In Florida, It’s Absolutely Great to Be a Cracker

Before we get to the subject of Crackers, welcome to the first Blog Hop sponsored by the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. We’re exploring some of the crazy and interesting idiosyncrasies of life in the Sunshine State. Read on and click the links below to meet more MWA members and to comment, share your favorite stories, and enter our contest to win a Kindle Paperwhite.

This Orlando postcard from the 1890s was captioned "The Cracker in Town."

This Orlando postcard from the 1890s was captioned “The Cracker in Town.”

In a lot of places, you might be slugged for calling someone a cracker, if you mean a bigoted, “redneck” Southern white. But in Florida, it’s great to be a Cracker—so much so that we capitalize it.

We laud Cracker architecture and Cracker cuisine. We have novels called Cracker westerns and the Florida Cracker Horse Association. We write obituaries in which folks say something like, “Daddy was a fourth-generation Cracker, and so proud of it.”

All this embodies a heritage that’s elusive even in parts of Florida. What is South Florida on the map is North Florida in terms of culture, so quintessential Crackerdom may be elusive, say, south of Vero Beach.

Cracker-SteClaireHistorian Dana Ste. Claire literally wrote the book on the subject: Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History (University of Florida Press, 2006). He defines a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.”

The term goes way back. In Shakespeare’s England, it meant a braggart or a big talker, and by the 1760s it was used in the Southern colonies to refer to Scotch-Irish frontiersmen.

FloridaCrackerCropped-smThe rough-and-ready qualities of these folks proved an asset on the Florida frontier, where they had to make do in a subtropical wilderness without indoor plumbing, electricity, window screens, bug spray, motorized vehicles, or even towns.

But some did have cattle, and many were attracted to the lifestyle of the cow hunter (in Florida history, it’s never “cowboy”).

To this day, many folks think Crackers got their name because of one of the techniques cow hunters used to herd cattle: “cracking” long, braided, rawhide whips in the air. “Cracker cowmen developed cattle-raising into Florida’s first industry,” Ste. Claire writes. Some did very well at it. As time passed, you could sure still be a Cracker and have money in the bank.

By the early 20th century, “Cracker” had become a regionally affectionate term, and the contributions of the folks called Crackers have been increasingly celebrated in Florida as a distinct and valuable heritage.

Cracker Kitchen-blogPart of that heritage includes good eating. As the fine Florida novelist Janis Owens writes in her cookbook, The Cracker Kitchen (Scribner, 2009), one of the finest compliments “any Cracker can get, male or female, rich or poor, is that they set a fine table.”

Recipes include Mama’s Cornbread, Green Bean Bundles, Sweet Potato Pie, Carrot and Raisin Salad — just like Owens’ mother always ordered at Morrison’s cafeteria — plus Buttermilk Pie and lots more.

The Florida Humanities Council offers a Cracker-themed music CD, in the council’s online store (www.flahum.org/Support/OnSaleNow)

“Cracker” remains a word to be used with care, however, as historian Ste. Claire notes. Abraham Lincoln once said that no matter how much you respect the common man, never call a man common to his face, and that’s probably still good advice when it comes to Florida Crackers.

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Visit our other Blog Hop contributors and win more prizes:

Victoria Allman, Gator Bites, http://www.victoriaallman.com/blog

Miriam Auerbach, Bonkers in Boca, http://www.miriamauerbach.com/bonkers-in-boca

Gregg E. Brickman, Crazy South Florida—How it got to be home, http://www.GreggEBrickman.com/blog.html

Diane Capri, Fishnado!, http://www.dianecapri.com/blog

Nancy J. Cohen, Characters Too Weird to Be True, http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

Joan Lipinsky Cochran, The Million Dollar Squatter: Crazy in the Land of Coconuts and Bagels, http://www.joanlipinskycochran.com/blog.htm?post=952677

jd daniels He Did What? http://www.live-from-jd.com

Dallas Gorhman, http://www.DallasGorham.com

Linda Gordon Hengerer Crazy Treasure on the Treasure Coast, http://footballfoodandfiction.blogspot.com/

