Franklin County - 25 Years Ago
By Richard E. Noble
I attended a gathering the other evening and the speaker asked the assembled crowd how many of them would like to see Franklin County return to the way it was twenty-five years ago. To my surprise a large number of the attendees raised their hands in eager support of the suggested notion.
Well, since I was here twenty-five years ago, my wife proposed that I should write a little article reflecting on those “glorious days of yesteryear”. So let’s all take a little trip “back to the future”.
Apalachicola twenty-five years ago looked like a ghost town as I remember. Both sides of the main street were for the most part abandoned buildings. Many of the storefronts were boarded up. I remember thinking as we passed through the little town each week on our way to the IGA that there must have been an industry or factory here that had recently closed its doors, like so many other spots we had seen around America, and all the little downtown businesses had gone bankrupt.
The side streets and other roads leading down to the water and the mouth of the river were in no better shape. No one that I knew in those days was calling Apalachicola “quaint” or “rustic”. The older homes weren’t often referred to as Historic or antebellum back then. For the most part they were called po’ or dilapidated, rundown or neglected. A familiar expression would be “ain’t that durn place sorry” or “what a shame” or “ain’t that sad”.
The Gibson Inn (present-day established tourist destination) was there on the corner, but it had been condemned. They were going to tear it down. But some “rich” guy bought it, we had been told. Everybody that I knew considered that rich guy to be some kind of a fool. Why in the world would anyone want that old run down Gibson building?
When my wife and I had saved enough money and decided that we might like to settle here we actually went door to door asking folks if they knew who owned that empty field or that patch out in the “wilderness”. One patch was actually called Wilderness Road and it was considered to be out in the boonies in the “undeveloped” section of Eastpoint.
There were a few well known families who owned just about everything and they weren’t selling anything - at least not to strangers. There wasn’t much of a real estate or construction industry here at that time. We ended up buying our land from a man who was recommended to us by an oysterman. This fellow was not one of the founding fathers and he took payments from oystermen.
Though many of the oystermen who we knew were steady, dependable and reliable, there were many who lived outside of the oystering community who felt otherwise. And seafood workers in general had very little “discretionary” income
Our acre didn’t cost all that much when compared to prices these days. But nevertheless it took all we had and then some.
On rainy days or when the Bay was too rough for oystering we would run over to a greasy-spoon that was on the ground floor at the Gibson and get some grits, eggs, toast and coffee for 99 cents. If you left a quarter under the saucer of your coffee cup everybody was happy; if you left fifty cents they would know your name the next time you stopped in.
There was a little barroom off the main street one block and within walking distance from the water called the Oasis. It was known to be a seafarer’s hangout. The first night we went there, a young lady was talking on a pay phone that was hanging on a wall on the outside of the building. “You’ve got to come down here Gurty,” she screamed joyously into the phone. “This place is great. I just got shot!”
My wife and I both stopped and looked at the young lady. With a few teeth missing, she flashed us a big grin then eagerly rolled up the sleeve on her T-shirt. She had been “winged” and a good flow of blood was running down her arm and over her several tattoos. She had a real neat tattoo of a butterfly and several others less striking.
“Are you okay?” my wife asked not being able to forget her hospital emergency room personality.
“Hell yes! This ain’t nothing. It is going to make a great scar! Don’t ya think?”
“Sure will,” my wife offered in a feigned admiring tone. “It will be neat.”
The Weems hospital over in Apalach was in business in those days, but it didn’t have a really great reputation either. I remember this one story that appeared in the Apalachicola Times. I think the headline was “Man Dies of Stab Wound to the Leg”. I was never one to spend a lot of time reading a newspaper but that headline intrigued me. How does somebody die from a stab wound to the leg, I wondered? It must have been something really complicated. I mean modern medicine has come to that point where a stab wound to the leg is usually curable these days. That must have been a pretty unusual wound I thought. Well, now don’t sue me but what I remember was this.
A young boy over on the “hill” had gotten into a little dispute with his sister. She lost her temper and grabbed a kitchen knife and ran at him. In the melee, she stumbled and inadvertently lodged the kitchen knife into his thigh. She was, of course, distraught over the whole thing and rushed him over to the hospital emergency room. They told somebody their story and were instructed to go and sit in the waiting room.
