Editor’s note: Welcome to our new feature, “Better Country Beyond,” with excerpts from DeLandite Karen Ryder’s book about the early days of the founding of the City of DeLand.
The Beacon is indebted to Donna Jean Flood, a DeLand financial adviser with Edward Jones, for the idea for this series, part of our ongoing West Volusia Memories series by community writers.
As early DeLand settler Clara Rich noted, getting to their Florida homesteads was only the beginning of the “inconveniences” West Volusia pioneers were to face.
Even putting food on the table required great investments of time and effort. Until the farm was prepared to keep chickens and hogs, the main source of protein came from wild game, such as deer and quail that had to be hunted down in the woods. Then the carcasses had to be hand-dressed, and any portion not immediately consumed was preserved for sale, barter or future use.
Readily accessible meat also meant the newcomers would be sampling some woodland fare that was unappealing to their Northern-bred palates, such as tortoise, raccoon, gopher and possum.
Nevertheless, many of the early settlers came to actually enjoy such exotic bounty, and one even declared that she found the latter of these to be “a delicious morsel when roasted like a pig.”
Children were enlisted to trap bullfrogs, which were highly praised for their legs, which, when fried in a cast-iron pan, were considered a great delicacy.
Raising vegetables was no simple matter, either. Preparing the soil for crops was an arduous task that entailed first “grubbing out” tough and extensive palmetto roots.
The pioneers soon discovered that the only crops they could count on to thrive in Florida’s sandy soil and scorching summer sun were sweet potatoes, black-eyed peas and corn. Of the three, corn was the most versatile and therefore the most widely planted.
In true pioneer tradition, even the discarded cornhusks were used not only for mattress and seat-cushion stuffing, but also as livestock fodder.
But, beyond just eating the corn whole or recycling the husks, the most common usage throughout the South was to make hominy. In this process of Native American origin, corn kernels are soaked in a weak solution of lye to remove the bran and germ. The resultant “samp” is then washed of its lye solution, dried and coarsely ground into grits.
This staple of the diet was filling fare for any meal of the day.
Variety in the diet was provided by fruits such as melons, bananas, pineapples and strawberries, which were cultivated for eating in season or preserved for later use, especially in the form of jams and jellies.
Elderberries, native to Florida, were abundant and used for making wine or, when cooked down with a little sour orange juice, made a pie that was proclaimed “worthy of company.”
The settlers even thought to experiment with palmetto berries as a substitute for coffee beans, and some said it made “an excellent brew.” Herbs were raised, as well, for their use in tonics, poultices and other medicinal concoctions in a place where medicine shops were not available.
Karen Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. Ryder has won multiple awards for her preservation efforts.
She is a contributing author for two previous works: The DeLand Historic Mural Walk published by the MainStreet DeLand Association, and A Field Guide to DeLand Buildings published by the West Volusia Historical Society.
Her book Better Country Beyond — along with many other books, videos and other materials about DeLand’s history — is available for purchase at the West Volusia Historical Society’s Robert M. Conrad Educational and Research Center at 137 W. Michigan Ave., DeLand. Ryder is donating the proceeds from sales of the book to the Historical Society’s Bill Dreggors Memorial Fund, which pays for the publication of books about the history of DeLand and to honor a community icon whose legacy was to promote and preserve the city’s heritage.
The Historical Society’s Educational and Research Center is currently open on a limited basis, and visitors are encouraged to make appointments by calling 386-740-6813, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.