the first part of the post "Gifted Photographer a Mystery Man."

Imagine my delight, then, when I received Volume 53 of El Escribano, The St. Augustine Journal of History, in 2018. The entire issue is devoted to the photography of Twine and his near contemporaries, Hugo and Earnest Meyer.

First, I'm happy to say Twine didn't die young. He moved north, as did many people of color in that era, but he also moved farther south.

Black and white portrait of photographer Richard Aloysius Twine
Richard Aloysius Twine 
Thanks to a brief biography about Twine in Volume 53 of El Escribano, I'm now able to share more details. The bio was written by Dr. Patricia Griffin and Diana Selsor Edwards, with editing by Robert Nawrocki. I recommend you find this issue of the journal if possible and read the entire thing and enjoy the photographs reprinted in it. The issue is titled El Escribano 2016 but it was published in 2018. One of Twine's portraits, depicting a young woman, is featured on the cover. The journal is a project of the Saint Augustine Historical Society. Contact the historical society's Research Library to learn where you can access a copy.

Here, from the biography, are some excerpts and points of interest about Twine's life:

  • He was born in St. Augustine in 1896 to former slave David Twine, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and Harriett Bronson Twine, believed to have also been a former slave.
  • Many family members were devout Catholics. 
  • Twine moved to New York in 1916 but returned to St. Augustine about five years later and opened a photography studio.
  • Twine was interested in filmmaking, and also was a playwright who staged theatricals with like-minded friends at St. Benedict the Moor Church.
  • He operated his St. Augustine photography studio for only a handful of years - less than five. Several family members had scattered, and he followed some of his siblings to Miami, where they had opened a restaurant.
  • The Great Depression ended Twine's photography, film, and theater dreams. He spent his later working years managing a hotel and boarding house.
  • He never married.
  • Twine died in Miami in 1974. He was 78. He's buried in San Lorenzo cemetery in St. Augustine.
I can't find a better tribute than this one written in the biography: "Richard Twine's public legacy is enduring in his Lincolnville photographs." His images offer viewers "... an intimate sense of people whose lives would otherwise have been lost to recorded history." (Page 11). 

So true. The photos and the biography do even more, though, in my opinion. They give us a glimpse into the man who was Richard Aloysius Twine, who also would have been lost to history. And they leave me, again, wanting to know more.

Read the related 2017 posts: Part 1 and Part 2

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Polk County pioneers kept faith alive

1890 image of buildings in Winter Haven, Florida
As this Florida Memory photo shows, Polk County was
sparsely settled in 1890. This scene shows the town of
Winter Haven, 10 miles from Haines City.
The year: 1890.
The place: Haines City, formerly known as Clay Cut.
The people: A husband and wife, two Italian railroad laborers, and a Jesuit priest.
The occasion: The first Catholic Mass in Haines City.

Mass attendance of four, plus celebrant Fr. Philip de Carriere, S.J., says a lot about the state of Catholicism in parts of frontier Florida. Catholics in Florida in that era went to extraordinary lengths to practice their faith.

Haines City is in Polk County in the south-central part of the state. Even 30 years after that first Mass, its population was less than 800. But the faith took hold in the hearts of its few Catholic settlers. Today, St Ann Catholic Church in Haines City is testament to that early effort.

The road was long and circuitous, though. It wasn't until 1949 that St. Ann's began as a Mission Chapel. For many years before that, Catholics in Haines City often traveled 10 miles down the road to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Winter Haven to worship. In fact, the 1949 Haines City chapel was a mission of St. Joseph's.

The story of the man who arranged for the 1890 Mass in Haines City is told on the St. Joseph's website. His name is Patrick Bannon, and he's credited as being the first Catholic in Polk County.

The St. Joseph's history is an interesting read. Upon arrival and establishment in Haines City from New York, Bannon would travel 60 miles to Mass in Tampa. That's 60 miles by horse and buggy in pre-air-conditioning, pre-development, pre-everything Florida. After the 1890 Mass, Fr. de Carriere returned to Haines City two years later to baptize a Bannon baby - who went on to become a Sister of St. Joseph in St. Augustine. Another Mass was celebrated in the Bannon home in 1895. At that time, Bannon offered $500 for construction of a church in Haines City. That's about $15,000 in modern money. Alas, nothing came of the effort.

In an article about St. Ann's 50th anniversary, the June 21-July 11 edition of The Florida Catholic says Mass was said in Haines City private homes in the years between 1890 and 1949. But it's a safe guess the Bannon family was in attendance when the first Mass was said at St. Joseph Church in Winter Haven on Thanksgiving Day, 1914. Bishop Michael J. Curley traveled down from St. Augustine to bless the building. The church was a mission of the Jesuits in Tampa, and the town was so rustic that chickens and cows wandered along the main street.

