The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | United States/20th Century | COWBOYS


<< 3: FISHING || 5: STORMS >>

As a small boy, and even after I had grown up, the word "Cowboy" gave me a thrill, mainly from reading dime novels, books by Zane Gray and western novels of all types. They were good clean reading; if you don't mind a few people getting killed by shooting, hanging or being run over by a buffalo herd. There were never any obscene four letter words such as "work." It was all in fun and everybody had a good time, except the poor guys who were killed. I never realized it until much later, but I was a cowboy almost as soon as I could walk, for part of my job was to take care of the cow. Guess I was a hogboy too, for I also had to take care of the hogs.

    The word cowpuncher means just what it says: someone who punches cows. Cattle cars were not boarded up solid, but were built with slats so that there would be plenty of air. When you get a solid load of cows into a car, the stronger cows have a tendency to push the weaker ones down and trample them. That is where the punching comes in; for the cowpunchers would take long poles and force the stronger cow to stand aside and let the weaker ones up before they were trampled to death. The poles were stuck between slats and that is another reason for the open type car. If these great western writers had not come along, I would never have realized what a hero I was!

    A group of us had just had a wonderful country dinner at the McCormick Ranch when about twelve of us got into the Jeep Carryall to look over the Ranch. Ben was driving and as we came up to the cattle, one of the cowboys told him that a young calf had screw worms and needed attention. The calf's mother was a Brahma and that spelled trouble for we knew that she was not going to like anybody messing around with her baby. Dr. Earl Roberts volunteered to rope the calf and he walked into the herd on foot to try his luck. His luck was good because he missed with the rope. That mother was mad and if someone had caught her baby she would have charged that someone then and there. Earl had been badly broken up by horses on two different occasions and was crippled, but he never lacked for courage!

    Since roping had failed, it was decided to put the two cowboys on top of the flat jeep hood, drive alongside the calf and let one of them pick it up. This worked, but it certainly made one unhappy cow. She was so unhappy that she tried to turn the Jeep over, and might have succeeded it there had not been so many well fed men on that side, all of them willing to give up their seat to the lady! Failing everywhere else, the cow then turned her attention to the seat of Ben's pants. Since there was no door on the driver's side, it looked as if she was going to have fair success. Ben started for his gun but thought better of it and headed for the gate some half a mile away. We outran the cow, with the calf still on the hood. Someone jumped off and opened the gate so that we could drive thru and closed it just before mama got there. After the calf had gotten his screw worm treatment, he was put back through the gate and mama and baby trotted back to the herd together.

    Hughie Oesterreicher, Senior, tells of driving a herd of cows from Palm Valley to nine miles below St. Augustine. The cattle buyer was in that location and that was where they had to be taken to be sold. The cattle were penned up the night before and long before sunup the drive was underway. All of the men were well mounted for if a horse could not take it, no one had any need of him. Hughie says: "We were heading out to what is now highway number 1, and just as we got there, the Florida East Coast train came along. The engineer saw that we had a half-wild bunch of cattle and wanted to help them along. When he pulled that whistle, I ain't never seen such a mess with cows and horses running everywhere.

    About night-time they hit their rendezvous, sold their cattle and headed for home. "It was two o'clock the next morning when I stepped out of the saddle at home. I had ridden over sixty miles on the same horse." It took a tough horse and a tough posterior to stand a trip like that. Part of the money from the sale of the cows was put into The Bank of Pablo, and shortly thereafter the bank closed, money and all!

    A young man walked into our Mayport store and asked for some screws. He was all dressed up in cowboy boots, tight jeans, and enough hair for a small mattress. When he was told four screws would cost him eight cents he let out a string of profanity, saying he was not going to pay that much for them. The manager of the store was a cool hillbilly in his own right and proceeded to tell the pseudo-cowboy, "Why don't you pull off those cowboy boots, tight pants, and get a haircut, you have never seen a cow. If you would clean up, you would get along a lot better!

    The imitation cowboy broke down and told the manager he appreciated his talking to him like that because his daddy had never bothered with him and that was the reason he was like he was. Then, he handed the manager a dime and told him to keep the change. The manager replied, "No, the price was only eight cents", and he was given his change. The next day, the cowboy was back with a good haircut and suitable clothes and again thanked the manager for putting him straight.

