Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bushels of Old Florida at the Smallwood Store

The following is a guest post by my good friend and Old Florida enthusiast Phil Eschbach:

Recently I visited the Smallwood Store on Chokoloskee Island, among the ten thousand islands in remote southwest Florida. I have been meaning to go there for a long time for two reasons, First, I discovered that a cousin of mine is Lynn Smallwood McMillin, whose grandfather, Ted Smallwood, operated the first post office and store back in 1906. Lynn now runs the store with her husband. Second, I have always wanted to go there, even though I have been in the Everglades many times. As best as we could figure, she is my 5th cousin, descending from original settlers from north Florida. Mine came in 1790 and met hers around 1820.

Lynn Smallwood McMillin and Phil Eschbach

It was a real treat, seeing the old place stocked with items, some almost a hundred years old, that used to be sold there when it was the only store for miles where fishermen could buy their daily goods and sell their catch.

Shelves stuffed with vintage items.

Contemporary image, not much different from historical ones below:

Archival image from the State Archives of Florida
Archival image from the State Archives of Florida

Archival image from the State Archives of Florida

Lynn took us on a personal tour through the ten thousand islands, navigating without a map or compass, as if it were the back of her hand. I’m sure I would be lost in a minute. We saw lots of wildlife as well as beautiful scenery of beaches loaded with shells and mangrove islands along the gulf coast. She was quick to point out various islands where early pioneers had first lived and eked out a living fishing and shrimping. She pointed out the island where the infamous Mr. Watson lived.

The store is now a non-profit museum and was declared a national historic monument and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The museum is open every day and offers boat tours of the islands. 

Contemporary images courtesy of Phil Eschbach

Phil Eschbach, a ninth generation native Floridian and resident of Winter Park for over 35 years, is a commercial photographer specializing in architecture and travel. His family arrived in Florida in 1790. He is a graduate of the University of the South and has maintained a studio in Winter Park for many years. His photography exhibitions in Central Florida have included shows at the Winter Park Public Library, Commerce National Bank and Orlando City Hall. 

Archival image from the State Archives of Florida

Monday, March 9, 2015

When seeking Eternal waters, it's good to have a man on the ground...

Perhaps the greatest lesson I've learned since the publication of my book is the value of making connections. Selling books or garnering publicity is not nearly as important as connecting with people who are passionate for the historical and natural assets of Florida. These moments of connection fill me with energy and validate my mission to create awareness of our state's historical, cultural, and environmental treasures.

The connections I've made on my book talks have helped me to learn a simple and obvious lesson: there some things that just cannot be gleaned from the internet or from books. Nothing can substitute for local knowledge from a resident who knows the area. I must admit that it's much easier to do research using Google, but a real human source is still an invaluable piece of the researching process.

Archival image of the Magnolia Hotel from the State Archives of Florida
The view of the St. Johns River from the State Archives of Florida
Magnolia Springs Hotel from the State Archives of Florida
Two weeks ago, the members of Clay County Historical Society took me to Magnolia Springs, site of a massive Gilded Age hotel that drew large numbers of wealthy northerners who arrived by steamboat. Located on the St. John River just north of Green Cove Springs, the exact location of the spring had eluded my grasp. I also questioned if it was an actual spring or Artesian well. I had searched diligently from my computer in Orlando, but it took a visit to Green Cove Springs and information from locals to solve the mystery. Located just up the road from Spring Park, the tiny spring run from Magnolia Springs still trickles into the St. Johns River.

Here's what the spring run looks like today.
Where the run meets the St. Johns River.
My wife and I with the gracious members of the Clay County Historical Society.

I also sought Enterprise Springs, a small 4th magnituder inside Volusia County's Green Springs Park in Enterprise, Florida. My first attempt to find the spring led me to a small mud puddle that clearly wasn't what I was looking for. But thanks to springs enthusiast Joe Cruz, who lives nearby, I was able to find the small sulphurous spring. The opaque water, like nearby Green Springs, is a wonderful blue-green hue, and the leaves in the spring run are coated with Sulphur eating bacteria. Joe also showed me and a couple fellow spring lovers several nearby seeps, where mineral waters squeeze through small openings along the banks of shallow creeks. A fragile place of fantastic details, the narrow branch form the seep had a mystical quality.

Travis leans into a shot.
My Florida history buddy Phil contemplates the eternal at Enterprise Springs
Looking much like Deer Moss, the white stuff present in the spring run
is actually Sulphur eating bacteria. 

Water flows from the hole to the right of the palm trunk from what I've dubbed "Joe's Seep".

There is beauty and magic in all of these places, and a visit to these sublime watery portals nourishes my soul. Although there was some signs of human activity like scattered trash nearby, they are mostly forgotten. Magnolia Springs, a premier destination around the turn of the century is so covered with underbrush that I never saw the head spring. The land around Enterprise Springs shows evidence of former shell middens, and may have been revered by native peoples for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans. An opportunity to to be in the presence of these places is like paying homage to nature's greatest wonders and rediscovering mysteries of history that have almost been forgotten. I am grateful to have learned that sometimes a guide is required to unlock these mini mysteries.

Spring hunters, l-r: Travis, Angel, Rick, and Joe
(Photo courtesy Travis Marques, taken by Phil Eschbach)

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Split from my Sunday Routine

I've learned to listen to the voice inside that needs to re-connect with nature. I heard it Sunday morning and I altered my plans to visit my go-to hiking spot, Split Oak Forest. I like to enter the Forest through Orange County's Moss Park, but I was warned that the trail might be wet. And sure enough it was flooded and the December water was painfully cold. But I marched on through the marshy area that connects the two parks and I was rewarded by the appearance of a young buck crossing the trail near the boundary to the Forest.

