Discover Florida # 4: A Tour of Fort Ogden: citrus, beef and an old woman’s memories
The life and times of Mrs. E (1930-- )
"Daddy had asthma and couldn't work. Times were hard. But he did what he could and I never went hungry. I was lucky."
"He [Daddy] had hunting dogs, and when rich folk came down from the north, he guided them out hunting. Sometimes me and Mamma would meet him at lunch time. We'd cook a swamp cabbage [heart of palm, or palmetto] and they'd give us the lunch the hotel packed for them. They'd rather eat our swamp cabbage."
"Mamma cooked for the school lunch room, big pots full of food, and you know they were empty, scraped clean every day. Some of them kids... this might be the only meal they got in a day."
"[Many children] came to school barefoot. I always had shoes. Every year I got a new pair."
From the Florida Archives -- The depression years
Allow me to introduce Mrs. E
Mrs. E will celebrate her 81st birthday soon.
That is, if she remembers.
Mrs. E is in the late first stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and in spite of medication to slow down the implacable progress of that condition, those of us who know her see a daily deterioration in her mental acuity.
It is my privilege to be Mrs. E’s companion three mornings a week.
The only vivid memories left to Mrs. E are those from her childhood. She is prone to reliving those days on a more or less constant basis rather than face the anxiety and depression of the present. It is a sad reality that sufferers of this cruel and obscene disease are all too aware of what is happening to them, at least in this stage.
I’ve grown to love her and I’m always happy to sit and listen to her stories of a childhood that couldn’t be more different from my own, even though I hear them several times a day, every day.
“Mama had two other children, but they died. Then I came along. I was spoiled rotten. I admit it. We didn’t have much; my family was not one with money… But I got everything I needed. Mama and Daddy saw to that.”
Mrs. E was born in 1930, in Fort Ogden, Florida, a small town back then and an unincorporated cluster of buildings now. In all her eighty years, she’s only once traveled more than fifty miles from that spot and that was a trip to Willacoochee, Georgia with a cousin. She grew up through the depression years, married, raised three children, was widowed and left alone with three daughters, worked for the post office in Fort Ogden and lived out her whole life in the quiet of rural Florida.
Unable to care for herself anymore, she lives with her loving daughter in Port Charlotte, a twenty minute drive from Fort Ogden, a short hop for someone like me, a born rolling stone traipsing the globe, but a vast distance for Mrs. E in her present state of mind. Not only has she lost all her more recent personal history, the disease has destroyed any sense of time, and for Mrs. E, not only is Fort Ogden far, far away, it remains as she knew it in her childhood.
I’ve listened to so many stories of the life, people and depression era times of Fort Ogden, I felt that I knew the place.
“Most likely I wouldn’t know anyone there anymore. I’m sure it’s changed,” Mrs. E said in a moment of lucidity, then added in wistful yearning, “But I sure would like to see it again.”
How often does one get a chance to make someone’s dream come true?
So with her daughter’s approval, Mrs. E and I set out one morning to visit Fort Ogden. I thought I’d take you along for the ride.
Where are we? Desoto County
DeSoto County, Florida
DeSoto County is a county located in the state of Florida. The U.S. Census Bureau 2005 population estimate for the county is 35,406. Its county seat is Arcadia. De Soto County was created in 1887. It was named for Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer.
There are two ways to get to Fort Ogden (though chances are you’ll get there and not know it.) The first is by Highway 17/35 but for us, at our starting point, we’d have to backtrack to the bridge across the Peace River, or take the back roads. We chose the back route.
Life grows more interesting the smaller the road followed.
Don't you agree?
I’d googled the route, and just in case, we carry a detailed road Atlas. There are a lot of little roads out there….
We had no need of either.
Surprising for a woman who can’t remember what she had for breakfast twenty minutes ago, or even if she had breakfast, can’t remember my name though she’s seen me three days a week for several months now, once we left Charlotte County, Mrs. E knows exactly which roads we need, which turns to take, what side roads we want and the names of the families who’d lived in some of the older houses “back then” as we pass them.
Such is the nature of Alzheimer’s. Childhood impressions are the most vivid in all of us, and for those who are slowly being robbed of their memories the earliest are the last to go.
We tour down a winding skinny road, never leaving second gear. Mrs. E loses some of her certainty and becomes confused. “I don’t know that,” she says, pointing to the newer houses, some of them very up-scale, with ornate gate posts and wrought iron gates across the driveways.