    This lady was no cowboy I'm sure, but she could have been and without benefit of a horse, too. She came into the store and asked for a telephone post, and was told that usually the trailer people used a 4x4—fourteen feet long. "Well, gimmie one!" She was asked how she was going to get it into the ground and her reply was, "I'm gonna juug (forced into the ground by successive quick thrusts) it into the ground." Even in soft sand that would have been quite a task, so we offered her the use of a posthole digger. When asked how she was going to get the digger and the post home she replied "I'm gonna drag them home and if I can't git them home I don't deserve a telephone nohow!" This woman did drag the digger and the post home for pretty soon she was back with the digger and said everything was just fine. She explained to us where her strength came from—"I'm one third Indian and two-thirds Irish." She would not have weighed over one hundred pounds soaking wet but from her profanity I'll bet she had spent many a wet night. This woman must have been a better digger than she was mathematician for it's very unusual to see anyone's heritage divided into thirds.

    The Florida cowboy was just as tough as they came. He usually rode a tough quarter horse, wore overalls, any kind of hat he could get, and never heard of union hours in a saddle. He could ride all day and a big part of the night on the same horse and both of them would be ready to go the next morning. The wild marsh ponies, when properly trained, were really a tough piece of horse flesh. I doubt that any horse ever had any more endurance or stamina than they did. I watched them work. These cowboys herded cattle through the woods, among the snakes, across the marshes and through palmettos for a living. None of them even thought of it as hard work.

    The modern cowboy has it much easier today, with four-wheel drives that can go almost anywhere a horse can. The rustlers are much worse; partly because of the price of beef and partly because of the general permissiveness that prevails throughout our great country. The story is told of how a posse had caught a horse thief out in Texas and were preparing to hang him, when a member of the posse asked for permission to pray for the thief before he was hanged. The head of the party asked, "What are you trying to do, sneak this varmint into heaven when he ain't even fit to live in the State of Texas?" It was safer to steal a man's wife than to steal a horse in that country.

    Joe Happy Floyd had great herds of cattle and hogs that came as far as what is now Neptune Beach, and it was not unusual to see them out on the beach and into the water to get away from the bugs. Back in the early twenties, this was wild, primitive country and only along the ocean front were there any homes. Kestner did have a dairy back in the woods near Levy Road. George Bull had a dairy on what is now the Selva Marina Golf course, but he found a much easier way to make a living. I have often heard golf referred to as pasture pool. Maybe that is where the name originated!

    Ray Yockey tells of living on the ocean front as a boy, and after spending the weekend there, his daddy would produce a big sack and tell him to fill it up with cow chips for the flowers back home. Guess I was unusually stupid as a boy, but when I read about the plainsmen cooking their food with buffalo chips, I was puzzled as to what a "chip" was. Now I know.

    Eddie Mier tells of walking home late one night. "It was as black as the inside of your hat and I was walking in the middle of the road through what is now the Naval Base when I walked astraddle of a cow lying down. Ain't nobody ever got off of a cow's back quicker than I got off that one." Eddie went his way and the cow went hers but it might have been a different story if it had been a bull instead of a cow.

    The cowboy of this section often carried a pistol or revolver stuck in his belt, and when loaded with shine could be as mean as anybody, but usually they were a rather peaceful lot. In spite of the movies and TV, it is not a pleasant sight to see a shoot-out. The best place to be is somewhere else. Often wondered what the pseudo-cowboys of the movies pay for their matched guns, belt and holster. Probably more than a small ranch would have cost here a few years ago. Ned Buntline was, in all likelihood, the best publicity man of his day or any other day for that matter.

    About 1940, Frank Johnston called and asked me to go hunting with him. He was driving a comparatively new model Chevrolet as we left Atlantic Boulevard and headed down San Pablo Road. It was just a trail and filled with water at that. When we finally came to what is now Beach Boulevard and crossed into the Pitts Still Road it was even less of a trail, and we had two creeks to ford before we came to the still. The still was nominally a turpentine still, and whatever kind of distilling that might have gone on around there I don't know. But there was quite a bit of activity and they did have a commissary to accommodate the workers. We put our dog out to try for some quail but it was just too wet. Anybody with good sense would not have been out there anyway with the weather as bad as it was.