Vicki Landis, Eavesdropping 101, http://www.victorialandis.com

Sandy Parks, Keep your eyes to the Florida skies, http://www.sandyparks.wordpress.com

Neil Plakcy, Moscow on the Intracoastal http://www.mahubooks.blogspot.com/

Johnny Ray Utilizing Google Plus Air to Facilitate Author Interviews, http://www.sirjohn.us

Joanna Campbell Slan, Honey, You’ll Never Guess What Rolled Up in the Surf http://www.joannaslan.blogspot.com

 

 

 

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In the pines of Florida, Christmas everlasting

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

Way back during the Seminole Wars, a peaceful place in the Central Florida pines became Christmas, every day. Long-ago soldiers named it in 1837, but we owe its role as a North Pole of the South to the history and work of the Tucker family.

We know the story’s beginning thanks to Capt. Nathan S. Jarvis, a U.S. Army surgeon who kept a journal about his war adventures.

Capt. Jarvis arrived at St. Augustine by steamboat in June 1837 and, by mid-December, was with troops deep in the interior of Florida. They trudged past a deserted Seminole town, crossed the Econlockhatchee River, and on Dec. 25, reached a pine barren on what’s now Christmas Creek in east Orange County.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

The soldiers built a stockade made of upright 18-foot pine logs, sharpened at the top, and named the place Fort Christmas. In just a few days, most of the troops were ordered to move deeper into Florida, leaving the fort and the area largely deserted until about 1860, when John R.A. Tucker and his family settled nearby.

The only means of travel was by oxcart or on horseback, and the Tucker home became a stopping-place for travelers. After the community gained a post office in 1892, a member of the Tucker family was in charge for much of the next century.

In 1916, Lizzie Tucker got the job, taking over from her husband, Drew. In 1932, the mantel passed to their daughter-in-law Juanita, who stayed on the job for more than 40 years. Juanita Tucker was 101 when she died in 2008, then the oldest resident of Christmas and the one who had done the most to put it on the map.

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

“She got the community together. She was good at that,” her son Cecil A. Tucker II said after her death. “Anytime that people had a need, she would find some way or someone to help out.”

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

“The post office was always the one place people could count on to get information and help,” Juanita Tucker once said. “That’s what made it such a wonderful job. There were so many ways I was able to help people that had nothing to do with the post-office business.”

About 1937, the Tuckers moved postal headquarters to a one-story white-frame building with a small porch. When the highway through Christmas was widened to four lanes, that 1937 post office was moved from the south side of the road to the north side, where it still resides in a peace garden at Colonial Drive (S.R. 50) and Fort Christmas Road.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida. It’s on State Road 50, about 20 miles east of Orlando.

Asked what he would most like folks to know about the community of Christmas, Cecil Tucker didn’t mention his family, often called “legendary” in Florida ranching lore. In a state where people consider themselves old-timers if they’ve been here since 1960, the Tuckers have a hundred years on them.

For him, his family’s legacy is all about the spirit of Christmas, in both global and local aspects.

“This community has a spirit of helping each other,” Tucker said. “If any place has the Christmas spirit, this is it.”

Christmas, and the Fort Christmas Historical Museum, is 20 miles east of Orlando, en route to Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville. See http://www.nbbd.com/godo/FortChristmas/

Orange and clove pomanders: Very vintage and aromatic

My 1940s directions call for covering fruit with cloves, but others suggest making patterns with the cloves.

My 1940s directions call for covering fruit with wholes cloves, but others suggest arranging the cloves in lines or patterns.

Years ago, our Florida family made pomander balls for holiday gifts: oranges studded en masse with cloves, rolled in spices, and hung from ribbons.