I find myself contemplating the strange mix: wealthy-looking, low-slung, ranch-style homes, huge and sprawling, at least according to the glimpses I catch, hidden as they are behind long front gardens full of spreading oaks and the obsequious dangles of Spanish moss, and across the street and interspersed in the prosperous homes, tiny depression era houses, some clearly one room, and not a big room at that – all still occupied.
Mrs. E grows a little agitated. Her forehead wrinkles in concentration. “I know it’s gotta be here.”
“What is?” I ask, hoping to sooth her.
I stop and back up until we sat before a well-treed lot.
Mrs. E sits staring at an old oak tree that bent out over the road. “This is it. Yes, it is. That old tree’s been there forever.” She seems even more upset.
“What is this place?” I inquire.
“Where I grew up.” She twists in her seat and cranes her neck. “I can’t see the house.”
I back up farther to a point where we can look up the drive.
“Oh.” The single syllable escapes from her mouth as a gasp.
There, in the center of the lot stands a house trailer. Off to the side three pre-fab garden sheds form a semi-circle around a lawn tractor.
I concentrated on the large oaks. “You must have had fun as a girl playing in those big trees.”
“The house is gone.” Her mouth quivers and her eyes waters.
My attempted distraction failed. I try another. “Let’s go into town and see what there is to see.”
“Ain’t much. Just the school, the post office, the church and over by the highway, two grocery stores, a drug store and the gas station.” She went on in a description I'd heard many times before. "Just a poor little place. Nobody has any money, but we have each other..."
“Let’s go anyway.”
I knew the house had been long gone. Just as I knew the newer houses had stood there for decades. But for Mrs. E, that section of time had disappeared, leaving only childhood and the present, with the present a world of confusion.
According to my research, the area’s main industries are citrus and beef and that fact is born out by the number of orchards lining the road on either side.
This time of year, the fruit are gaining in size but are still green. There isn’t much activity in the fields, but in another couple of months, they will be alive with workers, mostly Hispanic, harvesting the fruit.
We pass mature orchards, the trees laden with ripening fruit.
We pass young orchards, with saplings staked, fed with drip irrigation and protected.
We pass one or two dying orchards, the trees overgrown with those vines that take over everything in Florida if not relentlessly fought. I wonder why they’d been abandoned.
Once thing is sure, citrus is an important crop.
I asked Mrs. E if that had always been so. After some thought, she ventured the opinion there weren’t as many orchards now as had been in “her day.”
As I was to learn, there is a reason for that.
Farther from the main road, open fields are dotted with cattle, some the fat red and whites of Hereford stock, the heavy set black angus and the curly-haired, white limousin I knew from growing up in the ranchlands of the Canadian prairies. But many fields hold those strange, skinny cattle with an impressive set of horns found here in the south and known as “Cracker cattle,” prized for their ability to survive on scrub land, their heat and drought tolerance, and their place in Florida history.
Looking at the small land-holdings, and the equally small herds, and knowing the orchards are a high labor enterprise, I wonder where the money evident in the more lavish houses came from. I doubt anyone grew rich from the land as I saw it.
Another question to research later.
A tiny bit of financial history from DeSoto county
The answer to my question was fairly easy to find. In the '80's and '90's, much of the once-agricultural land in the southern part of DeSoto county, so close to the coastal cities, beaches and all those attractions, was bought up by developers. Offering "country estates" to those able to afford them, a twenty year real estate boom changed the face of that land. This slowed down at the turn of the century, when state legislators belatedly woke up to the damage done to agriculture and changed zoning laws. It came to a screeching halt with the bust of recent years.
Historically a less than prosperous area, not surprisingly, the influx of outside money from land development did not ameliorate the problems, but made them worse. Jobs disappeared along with the land under cultivation.