The region's Catholic population was still small, but growing and dedicated to faith. By 1925, the St. Joseph congregation outgrew its 1914 building and a new church was constructed. Still, this was early Florida. The website history says that the man who carved the candlesticks - Matt Smith -- would drive his car up to the door of the church during power failures, to supplement the candlelight.

The light of faith still shines today in both Haines City and Winter Haven.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

From the mundane to the weird

Vintage photo of wooden Astor Hotel in Florida in late 1800s
This photo of the Astor Hotel on the St. Johns River in
Astor, FL, is pictured on the front cover of a local Astor
history booklet published in 1982.
This month, I continue my look at the hamlet of Astor, which hugs the St. Johns River in north Central Florida. Last month, I gave an overview of the settlement, based on information in a 40-page local history published by the Astor Kiwanis Club in 1982.  The History of Astor on the St. Johns, Astor Park, and the Surrounding Area was compiled by A. Wass de Czege. 

This post looks more closely at slice-of-life details as explained by early residents and visitors whose memories were included in the booklet. I love the small details because they give a sense of daily life, and that's what I'm most interested in. Occasionally, these looks behind closed doors turn up more than a person bargained for. 

1880s: We start with everyday details about town life in the late 1880s and perhaps 1890s. An early settler named J.G. Cade arrived from Kentucky in 1884 when he was 11 years old (26). Later in life, he recalled there had been two general stores on opposite sides of the river. People used rowboats or the ferry to cross the St. Johns. On page 26 and 27 are Cade's account of what shoppers could find at the stores:
  • groceries of all kinds
  • tobacco
  • snuff
  • firearms
  • harnesses
  • calomel
  • quinine
  • calico
  • brogan shoes
He also reports that each store had three wooden barrels in the rear. Each had a faucet. One barrel "contained liquor, one vinegar, and one cane syrup, all sold by the gallon" (27). Shoppers had to bring their own containers ... "and, furthermore, [you had to] drink your one dollar per gallon liquor at home" (27). Barter was a common form of exchange. Items that shopkeepers accepted, in lieu of monetary payments, included hens, chickens, eggs, fruit, and hides of alligator, deer, and cow.

1912: In 1953, a retired U.S. Army captain shared his recollections of a 1912 trip to Astor, where his father was building a home at the time. Capt. Lewis Lawton penned his recollections for a 1953 issue of the Astor News, the booklet explains. Lawton stayed at the Manhattan Hotel. (Astor founder William Astor originally called his new town Manhattan.) The Manhattan Hotel was one of two hotels in town. Lawton notes that his breakfast at the hotel was at daylight and consisted of "Ham, real ham, and eggs" (29). Not sure what he meant by real ham.

1918: In some ways, this account is my favorite because of its Gothic overtones. Newly appointed school principal Margaret W. Doss arrived in Astor, by train, in the middle of night in 1918. "It was dark and raining," she notes in her recollections (31). John Gibson, a section foreman with the railroad and a man Doss describes as a famous hunter, led her from the train depot to the Railroad Hotel. Doss again notes that everything was dark, even at the hotel. They knocked on the door and waited "a long while" before an old woman holding a lantern answered the door. The woman didn't speak a word to Doss, just led her upstairs to a guest room and left her there with the lantern. "I was so scared that I dragged the heavy dresser across the floor to barricade the door," Doss recalls (31). All this mental picture needs for completion is wads of Spanish moss dripping from dark trees and unrecognizable night sounds coming from the surrounding wilderness. 

Her story gets better. The unfriendly woman ran the hotel with her husband, and Doss described the couple as "acting very strange" (32). They sheltered what Doss called a mysterious family member, who was in a wheelchair and whose face and head were heavily bandaged. According to Doss, two years later the FBI burst in and arrested the man in the wheelchair because he was a wanted bank robber. There was nothing physically wrong with him, she notes. The wheelchair and bandages had been a disguise. The hotelkeepers were his parents, and they also were taken away. 

Florida's modern reputation for weirdness is built on solid ground.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Manhattan in Florida

Late 1800s photo of men standing on hotel dock in Astor, FL labels this photo as a view from the depot
of two hotels in Astor in the late 1800s.
Drive through the hamlet of Astor today. You certainly won't think about big city life. The rural community hugs the Ocala National Forest on one side and the St. Johns River on the other. About 1,500 people call Astor home.

Yet the settlement was once called Manhattan by one who knew what he was talking about - William Backhouse Astor. In 1874, the wealthy New Yorker bought some 12,000 acres in what is today Astor. He and two partners laid out a settlement that he named Manhattan. Astor poured energy, imagination, and funding into the community, but it never came near resembling its northern namesake. In fact, even in the early days, many people called the settlement Astor.

