A Christmas Tree Shrine on the Highway of the Dead

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Each Christmas season someone decorates a pine sapling as a Christmas tree along a stretch of Highway 98 in the Naval Live Oaks, a federally protected forest near my home. I’ve watched the sapling double in size the last few years, supporting heavier ornaments each year. And every year I wonder why someone decorates that particular tree in that particular spot. Did someone die there? Is it a shrine like the white crosses along so many highways?

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Each year someone decorates this pine sapling along Highway 98 in the Naval Live Oaks, Gulf Breeze, Florida.

I’m fascinated with holy wells, retablos, grottoes and roadside shrines.  It’s a morbid interest, I know. But viewing symbolic objects on display in a special place entrances me.  My curiosity has led me to research state laws and white cross guidelines for memorializing highway deaths. I keep an eye out for roadside shrines and on a recent trip to verify a historical marker for my book, I found a fascinating one.

The historical marker I was searching for is the third in the Pensacola area honoring Colonial-era botanist William Bartram. This one is located on the same Highway 98, about 25 miles northwest of the Christmas tree. It’s at the Florida entrance to the Lillian Bridge which crosses Perdido Bay at the state line. On my roadtrip to find the marker, I missed it on my initial approach and was forced to make a u-turn in Alabama. I crossed back into Florida, quickly veered off the road to park and barely avoided a construction ditch. Traffic flew by.

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I inched out of my car, camera in hand, watching for oncoming vehicles zooming off the bridge like downhill racers. The historical marker by the bridge’s guard rail is on tricky terrain — a steep drop off.

To my surprise, the beautiful gold-embossed William Bartram Trail marker established by the National Council of Garden Clubs had been vandalized with spray paint. Of the many markers I have verified for my book, this is the first to be defaced. Only after I discovered the roadside shrine did I realize the graffiti read R.I.P.  I had stepped into another world – a shrine on the highway of the dead.

Three people – two 19-year-olds and a 48-year-old truck driver delivering lumber, died on this spot in a traffic accident around 5:00 a.m. the morning of October 10, 2019. The car crossed the center lane, caused a head-on collision, and the 18-wheeler overturned, resulting in a fiery crash and fuel spill.  All three men — Russell Drummond, Christian Beech and Sheldon Ray Liddell — died on the scene. All three lived within 15 miles of the bridge.

The southside shrine to the two younger men is enclosed by a tiny decorative white fence. Inside the fence are silk flowers, trinkets and tokens, and an autograph bench. There’s evidence of recent visitors who wrote messages and left Halloween memorabilia. Or perhaps it was Día de Muertos and they brought mementos of the deceased.  Across Highway 98 I saw a second shrine, but I couldn’t reach it due to traffic. There, on the opposite guard rail, Sheldon Ray Liddell, a father and grandfather, is remembered with a “Drive Safely” highway sign, photographs and flowers.  I learned more about him reading online tributes from his family and members of his church.

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I learned about the two younger men from the messages of remembrance written on the small bench at the shrine. Sharpie pens remained as if I, a roadside visitor, might wish to add to the tributes for Russell and Christian. Yet I felt like I shouldn’t touch the shrine out of respect for the dead.

I wonder why those mourners didn’t feel the same way about the tribute to William Bartram. Why mar a beautiful historic marker of the first botanist to explore and write about this area? What good does spray painting R.I.P. do for Christian and Russell? ATTENTION TAGGERS: show some respect for all of the dead, William Bartram included! He didn’t die here, but he made history here.

I’m glad I stopped at the shrine because it gave me a chance to think about the wilds William Bartram encountered in 1775 before the United States even existed.  Today there’s no need to take a boat across the bay like Bartram but I still dodged palmettos, watched for snakes, and avoided the dagger-like Spanish Bayonet yucca, just like Bartram.  Dangers are still here. Oncoming vehicles are the deadliest.

Drive safely this holiday season!

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Small museum inspires writers and warriors

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The Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, is a free treasure trove of stories for writers of fiction and nonfiction alike.

Not every road trip produces an entry for my upcoming book A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South. A November jaunt to the U.S. Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach was one of those trips. I had hoped to see display cases on gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who covered sports for the Eglin Air Force Base newspaper. No luck. The museum displays exactly what its name implies:  weapons, missiles, planes.

But this small museum is a writer’s mecca filled with stories waiting to be written, and not just on museum placards. It holds artifacts and relics that breathe stories of war, heroism, adventure, intrigue, creativity and survival, man and beast alike (I’ll get to the beasts in a bit).

After peeking inside a recreated prisoner of war cell, I went upstairs to see the exhibit about Ernest Shipman, an Air Force Major and pilot, held POW by the Germans in World War II. His story fascinated me. He was shot down near Hungary, ironically, by an American Air Force P-38. He remained a POW until the end of the war. After the war, he went on to earn an MFA in art and teach but left teaching to build model planes. Much of the collection is on display at the museum. The tiny planes are 1/72 to scale and researched in great detail. I learned more about him online at the American Air Museum in Britain, which is part of the Imperial War Museum in London.

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If I were casting a movie about Shipman, I’d cast Leonardo DiCaprio.

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Enter the Shipman model airplane collection through a portal to a man’s passion.

Back downstairs, I watched a seven-minute film of how a special operations unit built a complete air strip in 24-hours 200 miles behind Japanese lines in Burma during World War II. The Japanese never knew what was happening as Americans flew in C-47s towing gliders with heavy equipment like bulldozers, horses and troops. Simultaneously, they flew out those wounded during the landing. The mission, Operation Thursday, was the birth of the “air commandos.”

Around the corner, a small circular room was filled with displays on the history of Special Operations Command (Special Ops) and their fascinating missions, many which were secret at the time. It appears there are still plenty of secrets because I couldn’t find much about drones though Eglin is known for its drone research. 

Gun Vault

The Gun Vault is like a giant bank vault that can be locked at night.

There is a small WAC (Women’s Air Corps) exhibit in the back. I wish it were larger and closer to the front. Ironically, when I went for information about entering the closed museum library, I learned the person I needed to see was on maternity leave (an officer and a lady!).

The Korean Conflict isn’t forgotten at this museum with impressive photos on the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. I also enjoyed a closeup look at night vision goggles – I can see why contemporary writers of “military romance” visit this museum. Studying the artifacts can help describe characters and situations accurately.