These fragrant fruit-and-spice pomander balls were a time-honored way to add a hint of fragrance to your home, long before companies attempted to manufacture good smells and put them in a spray can.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac says the practice went back as far as medieval times. (http://www.almanac.com/content/seasonal-crafts-how-make-orange-pomanders)

The ladies are discussing "that Oxydol sparkle" on the back of a recipe in Mom's old book of clippings.

The ladies are discussing “that Oxydol sparkle” on the back of a recipe in Mom’s old book of clippings.

The directions my mother used, clipped from an unidentified magazine, are still taped in the black ledger book where she began to collect recipes and household tips in the 1940s.

They note that the pomanders can also be made with apples, lemons, or limes. We usually used oranges.

The full directions suggest storing the pomander for three or four weeks to dry, but in Florida, the following steps for quick preparation seem best.

1. Spread lots and lots of whole cloves on waxed paper.

2. With a small nail or sturdy toothpick, pierce holes in the skin of the fruit, from one end to the other and as close together as possible without splitting the skin.

3. Now stick whole cloves in the holes. Make additional holes where needed; fill the holes with cloves, so that the fruit is covered with them (or feel free to use less, as picture at top).

Ribbon hangers for a pomander (from Mom's clipping book).

Ribbon hangers for a pomander (from Mom’s clipping book).

4. Combine equal amounts of ground cinnamon and powdered orrisroot, or use a mixture of spices with orissroot.

The recipe at Old Farmer’s Almanac  suggests 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg, 1 tablespoon allspice, and 1/4 cup powdered orrisroot.

5. Roll the clove-studded fruit in your spices until the fruit is coated. Our 1940s directions suggest using ground cloves with a lemon and ground nutmeg with a lime.

5. After fruit is rolled in the mixture, place in a shallow baking pan and bake at 300 degrees F for 4 hours. Cool.

6. To make a hanger, tie a long narrow ribbon securely around the fruit, making a knot at top. Leave about 4 inches of ribbon for a loop, and tie with ribbon ends with a bow. The 1940s directions suggest wrapping the ball in “metallic mesh or hat veiling, and it’s ready for Santa to deliver.”

I seem to be all out of hat veiling.

The Waterhouse Museum by artist and journalist Thomas Thorspecken. See http://www.analogartistdigitalworld.com/2011/01/maitland-historical-society.html

The Waterhouse Museum by artist and journalist Thomas Thorspecken. See http://www.analogartistdigitalworld.com/2011/01/maitland-historical-society.html

The orrisroot is the key ingredient, and acts as a fixative. Our directions say to get it from a drugstore, but, like the hat veiling, that’s no longer workable for most of us. A health-food store that sells bulk spices is a better bet.

A few years ago, during a holiday visit to the Waterhouse Museum — a lovely Victorian house in Maitland, Florida — I remembered the pomanders because some were on display, along with other natural crafts.

Even if we don’t make pomander balls, it’s fun to think about them and those rich, natural aromas of citrus and cloves. For more on the Waterhouse, visit http://artandhistory.org/waterhouse-museum/

A taste of Sweden in Sanford

Singers at the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford, Fla.

Singers at the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford, Fla.

Folks who go to the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford have a chance to sample some Florida-pioneer culinary treats. (In 2013, it’s December 14; see sanfordstlucia.com.)

I’m not talking grits and gator nuggets – not this time.

Think Swedish coffee, pickled herring, and lingonberries. And glögg (a beverage), cabbage rolls, meatballs, brown beans, maybe something called Jansson’s temptation, a variety of cakes and cookies, and Swedish pickles.

A Swedish coffeepot. Thanks to Patty Sundberg, "From the Deep Quiet."

A Swedish coffeepot. Thanks to Patty Sundberg, “From the Deep Quiet.”

Festival coordinator Teri Patterson once told me she is especially fond of the pickles. “You just can’t beat a breakfast buffet that includes Swedish pickles, Swedish coffee and a few Swedish cookies,” she said.

