Bradford and I just got back from a good vacation down to Gulfport, Florida. Bradford’s boat is stored nearby, so he worked on the boat while I stayed at a place called Sea Breeze Manor Inn. It is adjoined by an outdoor café, where we ate a lot, looking out over the bay, usually with a good breeze. We only ate two meals indoors during our trip. The rest of the time we ate outside under an umbrella or on a covered porch.
The Sea Breeze is not quite a hotel or bed and breakfast. Dorina and Katarina work as servers and also help take care of the rooms and suites; and J.D. stays busy pruning all the palms and jasmine, and keeping the place nice. J.D. helped me move my things when we had to change rooms. (The best room for me wasn’t available for the whole time.)
The staff go home after dinner (or after 2pm on Mondays and Tuesdays), so it’s kind of like an AirBnB after that.
We went twice to the Habana Café and had some good black beans and rice, and to an Italian restaurant called Pia’s. We also ate at a little sidewalk restaurant called Stella’s for breakfast three times.
One feature of Stella’s is it has a menu for dogs. The first item on the menu, a dog treat, is free. (One per pup.) And then you can buy eggs and bacon, I think at $3.75 for your dog.
Gulfport happens to be a very dog-friendly city. A lot of people have dogs and walk them. And a lot of the businesses have a bowl of water out front for the dogs, and the dogs can come into the best restaurants and lie beside their master while their master eats. And nobody objects.
One other thing that was noteworthy: We almost never saw anyone wearing a mask while we were on our trip.
While we were in Florida, we took a trip down to the Everglades. It’s about 180 miles each way, a lot of driving for one day for Bradford. We checked out the little village Chokoloskee, where the controversial character Edgar Watson was gunned down by a couple dozen of his neighbors in October 1910.
There’ve been several books written about Mr. Watson and his controversial life, the most famous one being Killing Mister Watson, by Peter Matthiessen. It is said that Watson fled to the Everglades to get away from a murder charge in another state. (He was accused of killing the famous outlaw Belle Starr in the Oklahoma Territory, among many other things.)
There’s a store in Chokoloskee, Ted Smallwood’s store, who had the post office, as well as a trading post there. It was rebuilt in 1917 near the landing where Mr. Watson was killed. There were 23 neighbors who were afraid to individually face off Mr. Watson; but they’d had enough of the killing, so when Mr. Watson leapt ashore with his shotgun, they laid down on him with their guns and riddled him with bullets.
Mamie Smallwood, Ted’s wife and the daughter of one of the shooters, had sold Watson some wet shotgun shells a few days earlier, which some say misfired when he swung up his shotgun to fire. In the sequel to Killing Mister Watson, though, it’s suggested that Watson had no intention of using the shells, and that his gun was in fact empty—he was only bluffing.
Before the white settlers, but after the First Seminole War, this was the land of the Seminoles. And the Calusa Indians who preceded the Seminoles had built oyster shell mounds to build up land, where soil could be put on top of these oyster shell mounds and crops could be raised.
Mr. Watson was very successful in raising sugar cane and he made a sugar cane syrup, which he shipped out by the barrel, and which made him, for a time, a successful businessman.
We had been fortunate to meet our new friend Marcia while dining in Gulfport, who is related not only to Watson, but also to one of his alleged victims, Hannah “Big Six” Smith, another larger-than-life South Florida pioneer. (It is unclear whether Watson or his foreman Leslie Cox murdered Hannah.) Marcia is a historian and chronicler of all things Chokoloskee, and it was fascinating to talk with one of the actual descendants of the folks I’d been reading about.
(Marcia is also related to another Chololoskee character named Loren “Totch” Brown who I’m reading about now. (The book is Totch: A Life In The Everglades. Bradford bought it at Smallwood’s store.) Marica said that with the remote nature of the Everglades, a lot of folks there are related.)
Chokoloskee is near a larger town called Everglades City, so we went there as well and had a lunch of fried shrimp po boy, fried gator and fried frog legs (with french fries, of course) while we waited for a typical ‘Glades downpour to finish.
We had been forewarned by Marcia and others that the mosquitos in Chokoloskee and Everglades CIty were really bad, so Bradford went to Walmart and bought us some long pants, long sleeve shirts, and plenty of Deep Woods Off to ward them off.
We didn’t encounter any mosquitoes to speak of, because we went in the middle of the day when the mosquitoes were dormant. So we didn’t need the long pants and long sleeve shirts, but we did look like twins on safari for the day.
We drove back to Atlanta, where I live now, and Bradford had to deal with intermittent rains much of the way. We were tired out and worn out when we got back, but it was worth it all.
It was very good vacation, and great to get some fresh air and sunshine. Hopefully we’ll do it again soon.
Readers Note: I really enjoyed reading Killing Mister Watson and Totch: A Life In The Everglades. I’d recommend if you think you’d like to read Killing Mister Watson on Kindle (as opposed to paperback), you might want to just get the whole Shadow Country Trilogy, which includes the second and third books.
There is also an amazing audiobook version of Shadow Country if you like that kinda thing. It’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. Bradford played a few chapters for me, and told me he’d also listened to it to keep awake as he was sailing by the exact part of the Everglades where all this took place.
Please note that the trilogy (especially the second and third books) contain a fair amount of cussin’, sex and violence and other stuff. But it’s a heck of a view into life in remote South Florida at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.