W. J. Nesbitt visits Fort Drum and Tantie (Okeechobee)



The following is from the St. Lucie County Tribune, a weekly Fort Pierce, Florida publication. The first article is dated Jan. 31, 1908, the second February 7. W. J. Nesbitt was the St. Lucie County Superintendent of Public Instruction. Transcription by Kyle S. VanLandingham



Superintendent Nesbitt Describes the Fort Drum Country

A Very Fertile Section

An Interesting Account of the People and Places in the Great Undeveloped Portion of St. Lucie County

Editor Tribune:

Having just completed a very interesting trip inspecting the western schools of our county it occurs to me that some account of its happenings may be of interest to your readers, who are not all familiar with the valuable and fertile portion of the county lying beyond the Alapattah flats and with its hospitable and large hearted people.

Leaving Fort Pierce with a well appointed single rig I was soon nearing the outskirts of our immediate western surroundings. I could not but note the great number of dwellings, far and near, between the town and Five Mile. The possibilities of our pine woods land are certainly being tested by the good people settled here. The vigorous growth of vegetables, bananas and pineapples attest what can be done with these fertile lands. The development following the drainage expenditure of the Florida East Coast railway at the Five Mile marsh are not visible from the road followed but the possibilities of this immense area of prairie and saw grass will soon begin to be a large factor in the output of our section. Passing the productive and neatly kept farm of J. A. Franklin, from whom I got my last "sailing directions" before plunging into the "great beyond." I was soon in site of the fine grove of the Allapattahatchee Fruit and Vegetable Company, managed by E. S. Williams. This magnificent property stands in the lead of the development of the orange industry in this section. The fine and convenient buildings attest the confidence the owners have in its future. I regretted very much that the long journey westward still before me prevented a short call on friend Sidney and a closer look at the results of his faithful labors for so many years. This St. Lucie river bottom land, which is ideal for the orange is rapidly becoming one vast grove and soon the question of transportation to the railway, now serious for many, will demand and certainly should have the attention of the country. Passing at some distance the comfortable home Mrs. [Reuben (Elizabeth Crews)] Carlton with its surrounding of heavily bearing orange and grapefruit trees, I began to enter the bottomland of the upper St. Lucie, or Ten Mile creek as this branch is called. This creek is the outlet for the rainfall of an immense area known as the Allapattah flats, which is a shallow lake over a large part of its area and contains a Cypress Swamp known as the Big Cypress. Crossing both its forks on substantial county bridges, I entered the flats at a point of least submergence, and with the water often within a few inches of my buggy bottom, wound among cypress knees and water grasses for about three miles--this experience being the unavoidable initiation to the things beyond.

Soon the going improved and islands of pine began to occur giving short stretches of good flat woods road to break the monotony. The largest of these, called Eagle island, terminates at a distance of about fifteen miles from Fort Pierce, is a favorite camping ground for the weary teamsters, who slowly traverse this semblance of a road with heavy loads of oranges and grapefruit from the groves situated on fertile hammock islands out in the prairie far beyond even this point. This "hotel" in the woods with its walls of green topped pines and its canopy of blue Heaven has just been furnished with a pump through the thoughtfulness of Commissioner [Keightly B.] Raulerson, so that campers will not have to hunt for pond water when making their stops. Stopping for a short rest and to feed I again pushed on--now with a lessening number of pine islands in sight and a slightly higher level country the endless ponds becoming less frequent. This point, which is called Camp Cypress, is an important junction of roads of the country, for from here bearing off in an air line to the southwest can be traced the double row of stakes indicating the newly surveyed road to Tantie, twenty miles away as the crow flies. The Morgan hammock road also commences here and a little farther on the Bassinger road to the southwest and the Alderman hammock road to the north leave the main road to Fort Drum. The names out here are suggestive, soon after starting I passed through Dinner island but having lunched I kept right on, my first objective point being to pass to the north of two large cypress heads known as the "Blue Mountains," ---in this flat country it requires but a slight stretch of the imagination to make them such.

