Thanks to Patrick D. Smith's A Land Remembered, I spent most of yesterday wandering through the Florida of long ago -- a Florida without high rises, condominiums, traffic jams, air conditioning, or Mickey Mouse. It's a Florida of open ranges and wild cattle, river boats and ox carts, hardy men and women known as Crackers, and hardy horses called Marshtackies. It's a Florida, bits of which were still in evidence when I was growing up in the Fifties, and even more bits of which seem to be lurking in my genetic memory.
Smith's book traces the fortunes of the MacIveys, a mythical pioneer family that came to Florida from Georgia in hopes of avoiding being caught up in the conflict of the Civil War. Frustrated in their attempts at farming by the poor soil and the wild creatures that destroy crops and kill livestock, the MacIveys begin rounding up wild cattle to take to the ports and sell. Smith paints a vivid picture of the cow towns and the lawless society that flourished at the time, as well as a bitter-sweet evocation of the natural beauty and rich wildlife of the yet unspoiled land.
We follow three generations of MacIveys through hard times and better times, cattle drives, growing success, the coming of orange groves and railroads, and through it all, the close ties to the land and the acquisition of more and more of that land.
The MacIveys are iconic rather than deeply realistic -- they serve as the vehicle to impart Florida's almost forgotten past. Still, I felt that I recognized these people -- just as my Miss Birdie is an amalgam of several women I knew, the MacIveys encompass many varied experiences.
The book is a terrific read and a painless way to learn some history. In fact, a bowdlerized version is used as a text book in some Florida schools.
Florida's rowdy past may be a surprise to many. Nowadays, Florida is synonymous with sun and sand and Disney, with retirees from the North and urban sprawl and too many people.
But before that, and not so long ago either, Florida was a wild land of swamps and prairies and oak hammocks, of cowboys and farmers and outlaws -- a land every bit as wild as the Wild West.