Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Florida Cracker Cowboys

It wasn't our intention to follow Western painter Frederic Remington around but it appears this is what we've done.

From upstate New York, where he was born, to Omaha where we admired his bronze sculpture at the Joslyn Art Museum, we find ourselves crossing paths with him from time to time.

We ran into Remington most recently in connection with paintings he did in Florida. Circuitous routes often lead to interesting destinations. This is what has happened with Remington and us. 

 From a chance encounter with one of his Florida paintings - the one titled "The Cracker Cowboy" - we've advanced our interest in Florida Cracker Cowboys.

We're familiar with Remington as a Western artist. We've seen his paintings and bronzes as museum displays and as reproductions.

We've visited his boyhood home at Ogdensburg, a small town on the St. Lawrence River. I remember the surprise of it. This man so identified with the West has his roots way back East. 

We commented then that the St. Lawrence River, with its gentle countryside on either side, could have been his life's work. It was right in front of him.

Throw in the beautiful Andirondacks, which shoulder their heights not far from Ogdensburg, and you shrug  at the irony of his missed painting opportunities. 

He didn't consider them missed opportunities. His destiny was in the West. The West gave him the focus and the horizons his artistic outlet needed. 

He found his metier in Western scenes and went on to establish himself him as a premiere painter of  the West.

His paintings and bronzes of cowboys, and depictions of the U.S. Calvary and the Indians of the transmountain West were timely recordings. 

This piece of our country was fading away. The frontier West and pioneering eras which followed were passing from the scene.

The West was being settled, fenced and  tamed like a calf in the corral. Remington captured the courage and adventure of the  West in transition to easterners who vicariously lived its romance.

His works form a powerful collective image of the West. We can't separate the West from Remington. He's the spokesperson through his artistic interpretation and perhaps artistic license.

The fact that his body of cowboy art includes paintings of Florida Cracker cowboys therefore came as news. It started me on a hunt to learn about the cowboys of the peninsular state. 

It's an interesting trail to follow. The cowboys of central and southwest Florida wound up my area of study.

From Kissimmee to Arcadia to the Everglades there have been through the years fascinating cowhands and wealthy cattle barons to fill not one but several books.

This gets me to 1895 when Remington visited Florida on assignment with Harper's Magazine. He was there to chronicle the Florida cracker cowboys who rode what some were calling America's last frontier. 

The August 1895 issue reproduced Remington's paintings alng with his account of his time spent among the cowboys at Arcadia. 

His illustrated report cracked open the mystique of the palmetto cowboys who differed in many ways from their counterparts of the Western range. 

Differences aside, all had expert skills in rounding up and getting their herds of cattle to market. 

They shared the free spirit which it takes to live a harsh and demanding outdoor existence and one which is also joyful and largely satisfying.

Bone Mizell is the Florida cowboy in the painting called "A Cracker Cowboy." Remington has painted him astride his horse which is called a marsh tackie.

Remington didn't invent the name Cracker Cowboy, as one source I read puts it. All the same this picture of Bon Mizell helped make the name stick.

Cracker is a name with long useage in Florida. It likely comes from the sound of the crack of the leather whip which cowmen used to organize and move the herds.

Somewhere I read that Florida cattle were called cracker cattle well back in time. This term, too, probably derives from the cracking sound of the whip which can be heard  some distance. 

The painting of Bone Mizell, and the five other paintings in the series, are the type of illustrated feature a national magazine like Harper's is pleased to commission. 

Readers warm to novelty and they like to entertained as well as informed. Remington's article did all. In addition it put attention on Florida which was becoming a winter respite for wealthy northerners.

Morgan Bonaparte Mizell, known as Bone, is arguably the most famous Florida cowboy. He's certainly one of the best known of his era. 

He was a legend in his time. Remington's painting of Mizell doesn't flatter him. It strikes me as more a caricature of a Florida cowboy than as a portrait. 

This painting, and the other Florida paintings, have a detached quality about them. The artist isn't settting himself up to be the storyteller. He lets the cowboys do that for themselves.

They don't look concerned whether they're being painted or not. Remington has  them going about their business even if the business if keeping an eye out for the enemy. 

In Florida cattle country of the late nineteenth century this means rustlers sure as anything. The cowboys are one with the scene, intent upon what they're doing, in every situation Remington puts them.

The painting of Mizell, of the six in the series, most invites me in. The painting grows on you and you go back to look at it again and again. 

