<< 10: RATTLESNAKES AND REPTILES || 12: CONCLUSION >>
The men in the front office called to those of us who worked in the back of
the lumber yard and told us that the stock
market had crashed and we were going to have a panic. One
would suppose that some of the office people did have a small
amount of stock and maybe they were going to have their own
private panic. A panic did not scare me for I thought that was
the natural way of life; or at least, it had been for me since cotton went to
six cents per pound in my native Georgia. And,
on top of that, the boll weevil came to dwell among us.
This was in 1926 and I had come to Florida to try and make
a living in the lumber business. Guess I was just stupid, for how
many fat retail lumbermen have you ever seen? I should have
known better. One thing this panic taught me was how to be a
good iceman; for some people still had money and were willing
to buy ice. Bet I have had my hands in more people's ice-boxes than anyone
you will ever see. If the home owner wanted
fifteen cents worth of ice, they nearly always put all of the
spoilable groceries on top of what ice was left in the box. It
was my job to clean out the box, place the ice in it, and then
put the groceries back as they were. Good thing that time was
not a factor; except that the ice on our truck was melting all
of this time.
One old lady saw my Mercer belt buckle and was greatly
perturbed that a college trained man should be servicing her
with ice. I told this dear old lady that I had a wife and baby
and was making $20.00 for a seventy-two hour week; but none
of us were hungry. Groceries were unbelievably cheap and we
fared very well.
There were almost no jobs to be found anywhere and bread
lines were forming in every city. Here are a few of the prices I
remember on groceries:
a loaf of bread...5˘
|tall cans of evaporated
||Irish or sweet potatoes...1˘
hamburger...5˘ per lb.
||shrimp...10˘ per lb.
|reasonably fresh hamburger
...10˘ per lb.
||mullet...5˘ per lb.
|hot dogs...10˘ per lb.
||oysters...30˘ per qt.
|eggs...15˘ per doz.
|cabbage...1˘ per lb.
Sounds great but don't kid yourself, we are living better now, than man has
ever lived before and if we are not careful, ever will again.
People knew they were in trouble and the birth rate dropped
lower than it had ever been before (or has been since). Some
people began to despair and wonder if things would ever right
themselves; then someone coined the phrase "Prosperity is just
around the corner." It was some time before we arrived at that
corner, and now everyone is complaining about inflation and
too much prosperity. We don't stand prosperity very well, but
I sincerely hope that this generation will not be called upon to
During one of the worst periods of adversity, a truck driver
picked up a big stingray on the beach. He put it on the truck
and brought it back to the yard where it was dumped. I don't
know how the word got around so fast, but it was almost no
time until groups of ladies with pans and knives began cutting
steaks from the ray. The meat looked white and flaky but I did
not want any of it. There was no danger of ptomaine poison.
Ptomaine would not dare attack a group of people as hungry
as these were.
Then we got a new group of politicians in office and they
approached our problem from a different angle. Their approach
was that we had too much foodstuff and immediately began to
destroy the food. Baby pigs were killed and hogs were slaughtered, Irish
potatoes were piled up and a green liquid poured
over them to keep people from eating them. (This did not work
for it was found that the green was not poison and the potatoes
were eaten anyway.) There was an attempt to destroy every
semblance of a surplus so that prices would go up. Being an
old conservative die-hard, this broke my heart for I have always been told
"A willful waste makes a woeful want."
Then came the bank closing, and for a few days every bank
was forced to close so that hardly anyone had any cash. This
could have been a good thing, for some of the banks failed to
reopen after the moratorium. Hope it did a lot of good for it
certainly inconvenienced hordes of people.
The next step was the N.R.A. (National Recovery Act) and
everyone was supposed to sell at the same price. No one was to
work for less than 35˘ per hour on a forty hour week. This
price fixing was blasted by the Supreme Court and we were in
a legal transition period until things more or less improved of
their own accord. Panics were not new to this country but
somehow they have become known as "depressions". Maybe
a rose by a different name will be sweeter.
Just noticed that cotton futures had advanced to ninety-two
cents per pound. Guess I quit too soon, but why am I complaining? Lumber
that we did retail for $18.00 per thousand is
now selling for $285.00 per thousand. Try that on your computer for size.
By the way, a computer that cost $75.00 is
doing the work of a computer that cost $850.00 some years
back; that should be some improvement in the right direction.
