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What Southern Folks Eat: Deep roots in the Florida sand, part 2

Stephanie Hill-Frazier Special to The Star
The Star

A couple of weeks ago, I shared with you part of the story from a recently-found family treasure: a letter from my late Aunt Agnes, detailing how my mom’s family came to Florida in the 1800s to plant an orange grove on 81 acres of land in Putnam County. My great-grandmother Emma, Agnes’ mother, was one of the four children in the family who boarded a train in Kentucky to move down to Florida to become orange growers. I have been fascinated to read about Emma’s life in Florida, when our beautiful state was largely undeveloped and natural.

I am so happy to share the story of our family’s arrival in Florida with you, because I love our state so much and am proud that my ancestors had a role in its growth beginning in the 19th century. Let me share more about my great-great-grandparents Sophronia and Robert Marshall, and the children Letitia, Tom, George, and Emma.

When my great-grandmother Emma was growing up with her siblings in the 1880s on their 81-acre homestead in Putnam County, the kids helped their parents with growing food, killing rattlesnakes, milking cows, and tending chickens. They hunted and fished, as well, to keep food on the family table.

The four children initially walked to the closest school, which was in a town called Pomona. Eventually, though, there was a school built closer to them, in the Lake Margaret area, as more families had settled there. I’m sure the shorter walk felt like a luxury to their young legs, already tired from morning chores.

In Aunt Agnes’ letter, she said that Letitia got such a good education at the little school near Lake Margaret that she was eventually able to move up to a high school called St. Joseph Academy for Girls, near St. Augustine. It was run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, and it had been founded in 1866. (It’s still in operation today, and is the oldest Catholic high school in Florida.) Letitia had to live in the school’s boarding rooms, because it was too far to travel from home every day.

When she graduated, she became a teaching nun, and was renamed by the French sisters there “Sister de Chantal.” She served in the diocese in St. Augustine for 50 years, working at the orphanage for girls called St. Mary’s Home, as well as a boys’ home between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, where boys learned to farm as well as to do their academic studies. At the boys’ home she was “a well-loved mother superior” to those who lived and learned there.

Her brother Tom became an accountant after leaving school. He and his wife Beulah had three children. Sadly, Beulah died in the flu epidemic of 1918, when their youngest child, Cecilia, was still a baby. Their other daughter Mary became a teaching nun, following in the steps of her Aunt Letitia.

Brother George got married and moved his family to Miami. It was a small town at that time, which is difficult to imagine. He got a job with the city’s street and road department, and he stayed there for his whole career, growing along with the city, according to Aunt Agnes.

As for Emma, my great-grandmother, she left Putnam County and headed for New Orleans to attend nursing school, as there weren’t any operating in Florida yet. She lived in the Hotel Dieu while getting her education, and then when she graduated, moved back to Tampa, where her mother and brothers now lived. Her mother had abandoned the 81-acre orange grove after the Big Freeze of 1894-95 that destroyed the orange crop. That was the end of the line, as far as she was concerned. In Tampa, she opened a boarding house. We don’t exactly know what happened to Robert, whether he died or left the family. Aunt Agnes said their mother never talked about him. I guess every family has its mysteries.

There were no hospitals in Tampa then, so Emma worked for a surgeon named Dr. Helms, performing operations on patients in their homes by candlelight. She had to make their wound dressings by hand, and sterilize them in the oven before use. Emma was a pioneer in nursing in Florida, the very first registered graduate nurse in Tampa. I was so proud when I learned that.

Emma and her brother Tom lived in the boarding house with their mother. One day Emma met another boarder who had moved in, Herbert Stephenson. She was smitten, and the feeling was mutual. They were married in the boarding house on Nov. 3, 1905. He gave her a beautiful gold pocket watch, engraved with their names, as a wedding gift; I own it now, a sweet connection with our family history.

Emma continued nursing until she became pregnant with Ruth and Agnes in 1908 and 1909, respectively. She contracted tuberculosis through her work as a nurse, and when she was pregnant for a third time in 1910, fought hard against the sickness, but had her baby, my grandmother, three months prematurely. Both survived. However, the disease finally got the best of her in 1911. Before her death, she had asked her mother to keep her girls together after her death. Thus, Ruth, Agnes, and Martha grew up considering their grandmother Sophronia their mother. Their dad, Herbert, was a builder/contractor, so wasn’t home frequently, but he was “a sweet, loving father to his girls,” Aunt Agnes said.

All three of the girls grew up to be nurses, just like their mother Emma had been. Agnes stayed with her husband Albert Simmons in central Florida, while Ruth and her husband Leroy Adkison settled in Tallahassee.

Little Martha grew up and married my grandfather Joe, and they lived in St. Petersburg. They had three daughters, too, just like Emma had! They were Barbara, Betty (who became a teaching nun like Letitia), and my mom, Ruth. Granddaddy worked for the General Electric Pinellas Plant as an engineer for many years. When he retired, he and Martha, or Grammy, to us girls, decided that St. Pete had grown too big, and they moved to the Florida Panhandle, to St. Joe Beach, in the early 1970s, where they bought a few acres on Ponce de Leon Street. That is how our family came to live in Gulf County, Florida, my favorite place on earth.

I loved growing up on St. Joe Beach, digging for coquinas and collecting their beautiful butterfly-shaped shells, and finding starfish and sand dollars underwater when the waves were calm. We marveled at their beauty and learned more about local marine life from Granddaddy as well as from our wonderful teacher Herman Jones at Highland View Elementary School. We learned to appreciate that part of living in Florida, never taking the beautiful environment for granted.

Grammy spoke of eating coquina soup in central and south Florida restaurants. She said it was very good, though I don’t think she ever made it herself. It seems to have faded from the menu of most Florida restaurants, but I dug up an informal recipe for it to share with you here. Coquinas are tiny clams, and they aren’t really eaten for their meat, but for the flavorful broth that is created by boiling them. Have you tried it? If so, tell me what you thought of it by emailing me at Steph@whatsouthernfolkseat.com.

Coquina Soup

from Smithsonian Magazine’s “Recipes From Another Time”

“This delicate broth is a gift of the sea. The tiny coquina clams burrow into the sand as the tide washes them ashore during the summer months. Once scooped from the sand, rinse the coquinas and place them in a pot with enough water to cover. Cook over medium heat until shells pop open (usually about 5 minutes). Strain broth well and discard shells. Add a little butter and light cream to taste. Garnish with chopped parsley or chives to add color. No quantities are given, as the amounts are determined by the success of the coquina collector.”

Served with crisp crackers or crusty bread, coquina soup sounds like a creamy delicacy that I’d like to try someday as I imagine my long ago relatives doing as they visited restaurants, or made it themselves, perhaps, in the good old days. Enjoy!

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 sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.