I could spin a hundred fictional tales about the weapons housed behind glass in gleaming wooden display cases in the Gun Vault, a long gallery room. Many are on loan from larger museums and collectively tell the story of weapon development.

Many nonfiction stories are present though unwritten. The display “The Cost of Freedom” covers Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom campaigns in the Middle East. Photos of those military personnel lost and injured are a stark reminder that everyone has a story to tell. Six thousand seven hundred and eight American soldiers will never get the chance to tell their story – 362 were from Florida.Freedom

K-9 statueOutside the museum, on the walkway to tour the static display of aircraft (helicopters, planes, missiles and jets), there’ a statue of a German Shepherd honoring K-9 companions for their service. Everybody likes a good dog story – think Rin Tin Tin.

This free, small museum is popular with military families stationed in the area. The day I was there, I watched one of those families visiting for the first time. I listened as a young girl asked, “Daddy, why do you jump out of planes?”  The father paused and prefaced his long explanation simply with, “To go where others can’t go.”

That’s my best story of the day.

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CAPTION: The UFO House on Panferio Drive, Pensacola Beach, is ready for Halloween. A few blocks away a model of a UFO “photo-fake” is on display.

Legendary UFO Sightings Earn Gulf Coast Towns “Historic” Recognition

UFOs at the historical society? Why not? As my cousin Susan Pierce pointed out, UFOs are part of the legend of a community. I had discounted including the books written about the Pascagoula UFO abductions in my upcoming book until she sent me a recent article from Country Roads Magazine. Reading it altered my perspective, but her remark about UFO events being part of the legend of a community intrigued me.  

My manuscript includes the books written about the UFO sightings in Gulf Breeze, Florida, where I now live.  Was I trying to protect the reputation of my hometown, Pascagoula, by leaving out its UFO books? Had I purposely ignored one sighting while accepting the other?

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CAPTION: A sampling of at least six books written about UFO encounters in Pascagoula and Gulf Breeze.

I went to the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society meeting on October 21, 2021, searching for answers. The program topic: “The Gulf Breeze UFO Story.”  In 1987, hundreds and thousands of news media and UFO aficionados came to Gulf Breeze after the Gulf Breeze Sentinel published Ed Walters’ Polaroid photos of his UFO sighting.

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Art Hufford wearing an unidentifiable tie, perhaps space rocks.

Speaker Art Hufford, a retired technology supervisor for Monsanto and a Pensacola native with two college degrees, also saw the UFO in 1987 while driving on Bayou Blvd. in Pensacola. He then extensively researched the phenomenon, participating with Skywatch groups, photographing unidentified flying objects, and being on hand when television and international film crews came to Pensacola. In his research, he interviewed both abductees and witnesses of sightings. Ironically, his presentation to the historical society was limited by technology – but the images on the wide-screen laptop were still effective.

Hufford’s talk opened with a photo from the Hubbell Space Telescope and a speculation on the number of galaxies in the universe, leading to the question: Are We Alone?

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CAPTION: The Gulf Breeze Community Center, less than a mile from where several UFO sightings occurred, was packed for the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society program on UFOs. (Ignore the unidentified head in the photo on the right).

I came away from his talk convinced of two things: 1) debunkers had sabotaged Ed Walters’ accounts of the Gulf Breeze sightings and 2) believers live amongst us. One of them wore beads in her hair and held up a registered photo she’d taken of UFOs. Another left early, after telling the crowd that 17 years ago she moved to Gulf Breeze to see the UFOs. She proclaimed his presentation wasn’t providing the answers to her questions.

When it came to debunking Walters, the speaker cited, first, that the local newspaper editor ran the photographs of the UFO after the editor’s parents said they, too, had seen the object. The biggest debunk attempt, though, came with discrediting a UFO model. People claimed Walters had used a model to stage the photos.  According to Hufford, the model was found a year after Walters moved out of his Gulf Breeze residence (where it was found in the attic). Hufford explained the model was constructed from house plans that Walters didn’t even create until 1989, making it impossible for it to be a model filmed in 1987.

The program continued with rich details explaining how Gulf Breeze became an international hot spot for UFOS with at least 177 sightings by Skywatchers, coverage in Life magazine, a segment on TV’s Unsolved Mysteries and as many as 150 people gathering for sky-watching events. Watch events waned and after five-months with no sightings, sky-watch gatherings dwindled. Visible UFO activity ceased around 1993.

The closing question-and-answer session elicited some lively remarks, personal experiences from audience members, and a tidbit that caused me to travel to Pensacola Beach after the meeting. The Ed Walters “hoax UFO model” is on display at UFOs Miniature Golf on the beach, on loan from University of West Florida Historic Trust.

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CAPTION: The model is constructed of used drafting paper and Styrofoam plates.

Learning that a university historic trust owned the model answered my historic legitimacy question.  That plus the fact Pascagoula has erected a historic marker on the site where Calvin Parker and Charles Hickson saw their UFO in 1973. The books on Pascagoula’s UFO sighting will be included in A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South.

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CAPTION: The plaque, sponsored by the City of Pascagoula, The Jackson County Historical and Genealogical Society, and Main Street USA, describes the Pascagoula abduction as the “best documented case of alien abduction.” It’s located near the spot on the Pascagoula River where fishermen Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker say they were abducted. Parker, after 30 years of silence, published a book in 2021. Hickson published his story in 1983.

For the recent Holden Hartman documentary, “Revisiting The Gulf Breeze UFO Sightings: A You Tube Documentary” on Gulf Breeze sightings, visit https://youtu.be/pJzLKIqp-3w

 

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A Victorian Literary Train Stop: DeFuniak Springs’ Chautauqua

Looking across the lake from the back window of the oldest library still-standing in Florida at DeFuniak Springs.PHOTO CREDIT: Diane Skelton

The most picturesque and historic literary site in the Florida Panhandle is the quaint town of DeFuniak Springs. Sprawling across I-10 (the northern geographic boundary of my book A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South), DeFuniak Springs began as a Victorian-era cultural retreat.  Most of its original buildings still stand as a tribute to the power of learning.  Dozens of Victorian homes, a library, meeting hall, churches and a massive park encircle a lake where row boats once ferried lovers of the written and spoken word to the evening readings and lectures of “Chautauqua.”

