Bugs and hogs challenged early settlers
Settlers on the Florida frontier during the days before chemical insecticides found the state’s massive bug population to be a relentless plague.
Cockroaches, ants and spiders crawled the walls and subsequently got into the food unless it was tightly sealed.
Ticks, fleas and “chiggers” (a mite also called a “red bug,” whose bite causes intense and prolonged itching) were persistent adversaries in the forest environment. Mosquito netting was an absolute necessity at night due to the thick clouds of these insects that were impossible to keep out of the house.
Of course, these swarms were much more than just a pesky nuisance. The greatest danger they posed was their vector role in causing the fevers that periodically afflicted the community, sometimes with lethal results.
Sturdy enclosures were an absolute necessity to protect the cultivated lands and domestic livestock from the ravages of “foxes, coons, deer, wild cats … and razorbacks,” or feral hogs.
The large adult males of the latter animals were particularly ferocious due to their pronounced tusks. Although they usually kept to the denser forest growth, razorbacks were not averse to coming out in the open to forage for food, and the pioneers gave them a wide berth.
Cows vs. trains, a common problem circa 1880-90
Although the train had some accommodations for passengers, trains were still quite primitive, and passengers soon realized their journey was going to be protracted.
They felt as if they were being taken past “every water hole or damp place” in the countryside. Yet the inconvenience was worth it, as there was plenty of diversion to be found in the wildlife sightings they encountered along the way.
Once, when a flock of wild turkeys flew up, many wished they had a gun handy. The most frequent animal encounters were with cattle and feral hogs who “disputed the right of way.” Each time that happened, the engineer would toot the horn to frighten them off.
When one particularly stubborn longhorn refused to leave the track, readers of the historic account of the encounter are exposed to some picturesque details about the cattlemen/railmen confl cts.
The engineer first attempted to intimidate the creature.
He slowed the train to “a snail’s pace,” gradually getting closer and closer, and still she wouldn’t budge. (It’s a little-known fact that longhorn bulls and cows both have horns.)
Cows were such a regularly occurring obstruction that locomotive fronts were routinely fitted with the iconic large triangular frames commonly called “cow catchers,” and the engineer in this case finally made use of his to simply push “the critter off into the ditch, heels up.”
For any incidents such as these, the law required that the train be halted so the trainmen could record the animal’s brand mark.
The trainmen, thinking the offending cow dead, grabbed her feet and turned her on her side to make the identification.
At this critical juncture, the cow sprang up and, with lowered horns and emitting a great bellow, headed right toward them.
“In a trice the men took refuge between the cars” and then climbed up and hurried their way through the assembled passengers back to the engine, where they restarted the train.
They left behind “an irate bovine pawing the earth and shaking her horns at us.”
But this encounter only seemed to further heighten the sense of adventure attached to this excursion, which ultimately was capped by the inaugural “grand feast and orating” that took place when they arrived at their destination.
Stetson’s pond, 1886
By 1886, John B. Stetson’s hat factory was said to be the largest in the world, and he came to DeLand searching for a place to establish a winter residence in Florida. Immediately impressed with the thriving community and its university, Stetson purchased a 300-acre tract west of town and drew up plans to build an extravagant mansion on the site.
The building would prove to be an awe-inspiring sight — larger and grander than any other in the area. Under construction for more than a year, it stood three stories high, had 14 rooms and, when completed, covered 9,000 square feet.
True to Stetson’s affinity for technological progress, every modern convenience of the day was included in the house, such as indoor plumbing and central heat.
Having a f u ll-time groundskeeper enabled Stetson to create some spectacular effects that were sure to impress his guests.
There was a tropical zoo with monkeys and parrots. Deer and peacocks roamed freely.
Near a natural sinkhole on the property, Stetson created two large pools, which he fenced and lined with brick, shell and concrete.
One he stocked with black bass and other native fish.
The other was an alligator pit, where he actually kept several alligators, including a 10-foot-long specimen named “Beauregard.”
Snake at school doesn’t rattle Miss Dean in 1877
On May 7, 1877, Miss Rowena Dean, recruited from Fairport, New York, by Henry DeLand, began teaching the first classes at DeLand’s first school.
It was the earliest school to open in the area, and pupils came from miles around to attend.
The new teacher soon became revered in the community.
A person writing about his childhood memories of the town recalled that … their beloved Miss Dean was “an angel of rare intellect and beauty.”
One incident at the new school seems to have made a big impression on the pupils, as it is mentioned in most of the old settlers’ memories of the early days of the town.
The story begins after a night of heavy rain when, on the following morning, the startled pupils spotted a large rattlesnake right in front of the schoolhouse door.
For a boy of Frederick Leete’s age, seeing the reptile in such close proximity was awe-inspiring.
Even better, when the teacher decreed that the snake had to be removed immediately, young Fred saw his chance to be Miss Dean’s knight-errant and seized it.
As he later reminded one and all, “Did I not run to the printing house for a pistol to help dispatch the beautiful rattler?”
However, his memory was conveniently vague about some other details.
“Of course I have no recollection of having been personally connected with the other snake story,” he declared, referring to the mystery of how a vividly patterned rattlesnake skin came to be nailed to Oliver Terry’s barn later that day.
— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand, and have been active with the West Volusia Historical Society. Contact the Historical Society at 386-740-6813, or email firstname.lastname@example.org to order a copy of Ryder’s book Better Country Beyond. Proceeds from the sale benefit the Historical Society.