<< 1: MAYPORT || 3: FISHING >>
My friend Charlie Leek, or "Unk" as he was called in later years,
was given a double barreled shotgun at the age of twelve, and told to make a living.
This was in the beginning of this century (the Twentieth), and many people were
making a living around here on their farms.
The Sand around Oak Harbor was known as the Pablo Plantation, with its old three
story frame and rived shingle house, which has only recently
been torn down. Atlantic Beach was a farming section and
much of it could have been bought for $1.00 per acre.
There were plenty of quail and Unk became a meat hunter,
selling his birds for twenty-five cents each in Jacksonville. At
that time, people with money wintered here and the hotels
served wild game on their menu as a normal thing. It was
quite simple to get out early, kill fifty quail and catch the
early train to the city. Charlie loaded his own shells so that
his expenditures were minimal.
Charlie told me that at night he would build a fire, roast a
couple of quail, (one for him and one for Mack, his dog), roll
up in his hunting coat and go to sleep. Very few outdoor
people sleep past daybreak and he was no exception. You
could hear the turkeys as they flew down from their roost
and the Bob White started whistling at the crack of dawn.
One morning he killed three turkeys and forty quail and was
still able to catch the early morning train. Charlie said that
the reason there were so many birds was because the woods
were burned off every year so that there would be feed for
the cattle, and quail thrived better on open ground.
There may be bigger thrills than to watch a good dog point
a covey of quail and to see and hear them as they flush, but
so far I have never done it. A covey of quail will go to roost
in a circle with every head turned to the outside. Anyone who
has ever shot birds late in the afternoon will remember hearing the others whistle
for the lost members until dark. It
almost makes you wish that you had not shot them.
Uncle Charlie's old diary shows that he killed three thousand
eight hundred fifty-five quail in one season besides
several turkeys. One of his saddest days was when "old Mack"
misjudged his distance on a rattlesnake. Unk caught the train
to town with the dog in his arms, but it was too late.
For years the relations and friends of the Leeks celebrated
Uncle Charlie's birthday after he became too old to hunt and
turned to smoking fish for a livelihood, and then some tall
tales were told. Otto Hahn tells of hunting squirrels with a
shotgun when he was a small boy up at his home in Gilmore,
on the banks of the St. Johns River. A squirrel went up a big
pine tree and he raised his gun to shoot it when he saw something else. A big panther was stretched out on a limb. Should
he shoot the panther with the bird shot and run, or just run?
Wisdom prevailed and he checked out.
The next day Otto got some of his buddies together and they went panther hunting. There were big tracks, according
to Otto, as big as saucers at the foot of the tree where the big cat had been seen. After scouting around some, they found the den just east of what is now St. Johns
Bluff Road, in a ravine that is now well populated. The floor of the den was covered with bones and skeletons of deer and calves that had been killed in Skinner's pasture and dragged into the den. The
hunters decided that they had seen enough and left the panther, or panthers, to their own devices.
Mr. Hahn, Senior, had been given three acres of Sand on a sand dune and he undertook the job of making something of this gift. He saved every trash fish that he caught and often
late at night he would wheelbarrow them up to his land and bury them. Eventually, he had the richest ground around and then he set out grape vines in this good soil. The grapes prospered and yielded him some four hundred bushels per year.
They were only worth $1.00 per bushel so he made better use of them. He turned them into wine. The wine was put into barrels and siphoned out as needed, at about a quarter per
Late one afternoon a woman came to the house and asked for a quart of wine and a smoked mullet. She told Mrs. Hahn that she would be glad to get the wine herself and save Mrs.
Hahn the trouble. When she sucked on the siphon and got the wine to flowing, it was quite some time before she started to fill her bottle. She got plenty! The lady took her bottle and her smoked mullet and headed down the trail, but the
path became very uneven. Then the pine trees started swaying, so she thought it best that she sit down and rest for a spell. The first rays of the morning sun found the woman still sitting on the pine straw with the remnants of a smoked mullet in one hand and an empty bottle in the other. The
pathway had smoothed out by that time and the pine trees had steadied themselves so that she had very little trouble finding her cabin. The natives could not imagine anyone spending a night out in those woods, but maybe the panthers just were
not hungry for smoked mullet that night.