But Patterson’s heritage as the descendant of Swedish immigrants means a lot more to her than good eating. With fellow historians Charlie Carlson and Christine Kinlaw-Best, she has written several publications for the Sanford Historical Society on the area’s Swedish heritage, including “The Swedish History of Seminole County.”

“As far back as I can recall I always enjoyed listening to my family’s stories,” Patterson wrote.

“Many were collected and told so beautifully by my grand-aunt Olga Vihlen Hunter. “In each family there seems to be a person who gathers the facts about their ancestors. These facts remind us of their hardships and successes that have contributed to who we are today.”

New Upsala Presbyterian Church, 1902 (Sanford Museum)

New Upsala Presbyterian Church, 1902 (Sanford Museum)

Patterson’s great-grandfather came from Sweden to America and “settled among Swedes in the community of New Upsala,” now in Sanford.

“Over the years this Swedish community has mostly disappeared, . . . but a few remaining historical places remind us of their pioneering past,” she writes.

“These New Upsala Swedes played a major role in developing Central Florida’s great citrus industry.”

Moving victory in Winter Park

Half of the historic Capen House rests after its move in Winter Park, Fla., near a statue of Pan at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens.

Half of the historic Capen House rests after its move in Winter Park, Fla., near a statue of Pan at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens.

By the time I could make it to the shores of Lake Osceola on December 10 to pay my respects, Madame Capen was resting comfortably in her new digs – at least half of her, weighing in at 100 tons.

Earlier in the day, this grand dame of Winter Park homes, age 128, made the journey across Lake Osceola by barge, to rest until a move to a permanent site on the grounds of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens.

In the late afternoon sun, the house looked right at home amid the bougainvillea and bamboo. Other late arrivals stopped by to snap photos and marvel. A young Capen-Mediamother wheeled three youngsters in a triple-seat stroller so they could see a historic happening. One photographer floated in the lake in a kayak to get a good shot. TV trucks lined the driveway of the Polasek, ready for their 5 p.m. broadcasts.

The man who built the house, James Seymour Capen, helped Winter Park begin. When he later looked back on his family’s arrival in 1884, he could list the people who constituted the community then on one page of stationery.

In the decade after the family’s arrival, Capen raised citrus, helped organize the Orlando-Winter Park Railroad Co. – the beloved Dinky line – was secretary of the venerable Winter Park Land Co., and donated land to Rollins, of which he was a trustee in 1887.

Capen house earlyAn age-worn photo shows the 1885 house surrounded only by pines, with Lake Osceola in the background. The women wear long, Victorian-era dresses. In a display of youth’s timeless spirit, two boys perch on the porch roof.

It’s remarkable for such a house to have survived from 1885, in our hot, wood-wearing climate and our Florida penchant for ever tearing down and building anew. But the Capen House has  survived, thanks to care over the generations and a remarkable effort in 2013, when it appeared to be doomed.

Half of the Capen House, adorned by a holiday wreath, weighs 100 tons. December 10, 2013

Half of the Capen House, adorned by a holiday wreath, weighs 100 tons. December 10, 2013

All fans of preservation have much cause to celebrate and cheer the many who are making this a great example of how to save and reuse our historic buildings.

Those of us who missed seeing the house float have another chance, later this month.

Thanks to the Preservation Capen team, led by Debbie Komanski, executive director of the Polasek Museum, and architectural historian Christine Madrid French, project director along with old house experts Frank Roark (construction manager) and Steve Feller (consulting architect). See http://www.preservationcapen.org and http://www.polasek.org/

Hitting the sauce on Thanksgiving

CranberrySauceA family friend once gave my mother a real-Florida recipe for cranberry-orange relish that involved putting the ingredients through a meat grinder. In search of a replica, I’ve found tasty relishes online, including recipes laced with oranges, with mint, with liqueurs, and some with the general suggestion that it is SO uncool to like plain old jellied cran sauce, the kind that comes slurping out of the can.

