Glimpses of The Old South – The Florida Frontier

We are getting into the valley of the Suwannee River, made famous by Stephen Foster’s song, “Old Folks at Home,” wherever the English language is spoken. Winding between high banks from its source in Georgia across West Florida, until it widens and shallows in the lowlands as it nears the Gulf, the Suwannee’s banks are fringed with verdure, especially picturesque in Northern eyes because of the moss-bearded live-oaks, tapering cypresses and the unfamiliar palms mingling with them. The Suwannee is a beautiful river, which merits the fame that the song-writer gave it. There is no record that Stephen Foster ever saw the Suwannee River. Indeed an early draft of his famous song has the name “Pedee River” scratched out and Suwanee substituted. He was hunting for a Southern river with a melodious name. He took the name and made it immortal.

There is a beautiful glade on the eastern bank of the Suwannee, a few miles north of the bridge by which the Old Spanish Trail crosses the river. Ringed with giant oaks, it forms a natural amphitheatre, a semi-circular bowl sloping down to the brink of the steep bluff, at the bottom of which the Suwannee flows peacefully down to the sea. In this glade an association of Florida ladies, having their headquarters at nearby White Springs, have planned to build a monument to Stephen Foster to serve as a shrine at which lovers of his ballads of the Old South can pay homage. No more appropriate setting for such a memorial could be found, nor hardly one more accessible; for within a few hundred yards tens of thousands of motor tourists pass every season on their winter pilgrimage to Florida over the Dixie Highway, the principal gateway into Florida for motorists from the adjoining states of the South and from most of the Middle West, which enters Florida at jasper, a few miles north, close to the Georgia border.

And the prospectors who are responsible for the raising of Florida’s hopes of striking oil are confident that the best prospect in Florida is here, along the banks of the Suwannee.

It was in this glade, according to local tradition, that Osceola, the famous Seminole chief who was the half-breed son of William Powell, an English planter, held his council of war at which he spurred the Seminoles to resist the Federal government’s purpose of removing the Indians from Florida to a reservation in Arkansas. The second Seminole war, which arose from this rebellion, ended with Osceola’s capture and subsequent death, and the removal to the reservation of all but a handful of his followers, who fled into the impenetrable Everglades, where a few hundred of their descendants still survive.

No part of America where Indians and white men came into contact in the early days would be complete without its romantic tradition of the Indian maiden who killed herself for love or grief or to save her tribe. The whole country is dotted with “lovers’ leaps” each with its particular myth attached. Florida’s Lover’s Leap is the high west bank of the Suwannee River, directly opposite the Stephen Foster glade. The tradition is that the Indian maiden jumped to her death from grief over the capture of Osceola.

This region is the land of the traditional crops of the Old South, tobacco, cotton, corn, sweet potatoes, peanuts and livestock. Live Oak, county seat of Suwannee County, is one of the important warehousing and shipping points for the “bright Virginia” tobacco successfully grown in this part of Florida. This is the tobacco used in cigarette manufacture. Some of it is sun-cured, most of it marketed in Live Oak is flue-cured, in tight tobacco barns where the green leaves are hung on poles and dried by artificial heat from furnace flues running the length of the building and stoked from outside with pine logs.

Watermelons are an important seasonal commercial crop through all this section of Florida. For that matter, all Florida contributes early watermelons to the Northern markets. Ship ments from the southern part of the state begin in May and the last to roll out of Florida, just ahead of the first of the Georgia crop, leaves this northern region in late June. At every railroad station in this part of the state several carloads a day start northward, while the procession of trucks loaded high with the huge green melons is an increasingly familiar spectacle along state highway No. 2, U. S. 41. Jasper, in Hamilton County, close to the Georgia line, is an important truck-loading center of the watermelon trade.

The peanut has been growing steadily in importance as a staple crop throughout this section. The nation’s consumption of peanuts and peanut confections has hugely multiplied the market for “goobers.” The theory, once widely propagandized, that hogs and beef cattle fattened on peanuts produce an inferior grade of pork and beef has been exploded. In the revival of the hog-breeding industry and the development of improved beef cattle in Florida the peanut plays an important part. The vines make an excellent hay fodder; the nuts, rich in oil content, are ideal for finishing live-stock for market, while the roots do not deplete but rather tend to replenish the nitrogen content of the soil.

Agriculture in this part of Florida is less highly specialized than it is farther south. It much more nearly approaches the ideal of wide diversification of crops and farm products, and has the advantage over similar farming in the North that two crops a year, and often three crops, can be grown.

Lake City, the metropolis of this Northeast Florida agricultural region, at the junction of the Dixie Highway and the Old Spanish Trail, has figured importantly in the develop ment of the state from the earliest days. The State University was first established here, later being removed to Gainesville. The city takes its name from two beautiful lakes lying on the edge of the town. Close to one of the lakes are the remains of an ancient mill, whose waterwheel was once turned by a small stream flowing into the lake. Well-hidden in thick woods, this mill is said to have been the objective for which General Sherman’s army conducted a futile search during the Civil War. The Northern forces were never able to discover the source from which the Confederate Army in the Deep South was obtaining its supply of corn meal.

