A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled “Losing it all to Sprawl: How Progress Ate My Cracker Landscape”. The narrative below this intro is excerpted from that book. It describes my meeting with Zona Mathews Beckwith, whose father originally built my Cracker-style home with a hammer and hand saw in 1928. Her family lived in it until they moved into “town” of Sanford, Fla. in the late 1930’s.
I lived in that home for 15 years, and after I sold it four years ago, I too moved into “town”.
I was very fond of Zona, and felt a strong kinship with her. Even after I moved, we stayed in close touch since she and Art lived only a few blocks away. She was kind and bright and wonderfully unique. And she seemed a reservoir of ineffably sweet memory and caring. For me, she symbolized the very best of a particular place and time that once existed in Florida.
Zona had seemed touched that I had included her in the “Sprawl” book. But in reality, it was I who was deeply moved—and honored— for having known her at all.
Excerpted from “Losing it All to Sprawl: How Progress Ate my Cracker Landscape” :
I know my homestead will one day vanish from the earth, and there are still many things I want to know about it before it does. As I am sifting through all of this, I get a call from a woman with the unlikely first name of “Zona”. She had seen my name in an article in the local Sanford paper. In the piece, I had mentioned living in a ‘Cracker house’ on Sewell Road. Zona took note of this because, as a young girl, she had also lived on what would become Sewell Road.
She looked up my address in the phone book and found that, indeed, I did live in the same home. She wondered if I would mind if she and her husband, Art, came out to see her old home.
Zona had a soft Southern accent and a gentility that had been forged in another time. She and her family, the Mathews, were the first occupants of my home, and when they moved, her father had sold it to the Durak family. ‘I am not sure what a ‘cracker house’ is,” said Zona, “but my daddy was a Cracker and he built it, so I guess that makes it a Cracker house!’
I was struck by the absolute completeness of that moment, of how I begin to ask for information, and how that information in turn made itself available to me, like ancient artifacts newly upturned from the ground. I couldn’t wait to meet her.
We set up a time for Zona and her husband Art Beckwith to visit. Meanwhile, she sent me several old sepia-tinted photos from the era of the homestead. The earliest was of her as a little girl standing next to the house as it was being constructed. In the photograph, she was a toddler, maybe one or so, and was standing by herself in a yard that was full of lumber. Long planks of heart wood cypress were variously leaning against the house or, as tongue and groove siding, had already been nailed onto it. There was a small house or large shed standing nearby.
Tall pines, which looked like long leafs, towered in the background. The roof was not yet on, and the doors and windows and even parts of the walls were unfinished. Both the house and the shed were up a foot or so from the ground atop concrete blocks. There were no electrical or telephone lines or any signs of power tools or other modern conveniences.
Zona the little girl stood, legs apart and lips pursed, a little child’s peaked hat on her head and a bow under her chin, an outfit with long sleeves and short pants. She had a chubby, contented toddler’s face. It was 1928, but it easily could have been a hundred years earlier.
Another photo was taken maybe six or eight months later. Zona was in a little white dress, with socks and sandal-like shoes. The house was finished, and she was standing next to the front porch with her father. She held one tiny chubby arm up in the air, and her father reached to grab it, rather than pulling her to him.
He seemed to be a strong young man, sharp, clear features and a full head of jet black hair, slicked back. He wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t frowning either. He was dressed in tight black pants with a watch bob chain from one pocket, and white shirt with tie. He had taken off his boater-style hat for the photo and was holding it in his left hand. He looked like a man to be reckoned with.
Sewell Road was to the background, and it was only a two-lane rut in the sand then. Behind it, to the west, there was nothing but forests of tall pines.
Zona later wrote a note to me about her own place she knew as a child: “Our road had no name and the house no number. We had no electricity at first. Daddy built the house and cut the wood with a hand saw. He was pretty adept with that, even able to make music with it, and it was great fun for us girls. All the children in the neighborhood gathered on the road in front of our house after school to play ball (usually Daddy was out there with us), hopscotch, hide-and-seek around the house and garage, and various other childhood games. He was a great father. He taught me how to read music and to play the piano.
When we moved into town and left the house, Mama cried. She loved it, too, as we all did. I would love to see the house and see the changes and improvements over the years. And to meet you, another happy occupant.” —————————————————————————————————————-
Zona and her husband Art pull in my driveway this afternoon and I go out to greet them. They are both dressed neaty, almost as if ready for church. Art was once clerk of the circuit court in Seminole County before he retired. Zona raised their family. They are healthy, slender, but somewhat stiff from age, walking cautiously now. Although they look younger, I figure they are close to 80. Both are wearing glasses. Zona is smiling broadly, and it is a nice open smile, as if she is a friend and we are meeting again, after many years away.
This is the first time she has been to the house since she left almost sixty five years ago. They are both clearly happy to be here. Right away, I ask Zona why her family had moved. “We were way out in the country then,’ she said. ‘And I was a young girl getting ready to start high school. So we moved into town so I could have more extra-curriculum activities and such. There just wasn’t much out here at the Lake Monroe School for that sort of thing.”
When Zona says moving into ‘town’, she means Sanford. And despite the scant four mile distance between here and there, in her time, that was a lot of territory to cover.