My friend Martha notes that no other food sounds quite the same as it escapes its packaging. I still like it. So, with a nod to that vintage saucy cylinder on a plate, here too is a Florida recipe from the website of a citrus co-op, floridasnatural.com, that includes apples as well as oranges.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cranberries, sorted and washed
  • 2 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
  • 2 oranges, peeled and sliced
  • 1/3 cup Florida’s Natural® Premium Orange Juice
  • Up to 1 cup sugar (to taste)
  • 1 tbsp. orange zest

fresh-orange-and-cranberry-relishGrind cranberries, apples, and oranges using a food processor or blender, and stir until mixed evenly. Add orange juice and orange zest. Add sugar to taste: for a tart relish, use about 1/2 cup; for a sweet relish, use about a cup. Chill and serve.

Here’s the original link: http://www.floridasnatural.com/lifestyle/recipes/main-dishes-and-sides/fresh-orange-and-cranberry-relish

All-American Bird

Franklin-Benjamin-LOC-headIf Ben Franklin had had his way, the turkey might be more than the centerpiece of America’s Thanksgiving menu – it might be our national bird as well.

Franklin thought the bald eagle was for the birds. At least that’s what he told his daughter Sarah.

“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” Franklin wrote in a humorous letter in 1784. “He is a bird of bad moral character.”

Eagles were too lazy to fish for themselves.  They just loitered about on some dead tree until some hawk made a catch. “When that diligent bird has at length taken a fish . . . the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him,” Franklin wrote.

turkeyIn contrast, Franklin found the turkey “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original native of America.”

UnderwaterTurkey

Photo courtesy of the Florida State Archives, FloridaMemory.com

Thanks to historian Dana Ste.Claire of St. Augustine for telling me about Franklin’s view of turkeys several years ago.

Like Florida sometimes, turkeys don’t get much respect.

In a typical 1950s ad for a Florida attraction, Rainbow Springs, the noble bird even had to pose being carved underwater.

That’s a fine way to treat such a respectable piece of poultry, Franklin might say.

World’s Largest Pinup? Daytona’s Red Diving Girl

This Red Diving Girl incarnation is 1 of only 3 or so in the world, says Stamie Kypreos, owner of the shop. The most beautiful gal at Daytona doesn’t sport a bikini. And tattoos? Not for the Red Diving Girl, the nearly 20-foot icon that has adorned Stamie’s swimwear shop at 8 N. Ocean Ave. since the days when the Beatles were new.

A few years ago, I chatted with the shop’s founder, Stamie Kypreos, who grew up in Orlando, where her family moved from Greece when she was 7. (Mrs. Kypreos died in 2010 at the age of 97.) She had married her late husband, Theodore, also in Orlando in 1935. A dozen years later, wen Harry Truman was America’s president, Kypreos opened her shop on Ocean Avenue and began selling swimsuits to ladies and gents.

When I visited her a decade ago, Mrs. Kypreos was 89. She paused during our chat to ask a shopper how she was doing during a dressing-room session of trying on bathing suits. The suits were fine, the shopper replied; it was the body she was trying to fit into them that posed a problem.

How many thousands of times in more than 50 years must Kypreos have heard this kind of fretting. The pounds! The thighs! I’ll never look like . . . Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, Cindy Crawford, Halle Berry. . . . The beauty icons have changed, but the quest for the perfect bathing suit remains.

Kypreos took these cellulite dramas in stride. “I love my little place,” Kypreos said.

Diving into history

Outside the shop, which looks the same but was closed on the Sunday when I recently stopped by, the big gal in the red suit just keeps diving, suspended in a perpetual, graceful swoop. This incarnation of her, owned by the Jantzen company of Portland, Ore., is one of only six ever made; few survive. One of the statue’s sisters was once suspended from the ceiling of the American Advertising Museum in Portland, which I’m sad to see closed in 2004. The Red Diving Girl symbol has been around for decades longer; she holds a high place in the history of both advertising and sport. In her day, she was considered a glamour gal as groovy as Grable.