On this brilliant cool day the textures of the trail caught my eye, from small yellow flowers to fluffy grass-like native plants back lit by the sun. I wasn't sure if I'd take photos at all, as I really just desired peace and solitude, but I really love the sense of timelessness I feel when I'm in the flow of taking pictures.

I made my way to Lake Bonnett, the pay-off for my hike, and I enjoyed the stillness of the place with a pair of Sandhill Cranes. It's amazing to me that this oasis of beauty is minutes from the booming Lake Nona area, within earshot of the Orlando Airport. I saw a large Fox Squirrel, numerous deer and a speedy armadillo. Except for a solidary runner, I had the whole place to myself – just me and the colors and textures of nature on a crisp day. These are the kind of places that remind me that Florida has a wild soul, and to tame her would be a sin, as she would cease to be Florida anymore, just a nameless, sterile paved over paradise. There was drama in the Forest this day in the contrast between light and dark, stillness and motion, and splashes of color contrasted against monotone backgrounds. I wonder if this became my new routine, would it become old and stale, or would a weekly dose of Mother Nature still have the same power to sooth my soul?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Colors of the Chaz

Some say Florida doesn't have a Fall season, but as I type this it's 41 degrees outside, the heat is on, and I'm wearing a sweatshirt. Perhaps it arrives later than it does up north, and it's more subtle, but Autumn squeezes its way into Florida eventually. And we do have color, but it's not always the red, oranges, and yellows seen in cooler climates. I recently immersed myself in spectacular Florida color while kayaking the Chassahowitzka River near the Gulf coast.

The "Chaz" as it is commonly referred to, has an interesting history. Like so many other rivers and springs in Florida, it is rich in archaeological evidence of indigenous people camping along the water. The name Chassahowitzka means "pumpkin drying place in the Seminole language. In the early 20th century the area was logged extensively for bald cypress and red cedar and there was even a small town  developed around a lumber mill called Centralia. Today much of the land around the river is publicly owned, being purchased by the state in the last thirty years.

View of the Chassahowitzka Springs and River, State Archives of Florida
Chassahowtizka Spring, 1923, State Archives of Florida

A recent spring clean-up led to the discovery of a plethora of artifacts, from Paleoindian arrowheads, to children's toy pistols.

A luminous red tree stands out like a beacon against its green counterparts

It was brisk when we put in at the Chassahowitzka River Campground and there was a fire burning beside the river to warm up campers. Despite the chill there was a brilliant blue sky and the clear water was tinged with a cyan-aqua tint that indicates the presence of springs. My colleague John Moran had advised me to seek out a a feature known as "Miss Maggie's Crack" or simply, "the Crack." A relatively short paddle off the main river down Baird Creek eventually narrows and requires leaving your kayaks behind to hike the final fifty feet to the spring. The spring head is situated in the center of a shallow lagoon lined with a yellowy limestone bottom. A horizontal gash full of brilliant turquoise indicates the location of the Crack where spring water flows up from the aquifer. The Edenic-like setting was tranquil and alluring, and on a warmer day I may have plunged into the depths of the spring for further exploration. But I knew it would be chilly to be in wet clothes when I was back on the main river, so I did my best to stay dry.

Our put-in point was at the campground on the eastern side of the river.

My buddy William kayaking down Baird Creek.
Eventually the water becomes too shallow to paddle further.
The "Crack."

After leaving the Crack, we paddled a bit further down river, and headed up the run of Crab Creek Spring. Giant ferns, colorful flowers, and prehistoric air plants covered the banks. The land around the spring is apparently private property as a sprawling compound dominates the setting. The spring, which appeared to have several vents, was surrounded by invasive Hydrilla that was covered with an ugly brown substance.

Next we paddled to Seven Sisters Spring and found it crowded with swimmers. We followed a nearby spring run as far as we could until the footing on became too difficult due to loose rocks and swift current. One of the vents was unoccupied and we surrounded the elliptical hole where the spring pierced the limestone, straining to photograph the wonders beneath the surface. None of my photos did it justice  it was really quite magical, as I've found ever spring in Florida to be. The colors and textures were fantastic.

Before heading back, I stopped to try to photograph the huge amount of fish that swam in what I imagine was another spring by the campground. The water clarity wasn't good enough to see the spring, but it appeared to be very deep. Throughout the excursion, we passed through huge schools of mullet, flashes of silver mercury streaking under our boats. As the majority of my trips are on freshwater creeks and lakes, it was filling to see the enormous numbers of saltwater fish. It was also clear to me that the growth of the area bordering the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Refuge has had a detrimental  effect on the water quality.

Yucky browns and greens of algae are evidence of water quality issues.

In addition to the beautiful blues of the spring water, and lush green forest there was an abundance of wild flowers in bloom, in particular asters. I found myself drawn to these vibrant stands of purple flowers growing on the banks, again and again. The huge bushes reminded me of azaleas, and they were everywhere.

This half day excursion was just what I needed to break up my "house renovation is taking forever" doldrums. Even the drive from Orlando was fun – passing through large parcels of unspoiled Old Florida always sets me right. Sometimes to break up a funk you just need a splash of color!

A bright red leaf on the bottom of crystal clear waters of a shallow spring run.