Now, for the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration); this
was likely the best thing that could have been done to give the
heads of households some income and still accomplish some
worthwhile things. The bulkhead at Jacksonville Beach was a
W.P.A. project and there was much ditching and draining—all
done by hand. Roads were built and sewers were installed, and
they even had workshops where cabinet makers could earn a
few dollars. There were many stories told of the inefficiency
of the W.P.A. but over all they did a good job. Besides, who
was in a hurry?
Commodities were distributed on some kind of basis. I never
did know how they arrived at their decisions as to whom to
feed. It must have been a traumatic experience to tell a man
who had ten children that he could not have food because he
had not lived here long enough. The theory was that each community was to take
care of its own—and you were not a part
of that community until you had lived there a certain length
of time. It did cut down on transients somewhat. This was in
the days before people had forgotten how to make biscuits and
flour was given away in twenty-four pound bags. One man was
heard to remark "Yonder goes old Sam Jones with a sack of
flour and I bet he ain't got airy a drink in his house." Probably
true, for something to drink seemed to be easier to come by
This wheat deal still intrigues me as we send bushels of
wheat, by the millions, to starving countries and just dump it
on them. While other countries with more astute thinkers, set
up ovens and bake loaves of bread which are distributed among
the people. I can still remember the smell of a loaf of hot
bread, and also the taste of it as my mother baked it for us. It
would seem that I am very much different from other people
in remembering the wonderful bread and almost forgetting the
hardships that it took to produce the bread. The Lord has a
way of helping you to retain the sweet memories and to discard the bitter
ones. If there were no memories, there would
be no roses in December.
I was accosted on the sidewalk by a little boy who looked
to be about eleven years of age. "Mister, I'm hungry, can you
give me something to eat?" This little boy's face was ashen and
scaly. I knew the symptoms, after having seen so much of it,
but I was curious so I asked him where his folks were. "I live
with my sister and brother-in-law and they don't feed me."
There was a store nearby so we got him a loaf of bread and he
was folding the slices together, cramming them into his mouth
when I left. The boy was hungry. As the depression wore on,
people seemed to get stronger and more able to bear up under
the privations, for there was so much food here that could be
had with just a little work: heart of palm, fish, oysters, crabs,
berries, plums, gophers, and wild hogs, just to name a few.
One of the teachers at the little Palm Valley school told this
to me: "For a long time I had been watching this little boy
open his lunch box, take out a small bottle of clear liquid,
drink it and then eat his lunch. The best way to find out about
the liquid was to ask him and I did. His reply was 'ain't
nothing but shine, teacher, it won't hurt nothing!'
Guess I had better explain about the little Palm Valley
School. It was a one room school house on the east side of
Palm Valley Road just north of Canal Street. It was later abandoned and the few
pupils were brought to the school in
Jacksonville Beach. At a much later date St. Johns County put
in a modern school out on A1A near Ponte Vedra.
During the depression, people had a hard time getting around and even if you
had a car, in all probability you could
not afford a tag. This problem was solved by buying one tag
and when you needed to go somewhere, and someone else had
beaten you to the tag, you could borrow it and travel perfectly legally
(or illegally, depending on how you looked at it).
There was not much danger of litigation even if you had a
wreck and the old worn out automobiles we had to drive usually were not
capable of very high speeds. I was remarking the
other day about how conditions had changed. In those days,
you almost had to go out of your way to even get near a kid
on the highway. Things have really changed, could be an overabundance of law
schools. I am reminded of the old carpenter
who was installing acoustical ceiling in the cafeteria. "Things
have changed, when I was a boy they put the quietning on the
seat of a kid's pants. Now they put it on the ceiling."
My sister Louise tells this story:
Hope they made out all right. They were in nearly as bad
shape as the boy who said his shoe soles were so thin that he
could stand on a dime and tell if it was heads or tails.
I was going to town and saw a car stopped on the road with six
women in it. I asked them what was the trouble and they replied,
"Out of gas." In those days, cars had good bumpers, so I got behind their
car and pushed it into a filling station where all of the
women stood around looking helpless. One more question, "What's
the trouble now?" They answered, "We don't have any money."
