In the late 1800s, my great-grandparents homesteaded 160 acres of land in Suwannee County. C.G. and Ethel, A Family History tells the story of how they settled near the banks of the Suwannee River, made famous by Stephen Foster.
According to legend, Foster never laid eyes on the river, which twists and turns for some two hundred miles through North Florida before delivering itself into the Gulf of Mexico. Foster supposedly plugged Swanee Ribber into one of his minstrel songs only because it “worked.” But this small act made the river famous; the minstrel entitled “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Suwannee River”) went on to become Florida’s state song.
While a student at the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota in the fifties, Miss Land was stricken with polio. Although dependent on a wheelchair for the rest of her life, she rose above her disability and became known and beloved in the North Florida area for her vivid still-life paintings, life-like portraits, and baptistery murals.
At the request of my parents, she painted three scenes of the familiar and famous river: this one for me, and one for each of my sisters. One depicts a young boy and girl lounging on the riverbank, fishing with cane poles. The other features a field bathed in coral— native sour weed. Growing up, we kids often plucked the sour weed’s fleshy stems and chewed them for the sour juice they produced.
The Old Homestead
My maternal great-grandparents built the log house shown below, about a mile from the Suwannee River. Their home stood on property my great-grandfather acquired through The Homestead Act in the late 1800s. My great-grandmother’s name is not on the land-grant deed that bears the signature of President William McKinley, since only heads of households could own property then.
My great-grandparents raised their two children in this home, which had no indoor plumbing or electricity—much less, screens on windows and doors to keep out gnats, flies, and mosquitos. Their daughter, my maternal grandmother, stands on the left, next to a Ladyland schoolteacher (center) who boarded with them. On the right is my great-grandmother, the one I knew as Granny Dosia.
My mother also grew up in this house. But by the time I came along, a brand new house stood in its place (see below).
In the late 1940s, I often sat on my great-grandfather’s knee. I knew him as Granddaddy Tip. His hair was white as Dixie Crystals sugar, and I thought he was just as sweet. Not everyone in the family agreed, but that’s a story for another time.
My Grandparents’ New House
The generosity of Mama’s brother, Harold, made the house below possible. He regularly sent checks home — money he earned from construction jobs in South America during World War II. The following letter is one of the few that did not contain a check:
Hello Mama and Daddy,
How are you and the rest of the family? I am still working, and eating, and I feel fine too. Well I guess you have your new cookers for the tobacco barn by now, and what do you think of them? I am sure you will like them when you start using them. No more sleepless nights, and boy that is something.
Listen when you find out if you can build a house, why don’t you look at some plans and pick out one just like you want . . . If the F.H.A. will handle it, we can buy new furniture and a lot of other things we need. If not we will buy it outright. Don’t forget the tile floors, and walls for the kitchen, and put it in a position where we can build a nice garage beside it. We are going to make that a beautiful place. Listen Daddy look in the catalogue, and see about a Delco system, and figure up the number of lights you will have in the house, and all electrical appliances you will have including the pump, and see what [a] plant will cost that will handle it, and get the easy payment rate for the engine, and pump, and the batteries. If it is not too much we will go ahead and order it, and then we will have that. We want an automatic load control too, don’t we? I guess you think I’m silly to write all this crap, but I want to help plan for this dream home.
I am not sending a check home this week for I lost a lot of time on account of rain, and I am buying a radio for company as there is no place to go very much.
Well I am going to close for this time as I am getting sleepy, so write real soon with all the news.
Lots of love, Harold
Construction of the new house came to completion in the spring of 1944. On each side of the steps is a small footprint. The impressions belong to my older sisters. Thank goodness my footprint was not added when I was born, since by then, the concrete was rock solid.
In the photo, taken in the late 1950s, my grandparents enjoy an afternoon, relaxing on their front porch.
Does anyone do that anymore?
The New House, Half a Century Later
Time and wind have taken their toll. All windows are now boarded up. The front porch roof is gone.
As I passed the house one day in 2010, I saw the current owner tossing old boards from the porch roof into a pile that included several porch columns. I stopped and asked what he intended to do with the pile.
“Burn it,” he said.
“May I have the columns?” I asked.
He agreed and helped me load three that were still intact into the trunk of my car. I kept one and gave the others to family members.
Today, mine sits on my screened porch and serves as a candle holder. But more importantly, it serves as a reminder of how my sisters and I loved to waltz around the columns, supported by a concrete plinth, as if we were on a merry-go-round.
When we paid him no mind, he muttered to himself, “Dang hard-headed young’uns!” Can’t tell ’em a thang.”
Some things change over time, and some things never do.