It doesn't  suggest specific action as some of Remington's Western paintings do. It's more laid back. It's a more casual rendition of the cowboy life. 

Maybe Remington was simply catching Mizell's weariness at the end of a day in the saddle. Perhaps he wanted to avoid a heroic theme as one can believe he put into his Western art.

Perhaps he felt something was missing in the Florida cowboys. The rough edges were there as with the Western cowpokes. It was something else. 

Possibly Remington had grown along with the maturing body of his work. He was observing with a more authentic eye.

As a young man Remington went West, to try his luck in the world as young fellows do. He dipped his paint colors in the bright memory of those first impressions. 

This early experience may easily have embued his Western works with a certain vigor the commissioned paintings lack. 

The Florida series is from a different phase of his career, which makes the differences in technique understandable.

I hand it to Remington that of his own honesty he didn't try to paint something into the Florida cowboys he didn't see. 

The characters, less colorful in appearance and performance than the riders of the Western range, are free to reveal themselves to the viewer without painting them larger than life.

Mizell's weatherbeaten exterior, forever captured by dint of Remington's magazine commission, points to his survivor skills as a topnotch Florida cowboy. 

He has dealt with wild animals. He's withstood mosquitoes that can drive man and beast crazy, and which can suffocate a calf to death as they fill its nose and throat. 

He's been caught in torrential rains and burnt by subtropical sun. 

What he isn't able to do is curb in his excessive drinking. It's his biggest undoing and ultimately the cause of his death in 1921 at age 58.

Mizell was famous among his peers and and well known throughout Florida, and became nationally recognizable with Remington's painting. 

To his associates and friends he was the dependable cow hunter whose skills were as legendary as he was.

His cattle skills included expert use of his long braided bullwhip, which was the method for riding herd on cattle in the scrub brush. 

He had something like photographic memory in regard to the cattle brands and personal marks which identified cattle as they roamed free. 

Cattle rustling, rebranding and illegal selling of cattle bred considerable violence in the Florida cattle country. Mizell was mostly legal in what he did but not always by his own accounts.

It amuses me that Mizell, so far removed in all distinctions from the imperial court of France, was given Bonaparte as a middle name. 

His father, whose first name also was Morgan, admired Napoleon and named his son, born in 1863, eighth of twelve children, for the French Emperor. 

The name soon shortened to Bone. Mizell stood over 6 feet tall. He shot up as if to early on disprove physical or any other similarity with the little emperor of the brooding manners. 

He was liked by those in powerful circles and by the ordinary citizen who saw in Mizell something greater than his cowboy skills.

They gained from his vitality. They relished his humor. They respected his basic decency and honesty. They benefited from his generosity.

They mostly tolerated his knack for getting into trouble. All sorts of things put him on the wrong side of the law. 

Somehow he managed to get back on the good side of everyone which added more stories to the legends growing about him.

He was somewhat in the way of being the hometown hero. He wasn't perfect by anyone's measure but many had a certain pride of association with him.

There was potential in him that was held back by many things. People were at ease with him, for the most part, except perhaps when the drinking came on him. He didn't try or pretend to be someone he wasn't.

In cow country, where you got on with jokes and razzing, he was the butt of jokes and the teller of jokes and it didn't much matter whether he was taking it or giving it out. 

It didn't matter usually who was laughing at who. There was a live-in-the-moment attitude that was prevalent that threw caution to the wind. 

You took life as it comes. You enjoy it. You work at what you know and hope it suits you. It didn't take profound thinking for Mizell and his cow hunter friends to own a philosophy. 

The history of cowboys in Florida goes back a long way. Bone Mizell is actually a latecomer in the Florida cattle story. 

Florida celebrates its 500th year this year and this tells you how far back the Sunshine State's cow herding tradition goes. 

Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer we remember for the story of his quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth, landed on Florida shores in 1513 and began the years which led to permanent European settlement.

Traveling with the Spanish explorers were missionaries and soldiers. Cattle to feed them were cargo aboard their ships.  

These herds are the origin of the thousands of wild cattle that came to roam free through Florida for the next four centuries. Florida didn't have a fence law until 1950 is a fact come upon in reading about the cracker cowboys.

First in the St. Johns River area of northeast Florida, and then the Kissimmee and Peace River areas, and across central and southwest Florida, cattle herding became a way of life.