It is a sixty-two mile run from Lake City back to Jacksonville. The trail skirts the edge of another Federal forest reserve, the Osceola National Forest of 162,000 acres. Here, as elsewhere throughout Florida, the motorist will see high observation towers connected with telephone wires, parts of the system of forest conservation in which the Federal and State governments are cooperating in the effort to suppress and prevent forest fires.

While forest fires, even in the resinous pines of the Florida woods, have never been as widespread and destructive as is frequently the case in the white pine, spruce and fir forests of the North, they were a constant threat to the state’s largest and most valuable natural resource, its timber, so long as cattlemen persisted in their practice of setting fire to the grass under the trees where they pastured their herds. A large proportion of Florida’s range cattle are pastured in the pine woods. The wiry grass upon which they graze loses its succulence after two or three years unless it is burned off. Usually this can be done without endangering the trees, Florida’s frequent and heavy rains being relied upon to extinguish the grass fires before any of the growing timber has actually been ignited. But in an unexpected prolonged dry spell the flames often spread to the trees, destroying thousands of acres of timber before the eventual rainfalls extinguish the blaze. The State Department of Conservation also attributes many of the forest fires to the carelessness of campers and fishermen and motorists throwing lighted cigarettes, in the dry winter season, into the inflammable grass and shrubbery along the roadside.

Initiated in the early 1930’s, the efforts of the Conservation Board to minimize the fire hazard have had encouraging results. The state is divided into fire districts and the cost of the fire-protection work paid from local assessments. The state-wide interest in improving the standards of beef cattle is resulting in reducing the number of cattle ranging at large in the forests, and consequently limiting the practice of burning off the forest grasses.

Formerly a state forest conservancy district, the Osceola National Forest, lying in Columbia and Baker counties about 35 miles west of Jacksonville, offers less in the way of rec reational facilities to the visitor than does any of the other three National Forests in Florida. Its soil is typical of some 20,000,000 acres of the lower coastal plain flat woods, and on its northern boundary it merges into the Great Olcefenokee Swamp, which straddles the boundary between Florida and Georgia.

The particular utilitarian interest of the Osceola Forest is the development of its timber growing resources in a manner to obtain capacity production and maximum income on a sus tained yield basis, and to demonstrate to the owners of forest lands desirable practices in all phases of forest management. The principal product is naval stores. Although most of the Forest has been turpentined, cut and culled over repeatedly, the reproduction and growth of long-leaf and slash pine has been so rapid that almost continuous working for turpentine on second growth has been possible. More than a quarter of a million trees are now being worked and the Forest Service estimates that this number can be raised to a million within a few years. All other timber products, including lumber and pulpwood, are handled as by-products of the major project of improved methods of gum-extraction.

Within the Forest is maintained a seed-extractory, furnishing long-leaf pine and slash pine seed for the National Forest Nurseries of Mississippi and Louisiana. Also within the Osceola National Forest is a field laboratory of the Forest Service Experiment Station and the naval stores station of the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. As the first scientifically operated naval stores farm, the Osceola National Forest is the Mecca to which owners and operators of pine land from all over the South come to increase their knowledge of the most modern technique in naval stores production.

Within the limits of the Osceola National Forest is the site of the battle of Olustee, where a Confederate Army under General Joseph Finnigan defeated the Union forces under General Seymour on February 13, 1864, and halted the Union march on Tallahassee. A monument marks the battlefield. Eastward the Old Spanish Trail takes us through the pleasant little town of Macclenny, where one of Florida’s most widely-known horticultural nurseries, Glen St. Mary’s, is located. Macclenny is Jacksonville’s most westerly suburb. And a few miles farther on we find ourselves back at Jacksonville, whence we started our journey around the state. We have seen many of Florida’s varied aspects.

In our tour we have covered more than 2,500 miles, touching every one of Florida’s 68 counties, traversing the length of its Atlantic and Gulf coasts, exploring its interior regions, getting a glimpse, at least, of its lakes and rivers, its forests and citrus groves, its seaports and fisheries. We have made a broad survey of Florida’s farms and cattle ranges. We have penetrated the mysterious Everglades and traversed the keys to the southernmost tip of the United States.

On our journey we have seen great industries rising and flourishing where there was only forest a dozen years ago. We have seen magic cities that have risen from the mangrove swamps of Florida beaches in the memory of those not yet old enough to vote. And, if we have sensed the spirit of Florida and its people, we have seen a vision in which all those will be multiplied many times over as more and more Americans come to the realization that here, in Florida, is the Nation’s last frontier, holding greater opportunities for those who still have the pioneer spirit which has made America what it is, the spirit in which our forebears conquered the wilderness and settled the prairie, and which is today inspiring their descendants to become Florida pioneers.

We have seen Florida’s pioneers at work. We have seen its people, individually and through their united efforts as communities and as a state, pioneering in its enormous undeveloped area, the Federal government itself taking a hand in these efforts to develop the natural resources and reclaim their unlimited wealth for the benefit of all the people.

We have seen the urge to beauty pulling in the same yoke with the urge to wealth. We have had at least a glimpse of a gay and carefree people changing a wilderness into the happiest land under the sun, a land where work and play go hand-in-hand, a contented land, a land of opportunity and a land of sunshine.