Book Cover for TSOMR by Artist JOHN RICE of Live Oak
HERE I AM, AFTER ALL--AFTER SIX WEEKS OF ABSENCE and what is my excuse? Make that plural: besides my all-embracing disaster with the old computer (which included the loss of 3,000 photos), I offer the explanation that I was supporting a new venture, the launching of The Old Florida Journal by native Alachuan Will Irby and his sidekick Tate Mikell of Archer. You can get to OFJ online (http://www.oldfloridajournal.com/ and quite soon its second edition will be out. "Mostly True, Always a Good Story," we read on the journal's cover, a painting with the feel of Art Deco, one created by Tate's brilliant sister, Grace Mikell (see the OFJ cover online). OFJ's second edition features the Plant City area and its annual strawberry festival. The first featured the area around White Springs and here's what I contributed:
WHITE SPRINGS: “A little town with a little river washing by its southern skirts . . . .”
Turn off I-75 and enter the town by way of CR 136 or alternatively, come north from Lake City on US 41 (or south on US 41 from Jasper). In the fall of the year in damp, roadside places, the cypresses turn bronze; Magnolia grandiflora’s seedpods redden. And maples and sweetgums scatter leaves of apricot, flame, and plum over the frost-browned shoulders of the roads. In February, Grandfather Greybeard flashes white along the river’s banks and the winged seeds of the maple drift into pink puddles that hint at the coming of spring.
Many years before I arrived in 1995, the late artist Theron D. Gaulding came this way with his notebooks and paints and a singular ability to see into the past He captured in nineteenth-century style a sense of White Springs that lingers yet. Copies of some of his works are displayed under polyurethane on the tabletops at the Suwannee River Diner:
I wandered the world over, seeking my meaning . . . . And then,with faltering breath I came upon a little town, with a little river washing by its southern skirts, and Live Oaks with beards of moss and birds nests lining its main street. And I started breathing deeply of fresh country air. The years passed, and the world drew farther away.
One hundred years ago this nondescript north Florida town was crowded with pilgrims whose coming for the healing waters of the sulphurous spring inspired the construction of a three-story bathhouse and 15 hotels, 14 of which burned in town fires. Only the Telford Hotel remains. Like Gaulding, I sometimes feel that:
My horse and buggy mind would have fitted more congenially then than now, but destiny brot (sic) me here.
Today, beneath its surface of shops—antiques, a grocery, four eateries, a Dollar Store, and Suwannee Hardware—lay stories rich in detail and implication. And like Theron Gaulding, I can squint and see the moving shapes of long ago. One particular story illuminates my own deepest reason for being here. Although the “miraculous” waters of the spring account for a relatively recent and busier time, it’s an ancient story that speaks subliminally to all of us Legend has it that for untold years Native American held sacred all terrain within a seven-mile radius of the spring. Within this area no one could be hurt or mistreated in any way because, it was said, Timucuan Indians pledged to protect with their lives anyone, even the occasional stranger, who entered there. They called this space “the peace ground.”
In more recent times, thousands of people have come to White Springs for the ritual Florida Folk Festival, the oldest state-sponsored folk festival in the country. Here local churches and civic groups offer up buttermilk and sweet potato pies, chicken pilaf and barbeque, cornbread, biscuits with cane syrup, mustard and collard greens, perhaps a taste of venison, and the sweet iced tea with which southerners haven’t yet kicked the habit of washing everything down. The festival, like the coming of hopeful invalids to healing waters, is also a ritual of connection and restoration. We in White Springs most certainly live in a sacred place. And I’ve hardly mentioned the river, the foremost reason anyone ever stopped here.
The Folk Festival is reincarnated in abbreviated form on one Saturday of each month when a large room set up with chairs at the Telford grows thick with locals and visitors arriving for our “White Springs Folk Club.” There musicians like Jeanie Fitchen, Rod MacDonald, and Pierce Pettis extend the tradition of Florida’s famed troubadours Will McLean, Gamble Rogers, and Don Grooms. And on the first Saturday of each month, Stephen Foster’s “Art in the Park” and evening coffeehouse open for visitors and performers whose arts and crafts, music, stories, and jokes not only amuse, but more importantly, draw us into community. The churches also get people together and to some extent, so do the Hamilton County Commission meetings up at the county seat of Jasper. Gaulding, too, spoke of people coming together, of hearing:
. . . . the little sounds of a little town all these hundreds of years . . . the unchanging life . . . [The river which moved along] to lap the sandy fringe of a little peninsula and hear the joyous carefree laughter of boys swimming.
Last year’s Christmas parade wasn’t as sizeable as others I’ve seen, but what’s amazing is the number of people lining the main drag meeting each other for the first time. Ride down Spring Street and you’d estimate the town’s population at 500. Come to the parade and you’ll rub elbows with nearly half of the 14,000 who live in Hamilton County, most of whom trail the parade into the park with donations (two canned goods or a toy). There for all to see is a splendiferous show of small, white lights stretching from the top of the carillon’s 97 bells (the world’s largest tubular bells) to the ground 200 feet below, encircling stout live oaks, and illuminating the path from the entrance gate to Nellie Bly’s kitchen where free hot dogs and Cokes are served up along with the music of people like May Frances Marshall—God’s singer if ever there was one.
Gaulding never mentions Cokes or hot dogs, but reserves his greatest admiration for the nonhuman:
Gnarled Live Oak . . . beautiful to behold . . . dark green lace against the sky . . . heralding the warm Southern spring with its blaze of crimson . . . . The trees, as in human vanity, not content with beauty enough, drape themselves with breeze-blown ribands of Spanish Moss. And amidst this quiet, gray-green loveliness, birdsong . . . a river unchanging in a world of change. A little respite from the headlong rush.
The river’s movement is:
Like adolescent youth’s mixed eagerness and apprehension at sudden venture into the strange, the uncertain. It knows not yet of the winding course awaiting.
Evidence of the river’s power abounds: at the post office and in farmers’ fields, the ever-changing depth of the river is discussed. Though we most often speak of its soothing powers and of the peace found in watching “water that’s always, always moving on,” there’s nothing like six inches of rain or the advance of a hurricane’s winds to change the focus of talk from the river’s peaceful properties to its destructive ones. Whatever the river’s level today, in as little as a week many of us could be canoeing in and out, or worse, find ourselves submerged. At flood time, we count trees, doors, dead animals, the red-striped backs of canebrake rattlers that float in on the river’s currents.
Our county that abuts the Georgia line boasts Big Shoals, Florida’s largest whitewater. It offers biking, hiking, and camping trails watched over by barred, screech, and barn owls. The ubiquitous titmouse, chickadee, and wren are joined in spring by the yellow-washed Pine Warbler. Opossum, armadillo, cottontail, squirrel, coyote, otter, sometimes black bear, and the ghosts of panthers scamper and lumber through our woods. In the dark of night the guttural voice of the tree-climbing Common Gray Fox proclaims his finds; in the daytime the woodpeckers—red-cockaded, pileated, red-bellied and downy—do their work. All of this and most beautiful of all, the white-tailed deer, belongs to the Suwannee that was once called “River of Deer” by Spanish conquistadors.
This body of water that arises in southern Georgia’s Okeefenokee and curls its way over to the Gulf was earlier named River of Echoes by Native Americans. Its current name was chosen by Stephen Foster for what became Florida’s state song. “Suwannee” means something particular to all of us and yet, the same to all. For like many of the planet’s bodies of water, this ever-changing river is a place where modern-day Theron Gauldings sense the numinous, the mystical meeting of inner and outer that (depending on the individual mindset) offers a sense of peace or sends chills up the spine. The river anchors our stories and earliest memories; it is the water into which our children leap from rope swings, the key to our welfare, an ever-changing reminder that we are subject to forces larger than ourselves.
Gaulding saw behind the folk festival and the turn-of-the-century tourist trade; imaginatively, he retraced the very creation of the land itself:
Through . . . years of primeval mist . . . a world before people . . . . a watery vast . . . dotted with small islands, ancient pines and gum-trees protruding up out of flush underbrush . . . when Florida was still under the Sea, the Gulf Stream, swinging from farther westward, and those millions of hurricanes from out of the southeast corner of the Continent . . . all those millions of years ago . . . a little spot of Earth forever unchangeable. I’ll close my eyes and see Dinosaurs wallowing in the murky ooze, and perhaps a Sabretooth Tiger . . . .
The Suwannee’s tannin-tinted waters and the white sulphur spring that flows from the springhouse are givens. Though residents can go for weeks without actually looking at the river, we move within its cloud of meaning, our deepest reason for being here this force that brought musicians, invalids, Native Americans, Theron Gaulding and many others—including me—to a place in the Suwannee River Valley just lately called White Springs.
Old Florida Journal is available online and by subscription -- 12 issues for $25--at http://www.oldfloridajournal.com/
AMONG OTHER WONDERFUL DISTRACTIONS IS THE PROGRESS TOWARD PUBLICATION OF The Salvation of Maggie Rider, a fictional work to be published by THE NORTH FLORIDA CENTER FOR DOCUMENTARY STUDIES, INC. The book's expected out by the time we gather at the High Springs Branch Library in September to deliver a copy of SOUTHERN COMFORTS: Rooted in a Florida Place in honor of Elbridge G. Cann, High Springs' esteemed editor/publisher from many years ago. El's modern-day counterpart, editor Ron DuPont, has just purchased the HERALD. Congratulations, Ron! Congratulations, High Springs! TSOMR's manuscript is in the mail on its way back from NYC copyeditor; local prizewinning artist John Rice has created a cover for this new book; see the cover at the very top of this entry.