It was taken up by the first settlers and their descendants and by new arrivals from Georgia and elsewhere.

The Seminole Indians are also part of the cattle herding heritage. They made the Everglades their land after their native grounds were taken from them.

The cow hand had a hard life. Rounding up cattle into pens in central Florida was almost an impossiblity. 

Rough and wet terrain, thick scrub and climbing vines over which to trip were everywhere. Deep water-filled holes caused horses to stumble or cattle to sink in the muck. 

It was the companionship of the work, as well as the lonely sojourns with self and nature, and often knowing no other way of life, that kept these cowboys at the job.

A friend, learning of my interest in Florida cracker cowboys, recommended a historical novel that he says is part of the reading curriculum in the elementary and middle grades in Florida schoosl.

The book is called A Land Remembered. It's considered important to students as a means of partaking in the state's history through a thoroughly researched and highly readable story.

The author is Patrick D. Smith, a prolific Florida author. The story begins in the troubled years just before the Civil War. 

Tobias MacIvey is bringing his wife Emma and their infant son Zech from the red clay hills of Georgia into Florida to settle and make a bigger life for themselves.

The book is much too engrossing to give much away. One of the places covered in the story is Punta Rassa. I want to talk about this a bit. We came to know about this place, and its history, during a stay at Fort Myers.

Summerlin Road, which we came to know in our time there, is a busy local route to the Gulf beaches. It's named for Jake Summerlin, one of the great Florida cattle men.  

The road somewhat, or very closely (I don't recall now) follows the trail Summerlin used for moving his cattle to Punta Rassa, the shipping port on the Gulf of Mexico.

A historical marker at a neighborhood park a couple blocks south of Summerlin Road as you near the Gulf says the site was once a watering hole used by Jake Summerlin  for his cattle as he moved them down the trail. 

The watering hole was the last watering stop for the cattle before they were went to market at Punta Rassa, the shipping port on the Gulf. 

As the final day on the road it was a chance to water and rest both the cattle and men. 

Summerlin, like the fictional Tobias MacIvey, made Punta Rassa the delivery point for their annual drives.Punta 

Rassa is mostly a footnote to history as you drive by on the Sanibel causeway. Look down and to the right and its remains are below you. 

Punta Rassa was on the south shore of Caloosahatchee River where it joins the Gulf. The site today is a popular boat ramp. 

Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa is in the near vicinity. A historical plaque on Punta Rassa is a somewhat recent addition.

It's worth a detour to pull off the causeway before the toll booth and take the dead- end Punta Rassa road. 

Pause at Punta Russa, if you do make the drive, and consider for a moment the changes that touch all places as one layer adds to another.

In its heyday Punta Rassa had a significant role. It never was big. It was small row of wooden buildings along the white beach sand. 

Cattle holding pens and the wharfs completed this compact commercial area which was smelly with cow and horse manure and commingling of other odors probably too numerous to single out.

After days on the trail, sleeping in bedrolls, and riding herd on cattle through punishing climate and terrain, Punta Rassa was payment and party time. It was the the end of the journey and its reward.

The din created by the cattle herds and cowboys traveled far out over the estuary. First and foremost there is the bawling of uneasy cattle as they're loaded onto the steamers for transport to Cuba and Key West. 

Horses neigh, dogs bark, greetings are called out  and whoops of celebration play against the brisk cadence of business being carried out.

The smell of manure lies heavy in the humid air. It's not glamorous but cattle driving is a living and many at Punta Rassa at market time can conceive of no better livelihood.

The cattlemen received payment in Spanish gold for their cattle. The buyers at Punta Rassa paid an average price of $14 per head. 

Tobias MacIvey is paid $13,840 in Spanish gold doubloons for the 860 head of cattle on his first drive in Patrick D. Smith's novel. 

As he gains experience, and establishes cattle buying points along the way, he and his crew a few years later make a late summer drive of  2,000 head of cattle and get a correspondingly higher payment.

Jake Summerlin, who played an important role at Punta Rassa as cattle driver and businessman, was a generation previous to Bone Mizell. 

His career in the Florida cattle industry spanned much of the nineteenth century. Summerlin died November 4, 1893 in Bartow, Florida. 

A story on Florida cowboys isn't complete without mention of Collier County pioneer and cattleman Robert "Bob" Roberts Jr. 