They sat there waiting patiently until the poor boy fell from his chair and onto the waiting room floor. He was then quickly picked up by an “attentive” employee and rushed into an emergency room. But unfortunately he had lost so much blood sitting in the waiting room that he died. But, I am happy to inform all you Law and Order buffs out there, this incident did not go unnoticed by the proper authorities. The sister of the deceased was immediately apprehended and charged with murder. Thank god for the police department.
So you tried to avoid going to the hospital by not seeing either of the two doctors that practiced over in Apalach. Just plain dying was better than being tortured to death anyway. There were no doctors in the rest of the County as far as I know or remember even if you had enough money to afford one.
The Po’lice Department and the County Jail were also other interesting phenomena. The sheriff at that time was a very nice man as I heard it from some of his guests who often stayed out at his “hotel” for a week or so at a stretch. His first name was Jack. Many of these acquaintances of mine told me that they liked Mr. Jack’s hotel and it served to give them an often needed break from the rigors and stress and strain of life on the outside. They called Mr. Jack’s hotel, Jack’s Jolly Jail.
It seems that the catering was good at Jack’s Jolly Jail and my friends and associates that resided there periodically said that they never wanted for anything while they were on their “vacation” at Jack’s place. Anything that could be had on the outside, I was told, could be had on the inside - without Jack’s knowledge, of course - but nevertheless available one way or another from a friendly innkeeper or relative or whatever.
The budget for the Police Department was probably very reasonable in those days. In Carrabelle they used a telephone booth as their police station and you could only vacation at Jack’s Jolly Jail for so long. They didn’t have reservations in those days and the state couldn’t rent space for any of their favorite guests either. It was first come, first serve. And when a new guest came in, an old one went out - ready or not. There weren’t very many rooms available. Consequently they didn’t arrest a whole lot of people on a regular basis either.
Family squabbles were usually settled within the family. So if the little woman was beating up on the old man once again or vise versa an officer would go over to the house and tell them to knock it off. If after two or three calls the battle continued, either the husband or the wife would be carted off for the evening to sleep it off at Jack’s Jolly Jail. My guess is that on most of these occasions the judge was not even brought into this business.
Pot growing and smoking was always a criminal consideration but as I understand it - only at election times. Most of the year, the folks that I knew bought and sold pot and handled their problems by beating or shooting one another when it became necessary. Hardly ever did they have to bring the police into it - never mind the judge. Besides if you were going to arrest everybody who bought, sold or smoked pot, my god, you would have the whole darn County in jail as I understood it.
So in those days most of the “criminals” in Franklin County were out walking the streets and if they wanted to take up residence here on the outside, they had to pay rent just like everybody else. All the housing was affordable - even if it wasn’t sanitary or all that healthful - but nothing was free not even for criminals. If they had a leaky roof they had to go steal enough money or sell enough pot to fix it themselves - it was the same for their teeth and their Doctor bills. You might say that we had a completely laissez-faire type economy back then.
Most people that visited the area stayed in campgrounds or fish camps or with friends. There weren’t a lot of motels or hotels or “cottages” out on the Island in those days.
Business people didn’t complain about the quality or reliability of the “help” in those days. They didn’t usually have enough business to need any help other than the wife and some of the relatives when necessary. If for any reason a large number of people came to town, most businesses and eateries closed down - they didn’t want all the aggravation.
Most people, as high as 85%, worked in the seafood industry way back then. The work was hard, the pay was poor and the benefits were nil. Yet there was never any recorded unemployment in Franklin County. One reason was because Franklin County had no unemployment office. You could be unemployed if you wanted - but nobody was going to know about it. Besides everyone in the seafood industry was “self-employed” or “contracted” labor - which meant basically that you were not entitled to unemployment compensation or workman’s compensation. So even if you had an unemployment office, why in the heck would you want to go there? We still don’t have any unemployment office here - and our employment rate is still recorded as very low.
Most seafood workers that I knew were not all that eager to “hand down” what they had learned to their children. They all hoped that their children would get an education and learn to do something more lucrative. Most hoped for a richer and more prosperous community so that their kids would not have to go off to some distant land, like Tallahassee, to earn their living.
