It’s High Time for a Frolic!

Florida’s pioneer settlers faced a number of hardships when they first arrived, but that didn’t stop them from having a little fun every now and then. Rural families often lived a few miles apart from one another, but they would come together when one of them had a major project that needed to be done. Fodder pulling, which involved pulling the leaves off corn stalks for use as food for the stock animals, was one such task. Others included splitting rails and rolling logs to a home site for a new cabin. No matter what the day’s work entailed, once everyone was finished the families often enjoyed a good hearty meal and a little music and dancing. In North Florida, these informal parties were known as “frolics.”

Example of a typical Cracker log cabin, this one being located in Wakulla County (photo 1941).

Example of a typical Cracker cabin, this one being located in Wakulla County (photo 1941).

Frolics were simple, of course, but imagine how much fun they must have been for young folks living so far apart from one another! Dancing was frowned upon if not entirely forbidden by a number of the prominent churches in pioneer Florida, but it happened nonetheless. Perhaps as a compromise, much of the dancing resembled what we would call square dancing, where the participants followed a prescribed set of moves rather than pairing off and dancing however they pleased. One favorite was the cotillion, which involved eight persons, four of each sex. Someone would call the steps as the musicians played, and the dancers would react accordingly. W.T. Cash, Florida first State Librarian and an early resident of Taylor County, remembered some of these steps in the cotillion:

“Honor your partner! Lady on the left! Balance all! All promenade!”

And when it was time for the dance to end:

“Right hands to your partners, gents to the center, and ladies to your seats!”

A fiddler (circa 1880s).

A fiddler (circa 1880s).

The fiddle and harmonica were the main instruments used in making the music, and the musicians were usually just folks in the neighborhood who had picked up their craft from a relative or friend. The instruments, Cash reported, rarely cost more than about $10.

When they weren’t playing the more upbeat dancing tunes, the musicians drew from a wealth of folk songs that most of the party-goers would have known by heart. Songs like “Arkansas Traveler,” “Hell after the Yearling,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Cindy,” and “Turkey in the Straw” were popular numbers in North Florida.

The Florida Folklife Collection holds many recordings of these traditional songs being played by celebrated folk artists. Click on the Play button below to hear “Turkey in the Straw,” played by Telleta Arwell and Mary Ann Bows at the 1987 Florida Folk Festival. The lyrics follow.


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Note: This is one of those songs with a hundred different variations; we’ve just chosen a few of our favorite verses.

Chorus:

Turkey in the straw, hee haw haw!
Turkey in the hay, hey hey hey!
Roll ‘em up and twist ‘em up a high tuck a-haw,
And hit ‘em up a tune called Turkey in the Straw!

Verses:

As I was a-goin’ on down the road,
With a tired team and a heavy load,
I cracked my whip and the leader sprung,
I said Hey! Hey! to the wagon tongue.

I came to the river and I couldn’t get across,
So I paid five dollars for a big bay hoss,
Well he wouldn’t go ahead, and he wouldn’t stand still,
So he went up and down like an old saw mill!

Well I met this catfish comin’ down the stream,
I said, ‘Mr. Catfish, what do you mean?’
Caught Mr. Catfish by the snout,
Turned Mr. Catfish wrong side out!

With so much distance in between families, folks had to get every bit of enjoyment they could out of these gatherings. They often lasted far into the night. One musician, remembering these days, commented that after a night of playing the harmonica at a frolic his mouth hurt so bad he couldn’t laugh for a week!

If this kind of folk music gets you tapping your feet, we recommend you check out our Audio section for more recordings from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as Florida Memory Radio, our 24-hour Internet radio station.

Also, if you don’t have a copy of our bluegrass and old-time music CD, “Look A-Yonder Comin’,” contact us and we’ll send you a complimentary copy.

Front cover of "Look aA-Yonder Comin, a collection of bluegrass and old-time string band music from the Florida Folklife Collection.

Front cover of “Look A-Yonder Comin’, a collection of bluegrass and old-time string band music from the Florida Folklife Collection.

Raising Cane

Sugar is almost as ubiquitous in Florida history as it is in the American diet. For centuries, settlers have taken advantage of Florida’s favorable climate to grow sugar cane for home use or commercial profit.

Sugar cane has been cultivated in Asia since ancient times, but its use in the West was limited until about the 18th century. Honey was the sweetener of choice in Europe before that time. When Europeans began colonizing the Americas during the Age of Discovery, sugar cane was one of the plants they brought to cultivate.