DeFuniak Springs is about an hour’s drive east of Pensacola along I-10 or thirty minutes north of Scenic Highway 30A and the towns of Seaside and Santa Rosa Beach. Local legend has it that a Pensacola and Atlantic Railroad executive on a train excursion looking for a site for a resort town spotted a lake, nearly a mile wide in a perfect circle, from his rail car.  He stopped the train and declared the wooded lake the ideal locale. It quickly acquired its name DeFuniak in an employee naming contest. When the railroad learned the Chautauqua Institute of New York was looking for a winter retreat location, a resort-railroad partnership materialized. Naturally, the railroad would transport travelers directly to their cultural-vacation stop.

The Chautauqua Movement, which began at Lake Chautauqua in New York State, encompassed four elements — arts, religion, education, and recreation. Individuals participated in programs, and, in turn, the knowledge they gained benefited their communities. The Florida Chautauqua Association was formed in 1884 and from 1885 to 1928 as many as 4000 passengers a day stopped at DeFuniak Springs for the Chautauqua experience. The DeFuniak season ran for seven weeks, and people would come for days or weeks for the vibrant lectures and lessons.  Popular lecturers drew crowds who stayed in the glamorous Chautauqua Hotel. Travelogue speakers, dressed in costumes, projected stereopticon (not too unlike a slide show or Power Point) images and drew crowds as did concerts. Others came for courses like The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle classes taught on the campus. And, of course, for recreation they rowed and sailed the lake.

A Victorian couple, circa 1900, at Alpine Park just off the grounds of the Chautauqua. The park was owned by Wallace Bruce and named for his mother’s maiden name, McAlpine. PHOTO CREDIT: FloridaMemory.com

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Some New York Chautauqua members liked the area so much they built Victorian houses around Lake DeFuniak. Quickly, the campus grew with buildings including an auditorium that seated 4000. The library backing up to the lake is the oldest public library still standing in Florida. 

A leisurely stop at DeFuniak Springs offers a step back in time and a peaceful, restorative break from our pandemic world. Just writing about it is relaxing as I savor the memories of a pre-COVID visit in 2019. Since we were there, the walking tour has added large placards with detailed history of each of the 17 stops on the tour.

Begin at the historic DeFuniak train depot, where orchestras once met passengers arriving for the Chautauqua. You can get a brief personal introduction and take a walking (or driving) tour of the town to enjoy the places where thousands roamed the grounds in the 19th century.

IMAGE CREDIT: FloridaMemory.com

 

Three DeFuniak Springs Literary Stops

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Dream Cottage, home of a noted poet and former Chautauqua President Wallace Bruce. BELOW: Pansy Cottage. Photo Credit: Diane Skelton

Dream Cottage, 404 Circle Drive: Wallace Bruce (1844-1914), Yale-educated and an early president of the DeFuniak Chautauqua, was also an established poet. At one time, while living in Scotland, he served as Poet Laureate of the Masonic Lodge of Canongate of Kilwinning. His works include the poem “Parson Allen’s Ride” (1875), one of several which he would deliver to audiences, The Land of Burns (1878), The Yosemite (1880), The Hudson (1882), The Long Drama (1883), From the Hudson to the Yosemite (1884), Old Homestead Poems (1888), and Wayside Poems (1894). His work also appeared in Harper’s Weekly and Blackwood Magazine.

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Home of Isabella MacDonald Alden, popular young adult novelist. Photo Credit: Diane Skelton

Pansy Cottage, 392 Circle Drive: Isabella MacDonald Alden (1841-1930), writing under the pen name Pansy, wrote over 100 children’s books beginning in 1865 with Helen Lester to 1931 with her posthumously published memoir Memories of Yesteryear. She was immensely popular during her time selling as many as 100,000 books annually, with copies translated into several languages. She co-edited a children’s magazine, Pansy, with her husband G. R. Alden, a pastor. The books are Christian faith books for young female readers.  Several, including Four Girls at Chautauqua, are available on Amazon and in Kindle format. You can read her first book for free at https://www.isabellamacdonaldalden.com/helen-lester.html

Picture3The DeFuniak Library, 3 Circle Drive, which opened on December 20, 1887, has never closed. Even Picture4when Chautauqua assemblies ended in 1928, it continued and is now operated by the city.  The library blends the new with the old – antiques sit adjacent computers and look perfectly at home. At the entrance is a large antique Regina Music Box that plays notched metal discs.  Librarians will play it for you, if you ask. Fellow writer and traveler Pat Black-Gould says there’s also a signed, first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. Author Harper Lee was friends with the librarian and inscribed the book with a Christmas greeting. For years patrons could check out the book. Now it’s protected in a glass case.

Adjacent to the library is a lovely Library Reading Garden, a place to sit and read or think or just enjoy the lakeview.

In its heyday, popular writers who visited DeFuniak Springs for Chautauqua events included Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Juliet Ward Howe, poet best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; and Cincinnatus Heine Miller, the “Poet of the Sierras,” who wrote under the pen name Joaquin Miller.

The Florida Chautauqua Assembly, quiet for several decades, has revitalized and is again offering programs at its DeFuniak Assembly Hall. They had hoped for a four-day educational program for families on the Roaring Twenties in 2022. Sadly, due to COVID, it’s been canceled, but  I’m following their website and Facebook, ever hopeful the Chautauqua revival continues. 

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South Alabama gals started something that’s still going strong

It’s hard to believe no one has written a dissertation or a book on my latest quest — women writers from Mobile, Alabama. My day trips to Mobile and online visits to Amazon have confirmed my belief that Mobile women blazed the trail for today’s female writers. South Alabama women have been exhibiting their writing prowess since 1855. That’s when Augusta Evans sold her first copy of Inez, a Tale of the Alamo on her way to earning  $100,000 and becoming the first financially successful female writer.

Google Scholar offers articles on Texas women writers, Irish women writers, African American women writers, modernist women writers and nineteenth century women writers. And then of course, there’s the ironic “Antebellum Women Writers and the Road” – but that’s mobile, as in moving around, not Mobile as the city in Alabama.

When writing my upcoming book The Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South, I discovered a bevy of contemporary women writers living in and around Mobile – bestselling authors of fan fiction, paranormal, young adult, historical fiction, cozy mysteries, and romance—all with strong readership.  And then I wondered — Whose historic shoulders do today’s women writers stand on? The answer surprised me.

