Letter from Florida, January 24, 1876

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Letters from Florida

To the Editor of the Caledonian:

WOODLAND, FLA., Jan. 24, ‘76.

DEAR SIR: We arrived in Savannah, Sunday night, and left there Monday morning. What attracted our attention the most was the police of the city. They were all dressed in gray, and were all armed as either infantry or cavalry. I was told by a citizen that they had all been in the Confederate army.

The route to Jacksonville by land, passes through a very uninteresting region of pine forests, and crosses the Ogeebee, Altamahah and Suwanee river. An occasional turpentine still and a small village, or a station without any village, were to be seen. At one station where we stopped, Richardson said the only visible things were hogs. Arriving at Jacksonville about ten o’clock, P.M., we stopped at the St. John’s House, kept by Mrs. Hudnall. Over the door of the dining-room was the motto, “The Lord will Provide;” and we judged by the appearance of the table, that it was left almost entirely to him. The St. James and St. Johns hotels report more guests than ever before at this time of the year, but the other houses are not as full as usual. They say that the weather north has not been cold enough to drive northerners from home; but the rush never comes till February and March.

There are reported to be more thieves, gamblers, and loose women in Jacksonville, than ever before.

Mr. J.S. Adams, (formerly of Vermont.) who is the postmaster here, has been quite sick for some time. I am informed that his old tailing still follows him. Silsby and Moore we found at the Mettaire House, apparently in good health. There are reported to be more thieves, gamblers, and loose women in Jacksonville, than ever before. There was considerable stir about a concert (local singers) to aid some charitable purpose, and ex-Senator Fenton was to open the exercises with a few remarks.

Wrecks of the Maple Leaf and Genl. Hunter.
Wrecks of the Maple Leaf and Genl. Hunter.

Wednesday morning we took the steamer David Clark, and went up the St. Johns (south) to Polatka. The weather was fine, with just breeze enough on the river to make a light overcoat comfortable when out on deck. At Mandarin, fifteen miles above Jacksonville, we saw Mrs. Stowe’s cottage, and her “Tree,” which entirely overshadows the house. She has a fine orange grove, but her house is not nearly as conspicuous as a Mr. Kings, from Newark, N.J. Near Palatka we saw the walking-beam of the “Maple leaf,” projecting out of the water. This was a U.S. transport, and was sunk by torpedoes during the war.

 

Colonel Hart's orange grove
Colonel Hart’s orange grove

For ten miles this side of Palatka, there are young orange groves scattered along, that have been set out since the war. They are now coming into bearing, and are quite valuable. Palatka is a place of about 1,000 inhabitants, on the west side of the river, has three hotels, several boarding-houses, whole-sale and retail stores, court house, jail, drug stores, post and telegraph offices, etc. Hart’s orange grove is across the river. This grove, owned by Col. H.L. Hart, (formerly of Vermont,) is not the largest or best grove in Florida, but perhaps is the most noted, as it is the most accessible, and consequently the most seen. In this grove are five or six hundred trees set from fifteen to eighteen feet apart, being so near that the branches interlock and shade the ground, so that no sun-light strikes the soil. This is too close, and people are now setting them from 21 to 25 feet apart. During the war this grove was much neglected, or abused, so that at the close a person told me one could have drawn every tree on a two-horse wagon at one load. Since then it has been cared for and has grown fast. The annual crop is about 1,000 oranges to a tree, or from 400,000 to 600,000 in all. Col. Hart sells them very high, say from three to six cents each. I understand he has refused an offer of $60,000 for the grove, and it is easy to see that it pays more than ten per cent, on that amount. Of course he gets a high price for his oranges, as every one that sees them buys some, and if they don’t come next winter they send for a barrel, for Florida oranges are much better than Messina or Havanna, and sell higher in market. The average number allowed him to the tree does not come near up to the mark of some individual cases. A tree on Little Lake George, three years ago, bore 4,500 oranges by actual count, and two years ago it was fuller than before. This year Mrs. Stevens at Weloka, five miles from here, sold the fruit from one tree for $90. Several years ago the crop from one tree in the Reed grove on Lake Munroe, was sold for $140.

The orange tree has two enemies, frost and the scale insect. During the last three winters there have been no freezes to do any great damage, and the “orange fever” has increased every year, so that while in other states real estate has fallen at least one-third in value, here it has doubled.