Sugar cane workers collecting sugar cane in a field located near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Sugar cane workers collecting sugar cane in a field located near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Florida’s first major sugar cane operations arrived while the British had possession of the territory in the 1700s. Florida’s new owners were optimistic about the possibilities for building great profitable plantations along the St. Johns River, and colonial authorities handed out large grants of land to British subjects willing to try their hand at planting.

Denys Rolle and Dr. Andrew Turnbull were among the British planters who attempted to grow sugar cane on their Florida estates. Remains of Turnbull’s operation at New Smyrna are still visible today.

Remains of a warehouse at Andrew Turnbull's plantation at New Smyrna Beach (1953).

Remains of a warehouse at Andrew Turnbull’s plantation at New Smyrna Beach (1953).

The United States took possession of Florida in 1821. As planters from Virginia and the Carolinas began moving into North Florida, they were anxious to cultivate new and profitable crops that would solidify their fortunes and those of the new territory. Settlers such as future Florida Governor Thomas Brown, William Wirt, William Nuttall, John and Robert Gamble, and William Bailey invested large sums of money in the equipment necessary to grow cane plants and extract the sugar.

Cane-grinding machine powered by a mule. The mule walked around in a circle, activating a pair of rollers. The cane stalks would be fed into the rollers, where it would be crushed and purged out the other side. The juice contained in the stalks was collected and diverted into a vat or barrel (photo circa 1890s).

Cane-grinding machine powered by a mule. The mule walked around in a circle, activating a pair of rollers. The cane stalks would be fed into the rollers, where it would be crushed and purged out the other side. The juice contained in the stalks was collected and diverted into a vat or barrel (photo circa 1890s).

Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, these early cane growers faced a major problem. The longer sugar cane stays in the ground, the better the sugar it produces. The plant is, however, highly susceptible to freezing. When sugar cane freezes, its ability to produce crystallized sugar is diminished. North Florida cane growers consequently faced something of a guessing game when deciding the right time to harvest their sugar crops. Over time, the risks associated with growing cane became too great for most planters to invest much money in the venture. Many plantations continued to produce smaller amounts of sugar cane for home and local use, but large-scale cultivation of sugar cane was for the most part abandoned by 1840.

Watercolor by James Calvert Smith of cane grinding process (date unknown).

Watercolor by James Calvert Smith of cane grinding process (date unknown).

Although sugar cane failed as a major cash crop in the 19th century, its presence in Florida pioneer culture at that time was constant and critical. Even if a freeze were to stunt the growth of a cane crop, the plants could still be processed to extract the cane juice, which could then be made into molasses, rum, or cane syrup. These products became staples in the average Florida household.

The act of cutting the cane and extracting the juice was in itself a vital part of local culture, especially in sparsely populated areas. These tasks required a great deal of labor, best accomplished by a community effort. Consequently, many families would hold “cane grindings,” which combined the work of cane processing with the excitement of a communal celebration. The cane would be stripped and fed into a simple machine that crushed it, squeezing out the juice, which was channeled into a waiting vat or barrel. The juice would then be boiled into the various sugar products. There was usually a large meal involved, and sometimes singing and dancing. In a time when homesteads were typically miles apart, this was one of the best ways to get families (expecially the young people) together for a good time. There’s no way to know how many Florida marriages began with a simple “How do you do” at an old-fashioned cane grinding.

Group gathered for a cane grinding at the home of William J. Owens of Columbia County (circa 1890s).

Group gathered for a cane grinding at the home of William J. Owens of Columbia County (circa 1890s).

Sugar cane began to come back into the picture as a commercial enterprise around the turn of the twentieth century. As settlers ventured farther south along the Florida peninsula, they finally encountered areas that either rarely or never suffered from frost. These conditions would best serve large-scale sugar cane production. Developers prepared the terrain for cultivation by diverting rivers and draining large tracts of land, including parts of the Everglades. By the 1920s, the sugar industry was up and running in earnest. The industry received a boost in the 1960s when the federal government banned the importation of Cuban sugar, which had previously been a significant source of the product for the U.S. Today, sugar cane is a multi-billion dollar industry in Florida, producing about 2 million tons of raw sugar annually.

Sugar cane processing plant near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Sugar cane processing plant near Clewiston (circa 1980s).

Have you ever been to a cane grinding? Do you remember sugar cane growing somewhere near where you grew up? Tell us about it on Facebook or in the comments section below. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of sugar cane production.

Mmmmm… Swamp Cabbage!

You may be aware that the noble sabal palmetto is Florida’s state tree, but did you know you can eat it? And we’re not just talking about a survival tactic. From Wakulla and Apalachicola in the north to LaBelle and Immokalee in the south, Floridians all over the state have made a tradition out of preparing the hearts of these trees as a tasty dish called swamp cabbage.