Alabama’s First Professional Writer:

Augusta Jane Evans Wilson (1835 – 1909)

Augusta EvansHistorians and critics describe Augusta Evans’ Victorian style as flowery, sesquipedalian (wordy) and painful for today’s readers to navigate, but she found great success in her own time.  In 1855 at age 15, Evans wrote her first novel Inez, a Tale of the Alamo. Her second book, Beulah, was written at age 18 and published in 1859. It established her as Alabama’s first professional author. During the Civil War, Evans set up an army hospital near her Mobile residence. Locals called it “Camp Beulah,” honoring her novel. Evans’ most popular book, St. Elmo, sold one million copies in the first four months and was made into a silent film five times. (Sorry, the Rob Lowe film is another story) The name “St. Elmo” was so popular that towns, hotels, and steamboats were named St. Elmo.  New parents sometimes named their baby daughters “Edna Earl” after the heroine.

 

The Good Madame Octavia Walton LeVert (1810-1877)

LevertAs a young socialite visiting Baltimore in 1827, Octavia Walton was the object of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “To Octavia.” Scholars question whether Poe wrote the poem or simply adapted the nine lines he wrote and inscribed in Octavia’s album. But she is Poe’s Octavia. After she moved to Mobile, she married a French physician, entertained in society, and acquired the respected title, “Madame” LeVert. She hosted “Monday” salons, reflective of the popular literary salons of Europe. They were open to everyone and people came by the hundreds. Her book, Souvenirs of Travel, was published in 1857 and was so popular it went through five printings in her lifetime. She wrote two other books, Souvenirs of the War and Souvenirs of Distinguished People, but neither was published.

Silent Screen’s Marie Layet Sheip (Marie Stanley) (1885-1936)

newspaperAn author who wrote under two names, Marie Layet Sheip lived in her birthplace of Mobile until she was 16. An orphan, Marie was raised by her grandmother who was friends with the popular novelist Augusta Evans Wilson. Marie lived with relatives out of state following her grandmother’s death but returned to Mobile at age 24. To support herself and using her real name Marie Layet, she wrote at least seven scripts for silent films, beginning with “The Clown’s Daughter” in 1913. After marrying wealthy lumberman Stanley Sheip, she published the novel Gulf Stream under the pseudonym Marie Stanley. It dealt with interracial relationships and marriage, a topic rarely written about at the time. The novel received national acclaim as literary fiction, but locally caused a disturbance from residents of Sandtown, an African-American section of Mobile, who objected to the use of dialect and portrayal of black culture by a white author.

Mobile to Japan Mary McNeil Fennollosa

(Sidney McCall) (1865-1954)

800px-The_Dragon_PainterMary McNeil Fennollosa was a best-selling novelist, essayist and poet in her day. Three of her books were turned into silent films. At least eight novels were written under the penname Sidney McCall, while she used her maiden name (after dropping one of the L’s in McNeill) for poetry and essays. Her most noted novel and one adapted for film,  The Dragon Painter (1906) is set in Japan. She lived in Japan with her second and third husbands. The third, Ernest Fennollosa, was a noted Asian art collector and scholar. She grew up in Mobile and set several novels in the city, but also lived in Boston and Japan. She returned to nearby Montrose in Baldwin County where she died.

Mobile to Harlem Doris Jean Austin

(1949 –1994)

Doris Jean AustinAustin was born in Mobile, but her family moved to New Jersey when she was six. But Mobile claims Austin as their own – after all, the formative years are before age six. She taught fiction writing at Columbia University, founded the Harlem Writer’s Guild, and co-founded the New Renaissance Guild. She was also a reporter for NBC News. Her work appeared in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Her only novel, After the Garden, traces a young black woman’s life in Jersey City from the 1940s to the 1960s.  Doris Jean Austin was best friends with bestselling author Terry McMillan who wrote How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The character Delilah in the book is based on Austin.

MEET MOBILE’S MODERN 

WOMEN WRITERS

Carolyn HainesCarolyn Haines (1953- ) who also writes under the pennames R.B. Chesterton, Caroline Burnes, and Lizzie Hart, lives in Semmes, a city considered part of the Mobile metropolitan area. She was born just across the state line in Lucedale, Mississippi.  In 2020 she was named to the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.  A former journalist, she has written more than 80 cozy mysteries, historical mysteries, and romance novels. Her “Bones” humorous mystery series featuring private investigator Sarah Delaney lists 23 books in that series alone. Haines is also a winner of the Harper Lee Award as Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year and the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence. She teaches fiction writing at University of South Alabama in Mobile.

ML Bullock M.L. Bullock (Monica Leigh Bullock) writes cozy page turners with paranormal ghost elements and mystery blended with historical and architectural quests.  On her website, she describes herself as an author, adventurer and paranormal investigator. After reading the first two in her Seven Sisters series, I kept reading. She’s a master of the cliffhanger, making the reader desperately to want to read the next book in the series. The short quick reads, many filled with Mobile history, are rich in both character and setting. Having sold more than nine million books, critics describe her as The Queen of Southern Gothic.

CollinsManda Collins writes Regency-era romance, splicing mystique with a twist of humor. Her 17 novels (in five series) and two standalone novels, make Manda Collins a USA Today best-selling author. Her tagline “Nancy Drew plus Jane Austen with more Kissing” hints at history, humor and romance, while the titles of some of her books beg the reader to take a peek.  A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem and How to Entice an Earl suggest historical romance, but I doubt A Good Rake is Hard to Find is a gardening book.  Collins, an academic librarian turned author, has selected a small slice of history to build memorable characters and write entertaining books.

Angela QuarlesAngela Quarles – (Angela Trigg), a USA Today best-selling author, owns the Haunted Book Shop at 109 Dauphin St. in downtown Mobile. Quarles (whose real name is Angela Trigg) has published nine novels and won a Romance Writers of America RITA award in 2016. Her website describes her as an author of contemporary time travel, steampunk and romance. The Library Journal named her steampunk novel, Steam Me Up, Rawley, the best self-published romance of 2015. The book is set in Mobile in 1890. After her grandmother died, Angela, a native of Florida, moved into her grandmother’s Victorian two and a-half story home.  She’s the fifth generation in the family to occupy the home, nicknamed “Termite Hall” which in its heyday entertained literary figures as did the “salons” of Madame Octavia LeVert.

