Historic City Memories: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Rattlesnakes and Cracker Logic

By Geoff Dobson

On December 4th, a breakfast is being held in Hastings in remembrance of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of “The Yearling” and “Cross Creek.”

The breakfast at the Hastings Café will include cheese grits and other items from Mrs. Rawlings’ “Cross Creek Cookery.” The breakfast will be held from 8 to 11 a.m., Reservations may be made with Sandra Birnhak at 692-2031. Cost is $10.00.

For years, “Cross Creek Cookery” reposed in a place of honor in the writer’s mother’s kitchen alongside the “Gasparilla Cookbook”.

Discussion of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, as does Patrick Smith’s “A Land Remembered” brings back memories of Florida which has passed into the early morning fog of time. The memories invoked by Rawlings are not necessarily matters included within the books. Instead, they bring back the writer’s own recollections from the past including rattlesnakes, Sigsbee Scruggs, the Big Prairie, cattle, the aroma of smoke burning off underbrush in the early spring, and Spanish moss draped from trees within hammocks which dotted the Florida landscape.

In Cross Creek, Mrs. Rawlings confessed to having an irrational fear of snakes. Nevertheless, she accompanied Ross Allen on a rattlesnake hunt in Florida’s cattle country. Ross Allen (1908-1981) operated a snake and reptile show at Silver Springs near Ocala, Florida. In the show, Allen would milk snakes, Seminole Indians would wrestle alligators, and tourists could buy live reptiles which could be taken back to New York to be released in the sewers.

As a result of competition from Disney World, Allen’s show closed and he moved to St. Augustine’s Alligator Farm. He was planning on opening a new roadside attraction in Lake City, but died of a heart attack a month before his new show was to open.

In Cross Creek, Mrs. Rawlings wrote:

“The hunting ground was Big Prairie, south of Arcadia and west of the northern tip of Lake Okeechobee. Big Prairie is a desolate cattle country, half marsh and half pasture, with islands of palm trees and cypress and oaks. At that time of year the cattlemen and Indians were burning the country, on the theory that the young fresh wire grass that springs up from the roots after a fire is the best cattle forage. Ross planned to hunt his rattlers in the forefront of the fires. They lived in winter, he said, in gopher holes, coming out in the midday warmth to forage, and would move ahead of the flames and be easily taken.”

Allen captured 32 snakes which he carried from the open wilds back to civilization in the back of his coupé. At first Rawlings had the fear that he would carry them loose in the car. He actually carried them in a wire cage.

Encounters with rattlesnakes used to be common in Florida. The writer recalls at least seven encounters with rattlers. The last time the writer dispatched one was under the State Road 312 Bridge. One time, the writer’s dad was constructing a house on the family property. The carpenters met a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes, unlike most snakes, give live birth. As the carpenters killed the snake, it gave birth to what seemed like a litter of about 20 snakelings. So rather than killing only one, all the little snakes had to be rounded up and dispatched. Another time, the writer’s dad after killing a rattler the size of which would put the one in Price’s Barber shop to shame, draped the corpus delecti over a real estate broker’s sign on adjacent property.

Of course, some have fun with rattlesnakes. Amos Barber wrote of cowboys and the snakes,

“A still more dangerous practice, and one which I have frequently seen, is a method of playing with the rattlesnake for the delectation of the cow boy at the expense of a “tenderfoot.” It is well known that unless a snake is coiled, or held by the tail or body, or placed at length in a hole or crevice so narrow that by rendering its length sinuous a certain amount of support is given, it cannot strike. On this theory a mounted cow boy first puts a rattler to flight, then pushes his pony in pursuit, stoops from the saddle, seizes it by the tail, gives a quick upward jerk, and, swinging it so rapidly around his head that it is impossible for it to strike, sets off in pursuit of whoever has exhibited most terror at the sight of the reptile. When within fair distance he hurls the snake at the unfortunate victim, in the full assurance that even should it strike him it cannot bury its fangs in his flesh, since it is impossible for it to coil till it reaches the ground. This is a jest of which I have frequently been the victim, nor have I yet learned to appreciate it with unalloyed mirth”.

The practice of burning the scrub and prairie of which Mrs. Rawlings wrote, was common in Florida at least as late as the 1960’s. On an early spring morning, the aroma of the controlled burn would be the sign that spring was here. Today, it requires a permit. The end result is that undergrowth is much thicker and when there is a fire it is much worse.

In Cross Creek, Mrs. Rawlings wrote of one of her neighbors:

“Zelma is an ageless spinster resembling an angry and efficient canary. She manages her orange grove and as much of the village and country as needs management or will submit to it. I cannot decide whether she should have been a man or a mother. She combines the more violent characteristics of both and those who ask for or accept her manifold ministrations think nothing of being cursed loudly at the very instant of being tenderly fed, clothed, nursed or guided though their troubles.”

Zelma was less than pleased with the description and sued. Zelma was represented by Kate Walton of Palatka. Mrs. Rawlins, being well off financially, was represented by Phil May of Jacksonville who associated Sigsbee Scruggs of Gainesville to play second fiddle and give local color to the representation. Undoubtedly, Scruggs could give good points on any jury selection.

Scruggs was an old-fashioned lawyer who was a partner with Parks Carmichael. Together they had an office on the second floor over a hardware store across the street from the old Alachua County Courthouse. The office was reached up creaky wooden stairs. The office gave the appearance of being dark. The reception area at the top of the stairs had no windows. The ubiquitous law books lined most walls. Few lawyers specialized in those days and Scruggs and Carmichael were no exception. They would take anything, civil cases such as Mrs. Rawlings’, criminal cases, divorces and criminal cases. A typical criminal case might be one without much of a defense. They would take it anyway, relying on an appeal to the jury’s manhood to justify the crime. In one instance, they had a young lawyer working for them, Charlie Freeman. Charlie was sent up to the jail in Stark to interview a potential client charged with first degree murder. The client had gone into an office and emptied six bullets into the office’s occupant, from the effects of which the occupant died.

At the jail, the client described to Charlie his entering the office, weapon in hand, and puncturing the decedent with the six shots as the decedent cowered behind his desk. Charlie indicated that he was unsure of whether there was a good defense. The client said, “But you don’t understand. It was his fault.” Charlie sensing that maybe the client had a defense, asked, “How was it his fault?” The client responded, “You don’t understand. He up and died on me.” Indeed, in Cracker logic, it made perfect sense. If the decedent had not died, the client would not be in as much trouble.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. 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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