Memories of Yankeetown: The Buoyant Years

A. Frank Knotts

The very early years in Yankeetown, before the Great Depression settled on everyone and everything, had a quite special feeling about them. I'll call them "the buoyant years" because everyone in the family and in the new town seemed cheerful, energetic, optimistic, even euphoric. The Florida boom of the twenties was on, the town was growing, and money was being made. Yankees were coming to stay at the Izaak Walton Lodge, or to build homes and to enjoy hunting or fishing, or simply to bask in some mild winter weather. The new steam plant at Inglis had just begun to generate electricity, providing two or three dozen good jobs. Things looked good.

I am sure that my Uncle A. F. and Dad (Eugene) and the rest of the family were very much caught up in all this euphoria from even before the time the town was founded. They had to be pretty high to unabashedly adventure a thousand miles over primitive roads to invest A. F.'s money buying thousands of acres of land, building a lodge, and creating a town. That had to require plenty of confidence and optimism. They clearly had a vision and worked very hard, Dad, Mom, and Uncle A. F., to convert that vision into a reality--for as long as the economy would allow. After that they worked hard just to keep from sinking.

As a tot, I did not realize that I was immersed in boom-time atmosphere. Like a new-born pup, I was just present, exploring, playing, asking questions, getting in the way. Only later, in the early thirties, did I realize that something had changed, that Mom and Dad often huddled in serious hushed conversations, that Uncle A. F. didn't seem very jolly, and that Grandma McGrath didn't go on shopping sprees quite so frequently. They shielded us kids from realizing the seriousness of the changed economy, but we knew that something was different. Myself, I only perceived the full impact after I was grown and could see the picture from a mature viewpoint. Then I knew that they all had taken a very big jolt and were forced into a period of severe adjustment.

The whole venture began in 1923 when A. F. and Eugene drove from Gary Indiana to Honey Bluff in A. F.'s brand new Model T Ford averaging a little more than a hundred miles per day over primitive roads. They had a definite plan as evident in some of the stops they made along the way. In Atlanta they paused to buy appliances, tableware, kitchenware, furniture and other supplies for the Izaak Walton Lodge. They stopped in Jacksonville to buy the furniture, beds, rugs, chairs, couches, the whole shooting match. Then they stopped in Palatka to order all of the lumber, including doors and millwork to build the lodge, and to arrange for workmen to do the job. They knew what materials to buy since they had the blueprints with them, plans created by a former high school classmate of Eugene and Norma at Gary (Indiana) High who had become an architect. Don't be misled by a remark one of them made that A. F. just wanted to hunt and fish and the lodge was an afterthought to house visitors from up north. That comment represents an attempt at some dry humor, Hoosier style.

Incidentally, while in Atlanta they also stopped by the Federal Prison to visit some of their old friends incarcerated there. One was Eugene V. Debs, a close friend of my grandfather, Thomas E. Knotts. Debs, a frequent candidate for president had been convicted in Ohio for speaking out against the Alien and Sedition Act during World War I. Though Debs was ill he served time at Atlanta. He later received a presidential pardon but died soon after. Whether they actually found Debs at the prison I don't know as Encyclopedia Britannica reports that his pardon came in 1920. Another old acquaintance was a former Judge from Gary who had run afoul of the law somehow. (Debs, by the way is why my Dad was named Eugene. My grandfather, Thomas and Debs had a great friendship for many years, and they happened to be in jail together at the time of my father's birth in 1894. They were arrested along with a lot of strikers while demonstrating against the Pullman Company. Thomas Knotts was the Democrat, A. F. the Republican.)

I do not, of course, recall any of this 1923 stuff as I did not get born until 1926. I take it from taped interviews with my father and mother which I recorded in the early 1980s.

In addition to the Lodge, Dad had a retail business called Knotts Supply Company consisting mainly of a lumberyard with a complete array of building materials. He logged a few very prosperous years while migrant Yankees built the original houses of Yankeetown. He also sold Elto outboard motors and had a boat ways and slip where boats could be pulled out of the water for repairs. Near the boat repair setup stood a little blacksmith shop complete with forge, anvil, and a set of blacksmith tools, drill press (hand-cranked), etc.

The Lodge itself had twenty-one guest rooms, twelve on the second floor of the main building and nine over the dining-room-kitchen building. The rooms over the kitchen seldom got used except by the schoolteachers, Miss Dyer and Miss Fohl who occupied them in the winter. When we kids became teenage we moved there as the family quarters in the main building had only two small bedrooms. When I moved to the other building it became very easy for me to slip out around midnight to go skinny-dipping with my buddies. Each guest room had steam heat, running hot and cold water to a wash basin, as well as the legally required chamber pot sitting under the bed. A bathtub and a genuine flushing toilet were available in "Gentlemen" and "Ladies" down the hall.