After 120 years, it’s nice to see the resurgence of women writers from Mobile, many young voices returning to their city to write. Hopefully, when scholars out there accept my observation, they’ll call Mobile “The Home of Women Writers” and build a museum or at least offer a writer-in-residence retreat.

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ALL ABOARD FOR READING ADVENTURE

I chased down Story Tree Books for a unique reading-dessert adventure.

Climbing the magical Dr. Seuss stairs into Story Tree Books brought back childhood (and I confess, adult) memories of climbing aboard a bookmobile. I love the experience of being on wheels, closed in, and surrounded by shelves laden with books. The day I caught up with Story Tree mobile bookshop, the truck was parked at an ice cream stand in Navarre, Florida, for a Harry Potter reading celebration. Story Tree displayed Harry Potter books and accessories under a tent outside the book truck while long lines of readers bought ice cream “sorting hat” cones, butter beer floats, and Felix Felicis Fizzes (lemonade).

The line from Dr Seuss “You can find magic whenever you look” invites readers inside.

Story Tree Books travels around like a bookmobile except the owner, a primary school librarian, sells as well as shares books. Most of all, she promotes reading for kids, primarily, and adults, who she considers reading role models. During COVID, the owner and her husband gave away 2500 children’s books to young readers!

The shelves are filled with interesting books and accessories.

Inside the book truck, imaginative displays entice you to pick up a book, open it and start reading – on the spot. Whimsical decorations accent the books in surprising nooks and crannies. The neatly arranged stacks of books continue off the shelves and onto the carpeted floor.  At night, fairy lights illuminate the inside of the truck creating an even more magical escape I chased down this mobile bookshop when compiling an independent bookstore section for my upcoming book, A Literary Travelers Guide to the Gulf South. Story Tree Books has a twice a month regular location, but I’d had trouble meshing my schedule, so I was delighted to finally meet the likeable couple and tour Story Tree. The owner says it’s her book truck dream, but her husband made it happen. And they’ve been giving away and selling books for over three years. In our short conversation, her passion for reading and encouraging young readers was evident as she described the treasure hunts she plans for the kindergartners, first and second graders who visit the school library where she is officially titled Educational Media Specialist. And the prizes for the treasure seekers? Books, of course!

The maroon and gold sprinkles represent Gryffindor from Harry Potter’s Hogswart house colors.

If I were a kid, I’d “book” Story Tree for my birthday party. They do personal special events, as well as community events like the Harry Potter ice cream venture. Imagine dressing like Nancy Drew or Velma from Scooby-Doo and having a mystery birthday party with a real book truck in the driveway, adding to the intrigue.

Just the thought makes me miss bookmobiles. The fact is I haven’t been inside one in years. Although my Florida county (Santa Rosa) doesn’t have a bookmobile, there is one in nearby Walton County. The Bay County bookmobile services three other counties.

The Topeka  bookmobile, with 121,000 miles, was sold at auction for under $5000.

My favorite bookmobile was in Topeka, Kansas, where we lived in the late ’90s. After a little research, I discovered my Topeka bookmobile was just auctioned off by Purple Wave Auctions for $4950. If I had known, I think I would have considered buying that luxury model with its beautiful blonde shelves. If I had bought it, I could be like author Nancy Gaskins of Destin. She started a bookmobile because she had such a vast collection of books to share! Even though bookmobiles are declining in number, the vibrant library system of Topeka purchased a brand-new bookmobile to replace my old favorite.

As of 2019, the Association of Bookmobiles and Outreach Services reports almost 900 bookmobiles, technovans, and mobile vehicles are hitting the roads. Some even provide entertainment like outdoor music and bubble machines while more sophisticated ones offer high tech computer plug-ins.   For me, skip the bubbles and the techno-music — a good bookmobile is parked near a great ice cream stand not too far from the beach.

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Cancel Culture: Time Will Tell if the Pen is Mightier Than the Sword

Father Ryan Park (4)

Ryan Park in Mobile, Alabama, is a sad place this Saturday afternoon. I arrive to see if the six-foot bronze statue of the Catholic priest, sometimes called the Poet of the Confederacy, is still standing.  It is – amidst broken bottles, scattered trash, unkempt shrubbery, overgrown weeds, empty flower urns, and barren ground where grass should grow. Remnants of flag hardware clang against the 20-foot flag pole, rope and flag stripped or stolen from the standard.  A homeless man sleeps on a park bench. 

The small, diamond-shaped park stands on busy Spring Hill Avenue, a few blocks from downtown Mobile. Historic St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, across a side street, casts a drab, skeletal shadow on the park. On July 12, 2021, the park and the statue will celebrate their 108th birthday.  The church is nearly a decade older but was closed in 2018 by the archbishop and is now being demolished or “redeveloped,” despite its historic building designation. The park was the site of protests in 2017 and 2020 calling for the removal of Ryan’s “Confederate” statue. Alas, Father Ryan will have to stand his own ground when it comes to Cancel Culture. Perhaps the Irish Catholic men of the of Ancient Order of Hibernia or the citizens of Mobile who jointly erected the monument will come to its aid. The Cancel Culture protestors need to do their homework.

In the coastal cities covered in my book, A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola, Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886) left his mark in Mobile and Biloxi, Mississippi. Both cities have streets and historic markers named for him. But Mobile was his favorite. After the Civil War, Father Ryan spent ten years in Mobile, first as an assistant at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and then as pastor at St. Mary’s. Besides the park and statue, his presence is honored at Portier House, 307 Conti St., located on Cathedral Square, diagonal from the Cathedral. Sometimes called Bishop Portier’s House, the historic home is a Greek revival Creole cottage dating to1834 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Father Ryan lived here in the second-floor bedroom in the northwest corner from 1870 until 1877. Today the room pays homage to him with a bust, portrait, and several volumes of his poetry on display. Though he didn’t die in Mobile, Father Ryan loved the city so much he requested his body to be returned to St. Mary’s. His is buried in the Old Catholic Cemetery.