This country had a great many black bear in it at one time
and Bob Akins told me this story. He and his uncle were out
hunting when they heard a loud thump as if something had
fallen. Bob was puzzled, but his uncle knew the score, and
together they quietly sneaked up on the sound. A black bear
was climbing up a palmetto tree, gathering an armful of
palmetto buds and then rearing back until he fell out of the tree
his arms full of buds. When he had eaten these, he would repeat the performance. That's one way to gather food but
somehow I feel there must be a better way!
The woods were very dense in some places and it was easy
to get lost. After one experience of getting lost, my friend Joe
Bobbins solved the problem. When he was ready to go into
the woods he took his compass, oriented it and then screwed
down the needle so that it could not move over. "This is one
time that I aint' going to get lost." He was finally found
walking in circles, talking to himself, completely out of snake
Some of the boys pulled pretty rough practical jokes on
each other. One man killed a wild cat, cleaned and cut it up.
Then he took it to his friend as venison. Now I don't suppose
that wild cat venison would ever hurt anyone, but somehow
I don't savor the idea.
Jim Palmer told me of his uncle having a wild cat jump out
of a tree, onto his shoulders, and begin clawing him. Back in
those days, every man had a good knife and the cat found his
mistake too late. Pocket knives have gone out of style now,
but this is inconvenient for a country boy.
Coons and possums were, and still are, very plentiful
around here. The coons were trapped for their fur but I could
never see how a possum's fur could be worth much. Many
people eat both possum and coon meat, but the possum is
too fat and a coon, after being dressed, reminds me of a dog.
Could be good eating, though, for there is nothing much
uglier than a Florida lobster and that, to me is delightful
food. I have never hunted coons, but I have heard all of my
life that a coon could and would drown any dog in water. The
reason being, I suppose, that a coon has briars in his hands
and can hang on.
Buster Jones tells this story. He had a good coon hound
and one day this dog tangled with a coon out in a creek.
Everyone around told him that he should help his dog, but
he figured that the dog could stay under water just as long as
the coon could. It ended in a draw, but when he sent his
second dog in, the match was soon over. One night on Talbot
Island a hunt produced four coons and five rattlesnakes before
they called it a night.
My friend John Brooks tells of cleaning four hundred quail
in one day and just think what a mess I make in cleaning four
or five. There must be something that I don't understand. We
asked John if he had ever killed a black bear. "No Sir, I shot
one and he cried just like woman. I ain't never shot another
one." Turkeys? John has shot his share of them and also deer.
Hughie Oesterreicher Senior1 tells of having a coon in one hand and shotgun in the other when he felt something soft underfoot. There he was, standing on a rattlesnake until he
set a new record for a standing broad jump. "Started not to kill him until I thought I would be up this way tomorrow." Hughie was, and may still be, one of the very finest rifle, pistol and shotgun marksmen around this area.
Ken Merrill tells of being on a boat in Sister's Creek with his father and a group of hunters. They shot duck until they had to quit shooting because there was no way to keep them.
This was right after the turn of the century and there was very little artificial ice around. A method of making artificial ice was discovered in 1851 by John Gorrie of Apalachicola, Florida.
One of the best woodsmen produced in this section was Lige Owens. He was like an Indian in the woods; killed hogs, deer, turkeys, gators, or anything that ran or swam and was
good to eat. It was said that he operated best in Cracker Season.2
The little turtle dove that we see prancing back and forth across our yards is supposedly the same kind of dove sent out from the Ark by Noah to learn if the water had begun to
subside. He brought back an olive branch one time and the next time he just failed to show. Many people are superstitious about this dove and very few people ever kill one.
The mourning dove is entirely different, and most every morning I hear them mourning, or quite often see them on the telephone wires as I go for my early morning walk. They
are wary and when they take off with their wings whistling, they make a most difficult target for a hunter, especially on a windy day. Many a hunter has shot an entire box
of shells at them and never hit one. I have often wondered how they
manage to keep their two white eggs in such a flimsy nest upon a pine tree. On the wheat fields they just lay their eggs between two rows of wheat. How they ever find their nest again only the good Lord knows.