Today, the stats for DeSoto county are not heartening:
Percentage of residents living in poverty in 2009: 20.7%
- 12.3% for White Non-Hispanic residents,
- 24.0% for Black residents,
- 31.7% for Hispanic or Latino residents,
- 100.0% for American Indian residents,
- 17.1% for other race residents,
- 44.0% for two or more races residents)
Residents with income below the poverty level in 2009:
- This county:23.6%
- Whole state:12.5%
Residents with income below 50% of the poverty level in 2009:
- This county:10.0%
- Whole state:5.7%
For those who like to know such things, the racial makeup of DeSoto country is as follows:
- White Non-Hispanic Alone (53.8%)
- Hispanic or Latino (32.7%)
- Black Non-Hispanic Alone (11.7%)
- Two or more races (1.5%)
According to Mrs. E, the population of DeSoto county actually belongs to only two categories:
On the road to Fort Ogden
The approach to Fort Ogden proper (if such a term can be used) is dominated by The Methodist Church, a beautiful, classic small-town church, one that would grace any number of postcards. I am informed by a Fort Ogden resident that this is a new structure built to duplicate the old as the old structure was knocked off it's foundation when Hurricane Charley hit the region on '04.
What a lot of history this church has seen.
A few hundred feet down the same road, is the much larger but nowhere near as classic the Baptist Church, a sprawling modern structure resembling a school gymnasium. My research found the church was first built in 1878. In 1901, the building was moved to its present location, but burned down in November of 1957. The new church was rebuilt in the same architecture and reopened in 1961. In 1971, a hall was added. No, questions of dogma aside, strictly on looks, I much prefer this one.
Mrs. E agrees.
Off to the left of the church is the central park and playground of the hamlet. Where once children must have spent many happy hours, all is now quiet. In fact, the whole place is deathly quiet. Not one sign of life, anywhere.
I ask Mrs. E if the park is as she remembers. It is not. The playground equipment is new -- at least to her.
"We didn't have that stuff. No one had that kind of money. We made our own games."
She wants to go the school and directs around the corner of the park to a building invisible through the trees.
I turn and stop in surprise. This is not what I was expecting.
Fort Ogden School
From the Florida State Archives
I suppose I had envisioned something like the first school I attended in Canada, a two-room school house in Namaka, Alberta. But no, this was a rather daunting-looking building, a solid dark-brick testament to the local’s commitment to education for their children. I’m impressed!
“How many children attended this school when you did?” I ask Mrs. E.
“I don’t remember.” She frowns as she concentrates. “Maybe a hundred.” Then her face relaxes as she ventures into well-travelled ground. “Mama worked in the lunch room, cooking huge pots of food. Every day they were emptied, scraped clean. Some of those kids, this would be the only meal…”
I stop listening, having heard it hundreds of times before, though I do offer the habitual “Is that so?” and “Really?”
I’m studying the building, wondering what it’s like on the inside, promising myself to do some research on its history later. Which I did, but was unable to come up with much information, other than it is now a private residence.
“I did all my years from grade one to eight here,” says Mrs. E.
“And for the rest, where did you go to school?” I ask, though I already know the answer, having asked it many times before. But Mrs. E is happiest when telling the same old stories, and it’s my place to encourage her by asking questions.
“Bussed into Arcadia.”
“Did you like it there?”
“I don’t remember.” Her face darkens and again her eyes look watery. Once, in a rare instance of being in the here and now, she told me of her deep sense of shame about “losing her mind.” I should be more careful in asking questions, though this lapse is new. The normal answer is Arcadia was the biggest place she’d seen to that point, and she had become shy there.
We need another distraction. “What else is there to see?”
“The Post Office is over there,” she points to an empty lot. “Oh.”
It too, was gone. "I used to work there," she says in a small voice
The historic cemetery
The Historic Cemetery
We drove out on a street named Cemetery Road with that destination in mind, Mrs. E's idea, not mine. Later, I was to learn this cemetery is the final resting place for several Civil War casualties, Confederate one would assume, and is listed in the National Register of Historic places.
Perhaps that explains the Confederate flag flying proudly over one plot.
But as Confederate flags do abound 'round here, maybe not.
It is a beautiful place of old oak trees and granite head stones, one or two crypts and well tended grass with that particular sense of peacefulness most cemeteries have. I'm content to sit quietly with Mrs. E and soak up the tranquility.
"My folks are buried here," Mrs. E says.
"Do you want to visit them?" I ask, not thinking of the difficulty of Mrs. E's two knee replacements and her walker on the uneven ground.
"No. I don't remember where they are." She closes her eyes and begins another of her oft-spoken stories. "There were seventeen in Daddy's family. I don't know how their Mama put up with that lot." And she was off once again on her well-worn tales of hard-drinking uncles, lazy sons and the heroic women who saved them. "Daddy was the youngest and he had asthma... couldn't hold down a job, but did what he could... had huntin' dogs and when rich folk came down from the north, he guided them out hunting..."