    The location of the still was on San Pablo Creek, one of the most beautiful spots in this territory. On the still side of the creek were high bushes, and on the south side, marshes extended several hundred yards back to a growth of timber. There were big cypress trees all over the marshes. Mr. Pitts told me they had been killed by salt when the canal was put through in 1910, but of course that was before the modern day of ecology and no one thought much about it. Many of those trees are still standing after sixty years or more. They do make good perches for eagles and hawks as they hunt for their food. There was no shortage of food with so many small birds, frogs, rodents and varmints of every kind.

    There were many two-room shacks all around this location where the help lived. What a living it must have been with sand floors and holes everywhere for snakes and lizards to come in any time. There was no thought of screening to keep out the mosquitoes, and too much of the rain. The cooking and heating was done on a small cast iron stove with plenty of wood to burn if you went out and cut it. I suppose you never recognize a hardship until someone tells you about it, and then if you can't do anything about it, why worry. They did have plenty of berries, plums and persimmons in season for the surroundings were loaded with these goodies.

    Most of the people had moved from these shacks the first time I saw them, but it does give you cause to wonder what could a man promise his family in such surroundings. It was seven miles to the nearest hard road. They had no church, no school, and were entirely at the mercy of the commissary as to the prices of their food. If any of them went to school, it was probably in the old school on Caesar Road, Atlantic Beach and that was some trip. Maybe some of them caught the East Coast Railway at San Pablo. That would have been only four miles to walk and then they could have gone into Jacksonville for school.

    One old timer turpentine worker told me that you could never get a job at a turpentine camp if you had a pencil in your pocket. You knew too much. This man also told me that they had a section of woods where nobody wanted to work on account of so many rattlesnakes. The "Boss" put a bounty of $3.50 on every snake that came out of those woods. That cost the "Boss" for as long as the bounty stayed on, every snake killed came through those woods.

    For those who had never seen a turpentine operation, this is how it's done: The pine trees are chipped in a "V" as high as a man can reach, and a cup is fastened on the tree to catch the sap. These cups are emptied regularly by a man driving a mule hooked to a heavy wooden sled with container barrels on the sled so that the sap can be carried to the still for refining. The old still has been torn down but there are still big chunks of rosin left where the still was. In 1925, Jacksonville had the biggest naval stores trade in the world.

    Probably the last man to leave his squalid home was Long John, and after visiting him I don't want to complain anymore. John had been crippled by having a tree fall on him and he had difficulty getting around. He slept on an old mattress in one room of his shack, and after meeting him we tried to carry food to him at odd times. I'll never forget the look of gratitude on his face when we would carry him a pitcher of tea and a big piece of ice on a hot day. John was finally put into a home where he could be properly cared for but it was hard to ever get his consent for the move.

    There were several unique characters in the woods around the still. Old Alex had a small cabin and spent most of his time sitting out in front of it on sunshiny days. Alex was quite a cook and evidently knew something about how to round up food. If you passed his house near mealtime, you could smell a wonderful odor of food coming from the cabin and it always gave you the urge to stop. I never ate with him but if his food was as good as it smelled, then I missed something.

    After looking the still over thoroughly, we headed over San Pablo Creek across the old hump-backed bridge. This bridge was in a bad state of repair but we managed to make it across. Makes you wonder how Menéndez could have crossed this creek so easily on this trip from St. Augustine to Fort Caroline on St. Johns Bluff, for there was certainly no bridge there at that time. We were following the old trail made by Menéndez shortly after 1565, and what a trail! We headed south down through what is now the D Dot Ranch, past the McCormick Ranch, stopped and chatted for a few minutes with Earl and Lois Roberts, passed through Twenty-Mile and finally hit the Palm Valley Road. No real bright people would have attempted that trip, for at one time we crossed a ditch filled with water so deep that our head lights went out of sight. Our momentum carried us out of the water enough so that when the motor stopped, it was hot enough to dry out immediately and we came out of it. I was proud for I did not relish the idea of spending the night out there with panthers, bears and wild hogs.