Near the junction at camp cypress I had passed the corral or cattlepen of the East Coast Cattle Company, who supply the entire Coast with beef pastured in this limitless prairie. After passing the "Blue Mountains" I met the first obstruction in this land of liberty. A barb wire fence which faded away into endless distance to the north and south. Passing through a gap for the road and carefully closing the gate, I found the road improving and also the character of the prairie. The islands here are largely cabbage palms and the appearance of the country is very beautiful. Cattle become more numerous and another corral is passed. The road approaches a clump of cypress beautifully draped in the grey moss always found on these trees and right into this weird and uncanny place it went by an entrance scarce wide enough for the buggy. Winding through this gloomy grove one emerges suddenly into a broad prairie again but with the pine woods in the distance, and soon evidences of good road word indicate that the worst is past and that I am in the great middle country of this part of the State. Mile after mile of fine pinewoods and then a house. The first since the Carlton home so many miles behind. Then an ox team jogging slowly along was overtaken and the driver informed me it was about two miles to Fort Drum--very welcome news indeed for both the horse and I were tired.

fort_drum_1912_t.jpg (9202 bytes) Click on the photo of Fort Drum to read about and see photos of early Fort Drum from Chapter 3 of  History of Okeechobee County by Kyle VanLandingham and Alma Hetherington.

I soon reached the settlement which is one of the oldest in this section dating as an important point in the Seminole war. Entering the village the neat school building shows up prominently in the midst of its square acre, thoroughly fenced and free from weeds and obstructions of every kind--how I longed for just half of it for our 200 children in Fort Pierce--the noon hour difficulties would be eliminated. At the store I found Harley Holmes, who took charge of me for the night at his hospitable home.

Fort Drum possesses some small but fine old orange groves which are now loaded with fruit which is being shipped by mule team to Kissimmee, a distance of seventy-five miles. It takes nine days to make the round trip, the teams bringing supplies for the store and the settlers on their return.

This will give some idea of the isolation of this section owing to want of transportation facilities. Usually, an outlet is found by steamer up the Kissimmee river from Bassinger, this reducing the haul fully one-half. But at best it is bad enough and with the Kissimmee nearly dry, as it is now, and no boats running, the settlers are badly handicapped and further development is discouraged.

The country between the prairie I had just crossed and the Kissimmee prairie is fine high pine land with many oak ridges of first-rate orange land, and the higher portions of the prairies to the extent of tens of thousands of acres could be brought into cultivation for general farming--this would then be the very wealthiest portion of the State.

Next morning after my arrival I determined to commence my inspection duties by a visit to the Olney school, about eight miles north of Drum.

One thing this country possesses is the best of roads, and this trip was made with speed and comfort. On the way I passed the home places of Henry Holmes, Redding Swain and Robert McLaughlin--all substantial citizens and large owners of cattle on the nearby ranges. It was a matter of regret that regard for the county's finances necessitated my making the best time consistent with my school duties and rendered it impossible to call on them during this trip.

Some four miles out of Drum I passed the Midway school house, not in use this winter owing to some of the settlers having moved away. At last the Olney school came in sight--a lonely building with not another house to be l seen. I found the little people with their plucky teacher hard at work and progressing favorably. After a brief inspection started on another long half mile to meet J. T. Padgett, the supervisor. After a pleasant visit with him and a talk over plans for the betterment of the school I turned my team towards Drum again, taking on the way a snap shot view of this little school house in the wilderness and its band of future presidents and other possibilities.

midway_school_t.jpg (7779 bytes) Click on the photo for a larger view of the Midway School about 1911