Roberts moved his family 100 miles across difficult palmetto prairie by oxcart in 1914 to settle at Immokalee. 

The wide open territory, with its unfenced spaces and free grass, furnished the start to Roberts' successful ranching venture. 

He was active in his local church, community and state cattlemen's organizations. He and his wife Sarah were later joined by their adult children in the ranching enterprise. 

Roberts Road in Immokalee honors the Roberts family and Bob Roberts Jr. specifically. The 1927 two-story Roberts ranch house is the site of a Collier County museum. 

The Collier County museum at Immokalee is well worth a visit. You may find it puts you on a trail of your town to cowboy stories to enjoy, share and collect.

Book sources used for this article:

A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith, published 1984. Winner of Florida Historical Society Tebeau Prize for most outstanding Florida historical novel

At the End of the Oxcart Trail by Maria Stone, published 2001 (family-told record of the Roberts ranching family of Immokalee, Florida).

Florida Cow Hunter  The Life and Times of Bone Mizell, by Jim Bob Tinsley, published 1990 by University of Central Florida Press/ Orlando

Jacob Summerlin: King of the Crackers, by Joe A. Akerman, published 2004 by  Florida Historical Society. (This book is added here although not used in my research).

Ro Giencke - February 26, 2013

Friday, February 15, 2013

Historic Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island

Exit 80 is the exit ramp you'll need if headed to historic Smallwood Store from I-75 in Southwest Florida. 

Whether proceeding east to Miami from Tampa, or Gulf-bound from the Atlantic coast, the exit is toward the west end of the Florida tollway known as Alligator Alley.

We arrived at the Smallwood Store, and the charming little Ten Thousand Islands gateway of Chokoloskee Island, by way of another route. 

We were traveling US 41, locally called Tamiami Trail, on a trip to poke around and explore the edges of the Everglades.   

After a stop at Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and a walk along the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk to the old alligator hole, with eagle sightings along the way, and a gorgeous spiderweb strung between trees with morning sunlight making irridescent lacework out of it, we advanced to Everglades City. 

The requisite stop there was the Everglades National Park north gateway welcome center. 

It was a visit full of interest and learning. The park ranger program gave us new insights into this area which is complex and so amazingly simple at the same time. 

The simplicity is the wonder that surrounds you. All you have to do is open your senses to it to take in the grandeur. It's before you and hopefully it will be for years to come. 

We'd heard about the historic trading post that Charles "Ted" Smallwood started on Chokoloskee Island in 1906. The Smallwood store was our next destination. 

Chokoloskee was the name once applied to the entire Ten Thousand Island region. 

This is information I came upon later as I researched the store. The name is from its earliest days. Chokoloskee means "Old House" and is an old Seminole name.

The Smallwood store followed eleven years after George W. Storter Jr. began his trading post and general store in Everglade on the mainland four miles to the north. 

Both stores traded in alligator hides, deer skins, plumes, pelts and produce from land and sea. The stores, serving the half-wild Everglades region, were vitally important to the customers and communities they served.

Chokoloskee Island was serviced by boat or ferry until 1956 when a causeway was built connecting it to the mainland. 

With the causeway it became instantly accessible by car although  for many it remained a far distant dot on the Florida map. 

As we crossed the causeway we were struck by the lush plantings on the Chokoloskee side. It was late December when we visited and not exactly blooming time. 

Any major brightness of display was in holiday decorations. The explosion of color from flowering trees and shrubs that beautify wintertime Florida typically comes later. 

 Chokoloskee, however, greeted us immediately with vivid stretches of of bougainvillea on both sides of the highway. 

 We think it was bougainvillea but our expertise as such is limited to the Midwest. Much, therefore, gets to be a guess after that.

The flowers were definitely tropical and splendid in their crimson appeal. We felt as if we had been delivered to one of the Carribbean countries.

Color makes Chokoloskee, about a third of a square mile in circumference, a botanist's perpetual paradise.

The island rises into hills as much as twenty feet above sea level. The hills were an unexpected feature to us. 

Much of Southwest Florida is flat scrub and swampland which makes hilly Chokoloskee a pleasant change. The gentle crests and dips were like a ride on the roller coaster after a pleasant day at the fair.

We knew the hills didn't come from a natural process. We believed we were driving upon an ancient Calusa shell mound.

We had learned about the Calusa Indians of South Florida. They were a large and powerful culture which flourished before the arrival of the Spanish explorers 500 years ago. 

