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.