The region's settlement is explained in a 40-page local history published as a project of the Astor Kiwanis Club in 1982.  The History of Astor on the St. Johns, Astor Park, and the Surrounding Area was compiled by A. Wass de Czege. (There's an enlarged third edition with 64 pages, but I've never seen it.) I like the one I have because it includes some reminiscences of then-elderly people who'd been around Astor in much earlier days. I'll write about them next month.

As was usual in the late 1800s, the land and climate in Astor were extolled to northerners as abounding in healthful qualities. William Astor built a church, school and general store, set aside land for a cemetery, planted orange groves, and created a botanical garden. He built two hotels - one named the Astor House - but never stayed in either of them. He preferred to stay on his yacht (25). That gives you some indication of his standard milieu. He wasn't just any rich Yankee. His family was the famous - and famously rich - Astor clan. His wife ruled New York society during the Gilded Age.

Astor even built a railroad in his southern Manhattan. The Kiwanis Club's booklet says the settlement thrived for a while. Visitors reported finding no vacancies at the hotels. Astor's wealthy friends built winter cottages. Many new settlers invested in and grew citrus and bananas.

Then two things happened: Astor died in 1894, and a severe freeze in 1894-95 devastated the area's citrus industry and banana growth. Astor's son, John Jacob Astor IV, did what he could to reinvigorate the community, in part by turning to forestry industries.

But John Jacob Astor IV went down on the Titanic in 1912.  His son cared little for the town, and "the 'Astor dream' was over," (28) reports the Kiwanis booklet.

But the town survived. Astor heirs sold what was legally known as the Manhattan Grant to the Duluth Land Company (29), which marketed land to immigrants in Minnesota who'd come primarily from Finland. Periods of growth and recession followed, until the town settled into its current configuration. Today, small homes and fish camps nestle in a riverfront setting surrounded by the majesty of a national forest, and life unfolds in the way of small towns everywhere.

In some ways, better than Manhattan.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

What's appeal of historic rural homesteads?

pioneer log cabin (screengrab from Cracker Country video)
Screengrab of log cabin at Cracker Country in Tampa.
Photo credit: City of Tampa video
Sometimes I wonder why I'm so interested in rural pioneer life. My posts often veer toward country-living topics rather than city doings. Yet both deserve equal attention.

I grew up in New York City when it was the most populous city in the country. My grandparents had a rustic summer bungalow about a two-hour (in those days) drive from the loud, crowded neighborhoods I and my extended family called home. And I mean rustic. The bungalow had no running water, no electricity, and no bathroom. It was small, with exposed ceiling beams.

I thought it the height of fun to run across the narrow lane and get water from an old-fashioned iron pump. At night, I'd fall asleep in a room crowded with siblings and cousins, listening to the adults talking and playing cards on the porch in the glow of kerosene lamplight.

Very nostalgic. Very not me. I lead a simple life in a midsize town with all the modern conveniences needed and wanted. In younger adulthood, I loved to tent camp in Florida forests and parks with family and friends. But I couldn't live in pioneer conditions unless my survival depended on it. Not then, not now. Kill and pluck a chicken? Yikes.

Yet my interest in that era and way of life persists. I'm not alone, either. I continually find evidence of re-created rural homesteads the more I research Florida pioneer history. They appear to be popular with visitors young and old. The older ones remember the good parts of the past, the way I've enshrined memories of  my bungalow vacations. The younger ones learn of a time before smart phones and the Internet.

As an aside, I think these museums need to step up programming to include more about the lives of marginalized peoples of earlier times. Many places are starting to incorporate such history, but more details need to emerge.

My time in the old country bungalow was brief - weekends and short summer stays - but full of relatives and laughter. Most of all, full of love. And maybe that's what I and everyone else really grasp from these portraits of the past. The human connection is what matters most.

Here's another tourist-oriented rural homestead to visit: Cracker Country on the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. I haven't been there yet, but will visit when possible. Am especially intrigued by the Carlton family connection.  I used to work at Stetson University, which was Doyle Carlton Sr.'s alma mater and to which he donated generously as an alumnus. The student union, popularly called the CUB, is actually named Carlton Student Union.

Thank you, readers, for letting me ramble in this post. I'll get back to basics next month!

Cracker Country in Tampa:

Monday, February 25, 2019

Moonlit night, full of mosquitoes

screengrab showing fort lauderdale beach in the 1920s
Look familiar? Not to me. The image from a Sun-Sentinel
news feature shows Fort Lauderdale's beach in the 1920s.
These days, fourteen hour of travel will take you more than halfway around the world. A hundred years ago, the full fourteen hours were needed just to get a person from North Florida to South. 

