Goober Peas

Peanuts are a tasty Florida treat, whether you prefer them boiled, roasted, or as creamy peanut butter. These tiny legumes have been with us for a long time, and a look into their history reveals lots of surprises.

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Surprise #1: Peanuts aren’t nuts, at least not technically. Although the familiar peanut species (Arachis hypogaea) has a shell just like other “nuts,” it actually belongs to the same family of plants as garden peas and beans. That’s why you’ll often see peanuts referred to as “goober peas.” The “goober” part originates from an African word for the plant, nguba.

Archaeological evidence suggests the peanut originated in South America before European explorers carried it to other parts of the globe, including the British North American colonies. Virginia farmers cultivated multiple varieties of the plant as early as the 1780s.

During the Civil War, soldiers became familiar with the peanut as a tasty treat while marching across Virginia, and many veterans brought it back to their home states and experimented with crops of their own. The humble peanut even became the subject of one of the war’s most iconic songs, titled “Goober Peas.” Here’s a recording of that song from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as the lyrics to the first verse:

Sittin’ by the roadside on a summer’s day, chatting with my best mates passing time away,
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees, Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!

At first, