Anthropology Friday: Florida of Yesteryear

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Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’ll be finishing Richard Sapp’s Suwannee River Town, Suwanne River Country: political moieties in a Southern County community, published in 1976.

I found this book a very interesting read in part because of its connections to my own personal past (as discussed two weeks ago,) and in part because of its insight into an era in American history that has passed away: post-WWII, pre-internet. Post-Civil Rights Act, pre-large-scale immigration. Post-industrialization, but before many of the farms were left behind.

I don’t normally review (positively) anthropologic works this recent, but I think Sapp did an admirable job documenting and understanding the cultural and political dynamics at play in the community. So let’s dive in.

On Horseback Riding:

“Interestingly enough, horseback riding for pleasure has long been disdained by countrymen. This attitude relates to differential traditional uses of the horse: to the small farmer the horse was a necessity as a draft animal and beast of burden; to the “gentleman farmer,” the wealthy town professional, the horse was a relatively inexpensive luxury and a means of transportation for supervisory visits to the small homes and fields of tenants. The gentleman farmer bred or purchased animals for qualities other than ability to pull a wagon or a plow: from horseback, one looks down to one’s servants.”

Population Nodes and Distribution:

“Churches, rural schools, and crossroads general stores have served as centers of widely dispersed rural neighborhood,s tying the scattered populace into networks of communication. Over the years a demographic shift in population has emptied half a hundred of these hamlet centers for each that exists today. … The railroads, as much as any factor, account for the distribution of population… Lizbeth, the present county sea, was formed forty years after the county was firs settled, as a station stop on a railway spur from Georgia.

“In Apalachee County [Note: today Suwannee County] farming neighborhoods appeared prior to Lizbeth… and decades before numerous and ephemeral market centers that sprang up every few miles along railroad rights-of-way. In those years before and briefly after the War Between the States inhabitants marketed preponderantly at the river. After 1880 or so, rural people marketed chiefly at crossroads stores and at tiny commercial nuclei strung like beads along country railway chains built to sell real estate and to haul timber. …

“In Appalachee County the dirt farmers arrived first. Townspeople, as small merchants and peddlers, part-time preachers … appeared on the heels of the farmers, setting up in dozens of rural neighborhoods, at intersections too small to be cross roads, at numerous railroad stops.”

Country Family, Town Family:

“The social nature of he work environment suggests that the family system of the townspeople differed from that of the country people. In the country men worked in the open where, till the advent of mechanized farming, income level depended in part upon amount of work done and the ability to be up and out before dawn till after sunset. Wives brought dinner pails into the fields so that work would be interrupted as little as possible. The more sons a family had, he greater the amount of work they could do. Work began before ten years of age and continued… until a man escaped or died. The extended family which ended to cohabit in the same rural neighborhood… participated in work sharing, especially in times of family crisis.

“The family system of the townspeople operated within a far more enclosed setting: the locus of work, a store or a mill. A man and wife or a man and business partner easily handled the business of the store, where income depended on direct commodity exchange for money (or credit) rather than on the duration of work-related activity inside or the number of workers there. Children were not a direct economic asset… The town merchant might marry his children into rural families to increase his clientele… but four reasons doomed even this as a conscious effort.

[1. Love as an ideal, 2. Town and country folk frequent different churches and so don’t meet, etc.]

“The town nabob group per se has not maintained a historical continuity in this community. Prominent families of the pre-1920s have generally failed perpetuate themselves biologically… The failure to abide and beget relates, perhaps, to differing export economies of the times…

“The rotation of elites prompted by changes in community revenue-producing activities has bequeathed two characteristics to the Apalachee own nabob class: small size and a tenuous hold on high status.”

EvX: There are a lot of social clubs in this town. I am reminded here of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which posits that there once existed an America in which people belonged to civic organizations. This must have been before the era of cable TV and Facebook.

I know a lot of the decline in club membership is attributed to rising diversity, but entertainment options have a lot to do with it, too. A world in which people have cars but only 3 or 4 TV channels–what do you do with yourself? You could read a book, or you could go hang out at the Rotary Club.