PHOTO CREDIT TOP: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS # LOC HABS ALA,49-MOBI,38—18; BOTTOM: downtownmobile.org

Sometimes called the unofficial poet laureate of the Confederacy, Father Ryan volunteered as a Confederate chaplain, buried the dead and tended the injured on the battlefield.  He is also known as the Poet-Priest of the South. In his day, along with his priestly duties, he was also a Catholic newspaper editor, newspaper publisher, popular poet, lecturer and best-selling author. Even Margaret Mitchell mentions him in her novel Gone With the Wind.  Reading his poems like “C.S.A.” must have given much comfort to wives, mothers, and sisters who lost their loved ones in the war.

“No, no, no, they were brave for us,

And bright were the lives they gave for us;

The land they struggled to save for us

  Will not forget

  Its warriors yet

Who sleep in so many a grave for us.”

As a young Southerner he was enthralled and caught up in the fervor of war; his views changed as he aged. Several of his poems reflect his experience as a battlefield chaplain and the loss of his younger brother, a Confederate soldier who died as a result of injuries received in battle. Though Father Ryan is famous for poems like “The Conquered Banner” and “The Sword of Robert E. Lee,” he wrote many more about spirituality and faith.

If the Cancel Culture protestors do their homework, they will discover the first racially integrated Catholic high school in Tennessee is named after Father Ryan.

Father Ryan HIgh School
Nashville’s Historic Father Ryan Catholic High School has faced its share of Cancel Culture editorials, with alumni coming to its defense citing strong values taught. PHOTO CREDIT PINTEREST

Yes, Father Ryan aligned himself with Confederates and the Southern cause, offering comfort to the men and their families, but he was first a Catholic priest and, according to most, was opposed to slavery. While living in Mobile, Ryan didn’t consider himself a poet, simply a writer of verse. He often read his poetry during his sermons while parishioners copied down the lines. A Mobile newspaper publisher collected Ryan’s poems and published them, making the book an instant best seller in 1879. Most of the $1.3 million he earned from the book and its reprints went to the Catholic Church. It is available online here for no charge.   In the Author Notes in the collection, he compares poems to songs, writing “souls were always more to him than songs.” In the end, his popular post-war poem, “The Conquered Banner,” calls for those of the lost cause to take down the Confederate flag, allowing poets and writers keep its memory alive,

For its fame on brightest pages,

Penned by poets and by sages,

Shall go sounding down the ages– 

Furl its folds though now we must.. . .

Touch it not–unfold it never,

Let it droop there, furled forever,

For its people’s hopes are dead!

In 2003 scholars at Belmont Abbey College’s library in North Carolina found forty of Father Ryan’s unpublished poems. They say the poems prove he mellowed with age, and even wrote poetry honoring the Federal dead. 

Time will tell if the pen is mightier than the sword during Cancel Culture.   Within the geographical parameters of my book, I’ve encountered a litany of writers – Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Jefferson Davis, Sara Dorsey, Sidney Lanier, Father Ryan, Vachel Lindsay  — whose words are no longer “acceptable” despite the fact they were immensely popular in their own days.  These writers created poetry, fiction and nonfiction that entertained, consoled and informed millions of readers.  Cancel Culture is erasing their literary footprints.

I worry many more unique, once-revered Southern voices will be silenced in Cancel Culture, books hidden away in musty closets because those writers spoke of a time and place no longer in favor. Do their words lose value or truth? Are their beautifully crafted sentences and stanzas to be erased because of unpopular content or a distasteful word? Will their books be banned because their descriptions of what was acceptable at the time now shames society? Should statues to writers face the same fate as statues to generals?

Brad Watson, one of the writers I discovered while doing research for my book wrote in The Heaven of Mercury, “only the dead see one another, and themselves, for what they truly were, or are.”  And it’s words like those, simple words crafted into a sentence so deep and so thought provoking, that make me realize pens can be mightier than swords. It’s only fitting the left hand of Father Ryan’s statue holds a book of poetry. There’s probably a pen in his pocket.

Note the book of poetry in Father Ryan’s left hand. Photo Credit: Diane Skelton
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Literary Mobile: On the Street Where You Live

When my hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, renamed the street where my parents lived, my father glowed with pride. Our address now read Paul Harvey Avenue, named for the popular author and radio commentator. We’d moved up in social circles. Our street was named for someone important.

I recalled this recently In Mobile, Alabama, when researching my literary travel book.  Mobile has an entire historic neighborhood where all the streets are named for famous writers. It’s especially fitting since the neighborhood, Ashland Place, was carved out of the estate where Augusta Evans Wilson, the first woman author to earn over $100.000, lived and wrote.

Of course, she has Augusta Street named after her in a much older section of town, the Oakleigh Garden Historic District. Oakleigh dates as far back as 1830 with its crown jewels of Washington Square, a shady, sprawling park in the residential neighborhood, and the historic Oakleigh House built in 1837. Visitors new to Mobile will tell you they feel like they’re in New Orleans when they walk the sidewalks of Oakleigh Garden. Founded in 1702,  Mobile is actually sixteen years older than New Orleans.

About three miles northwest of Historic Oakleigh Garden Neighborhood is Ashland Place Historic District, the first streetcar suburb outside bustling old Mobile. Development of the neighborhood, which today has 81 homes, began in 1908 after the widowed writer Augusta Evans Wilson sold the property to a developer. Houses were already popping up among the gorgeous oaks by 1926, when Ashland, the home where Evans wrote at least three novels, was destroyed by fire. Remnants of the entrance to the original 40-acre estate are still visible at the two stucco pedestals and the entrance arch. The small “guard” houses still stand but aren’t visible in the photo below.

This old postcard shows the home Ashland in the distance before 1926 when the Greek Revival antebellum home burned.
The front entry to Ashland Place in Mobile as it looks in 2021, almost 100 years after the fire destroyed the original home on the 40-acre estate.

Meet the Streets

Ashland Place, nestled between Springhill Avenue and Old Shell Road, has only four streets, each named in honor of a writer with connections to Mobile. The stately homes in this prestigious, lush neighborhood point to a time when developers honored literary and cultural figures of the day with street names, perhaps to add cultural prestige to the neighborhood.