Out front stood two gas pumps, regular and ethyl. They were the old style tall ones which had a ten-gallon glass measuring container at the top. Since they had to be pumped by hand, all Dad had to do for security was to remove the handles. Cost of gas per gallon: 20 cents regular, 22 cents ethyl. Standing near the dock near the dock the pumps served boats as well as cars. A pair of motor oil dispensers (oil in cans did not come in until about 1934) and an air compressor stood nearby. In those early days, there were no other places in town to buy gas and oil. Dad got out of the service station business, quite willingly, about 1934 when Jack Jarstfer opened a repair shop/service station in the east end of the defunct lumberyard. Cecil Woodburn took over that operation in, I think, 1937, calling it the Yankeetown Garage.

Behind the Lodge, a semi-circular swimming area had been carved out of the north bank of the Withlacoochee. White sand was trucked in to make a beach. On warm afternoons people came from around town to "go swimming," but not before three o'clock. Common wisdom of the time said that to swim within two hours of eating would invite drowning. We now know that this is not true, but Dad was a stickler for safety and he allowed no one in the water before three. My brother, Tom, sometimes took the opportunity to show off a bit by blowing a cow horn at three p.m. to signal the opening of the beach.

Also behind the Lodge stood a laundry building. It contained a commercial washing machine, soapstone laundry tubs, a fancy ironer called a "mangle" which, apparently, no one ever learned to like as it never got used. Electric hand irons served instead.

Just south of the laundry and right behind the main building of the Lodge lay a carefully leveled clay tennis court which, incidentally rarely attracted any tennis players. Mostly it served as a place for us kids to ride our bikes and scooters.

Behind the laundry (west) was a long shed for parking about a half-dozen guest cars and behind it lay a chicken yard to supply meat and eggs to the kitchen. Later, that chicken yard also housed an alligator for the amusement of the guests. The gator lived in a small fenced pond, about thirty feet in diameter, and it stayed there in the center of the chicken area for about eight years,1928--36, until high water came and allowed him/her to swim away. In fact he escaped twice in consecutive annual floods, but the first time he came back after the water subsided. On that occasion Dad discovered him trying to get into his enclosure and opened the gate for him. Perhaps that gator realized what a good deal he had, well fed with left over fish from excursions on the Gulf plus the occasional 'possum who would come in the dark of night to steal a chicken dinner.

That 'possum bit needs explanation. My sister, Nancy, had a little wire-haired terrier, Corky, who took his work very seriously, and one of his most diligently executed services consisted of protecting the place from all intruders, especially those who disturbed the chickens. Whenever a chicken squawked in the night, Corky would go out the door at full speed, uttering little growls as he went. By the time anyone could catch up to him he would be chewing on a totally inert 'possum, seemingly dead. Dad would grab that critter by its tail and fling it over the fence into the gator pen where it would barely hit the water before being eaten. That gator got so much free fish and 'possum that he had a pretty good situation and perhaps knew it, that is if a gator can "know."

To the west of the chicken yard Dad had his fig orchard with an eight-by-eight array of fig trees. Yes, sixty-four of them! Dad really liked figs and while those trees survived, he had plenty of them. Mother used to preserve many many quarts for use in the lodge's dining room throughout the year, most canned in light syrup and some pickled. We ate them all year.

Just to the south of the chicken yard was a grape arbor, scuppernongs, which never seemed to really get going though it did produce a few grapes in its early years before it died of some cause or other.

South of the grape arbor were at least a dozen citrus trees. I remember navel oranges, valencia oranges, Florida lemons, tangelos, limes, loquats, kumquats, and grapefruit. All of them produced nicely until a big freeze killed them. For a short time there were a couple of avocado plants, but they didn't do well. I think they froze, also.

Speaking of not doing well, the turkeys certainly fit that category. One summer, Dad had bought a number of young turkeys, two or three dozen, who had the run of the fig orchard, not the chicken yard. They grew nicely until one hot July afternoon when a real thunder-buster came in off the Gulf of Mexico. Lightning bolts came down all around and I remember being awakened from my nap by the horrendous noise. Well, those turkeys behaved just like turkeys and stampeded into one huge pile-up in the fence-corner of the orchard. Nearly all of them died. Dad decided then and there that he didn't want any more turkeys.