The Calusas were a mound building people. Where they camped and lived along the low coastline land was built up over time. 

These man-made elevations provided  protection from animals and some safety at times of hurricanes. Oysters and clams, in abundance in the shallow Gulf waters, served as both food and building materials. 

As a native group the Calusas are extinct but their former habitations are identified by shell mounds such as comprise Chokoloskee's pretty green hillocks. 

The Smallwood store is at the end of the island road. It perches on stilts above Chokoloskee Bay. 

The bay, about two miles wide and ten miles long, is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by the Ten Thousand Islands of which Chokoloskee counts as one. 

Except by sailboat or other watercraft tiny Chokoloskee Island got the remote end of the stick when Florida was put together. It was settled long after other areas of the state. 

The years following the Civil War (1861-65) was a period when the nation was on the move. The 1862 Homestead Act was instrumental in this and there were other factors. 

The War with its fraternal strife and huge loss of life on the battlefields was a game changer. It brought soldiers into contact with places they otherwise would not have seen.

Some liked what they saw and had a hankering to light out and make these places their home after the war was over. It was a seismic shift as the country adjusted to peace and the many wounds from division began to heal.

There was much up and moving as new opportunities were sought and then word would go out of some place even better. 

Families barely had time to unpack their few essential household goods before the itch or the necessity came along to move somewhere else. 

 Immigrants were coming to the country in large numbers for a variety of reasons. 

Folks in the East also had a restless spirit. They were spurred to try their fortunes in the golden West and anywhere where the talk of land was promising.

Land to claim for your own was the real gold at the end of the rainbow for many. 

The first settlers in Chokoloskee's permanent population arrived in the 1870s. There were five families by 1882. The island remained sparsely populated. Neighbors were important because there were so few. 

Fishing and farming, and other pursuits related to the abundant natural resources, were primary means of making a living. 

Ted Smallwood, a North Florida native, settled in Chokoloskee after previous visits to the area. He's a very good example of the American mood in the late 1890s. 

An era of prosperity was building after some rough times. People were seeking out places to put down roots, raise their families and make a go of it in places suited to them.

The Seminole and Miccosukee Indians were among customers at the Chokoloskee trading post which he established in the family's two-room residence.

Until the Tamiami Trail opened in 1928, and other shopping options became available, many from this area of the Everglades relied on the Smallwood store, especially after the Storter store closed with the advent of the building of the Tamiami Trail.

Smallwood learned the Indian language. His store and his linguist abilities were a cultural bridge to the benefit of all. I later read that Smallwood was so trusted by the Indians that he kept their money for them at his store.

He was a friend of Chief Tigertail, a name kept alive with Tigertail Beach on Marco Island, as well as the memory of friendship between these two men of different cultures. 

The present store, which Smallwood built in 1917, is located on the mangrove margins of Chokoloskee Bay. It went up at at a time when the island community was growing. 

The Smallwood family was part of the growth. Five children came to be born to Ted and Mamie Smallwood. The last child, a son, was born in 1917. 

For a long time the post office was at the Smallwood store. Ted Smallwood was Chokoloskee postmaster for 25 years. 

Mail arrived by boat from Everglade, which was renamed Everglades after Barron Collier bought the townsite in 1922.

Customers coming to the store for staples and their mail used the store as a central gathering spot. 

It was a place of welcome, business and hospitality. Neighbors and friends could meet, giving the transactions at the big store counter a friendly touch. 

The Smallwood store weathered more than one hurricane. In 1924 a hurricane blew in the front door bringing in four feet of water.

Smallwood prepared accordingly for the next big blow. He moved the store foundation over a few inches, raised the store eight feet and put in the pilings on which the store still rests. 

When the strong hurricane of September 1926 came through, with widespread devastation,  the Smallwood store remained intact.

Mamie Smallwood, key in her own right as a Chokoloskee Island pioneer, died in 1943. Ted, who retired as storekeeper in 1941, passed away in 1951. 

The store continued operations. It was run by oldest daughter Emma Thelma Smallwood, known as Thelma. 

She kept the store going for another four decades. During this time, in 1974, the store was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Thelma died December 19, 1982 at which time the store was closed. 

Each generation has its heroes and those whose vision includes the past. 

Family members of the next generation of Smallwoods, realizing the historic value of the store, and the story it has to impart to the future, have been at the forefront of its preservation efforts. 