Arriving at Fort Drum for the afternoon session, I was sorry to find the school sadly reduced in numbers owing to an almost epidemic of grip among the pupils. Families dependent upon the spring work on the ranges had also began to move away to the prairies and our fine school was reduced to very small dimensions. The work shown however was of good character and the future seems to point to the advisability of a graded school here with wagon routes to bring in the outlying pupils. The school officers and teacher certainly deserve the highest praise for the condition which I found the building and grounds. Refusing the allurements of a syrup boiling at a nearby farm, which I would, if less tired, have enjoyed very much. I again spent the night with Mr. Holmes and got an early start for the Alex Sloan settlement, which I merely knew was somewhere in the southwest between Drum and the county boundary. Full of kindly instructions and faith in my general plan of following my nose I struck out and soon found myself out on the immense Kissimmee prairie, which at this point stretches unbroken to the river of that name over 20 miles away. Far away to the southwest the tops of timber line I must reach was visible and finding a good road, where, were it not for the "bull holes" pawed here and there by the range cattle, an automobile could safely make fifty miles an hour, I struck a trot and soon had the timber getting larger. On this magnificent expanse of high prairie the cattle are quite numerous and look in good condition. I saw dozens of cute little calves looking wonderfully at the buggy and then their tails in the air scampering off to their mothers, who would generally take up the chase and run off to a safe distance. Reaching the timber I soon found my proper turning at the old Raulerson place, now occupied by Mr. Potter whose good lady informed me that I still had three and one half miles of due "westing" to make before reaching the school. This was soon covered and after bumping off from the main road for a quarter of a mile over palmetto roots, I reached a structure which would certainly not be used by our school authorities for a model. Built many years ago--when nature alone and without much aid from man furnished the only material available. It was built of small logs and the roof covered with shingles. Floored with rough planks and with only the door for light, it was the best that could be done. The chinking between the logs is imperfect and in many places gone, as are numbers of pieces from the gable ends and with only the door and these cracks for light the difficulties the teacher has to face would stagger most I am afraid.

For years there has been no school here but the need was made so clear to the board this term that it was re-established and furnished with desks and seats, and the fine, new single desks from Grand Rapids look very odd in their rough surroundings indeed. However, surroundings such as these are what bring out the true gold in the human character. I was pleased to find as good a school here as any in the county. A plucky teacher who walks a mile each way every day, keeps dry by the aid of a pair of high, rubber boots and with as orderly and interesting a lot of little people as were ever got together; and you should have heard that fifth grade read.

These pioneer teachers deserve our gratitude. With few of the appliances and none of the city comforts of the larger schools they accomplish results that place their work equal to the best. Crude methods of illustration have to be used constantly, but it is right here that the true teacher shows up. One great point in the success of this school is the interest of the patrons. They are with the teacher in all things and strengthen her hands, making her task a labor of love--how often we see the opposite the case!

Driving on to Alex Sloan's place for the night, I had my first experience of a deep ford--unwarned as to its depth--a gully which I had to cross almost had my horse down, but a few lunges got us out safely.

The weather had turned quite cold and at Mr. Sloan's we enjoyed a fire built in the large fireplace made of prairie clay in the end of the house. Here I passed a pleasant evening with these warm-hearted, friendly people. Mr. Sloan fed my horse with corn and fodder by himself and we enjoyed meat and syrup of his own making.

The simple, healthful life of this country is reflected in the healthy, well grown children, and it is a national outrage that the land they live on cannot be obtained by them, the title being in most cases involved by some railway or canal grant which deprives the settler of his homestead privilege. They are therefore merely squatters, and while not in any immediate danger of being turned out of their homes, the incentive to improve their very own property is lacking and the solid improvement of the country is held back.

This condition also prevents the board of education from doing what it would wish to do for these people. The state law says no money can be expended for school building purposes unless the title to the land is vested by warranty deed in the board of education. We therefore can only help them to extent of seating and furnishing whatever building their means will enable them to offer us.

Next morning proved bright and crisp and I got away early for my drive to Tantie.

Next week we will again take up this subject, and give the details of our trip to Tantie, the many delights of the new and unknown country, our visit to Lake Okeechobee, and the return to Fort Pierce. Yours very truly

W. J. Nesbitt






Superintendent Nesbitt Continues His Interesting Account

Wonderful Country


The Wealth That Lies Hidden in This Land of the Seminole. The Great Lake Okeechobee.


In your last issue my account of the trip to the western part of the county terminated with the stop I made at the hospitable home of Alex Sloan.