According to Sapp:

“Of the three principal white, mature men’s clubs, it is said:

The Rotary club owns the town;
The Kiwanis club runs the town; and
The Lions club enjoys the town.

For a full discussion of how the clubs work and interact with town governance, you may want to read the paper.

There follows a chapter on African American life in Suwannee, with special attention to the men of the turpentine camps. According to Wikipedia:

Turpentine (also called spirit of turpentineoil of turpentinewood turpentine and colloquially turps[3]) is a fluid obtained by the distillation of resin from live trees, mainly pines. It is mainly used as a solvent and as a source of materials for organic synthesis. …

To tap into the sap producing layers of the tree, turpentiners used a combination of hacks to remove the pine bark. Once debarked, pine trees secrete oleoresin onto the surface of the wound as a protective measure to seal the opening, resist exposure to micro-organisms and insects, and prevent vital sap loss. Turpentiners wounded trees in V-shaped streaks down the length of the trunks to channel the oleoresin into containers. It was then collected and processed into spirits of turpentine. Oleoresin yield may be increased by as much as 40% by applying paraquat herbicides to the exposed wood.[7] …

Crude oleoresin collected from wounded trees may be evaporated by steam distillation in a copper still. Molten rosin remains in the still bottoms after turpentine has been evaporated and recovered from a condenser.[7] Turpentine may alternatively be condensed from destructive distillation of pine wood.[4]

Oleoresin may also be extracted from shredded pine stumps, roots, and slash using the light end of the heavy naphtha fraction (boiling between 90 and 115 °C or 195 and 240 °F) from a crude oil refinery. Multi-stage counter-current extraction is commonly used so fresh naphtha first contacts wood leached in previous stages and naphtha laden with turpentine from previous stages contacts fresh wood before vacuum distillation to recover naphtha from the turpentine…[9]

When producing chemical wood pulp from pines or other coniferous trees, sulfate turpentine may be condensed from the gas generated in Kraft process pulp digesters.

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Tapping a turpentine tree, Georgia, 1906-1920

According to Sapp, turpentining was the hardest work in Appalachee county; when the turpentine industry rand out, wood pulping became the hardest work. Unsurprisingly, this unpleasant work was carried out by African Americans, many of them “leased” from the Florida state prison system. In 1870, Florida prisoners were 20:1 black to white’ by the 1890s, that proportion had dropped to 2:1 as things like “evidence” became required for conviction.

Still, one gets the impression that life in the turpentine camps at the turn of the century was little more than slavery.

Quoting Zora Neale Hurston:

“… teppentime folks are born, not made, and certainly not overnight. They are born in teppentime, live all their lives init, and die and go to their graves smelling of teppentime.”

“Regional white people made fortunes in [turpentine], founded on a supply of unskilled, legally unprotected and dependent black labor. …

“Kennedy wrote

Negroes have provided the labor for the [turpentine] industry since the beginning of slavery in America. Generation after generation they have followed its southward migration, and the majority of those engaged in it today are descended from a long line of turpentine workers. More than any other occupational group these Negroes are denied the rights for which the Civil War was supposedly fought. …

“White men with access to a black labor pool contracted to tap the trees on land owned by other whites. The contractor… then moved a settlement of black people into the area of the leased trees, housing them in portable huts in a “camp.” …

“Contractors sublet stands of pines to black men, encouraging them to maintain families in the camp on the theory that the men would thus be bound to their service and prevented from “running” when accumulated debt [to the camp commissary] negated any profit from a year’s activity.

“It was not at all unheard of for the owner to supply a woman for a man without, “marrying” the pair by the simple expedient of assigning hem to a cabin and opening an account for them in the camp commissary.”

EvX: The text doesn’t say how these women were obtained, nor what they thought of this arrangement.

Anyway, turpentining eventually faded as and industry (and today machines do a lot of the heavy work of hauling and chopping logs to be made into pulp,) and boll weevils killed the cotton crop in the 1920s, which probably had a big effect on black employment in the South and helped motivate the Great Migration, though the Wikipedia page on it doesn’t mention the weevils.