LanierLanier Avenue pays tribute to Sidney Lanier (1842-1881). This poet, professional musician, author and editor, is a Georgia native, but spent several years in Alabama. He recuperated at an uncle’s home in Point Clear on Mobile Bay following the Civil War. He had contracted tuberculosis while a prisoner of war. Following his stay in Point Clear, he lived in both Montgomery and nearby Prattville teaching and as an academy principal. He became a professor of literature at Johns Hopkins, an ironic commentary since prior to the Civil War he had wanted to go to Heidelberg to earn his Ph.D. to become a professor. The war broke out and like many young men, his plans changed.  He penned ten volumes of poetry in his short life; he died at 39. His most noted poem is “Marshes of the Glynn” and up until the 1960s school children still memorized his poems, many about nature.  Schools, streets, bridges, and lakes across the South are named in his honor. A World War II Liberty cargo ship and a U.S. postage stamp also honored him.  

DeLeon Avenue honors Thomas Cooper de Leon (1839-1914), a poet, editor, journalist, DeLeonnovelist, and playwright who lived in Mobile the last thirty years of his life. His most noted work is Belles, Beaux and Brains of the Sixties which profiles the men and women of the 1860s — from socialites to politicians to soldiers ­­­­– especially in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia,. It’s interesting reading for those who enjoy history and a valuable resource for anyone studying or writing about the 1860s. He even includes some photos I’d never seen before of Winnie and Varina Davis, wife and daughter of Jefferson Davis.  DeLeon edited three Mobile newspapers, including the Mobile Register (now the Mobile Press Register), and managed Mobile’s Mardi Gras for years. He is a native of South Carolina; the online South Carolina Encyclopedia says his play  Hamlet, Ye Dismal Prince (1870), is alleged to be the first American play to run one hundred nights. DeLeon, who fought for the Confederacy, is sometimes called “The Blind Laureate of the Lost Cause.” He lost his vision in 1903.

RyanRyan Avenue honors Father Abram Joseph Ryan (1838-1886).  Following the Civil War, Father Ryan, the Catholic priest dubbed the “Poet of the Confederacy,” spent ten years in Mobile. He was first assigned as an assistant at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and then as pastor at St. Mary’s. Near downtown, there’s a bust and a portrait of him at Portier House and a bronze six-foot statue of him holding a book of poetry at the Father Ryan Memorial Park. Though he did not die in Mobile, he loved the city so much he requested his body be returned to St. Mary’s and buried there. His most famous poem is “The Conquered Banner,” at one time required reading for school children in Alabama. He was well-known in his time for his sermons, writings, and lectures, according to Alabama Living online.  His poems are online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/ryan/ryan.html. Reading them gives new respect to rhyme, meter and form in poetry. (Yes, old-fashioned poetry that rhymed!) Father Ryan is even mentioned in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

LeVertLeVert Street honors Madame Octavia Walton LeVert (1811-1877), the author of Souvenirs of Travel. She was called “The Pride of Mobile” though she was born in Georgia. Her grandfather was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and her father was an acting governor of the Territory of Florida.  As a young socialite visiting Baltimore in 1827, she was the object of the poem “To Octavia” by Edgar Allan Poe.  Scholars question whether Poe actually wrote the poem or simply adapted the nine lines for her. However, it is known that Poe met her and inscribed the lines by his hand in Octavia’s album.  After her family moved to Mobile in 1835, she married a physician and began to entertain. She acquired the respected title of “Madame” LeVert. She entertained hundreds of people – all were welcome – at her “Monday” salons, reflective of the popular literary salons of Europe.  She traveled the world and was presented to the Pope, Napoleon, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, which she wrote about in her book. The LeVert Home, the scene of the cultural salons at Royal and Governments Streets, was demolished in the mid-1900s. Fortunately, her cultural influence is remembered with LeVert Street in Ashland Place.

Ashland Place, Mobile, Alabama, 2021, Photos and Design by Diane Skelton

Driving through Ashland Place is a cultural experience in itself – as if visiting an art museum, with gorgeous historic homes reflecting architecture that respects individuality and landscape. Though these street names honor writers who may soon face the “cancel culture” firing squad, I am reminded they were the cultural and literary figures of the day.  Just like Paul Harvey was to my dad.

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Detours on the Literary Traveler’s Road

Visiting a site I’m researching for my book often propels me on a different path. I’m suddenly rushing to the library or bookstore or logging on to Amazon.com to find a book someone has recommended about the place or the writer. Nearly a hundred authors are included in A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay St. Louis to Apalachicola, and I’m trying to read something by each of them, even if it’s a small portion from google books or Project Guttenberg.

The trouble is – a snippet isn’t enough. Just reading a few paragraphs or pages doesn’t satisfy my quest for thorough documentation. Plus, my love of a good story gets in the way. I justify the hours I spend reading (rather than writing) by saying “it’s research for my book.” That allows me to curl up with a good book with the best of intentions. Besides with ninety-eight writers included in my manuscript, I’ve got some serious reading ahead to live up to my introductory remarks, “For each new author I discovered, I read one of their books, short stories, essays, or poems.” 

To be honest, I get sidetracked and usually read several or the entire series.

A Literary Traveler’s Guide focuses on popular reading. Fiction writers dominate my manuscript and that includes a multitude of subgenre – mystery, romance, young adult, historical, detective, humor, women’s fiction.

Beginning near the east, the Apalachicola part of my title parameters, I’ve discovered:

Apalachicola

Flight Patterns by Karen White. In this mystery, the main character, an expert in china patterns, returns home to Apalachicola after a decade’s absence. The author deftly takes the reader on walks around Apalachicola viewing the sites – along the waterfront, from parks to piers, to the library and museum. Her descriptions of locations are so detailed, a reader can almost smell the exotic fragrance of the pittosporum or find the fictional house overlooking the bay where the main character’s family lives. The plot adds even more local color as it features beekeepers and tupelo honey. That’s a great clue to the title’s meaning.

Wewahitchka and Panama City

Author Michael Lister captures most of my reading time. I’m fascinated with his John Jordan clerical detective series. A two-time Florida Book Award winner, Lister lives in Wewahitchka and has set almost all of his thirty-plus books in the area. As a former prison chaplain himself, Lister brings authenticity to his “Blood” series which features prison chaplain John Jordan in gritty and realistic, yet touching and philosophical reading. I’m so in awe of Lister’s series I even bought an out-of-print first edition transformed into Christmas art to support Lister’s philanthropies.