The company that became Jantzen didn’t start out to make bathing suits. John A. Zehntbauer and Carl C. Jantzen founded it in 1910 as the Portland Knitting Co., a business that made sweaters and woolen hosiery. The enterprise sidestroked into the swimwear business when members of the Portland Rowing Club asked it to produce a wool rib-knit rowing suit about 1913. In 1918 its name was changed to the Jantzen Knitting Mills.

Early bathing suits at Daytona Beach

Early bathing suits at Daytona Beach

Around that time, the pastime of sea bathing — jumping into waves while holding on to a rope attached to an offshore buoy — was being replaced by the sport of swimming. Women needed swimwear that wouldn’t slow them down.

By the early 1920s, Jantzen was in the market, touting its product with the slogan “the Suit that Changed Bathing to Swimming.” Soon, the company was ready for a national sales push, and husband-and-wife artists Frank and Florenz Clark went after an image to use in ads, according to Jantzen archivists.

http://archivalclothing.com/2010/08/

The Jantzen swimsuit factory

Florenz Clark went to a Portland amateur athletic club, where she watched women divers training for the 1920 Olympics. Inspired by their grace, she and her husband came up with the image of a woman diver in a red Jantzen suit, soon christened the Red Diving Girl .

In a saucy suit resembling a long tank top, the Diving Girl became something of a craze. In 1922, Jantzen printed 10,000 Red Diving Girl stickers that were distributed in store displays, which people grabbed up to paste on the windshields of their cars. Massachu- setts banned the decals from auto windshields.

 Pinups and beach parties

George Petty's airbrushed version of the Jantzen Red Diving Girl became popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The `Petty Girl ' was a successor to the Gibson Girl , an ideal of American beautyBy the 1930s, billboards featuring the work of artist George Petty and others had transformed the Diving Girl into a long-legged, airbrushed dish. The “Petty Girl ” became a popular pinup in the 1930s and 1940s and is said to have been the first centerfold, in Esquire magazine. She didn’t have to worry about her weight, of course; she was an illustration.

In 1959, a mannequin company in Los Angeles transformed the Red Diving Girl , now in an elasticized strapless one-piece, into three dimensions and made six 191/2-foot fiberglass versions of her to be used on signs.

One of the six made its way to Miami and, in 1965, to a happy home at Stamie’s by the World’s Most Famous Beach. She has been there ever since, despite repairs from storm damage in 1980 and the day-to-day toll of humidity and salt air. Her once-white cap is now painted red to match her suit and dainty toenails. A girl must keep up with fashion, after all.

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Magic Carpets Made of Steel

Florence Dickinson George Dickinson Joy Dickinson Sligh Blvd Train StationMy family are railroad people, no strangers to the Orlando passenger station on Sligh Boulevard. After the traveler among us has climbed up into the train, we wave at the long windows sliding by, vanishing into the horizon. Sometimes we go there just to take photos.

Much has changed since the station debuted with a roaring big celebration back in the Roaring ’20s, but the old Spanish Mission station, designated a city landmark in 1977, has remained a working part of America’s railroad heritage, and its new role as a SunRail station has given it a brighter future.

When Atlantic Coast Line officials planned the station in the mid-1920s, they sent architect A.M. Griffin to California to study the Spanish missions in cities such as Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano. With its twin bell towers, arches, and tile roof, the station became the Atlantic Coast Line’s very Pacific Coast-style gift to Orlando. It survives as the sole Mission-style station in Florida.

Built at a cost of nearly $500,000, the depot opened in January 1927 with elaborate ceremonies brimming with railroad executives and Orlando dignitaries. The interior overflowed with potted palms and flowers. The Lions Club quartet sang, two bands played, and exuberant speakers hailed a “new era of progress and expansion.”