Each of the six women had a big pocketbook and there was not a
dime in any one of them, so I handed them a fifty-cent piece and
One of my carpenter friends had worked for a certain contractor all week
and when Saturday noon, (pay day), came the
contractor had slipped away. Late that night when the contractor came home,
there sat the carpenter on his front steps,
still two weeks late with his ablutions. "Do you want to pay
me, or am I going to sleep with you tonight?" Never has a man
been more willing to pay his honest debts than was this
Lots with sewerage and paved streets only three blocks from
downtown were selling for as low as $300.00. There was a man
who had a peg leg and he made a living grubbing these lots by
hand at $50.00 per lot. That included getting all of the palmetto roots up and
piling up the trash. Sounds cheap, and it
was until you consider that a good truck driver only made
about $12.00 a week. We paid $350.00 for our lot and it cost
$3,000.00 to build a six room brick veneer home, with hardwood floors, fireplace
and tile bath.
For some reason, a great many people turned to making
whiskey or moonshine, and some of them made time in the
pokey because of their choice of vocations. There seemed to be
money for shine even if there was no grocery money. It was a
little rough on the kids but a great many of them survived in
spite of everything.
My friend Walter Merritt tells this story:
Another friend of mine got so enamored of the fiery liquid
that he had to have some professional help. He, along with
several others, was put into a "Kill or Cure", and slowly began
straightening out until he was able to sit out on the front porch
and watch the traffic go by. The group, all a little uncertain of
themselves, was sitting on the porch when a covey of quail
came from under the house and walked through the yard.
Every man saw them but no one said a word, they just looked
at each other. Then along came an old dilapidated car with a
donkey sticking his head out of the back seat. That did it!
Without a word, every man went back to his bed. Famous
last words: "How can they sell that stuff for a dollar a quart?"
I was a young fellow just starting out to be a brick mason when a
man came by the house and asked me to come do some work for
him. He had the materials at the site. There was a stack of brick,
some mortar mix and some sand, along with a big jug of syrup. The
man told me that I was to build a still and to use the syrup in the
mortar so that it would set quick. I had never heard of using syrup
so I layed up the still as I was told. The next morning the man was
back at my house and told me to come with him. When we got
back to the site of the still every brick was lying out to itself as
clean as a whistle. The hogs had found something sweet and eaten
all of the mortar. I laid it up again but this time we sure left out
Our first year at the beach we went to a Christmas tree party at the Baptist
Church, we saw one little baby taking his
milk from a half pint liquor bottle. The lady saw that we were
somewhat puzzled and she explained, "I'm sorry but that is
the only kind of bottles we have at our house!!" Later we
It does seem strange that I, a complete teetotaler, should
have so many friends who imbibed too much, made, or sold
the stuff. Many of my very good friends were bootleggers and
have now turned to the carpentry trade. I've never believed the
old story that painters drank to combat the effects of lead in
their paints. They still do; and now there is no lead in paint.
Tony Mier, Senior, told this story to me:
Did you ever hear a great horned owl scream?
One of my relations was running a still in Mandarin when I was a
kid and wanted me to watch the still one night. I sat there all night
and every time a wild cat or panther would scream, I put more
wood on the fire. Every limb that fell sent cold shivers down my
spine. And finally, when a great horned owl rested in a tree just a
few feet from the still and began his blood curdling screams, I was
ready to get out of the distilling business; only I did not know
which direction to go. When daylight finally came and I was relieved, I left
that place and I ain't been in a still since."
Shorty Powell always said that "You can't drink yourself
sober or borrow yourself out of debt. I know 'cause I've tried
'em both—and I still want a drink and I am still broke."
The boys said they did not mind Unc going to the still and
getting himself a drink but they did wish the old fool would
not go the same way all the time and leave a path. The shiners
knew that when you went down a path early in the morning
and did not run into spider webs, it was likely that someone
had been there ahead of you.
In the year 1934 there was a man by the name of Jim Read
who lived across the canal* and made his living by gathering
broom straw. His home was just a small shack and he had to
row a boat across the canal any time he wanted to go anywhere. He kept an old
model T Ford on the east bank of the
canal so that he could come into town and go to church. He
rarely ever missed a service and on some of those dark, rainy
nights. I wondered how he would have the courage to drive up
to his boat, step into it without a light, and never worry about
a cottonmouth moccasin lurking there. He must have had a
lantern or lamp in his home. That would try the faith of a
snake handler. It was a rough way to make a living but often
heard him called on to pray and he always said, "Oh Lord,
forgive us our sins, both omission and commission." I never
heard anyone say an ill word about this man, but somehow he
must have gotten mixed up, for he left his car on what is now
the east approach to the McCormick Bridge and refused to ever
touch it again. Said it was possessed of spirits.