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Port St. Joe

“The Still Waters” suspense series is co-written by Dawn Lee McKenna and Axel Blackwell. I asked for these books for Christmas and was so involved with the main character that I finished reading all three books before New Year’s Eve. The character, interim Sheriff Evan Caldwell, lives at the Port St. Joe Marina. Grieving the hospitalization of his comatose wife, he survives on grouper sandwiches from the nearby Dockside Café. (Both the marina and café were destroyed in Hurricane Michael in 2018.) He is a “reluctant” detective, working to pay his wife’s hospital bills. I anxiously await the fourth book in the series to see how the team of authors deals with the aftermath of the hurricane and the main character’s inner turmoil.

Forgotten Coast

Claire Matturro’s Smuggler’s Daughter was recommended by both the bookseller in Apalachicola and a writer-friend who shares the same publisher. The book’s setting along the Florida Gulf Coast is rich with lonely beach nights, swamps, sinkholes, and a frightening snake-bite chapter. It kept me reading into the wee hours of the night. The past deeds of the main character, a reference librarian, have her living in fear twenty years later. Detectives, childhood friends, and teenage enemies all play a role in the murders of the state attorney and a lawyer, plus a hit and run victim.

Back on track, I recently visited Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’ last home located on the Mississippi Coast. After that visit I rediscovered Charles Frazier, award-winning author of Cold Mountain. I had read Cold Mountain the year it won the National Book Award, and, of course, I saw the film version starring Jude Law. When I learned Frazier had written an historical fiction novel of Varina Davis’ days following the end of the Civil War I rushed to the library – eight minutes before closing — to check out their only copy and see if Beauvoir was mentioned. I was hooked from the first page. Frazier’s unique account of Varina’s last years revolves around a series of conversations with Jim Limber, Jefferson and Varina Davis’ adopted black son. Varina is reunited with Limber and tries to help him piece together his past while telling her own story. I loved reading Varina and now I’m off to find a copy of a book the Beauvoir tour guide recommended, The Mysterious Life of Jim Limber.

That is, right after I finish Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe – Jo Watson Hackl’s young adult novel inspired by Ocean Springs artist-author Walter Inglis Anderson.

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Literary Traveling: Artist and Writer Walter Anderson

sIX FEET“Walter Anderson was a master of social distancing.”  That clever six-foot warning adhered to the floor of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art gave me one of the best belly laughs of the pandemic. Yes, that man rowed a dinghy eight miles a day to socially distance.

I saw the sign during a recent visit to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, when researching A Literary Traveler’s Guide to the Gulf South: From Bay Saint Louis to Apalachicola.  I’d always heard about the artist Walter Anderson (1903-1965) from my mother, also an artist. Only when I began working on my book did I think of him as a writer.

Ocean Springs is a sleepy little town with sprawling oaks, a tree-lined business district, cute shops and galleries, and a quaint harbor. It’s been a popular place with artists and writers for decades.  One of its greatest assets is the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. The museum features the work of Walter along with his modes of transportation – boat and bicycle. Within the museum is “The Little Room,” A painted room relocated from his studio cottage at Shearwater Pottery. Every inch of the room –ceiling to floor to windowsills and walls—is illustrated.

Seeing the museum, Walter’s massive historic-cultural murals in the attached Community Center and his brother’s art in the old high school makes an Ocean Springs visit well worth spending a day.  I also stopped at Shearwater Pottery, the Anderson family business, for a quick visit to look at their pottery creations. Along with pottery of every shape and purpose, they have a niche museum of their history, and gifts and books for sale.

Walter Anderson moved to Ocean Springs after studying at prestigious northern art schools (one is now Parsons School of Design). In Ocean Springs, he worked in the family pottery business.  On and off, he traveled the South, bicycling hundreds of miles – Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky. He wrote about these regional excursions and his travels to Hong Kong. 

Nearby settlement Gautier (pronounced Go-Chay), about twelve miles to the east, also played an important role in his story as a writer.

While recuperating from hospitalization for mental illness, Anderson, his wife and children lived at Oldfields, an antebellum home on the Mississippi Sound in Gautier. No longer working in the family pottery business, he farmed and entertained his children with art and stories. From Oldfields, he’d launch his boat and row or sail the eight miles to the Horn Island wilderness to paint, write in his logbooks, and study nature. He’d often spend days at a time observing the island’s creatures – crabs, insects, birds — at times seeking shelter from storms by beaching his boat and climbing underneath it. These experiences are recorded in The Horn Island Logs. The book, published posthumously, is a record of his life, experiences, and observations of nature on Horn Island, the largest of the four barrier islands off the Mississippi coast.

Oldfields, Gautier, MS

From a visit to Oldfields in April 2021

Oldfields, originally a pecan plantation, belonged to his wife’s family. His wife, Agnes “Sissy” Grinstead Anderson (1909-1991), a poet, wrote the memoir Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Anderson. His daughter Leif Anderson (1944- ), a dancer and artist, wrote Dancing With My Father and Dancing Through Airth.

Officially known as the Lewis-Oldfields House, the abandoned homestead is on the state’s list of Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.  Severely damaged in Hurricane Katrina, it is located at 1901 Water’s Edge Drive in Gautier. 

It’s right at the end of the 1970s’ style subdivision on a bluff overlooking the Sound. Glorious in its decay, Oldfields was purchased in December 2020 by the Mississippi Historic Trust

When I stopped to verify the location for my book, I was able to walk around the property. From the back yard I could see the islands across the sound. To stand on the rise and think about Walter Anderson rowing to study nature and write was enchanting. I understand now why watercolorists tour Horn Island to recapture that magnificence of nature – far from society.

Horn Island is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and accessible only by boat. It is a designated wilderness area, but private tours, like for those for watercolorists, are available with authorized commercial operators listed on the National Park Service website or at the Gulf Islands National Seashore office at 3500 Park Road, Ocean Springs. Or you can take your own boat.

Now that government properties are reopening after COVID, I plan to go back to Gautier to visit the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.  In 1944, Anderson, a visionary environmentalist, recorded log entries describing a walking tour north of Gautier to a colony of sandhill cranes. In 1975, ten years after Anderson’s death, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge for the endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane and its disappearing wet pine savanna habitat. Only about 100 of the cranes are still in existence, and the bird is considered the rarest in America.  Anderson’s painting of the sandhill cranes at dawn adorn a portion of the east wall in the artist’s “The Little Room” in the museum. I’d like to be inspired by seeing the real sandhill cranes and write about them too.

 

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