 The arched letters that spell Orlando were designed by the station’s architects in the 1920s. One of the station’s finest features remains the curved rendering of the word “Orlando” over the entrance facing the trains. It doesn’t hurt that the city’s name is pretty in itself. The folks who picked it back in 1857 must have known it had more marketing potential than its predecessors, Fort Gatlin and Jernigan.

I also love the colonnade of arches that extends out from the station. There our family would wait in the 1950s and ’60s for visitors from western Pennsylvania, our particular slice of up North. Among them were my Northern grandparents, Florence and George Dickinson, always decked out in their best: For her, hat (with silk flower), gloves, corset, suit, stockings, high-heeled pumps, serious purse and the little suitcase called a train case. Granddad wore a snappy fedora, starched dress shirt, double-breasted suit, pocket handkerchief, polished shoes.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

You dressed for travel then. It was an occasion. And my Granddad Dickinson wouldn’t have traveled any other way except by train. He was an engineer for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie line. Not too many years after he wore his double-breasted suit to visit Florida, he would depart this world at the throttle of his engine during heavy snow, the victim of a heart attack. His last act was to stop the train safely. The railroad gave my grandmother a gold watch to honor that.

Granddad would be happy to know that people are still traveling to Orlando by rail, on trains that bear names from his era – the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star – names that still trail a hint of adventure. And he would be happy about the survival of a station where thousands of travelers  – old, young, rich, poor, black, white – have come and gone over the years, as they rode their father’s magic carpets made of steel.

 

The Marvelous Richard Halliburton

Channeling Halliburton In one of my favorite childhood photos, a friend and I are playing dress up. She’s princess-elegant in a long dress, but I’m swathed in a scarf and shorts, a smiling child with a too-curly perm trying to channel some Indian elephant boy out of Kipling. Now I think perhaps I was channeling my inner Richard Halliburton. Although once a renowned emblem of travel adventure, my Halliburton has nothing to do with the aluminum travel cases of that name, or with the multinational Halliburton Corp. He has to do with the worlds he opened for me and many other children through his Complete Book of Marvels.  First published in 1941, it has long been out of print but still rates stellar reviews on Amazon.com. “My favorite book of all time,” notes one, in a thought echoed by others.

Richard Halliburton's Book of MarvelsHalliburton’s Marvels  educated generations of young Americans about geography, history, and culture, as the Wikipedia article on him notes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Halliburton)

Reading Halliburton never felt like “education,” though. It was like diving into magical adventures, and Halliburton did literally dive in – to the Panama Canal, to a pool by the moonlit Taj Mahal, where great white lotus blossoms drifted on the water. He rode elephants and perched on the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction. And he took along his young readers in friendly prose that never condescended.

To see the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids or even the Golden Gate Bridge – these were goals outside my family’s experience. For us, moving from Pennsylvania to Florida was a magical as it got – and nothing to be sneezed at. Travel, beyond family visits, was something other people did.

And, in truth, Halliburton’s kind of adventurous travel was beyond most of us. When I read him as a child, I didn’t realize he had already died. His last adventure began in March 1939, when he and a crew set out from Hong Kong on a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, to sail across the Pacific. Instead, they vanished, and Halliburton was declared dead in October 1939. He was 39 years old.

I had always thought of him as my own private childhood passion – me and my inner elephant boy – and was shocked and pleased to discover, in 2001, a magazine article by the literary icon Susan Sontag, titled “Homage to Halliburton.”

She had loved him too. And his sad end, she noted, could not taint the “lessons of pluck and avidity” that she and I and so many others drew from reading him.

Sontag’s essay helped me see that Halliburton’s most important gift was opening for us not only the world of travel but the idea of being a writer. “What is a writer but a mental traveler?” she asks. “When I acknowledge to myself that I’m interested in everything, what am I saying but that I want to travel everywhere. Like Richard Halliburton.”

What indeed.

halliburton