There follows a rather detailed description of the most important cafes/coffee shops in the county seat and which county officials sit where while drinking their coffee. Apparently a lot of governance happens through informal coffeeshop discussions between different local “factions.”

Banks loom large in the discussion, due to their influence and necessity in agricultural life:

“Occasionally a crop fails and bank notes cannot be met. In this situation a deferred note means continued solvency and perseverance in a preferred life-style. …

“At this point in the credit system the principle of “personalism” regulates the nature of the relation of power between lender and borrower. The alternative to default involves a loyalty complex “up” in exchange for continued credit loyalty “down.” To maintain the system in the long run, the flow of local resources up must somewhat exceed the flow down. … but too great a flow up would ruin the exchange and precipitate the collapse of the townsman-countryman pattern of relations. Loyalty “up” means that secondary goods and services (e.g. … supporting the creditor’s community projects and policies) temporarily take the place of the primary credit repayment and help assure continued future credit.

“Why should the credit lender not foreclose in these cases? As bank owner, the credit lender facilitates a continual flow of exchanges through his institution. Were the flow inhibited, the bank owner and his immediate family would not personally be threatened with ruin, but the thousands of transactions which the bank handles and which define the bank itself would teeter on the brink of collapse, pushed there by the uncertainty and insecurity of hundreds of other persons akin to the foreclosed in situation as well as kinship. Foreclosure (area bank owners boast of their efforts in assisting local borrowers on the verge of financial disaster) is an act of transactional finality. In the long run the institution benefits not from amassing wealth by foreclosures, but from extending overdue notes and translating the credit dependency to secondary areas.”

EvX: Finally, we have some comparisons to other small-town communities:

“Based on the evidence from this community study, we have not seen social disorganization or a “surrender to mass society” such as Vidich and Bensman (1958) witnessed in a New York township. … They found that the “controlling conditions” of local society were “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations”… While these conditioning elements are present in Apalachee County, the do not dominate the local social organization. Indeed, the county-community has tended to absorb new relational sets, incorporating them into extant patterns in the system. …

“Perhaps the town-country dynamic of the county-community, the internal dynamic expressed between county seat and rural neighborhoods, has proven more resistant or resilient as a social form to the advent of a “mass society” represented here by the townsman system of social relations. The country community has proven more resilient than the nucleated New England village community, wherein the essence of centralization was planted long ago. Perhaps “surrender to mass society” depends upon the social form of human community, if indeed there is any such thing.”

EvX: What is this “surrender to mass society”? Perhaps that will make productive reading for another day.

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Suwannee River, Florida, 1908

He ends on a positive note:

“Important political decisions about local affairs will continue to be made outside the community, but the future of life in the human community is not necessarily bleak. The local life of neighborhood and community will survive “centralization, bureaucratization, and dominance by large-scale organizations.” Whether the county-community survives the twentieth century in its present form is not important. People adapt. the human community will absorb these changes as it has absorbed others of a dehumanizing nature, for it is the locus of the life of man.”

I wonder what Sapp–if he is still alive–thinks of the changes wrought in American society over the past 50 years, and particularly in Apalachee–now Suwannee–county.

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Anthropology Friday: The Crackers of Apalachee, Florida

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A cracker cowboy, by Frederick Remington, 1895

About two years ago I reviewed Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl, a middle grade novel about the conflict between newly arrived, dedicated farmers and long-established families of hoe-farmers/ranchers/hunters in the backwoods of Florida. It was a pleasant book based on solid research among the older residents, but left me with many questions (as surely any children’s book would)–most notably, was the author’s description of the newly arrived farmers as “Crackers” accurate, or should the term be more properly restricted to the older, wilder inhabitants?

I had not known, prior to Lenski’s book, that “Cracker” even was an ethnonym; today it is used primarily as a slur, the original Crackers and their lifestyle having all but disappeared. Who were the Crackers? Where did they come from? Do they hail from the same stock as settled Appalachia (the mountains, not to be confused with Apalachee, the county in Florida we’ll be discussing in this post,) or different stock? Or is there perhaps a common stock that runs throughout America, appearing as more or less of the population in proportion to the favorability of the land for their lifestyles?