I take them inside the house and Zona stops in the kitchen and looks around. She is trying to find something she remembers. “I was so little then. It was so long ago.” We walk into the living room. ‘It was turned around,’ she said, meaning the room and most of the bottom floor of the house itself. “After Daddy built it, in the early 1930’s, he added on to it, and then had it picked up off the blocks and turned around.’ The side that now faces the driveway once faced the road itself.
An upper floor had since been added, and the Duraks had put in a fine hardwood floor over the planked pine that was first here. Zona remembers she and her sister playing in a closet here, back when all the walls and ceiling were covered with the narrow batten board. I open the door to the closet under the stairway. Inside it is still lined with batten. She looks at it silently and shakes her head, as if the remembrance is settling in.
We walk outside and Zona takes in the back porch, now enclosed and partially fitted with the jaoulisie windows. ‘The porch used to be open. My sister Evelyn and I used to play on it for hours. We had big chairs there and we would prop up our teddy bears in them. We had a great time.” I look more closely at her now, and see the little girl there in the early photos, still bright eyed, intense, still room for some wonder left to be found in her world.
We circle the house, slowly. “I remember as a little girl playing in a big ol’ concrete culvert or something or the sort. It was almost like a kiddie pool for me, I was so little. Daddy would fill it up with the well that was next to it. It felt so cool in the summertime.” I know the culvert she means, and we walk to the cactus and I pull back the thick bush of privet there. Under it is the mouth of the culvert, nearly a yard wide, and sticking a few feet up out of the ground like a concrete barrel. Next to it is the now-dry artesian well encased in a smaller metal pipe.
When I first moved here, the culvert was empty. I couldn’t figure out a use for it, so I filled it with dirt and planted the seeds I had gathered from rain lillies there. Art and Zona look on at the little ‘pool’, and she smiles now in a different way, more pensive, seeing something as intact as it used to be.
I feel an instant kinship with Zona, almost as if I had known her before, perhaps in another life. But I know it is because she is here and expressing her quiet delight and reverence for a place that I have also come to love. Her experiences here were vastly different from mine–she was a pretty, young independent-minded girl in the remote countryside of Florida coming to know the world for the first time, and I am a middle-aged man. But we have both found solace and peace here in our own ways, and the affection we both feel for it can’t be any more actualized than it is at this very moment.
We sit for a while on the concrete bench. It is cool now, and pleasant to be out. A pair of cardinals flit and chirp sharply nearby from the prevett. A zebra longwing drifts through as if following an unseen trail of infinitesimal updrafts, heat rises too slight even to be felt by the birds.
“Daddy had a garden right over here–a garden of zemias–the butterflies just loved them! And there was a turks cap just like you have–we would take the blossoms and suck the nectar out of them. And there was a fish pond with gold fish in it.” She pauses. “And the nights. I vaguely remember the kerosene lights before the electricity. I loved to read and I would read by it.
“Well, let’s see, what else? Mama would wash our clothes, and boil them. And we didn’t have any plumbing–we had an outhouse, of course. Our neighbors were the Draas, the Fredericks, and two Dunn brothers across the street, and Daddy’s brother Dewey, just to the south of us. Mrs. Frederick was my Aunt Thelma, Daddy’s sister. Daddy came here as a young man from North Florida and worked for the Atlantic Coast Line railroad. So did Mr. Frederick.
‘That’s all anybody did–farmed or worked for the railroad. We had two passenger trains going each way, every day, and of course, there was all the celery and citrus to be shipped and all that. And here on the road, we had chickens and a food garden and shared a cow with Dewey. We’d take turns milking it every day.”
There are so many subtle updrafts that have risen and fallen in Zona’s life here that I feel nearly overwhelmed by the pretense of trying to grasp it in so brief a time. And how bright were the stars in that pure night, and how sweet was the scent of the wisteria with no automobile exhaust to diminish it, and how complete in its quiet was an early Sunday morning in those few precious moments of a false dawn?
I can’t ask these questions with any sense of confidence, and instead I wonder how far the sense of community stretched then. ‘Well, we were outside the edge of the ‘town’ of Lake Monroe. We were probably more associated with Paola. Up on the ‘hard road’ at the corner there was a little general store with a barber shop. We called it ‘Monroe Corner.’ Everyone would go up there, it was a big social place to gather. And the ‘hard road’ was just one lane, you know. If another car or truck was coming, you’d have to pull over to let it pass.”
The old grove was not yet planted, but instead was an open ‘flatland pasture’, left after the long leafs had been logged. “On the other end of that field was the canal—-is it still there?” I tell Zona that it is, and that it still flows down to the St. Johns, draining the historic pine flatwoods as diligently as it always did. “It was cut down deep into the ground, and Evelyn and I would go there and gather clay from the sides of it. We’d bring it back. It was a great treat because you could mold it into things.
“It was a whole different way of life, we just made do with what we had. And we were never afraid of anything, even out here in the woods.” Zona pauses, then re-considers. “Well, there was never anything to be afraid of !”
From somewhere down the street comes a long, loud string of profanity, a mindless bray from one of the slumlord’s feral renters. Zona looks up at me, less embarrassed than I by the outburst, and turns back to the past.
“And we had a whip-poor-will. It sang to us at night. Do you still hear it?”