Memories of Yankeetown: Uncle A.F. and the Early Residents of Yankeetown

A. Frank Knotts

While reading items on the Yankeetown websites over several months I have noticed curiosity and speculation about the town's founder, A. F. Knotts, who was my great uncle. I have also noticed some misinformation which I would like to address. But first, let's introduce the cast of characters. They are:

  • Armanis Francis (A. F.) Knotts. the founder of Yankeetown,
  • Edith Crawford McGrath, A. F.'s long-time companion,
  • Eugene (Gene) Knotts, A. F.'s nephew,
  • Norma McGrath Knotts, Gene's wife and Edith's daughter,
  • Tom, Nancy, and Frank Knotts, Gene's and Norma's kids.

In 1923 A. F. and Gene drove A. F.'s brand new Model T. Ford from Indiana to what is now Yankeetown. Edith, Norma, Tom, and Nancy came later by train. Frank came by birth in 1926. To complete the list of family members present, we must add Henry (Bud) Crawford, Edith's brother and his wife, Margaret who came in 1924 or 25. Henry operated Bud's General Store until his death in 1937 and served as postmaster (in that store) until 1930.

Today I want to talk mainly about Uncle A. F., to offer some of my knowledge of him gained from personal contact and from family talk heard by a curious kid.

A. F. Knotts was not universally liked. My mother told me that once in a while in the early days a bystander would toss a rock in the direction of his car. They didn't aim to hit the car which they easily could have done, but seemed more interested in expressing a feeling. Knowing Uncle A. F., I would be surprised if he didn't get out to talk to the the persons. But I don't know for a fact that he ever did. I also saw that some people showed genuine respect for him, some showed genuine dislike, and some simply buttered him up because they wanted something. In fact, it seemed to me that there were quite a few of that last kind.

I knew Uncle A. F. and had nearly daily contact with him until his death when I was eleven. He was somewhat pompous, a bit aloof, opinionated and not always tactful. I would call him forthright and blunt. He had no grasp of southern-style social graces. He also tended to pontificate. He knew a lot, was proud of it, and would impart his knowledge and opinions freely. It's easy to imagine that he sometimes rubbed people the wrong way because he believed he knew how things ought to be and he would tell people without waiting to be asked.

All the same, A. F. was quite well educated, especially for his time. He had degrees in Law and in Civil Engineering, both of which he practiced during his career. Sometimes he practiced them simultaneously, as when he established the city of Gary, Indiana, for U. S. Steel. He also, throughout his life, was self-educated by voracious reading. He especially pursued history, science, and the classics. When I knew him he read for a few hours nearly every day. My mother, who became postmaster in 1930, would often send me over to visit Uncle A. F. and Grandma on the pretext of taking their mail to them. I typically found A. F. sitting with a book and a pencil stub from the supply on his side table. (That's where the pencils deemed too short for the office ended up.) A. F. did not just read, however, he studied and he debated with the author, whoever it was--Plato, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein, anyone. He took them on by scribbling his own comments in the margins or any other blank space he could find on the page. I now have his set of The Harvard Classics, the so-called "Five Foot Shelf" with all of those treasured notes in them.

He definitely had his own ideas. He showed me how he cracked nuts with his teeth telling me that it was how he kept those molars strong. He also advised against toothpaste saying that he always used a mixture of salt and baking soda. Maybe I should have listened since he died at eighty-one with most, if not all, of his natural teeth, and that was a great rarity in those days--well, it's unusual even in these days. If all of the above does not set him apart from the crowd, consider this: he was an outspoken atheist.

I always knew A. F. for his honesty, for his concern for people (as individuals and collectively), for wanting to leave the world a better place (with his mark on it), and for a lot of ambition and energy. Others, naturally, perceived him differently. They saw him from a different viewing point and they saw him at a certain time in history.

