Log cabins had ‘cool’ designs, but the heat wore settlers down
None of the log cabins of early DeLand have survived, but as depicted in early writings and photographs, they have every characteristic of the log cabins commonly seen all over the southeastern United States in those days.
Houses of this type had significant advantages for living in this semitropical wilderness.
They were relatively easy to construct, consisting of either one or two rooms. Any cabin with two rooms usually had a cooling breezeway running between them called a “dog trot.”
Heat was kept away from the living area by having a separate kitchen building, which also had the great added advantage to occupants of reducing the risk of setting their cabin on fire.
Some cabins may have had dirt floors, but, with only a few flat stones or stumps, a raised foundation could easily be formed, which allowed air circulation underneath — what is known as a “puncheon floor.” This was broad, rough-hewn, wooden slabs roughly fitted on top of the foundation and fastened together with homemade wooden pegs rather than nails that had to be store-bought.
The practicality of using this type of flooring for Southern buildings was illustrated by one of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ stories.
The famous folklorist mentioned an occasion when “There warn’t anybody at the church, except maybe a hog or two, for there warn’t any lock on the door. … If you notice,” he pointed out, “most folks go to church only when they’ve got to, but a hog is different … . Hogs like a puncheon floor in summertime because it’s cool.”
An extraordinary account of everyday life during these difficult economic times has been preserved in a collection of one family’s letters.
They were written between 1878 and 1881 by Joseph Parce and his wife, Lucy. Parce was the brother of Henry DeLand’s wife, Sarah Parce DeLand.
The letters were written by Joseph and Lucy to their eldest son, Walter, who, at age 19, was already in business in Fairport and had remained behind when his parents and younger siblings came to DeLand in late 1877.
These missives allow readers to peer into a pioneer homestead of old, and gain a glimpse of a world far removed from life today.
In a letter started by Lucy, she writes of Florida in August: “If it was not so warm and the gnats did not trouble so much and I had more time and did not feel so weak, I should write you a great deal oftener. But you must take the will for the deed. [Your father and your brothers] are setting out some orange seedlings in the east side of the yard. We have been having a nice shower … just the time for such work.”
At this point, readers get an example of how draining the Florida summers were for people in the days before air conditioning, when Joseph takes over to finish Lucy’s letter.
“Mother is not able to finish this letter, so I will have to do it for her. We received the stockings and belt and that one dollar which I am very much obliged for.”
Readers then learn that even Joseph, described by Lucy in another of her letters to be physically the strongest of all the family members, is not impervious to the extreme temperatures and humidity of the season.
He describes how “For two mornings past [I] have got up and around, but have been obliged to go back to bed. This continued heat takes all my strength and makes me weak and dizzy.”
Selling DeLand and its weather
Although the future prosperity of DeLand seemed assured by its status as the county seat, promoters of the city had no intention of counting on rank alone to continue their city’s progress.
A large volume of promotional advertisements were still being pumped out to attract Northern visitors.
In one of the publications from this time, the hyperbole begins in the very first paragraph when the oppressive levels of the state’s summer humidity are quickly dismissed: “The summer climate of Florida is much more pleasant than that of any Northern state. … The peninsular form of the state provides constant breezes from the Atlantic and the Gulf [and] prevents the extremes of oppressive heat [that occur] inland much farther north. … Our nights are always cool.”
Of course, there is no mention at all of the dreaded hurricane threat.
Descriptions of the winter months are no less overblown.
“In December or January … Everything reminds you of the finest May or June days of the most favored Northern States.”
No word is mentioned of any potential for freezes.
The discussion of the climate ends with a final, rosy summary: “The benefits to be derived from life in the open air are available and enjoyed by hearty and feeble alike, throughout the entire year, winter and summer.”
— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand and are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. For information about obtaining a copy of her book Better Country Beyond, call the Historical Society at 386-740-6813, or email delandhouse@msn. com. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to the West Volusia Historical Society’s Bill Dreggors Fund, which helps finance the printing of books about West Volusia history.