MAXWELL:  Florida Crackers, a vanishing breed

6/28/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Last weekend, while checking on wooded property I own in Levy County, I visited a friend I had not seen in two years. He, his wife, three adult children and four grandchildren live in the same three-bedroom, dog-trot house that has been in the family since the 1920s.

They are, in the tradition of Florida’s last governor, Lawton Chiles, Florida Crackers. And they are a vanishing breed. I always enjoy visiting my friend and former neighbor because his lifestyle is fascinating. No, it is inscrutable. Although I spent many of my childhood years near Crackers, I understand very little about them, except their fierce independence.

In many parts of the state today, they are virtually invisible _ staying to themselves, moving on the outskirts of society.

Author Majorie Kinnan Rawlings had a well-known love-hate relationship with her Cracker neighbors. Many become characters in her fiction.

“Here, in the uncivilized Cracker interior of Florida, you insult a man in half-friendly fashion by calling him a damned Georgia Cracker,” she writes in her short story Cracker Chidlings. “Nine times out of ten you have hit the mark. Georgia Crackerdom, joined by a thin stream of Carolinians and a still thinner one of Virginians, has flowed lazily into the lakes and rivers, and created Florida Crackerdom.

“Georgia Cracker and Florida Cracker have a common ancestor in the vanished driver of oxen, who cracked yards of rawhide whip over his beasts and so came by his name. One hates the other as mothers and daughters sometimes hate. I saw the hate flicker into words at the doings in Anthony.”

Indeed, in Mascotte and Groveland, where my family lived across the pond from several Cracker families, I witnessed intra-Cracker fury between Georgia and Florida strains. These clans _ men, women and children _ never used guns or knives. They beat the hell out of one another with fists, kicks, teeth and clubs. The sheriff, the infamous Willis McCall at the time, and a deputy would drive out to the homes but would sit in the truck or cruiser and observe.

Somehow, the combatants always stopped short of drawing too much blood or breaking enough bones to hobble someone. All the while, screams and profanities would leap across the pond, and seven or eight hungry- and mangy-looking dogs would start a parallel fight.

Then, the strangest thing would happen: Each Saturday morning, these enemies would gather in one yard and travel to town together. Here is how Florida historian James M. Denham describes this phenomenon:

“It was a sort of gala occasion. . . . Each family formed a little procession of its own, all in single file, with the head of the household leading off, with his long rifle on his shoulder. . . . Then came the cart _ the family carriage _ driven by a half-clad urchin mounted on the back of the horse or mule with his knees drawn up and his feet resting on the shafts. In the cart rode those of the family too young or too feeble to walk; and these shared the limited space of the clapboard buggy with the whiskey jug and two or three dry hides brought along to barter. The mother, always at the head, (was) followed by the daughters in the order of age.”

My friend is the quintessential Cracker. He is, as Rawlings describes them, lawless. “They are living an entirely natural, and very hard life, disturbing no one. . . . Yet almost everything they do is illegal. And everything they do is necessary to sustain life.”

Indeed, my friend, for example, hunts out of season and fishes beyond the limit. Although he has a driver’s license, he does not believe in licenses of any kind. The earth is his to pluck _ without government interference. His grandchildren carry this same attitude to public school each morning.

None of the children holds a traditional job. They, including the women, do odd jobs for friends and neighbors and somehow live off the land. In fact, he cleared the land for my house, built the barn and stable for my horse, helped me fence my pasture and often mowed my yard. At the same time, though, he regularly stole my apples, pears and peaches and raided my vegetable garden when I was out of town. I have no proof, but I am certain that he took my chicken eggs, too.

In 1975, Florida historian Clark I. Cross summed up Cracker life: “There is an Old Florida, call it Cracker Florida if you will, where a distinctive way of life and attitudes persist, where houses and barns seem little changed but this Florida exists only in pockets and seems harder to find every passing year.”

Today, Old Florida _ Cracker Florida _ is vanishing faster than ever.