Historic City Memories: Moonshine and Gopher Stew

This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.

Moonshine and Gopher Stew
(First of a four-part series)

Part I: The Lay of the Land
By Geoff Dobson

In the period from 1920 through the mid 1950’s, there were areas of St. Johns and Duval Counties into which even the most intrepid would not venture. Those were areas frequented by moonshiners.

Running north and south through St. Johns County are a series of sand ridges. Between the ridges are a series of swamps. North of St. Augustine and west of the Florida East Coast Railway tracks lie St. Marks Pond, the Twelve Mile Swamp, Six Mile Swamp, and Four Mile Swamp. The swamps drain southward and are interrupted by islands such as Simone Island and Masters Island.

The swamps, ridges and islands were interconnected by infrequently used sand roads which meandered past the cypress, pine, wax myrtle, and swamp maple. In the early spring in the bay heads, the swamp maple turned to a blaze of red contrasting with the gray of the cypress and Spanish moss. The red and gray were in turn offset by the water brown with tannin and the dark green of the bay trees. During the day, rattlers sunned themselves on the sand ridges. In the swamps, water moccasins could provide a nasty surprise. At night, the cacophony of croaking frogs, grunting alligators, hoot owls, and the buzz of numerous insects provided assurance that one was alone. Silence indicated that strangers were near. In the morning, one might spy the track of the elusive Florida panther. In the hardwood, bear engaged in their annual migration. On a still, cool morning, a wisp of smoke rising above the trees indicated the location of a working still. In the 1950’s, the area was largely uninhabited. There were perhaps four or five stills located south of Nine Mile Road, itself at the time little more than a dirt trail.

To the west of St. Augustine, where once the Indians lay in wait for the passing weekly stage from St. Augustine to Fort Picolata and its landing, are Cowan Swamp and Trestle Bay Swamp. Each drain into the headwaters of Moultrie Creek on the banks of which was located at least one still.

In the 1920’s, Palm Valley, lying south of the titanium pits at Mineral City, had a total population of maybe 150. It was served by a one-room school house. In the Valley, where now the wealthy live behind closed gates, was a plethora of illegal stills. One old timer recalled that Palm Valley produced the best shine around. It was, he said, on account of the water. It was into these areas that strangers dared not go.

Developers renamed Mineral City “Ponte Vedra,” named after Pontevedra, Spain. Developers are always looking for better sounding names. Bombing Range Road has now become Green Briar Road. Nine Mile Road has become International Golf Parkway. In Polk County, Mud Lake became “Crystal Lake.” In Alachua County, “Hog Town” has become Gainesville. The name survives only in the name of Hog Town Creek, a waterway of such magnificence that it reminds one of the suggestion, attributed to Mark Twain as to another mighty water course, that it should not be left out at night, lest a stray dog should lap it all up. In distant Wyoming, the developers of Cody changed the name of Stinking Water river, named by early mountainmen, to Shonshone. The Post Office changed the name of Never Sweat to Dubois in honor of the chairman of the Senate Post Office Committee, a personage of great rank with absolutely no connection to Wyoming..

Palm Valley’s few residents survived on swamp cabbage, grits, grunts, and gopher or cooter stew. Grunts were regarded by Yankees as a type of “bait fish.” Working in a sawmill might earn a dollar a day. Sweet potatoes and ‘possum” were regarded by some as a luxury. One Baker County resident recalled actually eating skunk. Until he was a teen, he had no shoes. His mother made him a pair from rubber inner tubes. Neighbors who were more fortunate gave his mother empty chicken feed sacks. The markings would then be bleached out. Until he was a teenager and went into making ‘shine, he never had a pair of store-bought jeans. He later recalled how proud he was when he could walk down the street in his new jeans. His shirts were made from the feed sacks. And it was the same in Palm Valley. Underwear and shirts were made from the bleached chicken feed sacks.

Today, harvesting swamp cabbage without a permit from the state is a violation of law, but then everything today requires a permit from some government bureaucrat. Gopher stew, made from a type of land turtle, during the Great Depression was called “Hoover chicken.” It is also illegal. In 2008, the Legislature, having nothing better to do, designated the Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) as the official state tortoise. Cooter Stew is made from snapping turtle. Some cooks leave the claws on. Watching the reaction of the uninitiated finding a claw in the bottom of the bowl or gagging on the knuckles can be interesting.
Swamp cabbage is the heart of a cabbage palm. It requires cutting down the tree. The heart of the palm is sliced thin and cooked with salt port. At one time, it was a staple of “dinner on the grounds” at political rallies. Harvesting a swamp cabbage is difficult and heavy work with a machete. One time I knew a lawyer who had grown up in Miami Beach. Thus, he had never seen a swamp cabbage or, indeed, known what to do with it. He took a case in Small Claims Court in Bronson over in Levy County, planning to get paid from the proceeds he was going to get in an action between his client and the local Chiefland Western Auto Store. Unfortunately, the judge ruled that neither party had proven their case. The lawyer’s client was pleased. He didn’t owe the Western Auto, but there was no money to pay the lawyer. The lawyer was paid with a swamp cabbage, but the lawyer probably never realized just how much work went into cutting that cabbage. Hard money was earned in other ways, ways which today may seem to some slightly illegal.

Thus, in hard times, farmers turned to making ‘shine. It was a necessity. For many, it was the only cash crop available, a matter of survival. The tax collector takes only hard money. He does not take swamp cabbage.

Recipe for swamp cabbage

Remove boots from palm and peel down to the heart. Break heart into bite size chunks and soak in cold water until ready to cook. Chop some onions. Fry ½ lb. salt pork, cut into small pieces, in a skillet. Add a handful of onions and some butter and cook until onions are soft. In a Dutch oven melt a stick of butter. Add a generous amount of cabbage and a fourth as much onion. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add more cabbage and onion in the same proportion until pot is half full. Cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring to keep cabbage from burning. Serve when cabbage is tender.

Next Week: Moonshine and Gopher Stew continued, An Incident at St. Marks Pond

Photo credit: Florida Bureau of Archives

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com


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