As you know, we cannot really understand historical events unless we can see them in context. For example, how could we ever understand World War II without knowing something about World War I, the onerous Treaty of Versailles, Naziism in Germany, etc.? On a much smaller scale, how can we understand A. F. Knotts within the history of Yankeetown without looking at what was going on in the South, particularly in Florida, in the nineteen twenties?

The Civil War or the War Between the States, take your choice, had ended about two generations before and a lot of people had considerable unhappiness at how that war had come out. Also, there were bitter memories of General Sherman's ruthless march to the sea. Many had memories of the disgusting "legal" plundering of the South by carpetbaggers. Probably most southerners had bad feeling toward northerners in general. That war created a huge aftermath of destruction, and more important, it created a lasting, though understandable, mass of resentment and anger which had become generalized, for many people, toward all Yankees.

Add to all of this the fact that southern Florida in the twenties had a new invasion under way. People of Jewish faith began to flock to Miami while Yankees of all descriptions started to come in everywhere, mostly to southern Florida, many of them developers with greed in their eyes. In the middle of all these resentments and concerns, a brash Yankee, A. F. Knotts, comes into Levy and Citrus Counties with a pretty big bundle of cash and even bigger ideas of what he would like to do--such as make a town or dig a canal across the state.

Could one think of a better recipe for anger and resentment? Looking back at that situation I can't help but admire the graciousness shown by so many locals, such as "Mr. Kelly" Runnels towards this ambitious northerner. All things considered, Uncle A. F. may have been a little hard to understand, and yet to me, as a child, he seemed to be just what he was. He was pretty much all business, reading, teaching, pontificating, and doing.

As a kid I knew that he liked me because he always paid attention to me when I showed up at his house or when he came to the lodge, sometimes just to visit me! He never bounced me on his knee or took me on his lap that I can recall. (Actually, he had too big a belly to have a lap.) Instead, he was always ready to teach me something--the names of all the trees in the yard, the kinds of birds, Florida geology, etc. He taught me to play animal, mineral, vegetable (sometimes called "twenty questions") and would patiently do so for as long as it took to tire me out. Other times he told stories of his childhood, of his amazing dog, Old Bill, and of hunting and trapping on the Kankakee River, up north. He showed his love by teaching, and often he went on until my eyes started to roll back because my head was too full.

(Note to reader: Just as I finished writing the above I learned of the existence of Dix Stephens' admirable book, "Withlacoochee Notes" which contains some misconceptions that struck me right away. I'll address a couple of those errors now, more as I have the time.)

Stephens asserted that Edith McGrath had "the money," not A. F.. That one made me laugh out loud. Edith, whom I knew as "Big Grandma," never had any source that I know of to obtain money of her own. She was born into a definitely unwealthy family near Kouts, Indiana. After leaving her original family she depended on her husband, my grandfather, until they were divorced, probably in the first decade of the twentieth century. He, Daniel McGrath, was not by any means wealthy, but did make a fairly good living building water tanks, enough, in fact to send my mother to the University of Wisconsin.

After Edith and Grandpa McGrath divorced she began to depend on Uncle A. F., under the title "housekeeper," for over thirty years until his death in 1937. She had never inherited, had never worked at a job, never had a business or any other source of income. In fact, she had only a seventh grade education. When she would read aloud the words came out haltingly. She was intelligent, certainly no genius, never wealthy.

Edith never had any substantial money of her own for one simple reason: if she ever got her hands on a dollar, SHE SPENT IT! She loved to show off. She loved to make a splash. Whenever she went to Ocala or Tampa or Jacksonville---anywhere with good stores--she splashed a lot--on A. F.'s money. As a child I always looked forward to her return from a shopping trip because she always had something for me.

A. F. was generous to Grandma. He built her a house, furnished it, and put her in charge so that she would live up to her title "housekeeper." In the family we called it "Grandma's house." In the town it was known as "Mrs. McGrath's house." He also bought her a car, a new '27 Buick which she learned to drive, sort of. She had no serious accidents that I know of, though I have a scar on my forehead which serves as a memento or her running into a tree while I stood on the front seat beside her. There wasn't much traffic in those days and people knew to get out of her way.