Restoration efforts begun in 1990 have had their snags as do all labors of love. 

The store took a hit from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It sustained roof damage. The hurricane also blew away the front steps. Replacement and repairs put the old store to rights again. 

The store remains open as a historical landmark and museum with small gift shop. 

A modest $5.00 admission lets you have your time to look at the displays and appreciate the cool air off Chokoloskee Bay as it comes through the open windows and doors. 

You can imagine customers waving palmetto fans in the heat of a summer day and catching the breeze as they pass the open door overlooking the wharf.

You catch their sighs of appreciation of this raised vantage point at water's edge where bay breezes easily reach.

It is interesting and educational to spend time in the neighborly and hard-working world the store portrays. 

As a a taste of the ends of the world it may explain why  visitors to Southwest Florida seek out this site. The Smallwood store, as it turns back the clock and time, is refreshment away from the busy workings of our lives.

Ro Giencke - February 15, 2013


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine Day 

Valentines are hearts with wings 
That arrow their own true way
To those whose hearts are home to them 

And say welcome and bid them stay.

Enjoy the day and its sweet moments for making valentines of the world.

Ro Giencke - February 14, 2013

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Alligator Days

The Rod and Gun Club at Everglades City, historic as it is, was a place we didn't set out to visit. As it wound up we did.

The much written-about lodge was originally the residence of George W. Storter. George had a Jr. behind his name to distinguish him from his father who had the same name and had it first.

The senior Storter was an Alsatian immigrant who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, was left widowed, and with his two sons moved on, perhaps because of health, to the Southwest Florida frontier to start over.

The Storters were the life blood of the small town of Everglade where they settled. 

George Jr. ran the general store and was principal property owner of the townsite. He was a host to those who found their way to this remote spot and was of invaluable assistance as neighbor, family member and friend.

His three-story home built of clapboard faced west to the Allen (now Barron) River. 

Its vantage point on the river made it ideal, after Storter sold his property holdings to Barron Collier in 1922, for conversion into a gathering place and sport club which is how the Everglades Rod and Gun Club came to be.

Last weekend was the Everglades International Seafood Festival and this was our reason for being in town.

The annual event is attended by thousands - 42,000 last year. It has a Midway with the screams issuing from it making it clear carnival rides are as scary and as exciting as ever.

There are the sizzling selections of an array of seafood fixed in front of you and served in a big open shelter. There is the waft of smoke from meat being cooked and Indian fry bread whose aroma reaches you at the end of the long queue.

There are the stalls with arts and crafts over which I always linger and sometimes buy as I did this time. Another necklace wasn't needed but it makes a wonderful reminder of the fun of this festival.

The chain of jeweled tomatoes, as I think of the sequin-studded red beads which are interspersed with black beads in the design, was chosen from among several laid out to catch the eye.

The choice was made because of knowledge of the history of the place. The tomato necklace is an association with the tomatoes which were an early crop at Everglades along with celery and cabbage.

The crops were farmed in small plots to begin with but proved a successful venture as the local people found ways of using the land profitably.

Festival bustle mixed with the leisurely pace being demonstrated by others. Various groups were setting up chairs in the deep shade of trees at the fringes of the grounds. There they would sit and eat and visit, drink beer and laugh in family circles and with friends. 

The activity and the quieter visiting groups had their separate charms but we were on the prowl for something different, something more.

Noticing a sign for the Everglades Rod and Gun Club we made our way to it. Being assured the grounds were open to the public we circumnavigated the cottages, which one can book to stay in, to arrive at the front door. 

We went up the steps and pushed back the doors into the dark timeworn bar. It was as if a sheet had been pulled back on another era. We were rubbing shoulders with the aura that is Old Florida.

The room exemplified the bygone Florida built up by those who arrived singly and as families to this area in the 1880s and the decades immediately following. 

The harsh and beautiful Everglades was to test their mettle. These crackers, as they called themselves proudly, and as a distinct identification, proved up to the challenge.

They settled largely on the terms of the Everglades. They made an alliance with it, adapting to the demanding terrain and loving this western fringe of the Everglades for its wide, bountiful freedoms. 

Here fish were plentiful. There was a wealth of animals and birds to hunt. There were neighbors you counted on and in turn trusted you. Help was reciprocal. 

There was a welcome to almost all if you knew how to abide by the Everglades code of self-sufficiency and ability to fit in with its set of conditions.

