Bookstore Find: Tales of Old Florida

The silence, the solitude, the wild grandeur of this bit of sea-girt wilderness was most impressive, and the sparkling water, the glistening sands filled with shell fragments, the beach-drift, and the harmonious blending of color in the rich, rank vegetation, I recall, even now, with pleasure. I tried to imprison it all upon a 6.5 x 8.5 plate. The negative made is a superb one, but the sentiment of the picture was too subtle, too evanescent, to catch and hold.” – from the article “Subtropical Florida” by Charles Richards Dodge, 1894

After browsing the bargain racks at my local bookstore, I recently became the glad owner of Tales of Old Florida. This book is a fat hardcover collection of old magazine and newspaper articles written about Florida: its terrain, waters, flora and fauna; and the ins and outs of life, travel, and sport there. All of the articles and essays were written between 1870 and 1911, and most include illustrations, engravings, and photographs of the period. It turns out it’s available on Amazon too.

The articles are wonderfully varied: “My Winter Game Bag in Florida” (1890), “Trailing the Sea Bat” (1900), “Following Audubon among the Florida Keys” (1903), “The Angler’s Battle Royal” (1903), “In a Grove of Oranges” (1909), “Snapper Fishermen of the Gulf” (1904), “The Haps and Mishaps of a Florida Maroon” (1894), “Our Florida Garden” (1910), and “Six Weeks in Florida” (written in 1870, and one of my favorites in the book) among many others. Some essays are devoted to fishing, a few are gator-centric, a few bird-centric. There are pieces about various activities such as boating and cruising, turtle hunting, and the livelihood of “spongers,” the men who fish out sponges from the sea. Much is said about the land itself and the people.

There is a strong sense of wild Florida in these articles–the clean slate that it was, overrun only with vegetation and wildlife until fairly recently. There is an undeniable feel of abundance, the kind that can only exist in a pristine and sparsely populated place. Charmingly and sometimes glaringly, the articles communicates the staunch pronouncements of the unapologetic adventurer. Political correctness? Not always abounding (‘how happy they were–those dusky-faced children of our far South! Does the Caucasian ever attain that height of pure animal gladness? And they accompanied all with shouts and melodious howls from the seventh heaven of negro joy.’) If you’re the knee-jerk type who dismisses people entirely for such statements, please get over it, for this uncensored storytelling from a bygone era is precious and revealing. The content of these writings is too important to chuck out the window just because the delivery is sometimes out of fashion. Being that the book is a collection of articles from various voices–writers, travelers, sportsmen, etc over some three decades, a wide array of moods and attitudes is represented, from awe to humorous disdain, from a God-given sense of entitlement to restraint.

On the bow of the boat, and in fact all over the boat, wicked people had stationed themselves with all sorts of fire-arms, firing at every helpless creature they could see…these men sat there and fired at the beautiful birds, which by the thousands inhabit the river-bank and the swamps; now and then getting a shot at an alligator; but in no single instance did they hope to fulfill that first requirement of a sportsman–never to shoot at game which you can not bring away. If the officers of the boat can not stop this mean business, the game laws of the State ought to be put in force to the condign punishment of the offenders.’ – “Six Weeks in Florida,” 1870

Some of the information is cringeworthy. Sportsman and writer John Mortimer Murphy’s 1899 piece “Alligator Shooting in Florida” is incredibly fascinating and informative, giving great description of alligators (and crocs–we have both in South Florida) and their habits, details of the manner in which they were hunted, and some interesting discussions such as the contrived process of photographing sportsmen with their kills: “the novices who kill large alligators…generally like to have themselves and their victims photographed  [and] also seem anxious to get a lady or two into the group, and no picture is thought complete without the usual black butcher engaged in flaying the carcass.” He makes mention of the animal’s steadily diminishing numbers (this is no longer the case today), estimating that in Florida around 250,000 gators were being killed each year for salted hides, tourism and sport. In a bit of irony, he follows that discussion with a description of his personal bests: twenty-eight alligators dead from his rifle on one particular day “though [he] shot several more;” his highlight performance: one evening when he killed seventeen with a shotgun; his most difficult quarry: one alligator “which carried thirteen of [his] 40-60 rifle cartridges,” the nine-foot-plus-long animal’s head full of bullet holes by the end of a four-hour battle. It is useless to be harshly critical and judgmental; what’s done is done, and Murphy probably wasn’t the worst man of his time. Still, the little gray cells can’t help but reel sometimes…

There’s plenty to make you chuckle: “Let us imagine ourselves at Key West…There is very little of interest here to hold the tourist.” Of course, when Mr. Dodge wrote those words back in 1894, Jimmy Buffett’s mother wasn’t even a zygote. How could he have predicted how lively that “uninteresting” little Florida island would become?

Anyhow, it’s a really great read (and nicely priced at $9.99)–a nice window into settings and attitudes of a not-so-distant past. Very enjoyable if you’re into history, land pre-development, sport and hunting, fish and wildlife, etc. Or an enjoyable gift for someone you know who’s into history, land pre-development…

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