Next morning proved bright and crisp and I got away early for my drive to Tantie. East again to [Weyman W.] Potter's and then south on a fine road with excellent bridges 10 miles to Tantie. This road from Fort Drum to Tantie--some 25 miles--would be worth $75,000 on our river front and it has cost these good people only a few hundreds. If it were not for an occasional hole pawed by the cattle, one need never break trot the whole distance. The country near the Taylor's Creek bridge is fine high pine land and the prairie from there to Tantie could be cut up into a thousand fine farms which would produce all the general crops of the south. Arriving at Tantie about noon I spent the afternoon session at the school finding a very fair building remarkably complete and convenient for such a far away point as this. I found the little people very busy and doing very nicely by an interested teacher. I was sorry to find the advanced pupils temporarily absent and was therefore unable to judge as thoroughly of the work as I would have wished. The lady teacher [Tantie Huckaby] here is held in high and deserved esteem by the patrons. Some seven years ago when the settlement was in its infancy she occupied this same position and the place was named after her. It is not often that kindly feelings toward our teachers find expression in such a lasting way.

tanti_school_t.jpg (20335 bytes) Click on the photo for a larger view of the Tantie school house constructed in 1909.

Here I found myself the guest of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Raulerson the pioneers, and a very kindly welcome they gave me, evincing the true Southern hospitality which I have everywhere met during this trip. Lewis Raulerson is the merchant here and all are fortunate enough to own their own land have made substantial improvements which give character and permanence to the settlement--cattle owners on a large scale. Mr. Raulerson also is a large owner in a saw mill and has a nice little grove and cane patch. At this point on Taylor's Creek the county has established a ferry lighter crossing to the new road in direct line for camp Cypress on the Fort Drum road. To the east of the creek, Mr. [Henry Hudson] Hancock has established a home. I regret having missed him as he was absent on a hunt.

My horse needing a rest I determined to devote one day to visiting Lake Okeechobee, which I had heretofore had no opportunity to do although 25 years a resident of the East Coast. Fate seemed against me however for the town's supply of gasoline was entirely exhausted and I was unable to avail myself of the offer of Peter Raulerson's fine launch which he had placed at my disposal. I was not to be beaten that way, however, and borrowing a skiff I set off to work through the lettuce in the river [Taylor's Creek] and reach the lake. The day was perfect and enjoying every minute I fought my way slowly around bend after bend at last reaching open water where I could row freely. The weird beauty of this cypress bordered stream is beyond the power of description. For the most of the way the banks are well defined and the giant cypress with their spreading roots rise to a height of fifty or sixty feet to meet overhead interlocking their moss draped branches. Mingling with them are beautiful bright green soft maples and other smaller trees all fully leafed out in their spring mantles. The stream winds in and out doubling back upon itself until you really seem traveling in a circle--each curve bringing change and new object of interest--at last the stream begins to broaden into fine reaches deep and wide bordered far out with lily pads and water lettuce and every now and then off to one side bayous open up winding away into the distance and for the most part quite filled up with aquatic plants. Ducks were numerous and at one point a fine large otter--knowing I had no gun--slid in just ahead of me and dove away to safety. Some two miles from the outlet

I passed the tent of Dr. Young, from Tennessee, who with a companion is spending the winter here in search of health and recreation--of a kindly disposition he does many good turns professionally for the settler and I was informed he was expecting to amputate a foot on the morrow for a snake bitten Seminole Indian. I regret not meeting him as he was gone to some distant point on the lake in his launch.

lewis_raulerson_store_1905_t.jpg (12518 bytes) Click on the photo of the Lewis Raulerson store to read about and view photos of Okeechobee in 1896 - 1917 in Chapter 4 of History of Okeechobee County.