During early fall these birds are in droves, and anyone sharp enough to kill some of them is in for some good eating. It is very much like guinea, a dark meat, and you earn every
bird you get.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Guanos were a haven for wild fowl, especially ducks and geese. The Guano River rises about midway between Jacksonville Beach and St.
Augustine. While the river and its tributaries wander over a
wide swamp area within sight of the Atlantic Ocean, there
was no better hunting area anywhere—if you were able and
willing to put up with the danger of cottonmouth moccasins, rattlesnakes and wild boars. On a hot, muggy day, the mosquitoes and gnats could cause you some discomfort, not to
mention the sticky, oozy mud you had to travel over. The
canal just west of the Guano river was opened up for boats in
1910 with the boat Dispatch the first boat through. This
made it much easier for people to get their produce to market
and many people moved into that section.
Howard Mickler was raised in this section and he says that
when his family sat down to a meal, it looked like a hotel if
all of the twenty children were home. Howard's father had
cattle, hogs and did some farming, but on cold days in the
winter they did some hunting. There were so many wedges
of geese and ducks that they almost blotted out the sun.
After the wedge had been shot into, the ducks would still
come back for more. Usually, they did not kill over two
hundred, for that was about all they could handle at one
time. They had to be cleaned, packed and taken to Pablo
Beach for shipment to Jacksonville on the Florida East Coast
Railway. The teals brought twelve and a half cents each while
the mallards brought twenty-five cents each.
The standard gun was a ten gauge with black powder
shells, and that in itself posed a problem "to see what you
had after you had shot." Howard says that at one time he
crawled up to the bank of the river and pushed a cottonmouth out of the way with the barrel of his gun. He lined
up his sights on the drove of ducks, gave a low whistle, and,
when every head went up, shot and killed twenty-five ducks.
That is a lot of ducks!
Mr. Mickler also tells me that his uncle killed a bear with
a lighterwood knot and a pocket knife. That same uncle
was cutting wood one day when he looked up and saw a
gator closing in on him. With a quick flip, he stuck the ax
into the gator's head and the next day the alligator was found
floating with the ax still in his head.
Cosmo is a little settlement on Fort Caroline Road and
at one time there were lots of wild turkeys around there.
The story is told—I can't vouch for it—of a man baiting a
bunch of young turkeys and then lining them up in the sights
of his old muzzle loading shotgun, which had been jammed
to capacity with powder and shot. He got their attention,
and then shot a bunch of heads off while they were still
looking up. I won't tell you how many turkeys this man
said were killed because I don't believe he could count.
The old time meat hunters quite often hunted deer at
night. They would get a skillet, or frying pan, bend the
handle half-way back, so that the pan was much higher than
the handle. They put lightwood faggots into the pan and
held it over their heads so that the reflection would show up
a deer's eyes. Their eyes do look like the tail lights of an
automobile when reflected on in the darkness. This made an
easy target for the hunter. The advantage of this over daytime shooting was that you could have your deer cleaned and
ready to take to the market before daybreak while it was
somewhat cooler. Howard Mickler walked up, and shot five
deer in one day as they jumped from their beds. At one time
deer came up with the cattle to the old San Pablo Railroad
Station. There was no shortage of deer.
The market for deer meat was Mayport and St. Augustine.
There was no Jacksonville Beach at that time, and it took
several hours to get to either place. Trails, such as they were,
were mostly made by deer and cattle. The meat was swapped
for sugar, coffee, thread and items that the settler could not
make for himself. There is still a big kettle around here somewhere that was used for evaporating sea water to obtain salt.
Much better than it was in my native Georgia hills, where the
people had to go to the dirt under the smoke house for salt
after Mr. Sherman's boys had been to see them.