Steamer David Clark
Steamer David Clark

The David Clark left Palatka about midnight, and arrived a Welaka (where we landed) about tour A.M. Welaka (signifying a chain of lakes, and the Indian name for the St. Johns river,) used to be an old Indian, and afterwards a Spanish town, of considerable importance, being situated on the east side of the river opposite the month of the Ocklawaha. There used to be several stores and wharves here, and when the war opened there were several hundred barrels of crude turpentine piled on one of them, but the Rebels burned them all to prevent its falling into the hands of the Yankees. The moon was shining bright as day, and having had a little coffee and a sandwich before leaving the boat, we started off, for a walk through the pine woods to my place, for five miles distant, where we arrived about daylight. But the moon was so bright that it was hard to tell when daylight came.

Woodland is situated on the fruitland peninsula, which is formed by the St. Johns river on the west, Dunn’s creek and lake on the east. The creek which is the outlet of the lake, empties into the river about eight miles above Palatka, and is about ten miles long, and very winding. The lake is about sixteen miles long, making the peninsula almost twenty miles long and seven wide. We are situated about five miles from the river, and two from the lake. The steamer Lollie Bay makes a trip to the lake once a week. Steamers go by Welaka on the river every day. I suppose that the highest point on the peninsula may be 100 feet above the river. The surface is partly level near the river, but out here it is gently rolling, with numerous ponds of fresh water full of black bass, and more or less alligators. Richardson found one about eight feet long Friday in a pond one-fourth mile from our house, and now that “gator” will not have any peace till something happens to him.

The soil is sandy and nearly all covered with a heavy growth of the long leaved (hard) pine. There is no underbrush in the forest, but quite a growth of wire grass, which burns off every year so that there are not a great many flowers in the woods. It has been very dry here, and the fires came earlier than usual. The night before we arrived, part of my fence was burned, and the old stubs of trees continues to burn for several days. The first night here it seemed as if we were in New York; at least we could look out and see several hundred lights. Occasionally the wind would detach a limb or piece of bark on fire, and send it whizzing away into the darkness, scattering a train of sparks like a sky-rocket.

Last Sunday I went to church at Mrs. White’s, one-half mile distant, and heard a very good sermon from a Mr. Woodworth of Illinois. About twenty-five persons were present, not as many as usual. I find many settlers have come in since I left, two years ago. We have a butcher’s cart once a week. A blacksmith shop has just been put up, a ready-made clothing store and three grocery stores within two miles. Schools are partly supported by the county and partly by the scholars, so that we can have schools whenever we have the children.

There are two ways of making an orange grove. One is to plant the seeds of sweet oranges, and the tree very often bears in seven years, from the seed. This is said to be about the only seed that produces the same kind of fruit as that planted. Mr. Hutchinson, on Dunn’s lake, claims that it improves every time it is planted. The other way is to dig up the wild or sour tree, cut off the top and set it out. It generally sends forth four to six shoots, and when they are as large as one’s little finger, (which is in four to twelve months,) bud with a sweet bud from some known good variety. If the bud lives, then all the sour shoots are cut off so as to force all the sap into the sweet one. Trees have been known to bear in two years from the bud.

But the best results on any scale I have known, have been attained by Mr. Charles Drew of this place. Four years ago next April, he set out 81 stumps which he obtained from a sour grove, twenty miles from here. Seventy-nine of them lived, and were budded the next year. The past year six of them bore oranges and I presume all will bear this year. This resulted from a great deal of care, and a judicious use of fertilizers; and while he was doing this hundreds of others lost three-fourths of their stumps. Six years ago Mr. C.L. Robinson made the statement that a good bearing orange tree was worth $100, and was laughed at; but now people begin to think it true. There are two kinds of wild oranges, the sour and the bitter-sweet. The sour has a little bitter taste in the pulp, and the bitter-sweet has a sour juice, so that they only differ in degree. It is not known whether the wild orange is indigenous to Florida or not, but is generally supposed that it is not.

Wild orange grove
Wild orange grove

There are generally found traces of Indians near the wild groves, and it is generally believed that the Spaniards brought them from Spain and planted the seed here. Then the Indians obtained the seed and scattered it through the state but mostly between the 29° and 31° north latitude. The wild groves are mostly found on the banks of rivers or lakes, but not always. The wild trees grow very crooked and very tall. Of course the quickest way is to go into a wild grove and bud without transplanting, but all the good ones within reach of navigation have been taken or bought long ago. A great many stumps are stolen from these every year, and carried long distances in the sun so that many of them die.

HORACE K. IDE.

Originally published in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian on February 4, 1876.

Letters from Florida

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