As far as self-employment and contracted labor goes, I always thought Franklin County was behind the times on this type business. But as I understand it we were really ahead of the rest of the nation. I read just recently in an economic journal that by the year 2020 it is estimated that between fifty and sixty percent of American workers will be either contracted labor or ‘self-employed”. The rest, if I am any judge of present American business trends will probably be working part-time with no benefits just like the “self-employed” and the “contracted”. It is kind of like the 1930’s all over again. Ah yes, the roaring 30’s. No, I’m sorry, it was the roaring 20’s. It was the snoring 30’s with bread lines and soup kitchens. I like both bread and soup - and for free! I can hardly wait.
The volunteer fire department was run much more economically back then. They didn’t have all this “fancy” equipment like they do today. In fact, in Eastpoint they used to pull a water truck behind the old fire truck with a discarded shrimp boat mooring line. Oh yeah, there were no fire hydrants in most places either. It was a rather slow operation, getting the mooring line hooked up and all; so usually by the time they got to the house that was burning, it was beyond saving. So they would hose down the surrounding area and soak it as best they could to keep the nearby property owners happy.
There was no darn fire tax either. Instead of taxing everybody they more or less depended on good will or charity. That’s how they got the mooring rope and the used, leaky water truck in the first place, I would imagine.
Road paving wasn’t a big expense back then. And they kept the cost down by simply not paving most of the roads. They kept the dust down with spay trucks.
I liked living on a dirt road. I didn’t care about fire hydrants either. The strategy was to live in a dwelling that didn’t cost so much to build so that if it burned down you could afford to replace it yourself - you didn’t need FEMA, the National Guard and Lloyds of London to insure it. And if you had half a brain at all - you didn’t build a darn mansion out on a barrier reef; what are you just plain dopey or what?
There was a Goodwill store here in Eastpoint once but most of the stuff that they sold was too expensive for most Eastpointers. It closed down.
We didn’t waste a lot of money on the Humane Society in those days either. For a while there was some kind of “animal hugger” that set up sidewalk feeding stations for all the stray cat, kittens and mange infested “independent” dogs over in Apalach. He called them dog and cat cafes.
Mangy, sick and diseased dogs wandered all over Apalach, Eastpoint and Carrabelle. They had some out on the Island too. Every temporarily abandoned dock or wooden structure had a mangy dog living under it. When I asked the local authority what to do about a mange infested dog that had taken up residence under my trailer, he told me that if it didn’t have any dog tag I could just shoot it.
So there you have it. D’ems was the good old days that everybody’s longing for these days. Yes sir “take me back; to my home ... back to those Country roads, la la lala, la la la”
When we reflect on the past it usually appears much prettier than it actually was. If you lived through a past of any kind, the very fact that you are now still alive and kicking makes your memory of what happened seem not all that bad. Those of us who remember a horrible past as it actually was often end up in mental institutions suffering from severe depression or find ourselves on some sort of medication. So, I guess it is good not to remember the past accurately - especially if it was bad.
Most of the people in that room the other evening who were wishing for the Franklin County of twenty-five years ago most likely don’t have the memories that I have of Franklin County 25 years past. And I have no doubts that even though we were neighbors back then as we are now, they wouldn’t want to go back 25 years and live in my Franklin County.
I imagine those who are reflecting nostalgically, with a little tear in the corner of their eye about the way things used to be, were all escaping to Franklin County. To them coming to this County was a step into the past; it was unique, different even romantic. But for those who actually lived and survived here in Franklin County it really wasn’t all that romantic and their dreams were not of stepping back into the past but hopefully to move ahead to a better and more prosperous future. Most of those who survived here in that anachronistic past feel that prosperity may be here and knocking on Franklin County’s door. To turn their back is to give up a long held dream of a better future, and better lives for their children.
I suffer from conflicting aspirations. As always I want all the good things that I remember from the past sprinkled with the sparkle of all the dreams and hopes of a better and more prosperous future. Then again there always remains “Hobo-ing America”. On the road one has no time to build picket fences or to worry about the neighbors. There is new hope everyday just over the next horizon.