Thursday, September 8, 2011

Florida Before Mickey Mouse

Sunrise off Cocoa Beach

I miss a Florida that—maybe—never was. But I have distinct memories of days before the state was swallowed by Mickey Mouse, when the Keys were a place to get away from it all, and no one knew what a condominium was.
My family’s Florida roots go deep. My grandfather discovered Florida’s beaches and fishing around 1900. The family had a place, more of a camp than a home, on Perdido Bay where Florida meets Alabama. His photo albums reflect men with their pants rolled up to the knees with very long strings of large trout.
He loved Florida, and started a weekly newspaper out of a print shop in Molina, near Pensacola. It didn’t last, but he stuck with Florida for the rest of his life.
As a young adult my father visited him, almost always for the fishing and the interesting people who hung out in the bays and bayous. One of his old photos shows him standing on the pier at Pensacola looking at a bay filled with working sailing vessels.
He told stories of a beachcomber who wore dresses. People thought it odd at the time, but he was just one of the local beach characters. The year was 1910.
He had to take a boat to get to Pensacola Beach, as there were no bridges then.
Later, when a massive hurricane destroyed the railroad bridge into the keys in the 1920s, my father went down on a rescue boat. He saw a man’s body impaled on a telephone pole and never forgot it.
By the 1920s my grandfather moved to Miami to work for the Herald as a proofreader. He had a heart attack there and died, and is buried in a cemetery just off the TaMiami Trail—back then the only road to the west coast.
My first visits came in the 1940s as a child to the Gulf Coast beaches, and then to central Florida where my aunt and uncle lived in an old farm house in a citrus grove near Ocala. It was the year Hank Williams’ record “Honky Tonkin’” was a big hit. There was a packing house on the railroad and a general store.
I accompanied my father as he traveled Florida on business. He would reward me for not being a pest by taking me to any tourist attraction we passed on our way to his appointments. I became an expert on Silver Springs, then the biggest attraction in the state, and particularly on Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute where I watched amazed as the man milked rattlesnakes and water moccasins, and the Seminoles wrestled alligators. I loved the mermaids at Weeki Watchie Springs.

My mother father in the 1930s near Daytona Beach
We took day-long drives down very straight two-lane roads, often surrounded by orange groves. On hot days (this was before air conditioning) we would stop at the Suwanee River and take a swim. In fact, any good creek crossing was an excuse to stop and get wet in rural interior Florida in the summer.
Eventually my father moved to Coral Gables and I would spend every summer there. Hanging out with my father in the early 1950's at Crandon Park in Miami
Our idea of a big deal vacation was to go to North Miami Beach and spend the Fourth of July in a cheap motel right on the ocean. If my dad had a few more days off he would take me down to Islamorada and we would fish off the bridges, hanging over the side and being careful not to step back into the path of the few automobiles that passed us by.
Coral Gables was a great place for a twelve-year-old. I could ride a city bus to the best swimming pool in the state—the Venetian Pool—or walk to the Coliseum where I learned to ice skate.
I finally moved to Florida to live as an adult, to work for the same newspaper my grandfather had worked for four decades earlier, but assigned to a bureau office in Cocoa.
The highway from Orlando still had oyster shell shoulders in 1965, but the space program was booming and it was an exciting time to live on the beach and watch the world change.
Cocoa Beach was a party town, just suited to an ex-Army guy looking for a good time with late dinners at Wolfie’s and dancing to the bands at the Carnival Club.
I found a treasure on the beach, married her, and started a family from our first home—three bedrooms on a canal on Merritt Island purchased at a premium price of $21,000.
Once the bridge was built across Sebastian Inlet I would take off at night to fish with friends, hanging from the bumpers as the tide ripped along underneath us, trying to catch a snook, any snook. Never did.
We were there when Walt Disney began to build his dream in the Palmetto scrub, changing the state forever.
Our Florida days were numbered, but we managed to stay a few more years, moving from Cape Canaveral to Tallahassee, a different kind of Florida, and then to Fort Myers. At that time there was one condo on the beach, and lots of small motels and rental cottages.
We left the state when new opportunities came up, and have returned periodically to see how the place manages to survive.
Most of the things we enjoyed are gone.
The funky beach towns now are polished and expensive.
The Florida Keys have been so urbanized you can’t tell where Miami stops.
Cocoa Beach has been through so many boom and bust cycles no one remembers where the astronauts used to drink late at night, or which car dealer loaned them red, white and blue Corvettes when they were assigned to fly into space.
The beaches no longer allow driving, which is probably a good thing.
The manatees are making a comeback which is definitely a good thing.
The broad expanse of open beaches has been walled off by condominiums that sit empty most of the time.
Tingley’s Fish Camp on the Intra Coastal Waterway no longer is a hangout for fishermen, and doesn’t serve great seafood the way it once did. The mega-yachts have taken over.
But the old fish camp in the mangrove along the Indian River just south of Melbourne Beach is still there, with the weird chickens and the dog that retrieves conch shells from deep in the water.
And if you take a long enough walk along the beach after high tide near Sebastian Inlet you can still smell Florida as it once was, and feel the wind blow, and not hear anything but the cry of the gulls.
In Florida Bay off the Everglades in 2005

(Credit for this article, and the editing that helped it, go to Florence Poor of Melbourne, Florida, who publishes "The Contributor" a quarterly. She recently celebrated a big birthday among friends, and threatens to retire. I hope she won't.)