Some people made an existence by trapping, catching fiddlers, picking out crab meat, shucking oysters, catching fish
and some probably ate quite a bit of deer meat. In all of my
years here I have never heard of a native eating rattlesnake
meat. Some people dig clams but after my experience with
clams, I had almost as soon eat rattlesnake. Clam is one seafood that I can't want nor does octopus really appeal to me,
Bolita, or the numbers racket, flourished during the depression. You could
see sellers standing around with tickets sticking from their pockets. Some
of the very poorest people had a
regular number that they bought every day. Guess they figured
that they were always going to be in bad shape unless they
caught something special and here was a chance to get well,
all at one time.
A most pathetic sight was in watching one boy eat an apple
while several small boys in patched clothes stood around and
begged for the core. Things like that hurt you to the quick and
make you wish that you could do something about it. One
little boy did. That same affluent boy, feeling his importance
too much, pushed his luck too far and tried to bully one of the
hungry kids only to find himself flat on his back looking up.
Never has there been such rapid improvement in a boy's disposition. I know, I hit him.
We sometimes wonder why the Lord did not have everything
just perfect for us so that we would not have all of our trials
and tribulations. It is my belief that the Lord uses adversities
and hard times to create great men and women. I am reminded
of a story that helps to illustrate this point. A man had died
and gone on to his reward, only to find on his arrival that he
was given a big beautiful room and bath. It was announced that
dinner would be served at 6:30 PM, breakfast at 5:37 AM and
lunch at 11:56 AM. The meals were excellent and always on the
dot. This went on for several weeks until, finally, he was able
to get an audience with the management. "If this is all you
have for me to do, you might as well send me on to hell."
"And where do you think you are?" was the reply.
During the depression many people raised chickens and
gathered their own eggs. The feed came in bags of good quality;
only they had the name of the feed on them. For one cent
each you could have these bags bleached and they made excellent material for
shirts and underthings. We used them for most
anything where a good cloth was desired. As the conditions
slowly improved, you could buy a pair of little girl's panties
for a quarter so that about eliminated that particular need.
This little girl was sitting on the floor with some other children
playing with dolls and the elders were paying no attention to
her as they told about having to use flour sacks for undies and
how tough things had been. Out of the mouths of babe's often
come words of wisdom, we hope. "Them pore old flour sack
drawers days are gone forever." Let us hope this child was a
Sometimes I get so confused. Just the other day Ben Robertson was in my
tool closet and came up with a Ball Mason jar
full of nails. The jar had some bubble defects in the glass and
he told me that it was worth $6.00. I have always had to pay
for my mistakes, and here is a case where the more mistakes a
man makes, the more valuable the item becomes. It is not only
in glass but in nearly everything that has any age on it except
people. As the years pass, I have become able to see the beauty
in an old oak tree standing stark and bare as the winds blow
through its dead limbs.
For years I had looked at this old cypress log lying in the
edge of the canal and had visions of a table for my den being
made of it. Finally, my daughter married and I got me a big
husky son-in-law to help me get the log and bring it home. Fortunately, my
brother-in-law, Charles Creech, was an excellent
cabinet maker and was willing to make Paul Chivington, my
son-in-law, and me each a table. I have a picture of my table in
my office, and it is really surprising how many people think the
table (rough as pig iron) is a thing of beauty. There is no accounting for
the taste of people, which makes life more interesting and enjoyable. Some
people complain about a rainy day.
The Lord never made a bad day and if I were to complain, it
would only be because of the passing of each day I have one
less day to enjoy. About that depression glass, I still can't see
much beauty in it and, if other people want it, more power to
During the early thirties the wife of one of the roofers died
and, of course, all of us went to the funeral. These men probably hadn't had a
coat on for years, for they never went to
church, and had no need for coats except for occasions such as
this. I would venture to say that this was one of the most nondescript bunch of
men ever to get together in one small church. Makes you know that if you don't
clean up from time to time you can be completely out of step with the times.
Someone has wisely said that you should profit by the mistakes of others, for
you will not have time to make them all yourself. Let us hope that we, along with our government,
take this to heart.
*. The canal connected Pablo Creek/River with the Guano/Tolomato River.
<< 10: RATTLESNAKES AND REPTILES || 12: CONCLUSION >>