What Southern Folks Eat - Deep roots in the Florida sand
I have been spending time with my sister at her home this week, and while I’ve been here, we’ve been doing a lot of talking about our family, trying to remember stories our parents and grandparents told us. It is quite important that we all have a sense of appreciation of our families’ histories. It’s equally important to record it somewhere for future generations to be able to read or hear.
Sherrin found a letter inside a book on one of her shelves that our mama’s Aunt Agnes had written to her own grandchildren, our cousins, in 1983. She wrote the letter as a means of telling them the story of their grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, and how they ended up in Florida. It’s such an interesting thing to read; a real-life version of A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith, featuring our own family members as the settlers.
According to the letter, our great-great grandparents were Robert and Sophronia Marshall. They arrived in Florida in 1880, having ridden a train for 900 miles from Louisville, Kentucky with their four children, one of whom was our Great-Grandmother Emma.
“You see, the U.S. government had given the family 81 acres of land in Putnam County, Florida if they would clear it, build a house, and plant an orange grove,” Aunt Agnes wrote. “The U.S. wanted farmers to plant lots of orange trees, and Florida was supposed to be the right kind of climate for groves.”
The Marshall family then traveled to their new homestead via the St. John’s River, landing in Welaka. Then they had to hire a horse and buggy to take them into the woods to their land, which was further south, near Lake Margaret in Putnam County. There were no paved roads there then, so they bumped along rough trails behind the horse until they reached their acreage, and began working to clear it.
The whole family had to pitch in to do this, cutting back the native palmetto stumps, which the letter said were “full of rattlesnakes,” so they all had to learn how to kill them for their own safety. They also dealt with alligators and wildcats, she said. Finally, the house was built and the four children … named Tom, George, Letitia, and Emma … were able to play and swim in nearby lakes George and Como.
Along with swimming in the lakes, they’d catch fish so they could have trout, bream, or bass for supper. There were also chickens in a makeshift pen behind the house for eggs and occasional chicken dinners.
Their mother, Sophronia, also planted food-producing trees, such as pear, peach and plum, and she had grapevines, as well, the letter said. (Now I know where our proclivity for gardening comes from…our great-great-grandmother!)
At first, the children had to walk to the closest school, which was in a town called Pomona. Eventually, there was a school built closer to them, in the Lake Margaret area, as more families settled there. I’m sure that was a relief for them during hot weather, and it gave them more time to do chores and play.
It’s fascinating to learn what life was like in Florida in the 19th century. It was a time before big cities boomed and real estate development became more of a gold mine than orange groves were. Wildlife was abundant, and there were still several hundred native Seminoles in the state, hiding in the deep woods to avoid being sent west of the Mississippi as thousands of others had already been, according to Florida’s Department of State. I am thankful for books and historical documents, including this sweet letter penned by Aunt Agnes, that teach us about our beautiful Florida and what it was like before any of us had the privilege of living here.
I’ll share more about what happened with my Great-Grandmother Emma and her siblings next week, as well as some old Florida recipes. But for now, I encourage you to take a moment to step outside to see how much is left of our state’s natural beauty. Maybe you can even do something positive to either preserve it or improve it for future generations.
Maybe you can think of ways to preserve your own family's history, too. Who you are and what you are doing today will be of great interest to those who come along decades from now. Have you been doing this already? I’d love to hear about it! You can reach me via email at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph". She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are as enamored with Florida as she is. You can find more of her writing at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.