The last reach of the river opening out directly into the lake is very fine the huge cypress on the banks giving the scene all the effect of a high and rolling shore. Okeechobee is a fine body of water, forty miles across by sixty in length and has depth of 60 to 100 feet at no great distance out. Of course nothing of the other shore can be seen and the view to lakeward might well be the ocean. Passing a deserted fishing camp at the entrance of the river I rowed out about half a mile so as to get a good look up and down the shores. To the westward the view was bounded by Lookout Point ten miles away--the shore presenting an almost unbroken margin of cypress timber, which rolled away like a border of rounded hills ending in the point beyond where the Kissimmee River enters the lake. In the opposite direction much the same prospects meets the eye, the cypress is perhaps higher and the effect of a bold shore line more strongly suggested as it rolls away to the eastern horizon and sinks below---a few bold clumps appearing above the surface as though they were mountains "hull down." Looking directly shorewards the river mouth from which had just come made a very pretty picture as it receded in a long reach inland its surface dotted with lettuce and great floating islands of water hyacinth slowly finding their way to the lake to drift off to destruction on its mighty expanse. The only indication of human presence was the lonely palmetto fish camp on the west point at the entrance but presently by looking closely I caught a glimpse of a house roof under the cypress margins a mile or so westward. Determined to see what lonely mortal had planted his roof tree there, I rode over and soon made out a few well loaded orange trees standing out bright yellow and green against the dismal background of cypress and found a small pole house with the usual "rived" shingle roof, no windows and a door consisting mostly of a piece of canvas, at the end was a mud chimney and a small porch made of the same homely materials as the house, completed the structure. I had caught glimpses of a healthy looking flock of little people on my way in, who scampered into hiding and I was greeted by the mother, a careworn and rather fragile woman, who said that her husband was a trapper and that they had drifted over here from the West Coast following the game.

Here with a family of six children--five of whom are of school age--cut off by the impassible cypress swamp from the main shore and with no possible egress except by means of a small row boat this lonely woman lives, her family growing up without the advantages of an education and she without human companionship except now and then a stray caller like myself. How lonely such a life in such a place must be. Her husband and eldest sons being absent for long periods on their hunts. I urged the necessity of education for the children and am satisfied it will not be her fault if they do not locate at Tantie for the next term where they will have the advantages of neighbors and a school. About an acre of sand a trifle higher than the lake in the form of a narrow strip forms this little plantation started years ago by some one trying to escape civilization.

The beautiful calm surface of the lake threatened to change to angry billows before a rising southeast breeze so I got afloat once more and rowed steadily for the shelter of the river mouth bidding farewell to the wonders of this border land of the everglades.

At present there are several launches and small steamers which make irregular trips to and on the lake by way of the Caloosahatchee River. This is dependent upon the stage of the water at the outlet of the lake which retards the development of its vast resources. Some day the millions of feet of cypress upon its shores will be reached by rail or navigation and settlers will pour in. At present a few enterprising fishermen are beginning to reap rich harvests from its waters. Catching the fish by means of pound nets they are enabled to keep them alive until the arrival of the boats with ice from far off Fort Myers and they are then shipped and being fine black bass and lake perch find a ready market. I am informed that last week over five tons were shipped in this way. Efforts at development are being made towards the eastern corner of the lake where laborers are now at work cutting a canal to high land where it is proposed to construct a narrow gauge rail road to Stuart on the Florida East Coast railway over which fish and other products will be shipped. Then should Governor Broward be able to tap the lake in that direction and lower its waters six feet what a grand automobile course its broad margin would afford. Surely some of these enterprises will reach their fruition and development take place where all is now a wilderness.

taylor creek 1891 t.jpg (5633 bytes) Click on the photo to view a larger image of Taylor Creek as it looked in 1891 according to an inscription on the photo.

A leisurely return up the river revealed new beauties in the slanting sun and my friend the otter was again in evidence. On my arrival at Tantie I put an enemy on his trail and Lewis Raulerson will probably add his glossy hide to his growing collection. This ended one of the pleasantest days I spent in Florida and the following morning I turned my steps homeward my mind filled with pleasant recollections of my entire trip and with a practical knowledge of this country and its people which every official of the county should have. Coming home by the new road to Tantie I was again impressed with the endless value in pine and cypress timber awaiting development.

The point which first gives it an outlet will be fortunate indeed and Fort Pierce should make every effort to solve the problem of these flats and reach out a helping hand to our neighbors in the west.

Yours very truly,

W. J. Nesbitt