Today I happened upon Richard Wayne Sapp’s ethnography of Apalachee County, Florida: Suwannee River Town, Suwannee River Country: political moieties in a southern county community, published in 1976, which directly addresses a great many of my questions. So far it has been a fascinating book, and I am glad I found it.

I must note, though, that there currently is no “Apalachee County” in Florida. (There are an Apalachee Parkway and an Apalachee Park, though.) However, comparing the maps and geographic details in the book with a current map of Florida reveals that Apalachee Count is now Suwannee County. Wikipedia should note the change.

So without further ado, here are a few interesting quotes :

Apalachee County, a north Florida county community, nestles in a bend of the Suwanee River. The urban county seat is the center of government and associational life. Scattered over the country-side are farming neighborhoods whose interactional centers are rural churches. Count seat and rural neighborhoods are coupled by mutual exchanges of goods and services: neither are, of themselves, cultural wholes. The poor quality of its soils and the relative recency of settlement (post-Civil-War) give the community its distinctiveness; it never had a planting elite.

Apalachee society is structured along moiety lines: town and country.

EvX: “Moiety” means half; Wikipedia defines it in anthropology as:

a [kinship] descent group that coexists with only one other descent group within a society. In such cases, the community usually has unilineal descent, either patri- or matri-lineal so that any individual belongs to one of the two moiety groups by birth, and all marriages take place between members of opposite moieties. It is an exogamous clan system with only two clans.

Here I think Sapp is using moiety more in the sense of “two interacting groups that form a society” without implying that all town people take country spouses and vice versa. But continuing:

These halves rest on an earlier “cracker” horizon of isolated single-family homesteads. True crackers subsisted by living off the land and practicing hoe agriculture; they were fiercely independent and socially isolated. Apalachee moieties are also related to regional traditions: townsmen as town naboobs in the Cavalier tradition and countrymen as yeoman farmers in the Calvinist tradition. Townsmen promote associational interaction, valuing familism (nuclear), hierarchy in organisations, “progress,” and paternalistic interaction with countrymen. Countrymen value familism (extended), localism, and personalism, interacting on individually egalitarian rather than ordered associational terms. …

The division of governmental offices falls along moiety lines. Townsmen control municipal government, countrymen control the powerful county bodies. Except for jobs, the governmental institution is not a major source of political prizes. The country moiety is the dominant political force.”

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Wet counties = blue; dry = red; yellow = mixed laws. (Currently.)

EvX: There follows a fascinating description of the battle over a referendum on whether the county should stay “dry” (no legal sale of alcohol) or go “wet” (alcohol sales allowed.) The Wets, led by business interests, had hoped that an influx of new residents who held more pro-alcohol views than established residents would tip the electoral balance in their favor. I find this an interesting admission of one of democracy’s weak points–the ability of newcomers to move into an area and vote to change the laws in ways the folks who already live there don’t like.

The Drys, led by local Baptist pastors, inflamed local sentiments against the wets, who were supposedly trying to overturn the law just to make make a hotel chain more interested in buying a tract of land owned by the leader of the Wets. The Wets argued the sale would attract more businesses to the area, boosting the economy; the Drys argued that the profits would go entirely to the wets and the community itself would reap the degradation and degeneration caused by alcohol.

The Drys won, and the leader of the Wets hasn’t set foot in a church in Apalachee county since then.

(Suwannee/Apalachee county finally allowed the sale of alcohol in 2011.)

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Per capita GDP by county (wikipedia)

Does a county’s wet or dry status impact the willingness of businesses to move into the area, leading to depressed economies for Drys? I wanted to find out, so I pulled up maps of current dry counties and per capita GDP by county. It’s not a perfect comparison since it doesn’t control for cost of living, but it’ll do.