Much of the land between what is now Jacksonville Beach
and St. Augustine was in great savannahs with very few trees
and this made a good place to raise cattle. During the Indian
war, some settlers were killed while tending their cattle and
farming, but this was in no way a one-sided battle, for the
old timers were tough battlers and superior marksmen to the
Indians. Mrs. Ortagus tells of an Indian raid on the home of
Mr. Hartley, where the cook was in the kitchen cooking the
inevitable grits for the evening meal. When the cook spotted
the Indians, he took off, grits and all. He was found on the
other side of the river, still carrying his grits.
With water everywhere, it was sometimes quite difficult
for animals to find anything but brackish water, so the settlers and gators dug water holes, and there are two, maybe
more, artesian wells back in the sand dunes. Howard, who
tells of digging a water hole in one particularly dry season and
watching the wild horses standing close by waiting for them
to complete it, said that as soon as they had finished, the
horses made a stampede for the water and the next morning
there were two horses dead in the hole. They had been too
At one time you could find a bald eagle sitting in a tall
tree back from the ocean's edge every two or three hundred
yards. They were there for one reason only. Soon a hungry
fish hawk would come to catch a meal and then the eagle
would make his move. The hawk would fly some one hundred
feet above the water until he saw the fish he wanted, and then
he would go into a power dive, usually coming up with a big
fish. It looks impossible for anything to see that well. After
the hawk had gained some altitude, the eagle would attack
and force the hawk to drop his fish. I've never seen an eagle
fail to catch his fish in the air. Some people claim that it
would be impossible to fly down fast enough to catch a falling fish. Tain't so, because I have seen it happen.
The eagle is our national bird. but sometimes, I wonder if the powers in Washington don't have in mind changing it to
the fish hawk.
The McCormick ranch in Palm Valley is one place where
something has been done to increase our dwindling supply
of game. By wise management and the expenditure of some
money, this ranch has become a thing of beauty, with game
everywhere. On one late afternoon tour I counted forty deer
heading for the swamps, lots of wild turkeys and wild hogs.
They have quail and wild ducks, coons and squirrels—all in
abundance. Many people have been privileged to eat with
J. T. and Ben at their ranch and I have been one of the lucky
ones. Either of the brothers could put the cooks at most
restaurants to shame. Their cornbread, cabbage, black-eyed peas, butterbeans, wild hog, deer, duck and boiled mullet
are all masterpieces. Their specialty was gopher (dry land
turtle to the uninitiated) stew until most of the supply of
gophers has run out. The stew was made of many ingredients
but the thing that I remember most vividly was when I bit
into a datil pepper. They are so hot they will take your voice
away, but they do have a flavor all their own. The thing
that makes it so rough is the "help" furnished by the would-be cooks; as they pass by, sample the stew, and decide that
it needs another pod or two of pepper.
I've seen some of the old timers, notably Dr. Earl Roberts,
sit and eat datil peppers as if they were cherries. Then I have
also seen one man from Connecticut enticed into biting a
hunk off a pepper, and he couldn't talk for thirty minutes. I
have never yet seen anyone who did not like the McCormick
cooking. To sit by the fireplace on a cold day and listen to
the McCormicks tell of the early days on this ranch, immediately after the Civil War, and of the hardships their people
had to go through just to exist makes you appreciate our
great country more.
Today there is a big club house on the ranch where many church picnics, Rotary Club cookouts, and just get-togethers
are held. The big front porch is loaded with cane bottom
rockers and you can just sit and rock as you watch the mallard ducks on the lake, the squirrels in the old pecan trees,
and somewhat further away, the beautiful cattle are grazing.
The club house has two huge fireplaces, a thoroughly modern
kitchen, a big dining table and plenty of easy chairs for your
The original ranch home is still standing after some one
hundred years. In back of the house is the old butcher house
where at one time the meat was prepared. The wild hogs
were brought in, (sometimes as many as ten at one time),
and were cut up, with much of the meat going into sausage.
This facility has not been used much in recent years. I don't
want to go back to the "good old days", but sometimes I do
wish that those days could be brought up to us.
1. His family history is told in Michel Oesterreicher,
Pioneer Family: Life on Florida's 20th Century Frontier. The book is available from Amazon.com.
2. 0ut of the regular season.
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