    Twenty-Mile does seem like a strange name for a community, so I guess I had better explain the name. This location was twenty miles from St. Augustine and twenty miles from Fort Caroline or half way between. It was on the trail made by Menendez and later was the site of Fort Diego. The site later became farming country and they made some good syrup there. Howard Mickler tells me that they also made sugar.

    There is beauty the year round in these woods, starting in January when the maples start budding and the trees are covered with red buds, and sometimes squirrels, for they are getting hungry about that time. Then comes yellow jasmine (my favorite), dogwood, bay, magnolia and wild plum. There is something blooming the year round.

    Jacksonville Beach had its sawmill on Second Avenue North. There were lots of good pine trees around then and they did not have to carry logs so far. The subdivision of Pine Grove was covered with pine trees and that is where it got its name.

    Ben McCormick tells me that they were logging over near the canal in 1919 when he was eleven years old. His job was cook while Ed and his father cut and rafted logs up the canal to the St. Johns and into the Gress sawmill on McCoy's Creek. This necessitated long hours waiting for the proper tide, and then there was always the chance that the wind or a storm would come up and tear the raft apart. It was dangerous, hard work and I asked Ben if his father was always treated fairly at the mill. "Must have, for he always sold to Mr. Gress."

    The owner of this mill was Morgan V. Gress, son of George V. Gress who gave the Cyclorama to the City of Atlanta, Georgia. George Gress was a drummer boy in the northern army and had elected to make Atlanta his home after the Civil War. The Cyclorama had been built at a cost of $40,000, for a traveling circus, but was so big and heavy to move from place to place until the circus went broke. The entire stock was sold for $1,000.00 to Mr. Gress who wanted the horses for use in his sawmill. Mr. Gress gave the Cyclorama and several cars of wild animals to the city of Atlanta. The Cyclorama is a very great attraction and the wild animals became the nucleus of the Atlanta Zoo. If you haven't seen the Cyclorama, go to see it and I'm sure you will appreciate it as I do. They did have some trouble in determining if the prisoners marching to the rear in the picture should be wearing blue or gray uniforms and the color was changed two or three times. They should have asked me and I would have put them straight.

    Most of our swamps were covered with big cypress trees, and our flat lands were covered with pine, oak, hickory and magnolia before we started cutting everything in sight and shipping it to whomever would buy it. There was a big sawmill on the west bank of the canal with a tram railroad where they cut some really big cypress trees. Unless it has been moved in recent years, there is a cypress log lying beside the location of the old saw mill that was so big the mill could not saw it.

    You could buy clear cypress boards thirty-six inches wide for $15.00 per thousand, and No. 2, thirty-six inch boards for $10.00 per thousand. This was the kind of materials boats were made of, only they used twenty-inch sides instead of thirty-six. Cypress is one of the three woods known as "woods eternal." The other two are redwood and cedar. Guess when they coined that phrase, they had not met gopher wood which comes from the Apalachicola swamps and from nowhere else—except the Euphrates Valley. According to my calculations, it took three hundred ninety six thousand feet of gopher wood to build the Ark, so they must have had some wood there at one time. Hope the Russians relent and let them go ahead with the excavation of the old Ark on Mount Ararat.

    Oak Landing was an old saw mill site as was Cracker Landing. These sites have homes on them now and you are no longer permitted to ramble around looking at the old sites. The old time saw millers did not study history, they made it. One of the most beautiful sights I can remember was in watching them plane and sand red cypress at Buffums Mill, on the same location as was the Gress Mill. It took some two years to dry cypress out in the sun, but when it was dry you really had something. Today there are quite a few homes ceiled with pecky cypress and many ceiled with clear cypress from this mill.

    We ceiled the First Baptist Church which stood on the site where Jacksonville Beach City Hall is now, with pecky cypress because it was the cheapest thing we could find. The old Baptist Church is now the McCormick office after many changes. I believe the pecky cypress is still there even it if has been covered up, but there have been lots of prayer meeting there since it was converted.

    The woods crews at the saw mills had some real as men, but I doubt if any were better than "Mr. Givens." He could take a six-pound ax and swing it all day; never missing a stroke. I would judge that Mr. Givens weighed all of a hundred and twenty pounds soaking wet. Where he got all of that power I'll never know, but it was a pleasure to watch him use an ax.

<< 3: FISHING || 5: STORMS >>