The wonder of the region brought visitors. The curious and the adventurous came to have a look. They came to hunt, fish, explore and relax. They did it  with the confidence they'd have a story to take home.

They were welcomed, housed and outfitted by the Everglade community.  Storter, who ran the general store, put up visitors as they showed up. These were often of the wealthy class arriving in the winter by yacht. Many fell under the Everglades spell and visited again and again.

The Everglades Rod and Gun Club as a sport lodge came about through Barron Collier. His acquisition of the Everglade townsite, and its renaming as Everglades, dovetailed with his vision of a new Florida in these parts. 

Crucial to Collier's plan was the construction of the Tamiami Trail (US 41) through Collier County. The new road connected Tampa and Miami and opened Southwest Florida to growth.

Over the years the lodge at Everglades has entertained many notables. Its roster of guests continue the hospitality begun by the Storter family. 

There have been visits by several U.S. presidents. I've read that Roosevelt was here as well as Hoover, Truman,Eisenhower, Nixon and the senior Bush.  

Adventurers like writer Ernest Hemingway came. They were drawn by their instinct for the interesting, or through invitation to this outpost in the hidden away corners at the far end of the Florida peninsula.

There are probably many famous people who have come for a dinner, a drink or an overnight stay. Some come, like a lot of us do, because someone recommended it. Others are here from their own response to the authenticity of the Everglades. 

On the front side of the Rod and Gun Club extends a long screened-in veranda. This is the public dining area. The veranda has lots of room to seat folks. There are many tables.

The tables were full the afternoon we visited. The diners were enjoying the  view of the Barron River in its mangrove-edged channels at the bottom of the front lawn. 

To be seated at table on the veranda, in dining space filled with others replete with good food and the satisfaction of finding this place, is a delight. 

The veranda has an old fashioned feel and at once projects modernity. In this setting you disengage for a period from the busyness of life.

It lets you be in tune with the natural scenes of mangroves and water. Your back is as if turned on the world that buzzes nonstop out of sight on the other side.

Water, warmth of day and blue sky overhead gave the time on the veranda a sense of perpetual summer. You can be lulled into thinking it is so. Florida has its winter season. It's there but you have to look fast to see it.

In other places winter stands out more crisply. You have only to follow the Weather Channel to know this is true.

Last week the Northeast had snowfall amounts that have been entered into the record books. 

Tornadoes tore through the Southeast on Sunday. The southern storms masqueraded as a spring outbreak and confuse the prevalent thinking that winter skies can bring sleet and ice to this region but not the violence of tornado activity. 

It's generally been a long winter. Many say this. Many decided this even before the most recent outbreak of winter weather.

Winter has gotten long in part from widespread flu which was severe, and started early, and by persistent damp conditions in some places and arctic cold elsewhere.

Whether our winter experience has been long and demanding or pleasant and sunny it's natural that by this time we all start dreaming of spring. 

It's simply in us to want and to wait for spring. With a prod and a promise we get there. We come to meteorological spring which is March 1, and then to astronomical spring some three weeks later, to finally arrive at April.

Much before then the first mild strokes of spring are working their magic. Even the Florida alligators have it in them to respond to nature's seasonal shift.

Alligators were sunning on the banks of the water-filled road ditches along US 41 in the Everglades area this weekend. We didn't see alligators in that kind of numbers earlier. 

All I can think is that the rising temperatures were bringing them out to bask. There were so many sightings of them

They heaved themselves onto their tanning ledges and you could almost detect grins of satisfaction as the heat drilled into their backs.

February days are closing in on the next season. The alligators give it away and there are other signs.

For one thing more and more birds are singing. The singing commences well before dawn. 

Sunrise itself has made a leap of declaration. It shows up ten minutes forward from its appearance at the start of the new year. 

The birds, and many of us abed, who believe music pouring from the treetops is the best clock alarm of all, are in accord. The approaching spring is worth singing about.

Books used as research include:

Cracker in the Glades, A Portrait of Robert Shorter, Fisherman, and His Family by Batty Savidge Briggs (Shorter's granddaughter), 1980

Crackers in the Glade  Life and Times in the Old Everglades by Rob Storter, edited by Betty Savidge Briggs, 2000  

Hidden History of Everglades City and Points Nearby by Maureen Sullivan-Hartung, 2010

Ro Giencke - February 12, 2013