Incidentally, when Grandma was given her car she also got me a little Buick roadster as pictured here. (Ungrateful kid, I found it hard to operate and never used it much.)

When A. F. died Edith inherited most, if not all, of what was left of his estate after the depression got done with him. Quite soon she began to go through those assets at an alarming rate until Eugene, my dad, stepped in. He managed to persuade her that he could manage and conserve the estate while giving her a very adequate monthly stipend for life. She agreed and it worked out to everyone's best interest, including hers. Had Dad not stepped in I suspect that Grandma would have spent everything before she died.

Right now I can only speculate about any documents which Stephens may have seen which seem to imply that she "had the money." However I have a pretty good guess as to what he may have seen. I overheard talk in the family about the possibility of Uncle A. F. getting sued, perhaps related to the incident in which G. E. Parker was jailed on A. F.'s trespassing complaint (as referenced in Stephens' book), perhaps related to other disputes. I also heard talk about A. F. and Grandma drawing up papers in order to shield his estate from such suits and probably, also, to ensure that Edith inherit. Edith and A. F. worked with an attorney in Ocala, but try as I might, I cannot recall his name with certainty. I think it was Judge Priest. Surely a person with the interest could find something in court records, probably in Bronson, maybe in Ocala.

After those papers were drawn up and executed Grandma reveled in her newfound importance. I remember one day in particular when she got all dressed up to go close a deal. She had a beaming glow of pride on her face. Her signature was needed. SHE had the power of the pen!

It was also apparent to me that during that time Uncle A. F. was distressed and somewhat depressed. He had just lost a major part of his land, the Citrus County holdings, in a tax sale because he could not pay the taxes. I believe that he took a big loss when the Dunnellon bank failed, and he may have suffered other losses as well. In any event, he was short of cash. He harvested some cyprus trees in an effort to meet his tax obligations and that led to the little fiasco where Edgar Edsel (perhaps in his wife's name) filed a trespassing complaint before Justice of the Peace Henry Cannon. A. F. may have felt as if everyone was after him. Eugene did his best to get some financial backing to save the Citrus County property, but this was the deep part of the depression and he had no success.

How did Stephens get the idea that Edith McGrath "had the money?" It appears to me that Stephens misinterpreted some documents on land sales due to not knowing about the legal maneuver behind them, a maneuver to protect the assets. A. F., not Edith, had the money which enabled him to buy tens of thousands of acres of land in Citrus and Levy Counties, to establish Yankeetown, and to pursue his political adventures.

Stephens has asserted that A. F. was "just a surveyor." Well, yes--as a civil engineer he had the ability to survey land and he sometimes did so. However, most of the surveying in Yankeetown and the surveying of A. F.'s other holdings was done by others. After 1927 it was done by Hugh McKean, a civil engineering graduate of Grinell College in Iowa. McKean also served as general town manager running the waterworks, maintaining the electrical utilities, reading meters, collecting the trash, and whatever else needed doing. He was a full-time employee of A. F. who shared with him the little office upstairs over the garage behind Grandma's house. Before McKean he used the services of a firm in Dunnellon. I recall Dad telling me about it, but I can't recall the name. I'll bet that it appears on some of the early plats of Yankeetown.

In all likelihood, when Kelly Runnels engaged A. F. to perform a survey, as Stephens reported, McKean did the work.

(As a result of my first posting I have recently talked with both of McKean's children: Harriet who was in my first grade class at the old school, and Robert who was two years behind us.)

There is much more to talk about, such as the rambling letter from E. E. Calloway One of those who buttered-up A. F.) the contents of which Stephens published in his book. But this seems enough for one sitting.

I'm working on getting some appropriate pictures to go with this narrative, but I don't want to hold this back until I get them. More later!

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

April 2007

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