In his autobiography, Gold Coast Pioneer (Exposition Press, 1953), M.A. Hortt describes the journey he took in 1910:
The train left Jacksonville at nine o'clock in the morning and crawled along through the heat and the mosquitoes almost at a snail's pace for fourteen long, weary hours, finally arriving in Fort Lauderdale at eleven o'clock that night" (100).
It was a beautiful moonlit night, he writes, during which he was almost devoured by mosquitoes. The next morning, he discovered Fort Lauderdale's business district consisted of two stores. "There were no electric lights, telephones or paved streets" (101).

That wasn't the only surprise. Hortt was the designated representative sent to inspect land he and fellow Utah streetcar conductors had purchased west of Fort Lauderdale. He was to plant a test crop of tomatoes. When he got to Florida, he discovered the purchased land was underwater.

head-and-shoulders image of M.A. Hortt
M.A. Hortt. The photo is
from his autobiography.
Conditions were blamed on the rainy season; Hortt's visit was in June. Nonetheless, he soon turned his attention to real estate and went on to sell land in and around Fort Lauderdale for thirty years. He also served as the city's mayor in 1934-34. In his 1953 autobiography, he writes that he saw the area's potential right away:
"I thought I recognized great possibilities in Fort Lauderdale, with its beautiful waterways, sandy beaches, wonderful climate, bright sunshine, cooling ocean breezes and tropical verdure backed up by the fertile Everglades, and decided to take full advantage of this opportunity." (103-104)
If that sentence sounds promotional to you - it does to me! - keep in mind Hortt wrote those words decades after his 1910 arrival. Decades after successfully extolling the virtues of the area to would-be buyers.

Hortt did plant tomatoes, just not on swampland. His wife joined him in Fort Lauderdale and they bought a riverfront house on five acres. The garden tomatoes were a foot high, he writes, and growing alongside cucumbers, beans, cabbages, and squash when an October hurricane smashed  into the area, "raising havoc in general" (104) and raining for three days. The Hortts evacuated to a hotel, where people fished from the front porch after the storm. The area had become one large lake, and Hortt needed a boat to check on the family home. He found water lapping at the main floor, which was three feet above ground.

It's hard to imagine a rural Fort Lauderdale with five acres of riverfront land devoted to one homesite. Wikipedia says the city's population in 2017 was almost 200,000. It's also hard to imagine South Florida as outlaw country, but that's what it was back then. Hortt writes that he "grew up in the 'wild and wooly' West and thought all of the gangsters and bad men lived out there" (106). Once in Florida, he discovered the Ashley Gang. They were, he says, "as notorious as the Butch Cassidy gang out West" (106).

Something to think about next time I'm down in that giant metropolitan area Palm Beach-Fort Lauderdale-Miami has become. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Corrupt politicians nothing new

Partial view of house built in Sarasota in 1850s
This Sarasota house was built in the 1850s and belonged to
the earliest settler, Bill Whitaker, according to Yesterday's
 author Del Marth. This photo appears on Page 12.
In case you think our country's political shenanigans are a modern phenomenon, rest assured the Florida frontier had its share of nightmares. One occurred in what is today the South Florida city of Sarasota.

In the 1880s, elite politicians and corporations literally stole homesteaded land from settlers who'd already proved their claims. How? Politicians changed the law in order to circumvent the Homestead Act of 1862.

The Homestead Act granted ownership of 160 acres of federal land to a person who built a home on the acreage, lived in it, and farmed the land for five years. The 1973 book, Yesterday's Sarasota, by Del Marth, tells what happened next to Sarasota-region homesteaders who'd proved their claims, meaning they'd fulfilled requirements and now owned their land. 

In 1881, Florida politicians dug and found a  pre-1862 law that "gave the state all swamp and overflow lands in Florida," Marth writes. So they rewrote the state's land classifications and designated 22 million acres as swamp. Almost 700,000 of those acres were in the Sarasota area. Practically overnight, people's farmland was suddenly being called swampland. And, surprise, much of that new swampland ended up in the hands of land speculators.

The region was hardscrabble wilderness at the time, not the upscale city that is today's Sarasota. Still, for some people, it was home. The area was called Sara Sota, and it had a post office, school, and about 100 families. Suddenly, many discovered they were living on "swamp" and that they no longer owned their land.

Things got darker. Twenty locals formed a vigilante committee with the intent to retaliate against the speculators. In 1884, they killed two locals suspected of  cooperating with the land raiders. One, the postmaster, was shot while out gathering kelp, Marth writes. The other was shot off his horse. Stories like this are why frontier Florida is said to have resembled the Wild West in behavior.

As so often happens when individuals are pitted against larger, more powerful forces, the settlers lost. Marth writes that tax records of 1888 indicated the newly designated 700,000 acres of "swampland" ended up in the hands of eight companies. Three were railroad companies. One was a British company that Marth says "ultimately founded the town of Sarasota" by luring Scottish settlers with promises of estates in paradise. Things didn't go so well at first, as you can imagine. But that story is for another blog post.