Then there were the cows. Just west of the Pruitt house on the north side of Riverside Drive lay a plot of (I'm guessing) three acres on which stood a three-stall milking barn and where three Jersey cow lived--Josie, Babs, and Mary Ann. They produced milk for the Lodge, but they also required continual care. They had to be milked twice a day. They had to be fed about that often. And they had to have veterinary care--shots, etc. In the beginning, Chick Pruitt who then served as general handy-man at the lodge took care of the cows, but when the new steam plant was completed, I believe 1926, Chick got a better paying job there. Dad had little choice but to take over the milking. With all the work of running the Lodge plus taking out fishing parties, plus the building supply business, etc., he didn't need that relentless chore. So he approached Elsie Wooten who had his little dairy farm on the outskirts of Dunnellon and had started to deliver, house to house, in Yankeetown. Dad asked Elsie how much milk he could deliver to the Lodge in exchange for the three cows and the two of them struck a deal.

I was disappointed because while we had the cows I got to help my mother process the milk into (of course) bottled milk, but also into cottage cheese, butter, and buttermilk. Cranking that churn and ending up with butter seemed like magic to me. And the cottage cheese which came out of that flour-sack sieve tasted much much better, at least it seemed so, than what one plucks off the supermarket shelf today. Looking back I realize that my parents had to be as self-sufficient as possible and yet they had to buy a lot of the food and supplies. Some items could be had at Uncle Bud's store, but Mom still went once a week to Ocala to the Piggly-Wiggly or the A. & P. to bring home a carload of groceries.

It's interesting to reflect on the business side of the operation. What did it cost to stay at this little oasis in the wilderness? Food and lodging for one person went for $3.50 per day. That's three meals and a single room. Two people in a double room cost $3.00 for each. Dad did have a weekly rate, but I don't recall the figure.

All these childhood recollections may give you a feeling for the fact that my parents had a lot of ideas about creating a special kind of lodge in the wilds of the Great Gulf Hammock, but also there were Uncle A. F.'s ideas about creating a community. The community center which he created exemplifies his community planning. About a block or two east of 63rd St. and two or three blocks north of Riverside Drive he laid out a campground and a few buildings: the campground office with manager's quarters on the second floor, the toilet and laundry building, and the jail wagon building. The largest building, about fifty feet square, served as a dance hall and a meeting place. In its northwest corner stood a very large lime rock fireplace. It was even larger than the one in the lodge. A five-year-old boy could have walked into that fireplace without stooping. The room had a small stage where the musicians sat for the Saturday night square dances. A few plays with all local talent occurred there, and, at Christmas, Santa came to give little stockings filled with candy to us kids. Through the winter months, the joint jumped on Saturday nights with music supplied by Uncle Bud Crawford and Ben Vrooman on fiddles and Grandma McGrath at the piano. Whatever that ensemble lacked in talent, they made up for in enthusiasm. When we arrived at the hall there would be a roaring fire in that huge fireplace. We kids would be very excited and loved to wax the dance floor with flakes from a shaker can, and of course we had to get it slick as possible so we could run around and see who could slide farthest. By the time two hours had elapsed, all kids would be stretched out on the wooden benches around the walls, tucked under blankets and fast asleep. Some evenings I knew when they carried me home, other times I would just wake up next morning in my bed. The adults, meanwhile danced on until midnight. Most Saturdays they had four squares of four couples each with some extra dancers "sitting out," that is, resting up. Several different men served as callers, but I have been unable to recall any names.

No drinking was allowed at these affairs. Not with Grandma McGrath on the scene! However, I did notice that sometimes little groups of men might gather outside and pass a little bottle around.

As you know, in square dancing every man and every woman will likely have been paired at some time during an evening. My dad's specialty when the "Swing your partner" part came was to swing his partner off her feet. Not a large man (150 pounds or so) he sometimes met his challenge--Mrs. Marko, for one. She probably weighed close to three hundred but was said to be "light on her feet." Perhaps she was. One night Dad met his goal, he got her airborne, and received a lot of quiet recognition for his feat. It easily could have become a disaster!

In addition to square dancing there would be Virginia reels, waltzes and, rarely, a fox-trot.

These weekly events meant a lot to most in the community of Yankeetown. Sometimes out-of-towners came, but I don't recall that it happened a lot. All this spirit melted away as the depression set in. To the best of my recollection the dances became less frequent starting in l932 or 33, and had dwindled away by the mid-thirties. The dance hall stood empty, the campground unused, the administration building and bathroom facilities vacant, and the jailhouse with its wheeled cage had no occupants. Actually, the jail rarely had any occupants at any time--maybe a drunk sleeping it off overnight. The last function that I can recall happening at the dance hall would be Uncle A. F.'s eightieth birthday, February, 1936.

By the time I left for college in '42 the happy times and optimism were gone. Also gone were the chickens, the gator, the grape vines, the fruit trees, the cows, the turkeys. And the young men of the town also were gone--to war. The town looked much the same as it did in l930, but it did not feel the same. People were hanging on as best they could.

Mr. Knotts may be contacted at knotts@yankeetown.com

February 2009

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