In general, I don’t think the theory holds. Suwanee, dry until 2011, is doing better than neighboring counties that went wet earlier (some of those neighboring counties are very swampy.) Central Mississippi is wet, but doing badly; a string of dry counties runs down the east side of the state, and unless my eyes deceive me, they’re doing better than the wet counties. Kentucky’s drys are economically depressed, but so are West Virginia’s wets. Pennsylvania and Texas’s “mixed” counties are doing fine, while Texas’s wets are doing badly. Virginia has some pretty poor wet counties; Alaska’s dry county is doing great.

However, this is only a comparison of currently dry and wet counties; if I had data that showed for what percent of the 20th century each county allowed the sale of alcohol, that might provide a different picture.

Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb, here: differences in local GDP have more to do with demographics than the sale of one particular beverage.

But back to Sapp:

A system of human community derivative of Europe and still basic to the southern United States is the county-community. … The symbolic heart of this traditional community, the county courthouse, has been the central point of political and economic assembly for county residents. Its people lived dispersed in neighborhoods clustered about small Protestant churches, points of assembly in socialization and socializing as well as bastions of moral and spiritual rectitude.

He quotes Havard, 1972, on the traits of the Calvinist-Yeoman Farmer–radical individualism, personalism, personal independence, populism, regionalist traditions, etc–vs the Cavalier-Planter/Town Nabob–social conformity, caste, paternalistic dependency, conservatism, nationalist patriotism.

He wrote that this split fathered two mainstream traditions in the South: yeoman farmer and plantation farmer. The yeoman farmers, he said, opposed governmental centralization and exhibited an aversion to urbanism, industrialization, and the entrepreneurial classes; they were libertarian, egalitarian, and populist. The plantation whigs, identified withdowntown mercantile interests, supported themselves as planters … bankers, and merchants, sat as the “county seat clique,” developed the theme of racial segregation in the post-bellum era, and promoted a cult of “manners” and paternalism. …

However, the Cavalier plantation elite never really settled in Apalachee/Suwannee county, due to its soil being much too poor for serious agriculture.

As a result, not many slaves were ever brought into the county, nor have their descendants migrated to the area. Since the population is mostly white, racial issues appear only rarely in the book, and it is safe to say that the culture never developed in quite the same ways as it did in the plantation-dominated Deep South.

Rather, Apalachee was settled by the Cavalier-Yeomen farmers and the Crackers:

Although the origin of the term cracker is disputed, Stetson Kennedy claims that cracker first applied to an assortment of “bad characters” who gathered in northern Florida before it became a territory of the United States. Deep-South Southerners later applied the epithet to the “poor white folk of Florida, Georgia, and Alababama.” (Kennedy, 1942, p. 59). He further relates:

“Crackers are mainly descended from the Irish, Scotch, and English stock which, from 1740 on, was slowly populating the huge Southern wilderness behind the thin strip of coastal civilization. These folk settled the Cumberland Valley, the Shenandoah, and spread through every Southern state east of the Mississippi. That branch of the family which settled in the Deep South was predominantly of Irish ancestry…

“The early crackers were the Okies of their day (as they have been ever since). Cheated of land, not by wind and erosion, but by the plantation and slavery system of the Old South, they were nonessentials in an economic, political and social order dominated by the squirearchy of wealthy planters, and in most respects were worse off than the Negro slaves. “

This contradicts the history told in our prior ethnography of Appalachia, which claims pointedly that the denizens of the Cumberland are not descended from the “poor whites” of the Deep South, but from Pennsylvanians. I offer, however, a synthesis: both the whites who settled on the Pennsylvania frontier and followed Daniel Boone into the Cumberland and found it pleasant enough to remain in the mountains and the whites who adopted an only semi-agricultural lifestyle in the backwoods and swamps of Florida hailed from the same original British stock and simply took different routes to get where they were going.