"Where did they hunt?" I interrupt.
"I don't recall." She shuts down.
Damn me and my big mouth. My guess would be Big Cyprus Swamp, not far from here, once the home of the Seminoles -- before they were captured and relocated to Arkansas.
Mrs. E pulls me back from my thoughts. "I remember old General Wickersham and his wife... that woman thought she was a man, went out shooting along with him. Me and Mamma met them for lunch." Her voice trails off, only to begin again with her habitual question. "Did you ever eat a swamp cabbage?"
"No, I never did," I answer for the thousandth time, having long ago given up trying to explain I'm from Canada, a land bereft of palms. Still, she's happy so I ask the question she's waiting for. "How do you fix it?"
How to make Swamp Cabbage
Here's Mrs. E's recipe for what I'm sure is a delicacy.
- Find a young palmetto or a cabbage palm (the state tree)
- Chop it down
- Cut off all the fronds
- Start hacking off the hard outer bark
- Keep only the moist inner heart wood.
- Cut into little pieces
- Put in clean water
- Fry up some of that "white bacon" (at which point my toes start curling up -- white bacon? Wouldn't that be lard? Do any of you out there know?)
- When the fat has "come out" of the white bacon, throw it all in the heart of palm.
- Boil it for twenty minutes or so until soft
- Add salt and pepper if available
According to Mrs. E, this is the best thing you've ever tasted.
She says she'll make it for me one day, but I have to cut down the palm. Lucky for me, she doesn't remember that promise -- most days.
Up and down and around the back roads of Fort Ogden
For the rest of the morning, we toured around the streets and back roads of the area. Whenever Mrs. E remembered a place, I took a picture of it.
They are here for your enjoyment.
Fort Ogden's History
Outside of where the Fort Ogden post office once stood is a historic marker. The text reads:
"As white settlers moved into Florida, demands increased for the removal of the Seminole Indians to a western reservation. The Seminoles failed to cooperate, and in 1835 the conflict known as the Second Seminole War began. By 1841, the Indians were still entrenched in central and south Florida. Campaign plans for that year aimed at clearing Indians from the area between the Withlacoochee River and the frontier and then attacking Indian bands in Big Cypress Swamp. To sustain the wide-ranging troops, detached camps were established at various points. Camp Ogden, named for Captain Edmund Ogden of the 8th U.S. Infantry, seems to have been established in July, 1841, as an advanced position for the Big Cypress campaign. In addition, 55 canoes were constructed for the next winter's Everglades expedition. Before the camp was abandoned in the fall, an influential Indian leader, Coacoochee, visited Camp Ogden. The community of Fort Ogden developed in this citrus and cattle region in the last part of the 19th century and took its name from the Second Seminole War camp. Fort Ogden's post office, established in 1876, is the oldest in DeSoto County to be in continuous service."
Mrs. E's memories
Seeing these old places and remembering put Mrs. E in a good frame of mind. The more we looked, the more stories she was able to tell. She was as happy as I've ever seen her.
"Go over to the highway," she said. "We can get something to eat at the grocery store."
We did, and once again stared at bare, empty lots. The grocery stores, the drug store, the gas station -- all was gone.
And so was Mrs. E's good mood.
I can only imagine the desperation of losing your memories, first through disease and second by time, history and change. For now, Mrs. E is all too aware of what is happening to her, and what lies in wait.
But I suspect it will not be so for much longer. Soon, it will all be gone, and Mrs. E will become just another lost and frightened old woman whose mind has been stolen. Her needs will outstrip her daughter's ability to provide safe care for her and the organization for whom I work will no longer be able to help.
What will become of Mrs. E? Like so many others who suffer this obscene disease, she will live behind locked doors in some kind of care home, and with the loss of anything familiar she will deteriorate even more quickly.
It is estimated that 5.1 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's. Personally, I can think of no worse fate. For more information on this disease, here's a link to an excellent site.
Think of Mrs. E from time to time, will you? And all the other millions like her.
And while you're at it, think of the loss and decay of towns like Fort Ogden, where history, a once proud life style and culture also deteriorate. Perhaps our entire trip to this dwindling little town represents an analogy of what is happening to Mrs. E.
I'm glad to have shared this morning with her, and this article will stand in tribute to her life and those memories that are dying long before she does.
Thank you for reading.
Lynda M. Martin
September 13, 2011