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Sabal (or cabbage) palms located in Levy County, Florida. Note that swamp cabbage is typically harvested from the trees when they are much younger, before they develop their rough gray trunks (photo 2010).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

Everglades guide George L. Espenlaub prepares a pot of swamp cabbage (photo circa 1950s).

The tradition of eating hearts of Florida palm trees likely predates the arrival of Europeans in North America. Captain Hugh Young, Andrew Jackson’s topographical engineer, sketched out a few remarks on the subject in his notes regarding the territory between the Aucilla and Suwannee rivers in 1818. He wrote:

“In the cypress swamps between Assilla and Sahwanne there is abundance of cabbage palmetto. […] It rises with a single stem to the height of forty feet and supports at the top a large mass resembling an immense pineapple, from which project a number of three-sided stems three or four feet long with leaves like the low palmetto but much larger and without prickles. The vegetable substance from which the stems and leaves are supported has in its center a white brittle mucilaginous mass composed of the centre folds of the leaves forming it, which may be eaten raw and when boiled has a taste somewhat like parsnips. In times of scarcity the Indians live on it, and it is said to be wholesome and nutritious.”

We at Florida Memory are still somewhat concerned about Captain Young’s use of the word mucilaginous to describe something edible, but overall his description is fairly accurate, and those of us who have had swamp cabbage  agree it is tasty.

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

Painting of territorial governor Andrew Jackson (circa 1821).

As incoming settlers learned about swamp cabbage and began experimenting with it, it became a favorite side dish, especially in sparsely populated areas where the sabal (or cabbage) palmetto was more prevalent. In modern times, swamp cabbage can still be found on the menus of restaurants serving traditional Southern cooking. It is typically prepared by slicing up the heart of a section of palmetto trunk, called a “boot,” and then stewing it with spices and salt pork or some other seasoning meat. The finished product is grayish-green in color, and pairs well with fried fish, pork, or other traditional Florida entrees. Swamp cabbage can also be enjoyed raw, and often appears in salads by the more refined name of “heart of palm.”

Many Florida communities consider swamp cabbage something worth celebrating. Each year at the Florida Forest Festival in Perry, locals celebrate their forestry heritage with a parade, fireworks, live music, and the world’s largest free fish fry. Often, the menu has included swamp cabbage. Down south in Hendry County, residents of LaBelle hold a festival each year devoted to nothing but swamp cabbage, even choosing a Swamp Cabbage Queen to reign over the festivities. In Cedar Key, heart of palm salad served with fresh fruit and a scoop of pistachio ice cream is a favorite traditional restaurant menu item.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival's program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Miss Sherri Lynn Woosley, 1971 Swamp Cabbage Queen for the LaBelle Swamp Cabbage Festival. Photo from the festival’s program for that year, which is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

A heart of palm salad as prepared by the Seabreeze Restaurant in Cedar Key. The tartness of the heart of palm is complemented by the sweetness of fresh fruit and the pistachio ice cream in the middle. Photo courtesy of Jamie Griffin (2014).

Tasty as swamp cabbage may be, the cooking and eating of it is the easy part. Cutting through layers of tough palmetto fibers to get to the edible “boot” without damaging the tender flesh inside is much more difficult. The following images from the Florida Photographic Collection illustrate the method used to harvest swamp cabbage.

Here, we see Ralph O'Brien of Tampa chopping away the

Here, we see Ralph O’Brien of Tampa chopping away the “straps,” which are actually the bases of the fronds or leaves of the tree. This must be done at an angle so that the axe does not become lodged in the inner “boot,” which can spoil the tender flesh inside (photo 1982).

Once the straps have been cleared away from the

Once the straps have been cleared away from the “boot,” the weight of the remaining attached fronds will cause it to break away from the tree. Here we see Ralph O’Brien chopping off the remaining fronds to make the boot easier to carry (photo 1982).

 

The outer layers of the

The outer layers of the “boot” are tough, bitter, and inedible. Here, we see Ralph O’Brien carefully splitting successive concentric layers of the boot to get down to the edible flesh at the center (photo 1982).

Once enough layers have been removed from the

Once enough layers have been removed from the “boot,” the remaining outer layers may be removed with a sharp knife. Here we see a Lafayette County woman working her way down to the edible flesh of the boot, which she then will slice into a bowl of cool water. The water temporarily prevents the swamp cabbage from turning brown (photo 1983).

Are you ready to try this Florida delicacy? Whether it’s eaten raw on a salad or boiled down with a generous helping of seasoning meat and black pepper, Florida’s state tree is both beautiful and a tasty treat with a long and storied past.

What are your favorite traditional Florida dishes? Tell us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post on Facebook!