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

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