Powell, (1969) a white turpentine camp overseer of the late nineteenth century, called the crackers of Apalachee County “wild woodsmen” (p. 30) and mentioned a man who “had lived the usual life of a shiftless Cracker, hunting and fishing, and hard work did not agree with him.” …

[Powel writes:]

“When I speak of villages throughout this county, I use the word for lack of a better term, for in nine cases out of ten, they were the smallest imaginable focus of the scattering settlement, and usually one general store embraced the sum total of business enterprise. There the natives came at intervals to trade for coffee, tobacco, and the few other necessities that the woods and waters did not provide them with. Alligators’ hides and teeth, bird plumes and various kinds of pelts were the medium of barter. They were a curious people, and there are plenty of them there yet, born and bred to the forest and as ignorant of the affairs of every-day life outside of their domain, as are the bears and deer upon which they mainly subsist. A man who would venture to tell them that the earth moved instead of the sun, or that there was a device by which a message could be flashed for leagues across a wire, wold run the risk of being lynched, as too dangerous a liar to be at large. “

There is a section on the importance of guns and hunting to the locals, even the children, which will be familiar to anyone with any experience of the rural South. I know from family tales that my grandfather began to hunt when he was 8 years old; he used to sell the pelts of skunks he’d killed to furriers, who de-stinked them, dyed them black, and marketed them as “American sable” over in Europe.

Truth in Advertising laws decimated the “American sable” trade.

The true crackers, Powell’s “wild woodsmen,” were never numerous, and they rarely participated in the social life of the wider Apalachee county-community. Crackers were born, lived, and died in the woods. They buried their own in family plots far from the nearest church. … Cracker families settled the Apalachee area without recourse to legal formalities. Thus, when the yeomen farmers … eventually purchase legal titles to land, true crackers were forced out and deeper into Florida.

This is a common problem (especially for anyone whose ancestors arrived in an area before it was officially part of the US.) Where land is abundant, population density is low, and there aren’t any authorities who can enforce land ownership, anyway, people will be happy to farm where they want, hunt where they want, and defend their claims themselves. This tends to lead to a low-intensity lifestyle:

Craker subsistence strategy depended on scratch, perhaps slash-and-burn, summer agriculture and year-round food collecting activities: hunting, fishing, and foraging. Because their farming operations were so small, limited to the part-time efforts of an individual family, they had no need of financial credit.

Indeed, their fiercely independent, egalitarian ethos prohibited them from interacting significantly in the rural neighborhoods of the community. …

Few true crackers remain in Apalachee County … A few families still live on the borders of the county. There they exploit the food resources of the rivers and swamps and perhaps scratch-farm a few acres. …

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Florida Cracker cow and calf source

This is not (just) laziness; areas with poor soils or little water simply can’t be intensively farmed, and if the forage is bad, herd animals will be better off if they can wander widely in search of food than if they are confined in one particular place.

Incidentally, there is a landrace of cattle known as the Florida Cracker, descended from the hearty Spanish cattle brought to Florida in the 1600s. Unfortunately, the breed has been on the decline and is now listed as “critical” due to laws passed in 1949 against free-ranging livestock and the introduction of larger breeds more suited to confinement.

Not only does the law fence off the cracker’s land, destroy his livelihood, and drive him out, it also kills the cracker cow by fencing off its land.

The author notes that “cracker” is a slur and that it has been expanded in the past half-century to cover all poor whites, with an interesting footnote:

One speculates that the driving force behind withholding respectability from the true crackers and the extension of the consequently disparaging term to include countrymen of the small farmer class originated with the townspeople. This idea parallels the hypothesis that townsmen perpetuated and revitalized the issue of racial politics int he twentieth century.

On change:

The technological changes of the twentieth century have enabled social institutions to penetrate the isolation of the crackers and enforce town mores. Cracker homicides are no longer unreported and uninvestigated or allowed to result in clannish feuding… No longer may the children escape the public school regimen. No longer may they escape taxation…

[yet] the cracker and his world view persist. While only a handful of true crackers endure in the county… modern-day imitators erect trailers in remote corners, moving to north-central Florida …. to escape the “rat race.”

I think that’s enough for today; I hope you’ve enjoyed the book and urge you to take a look at the whole thing. We’ll discuss the more recent Cavalier-Yeomen farmers next week.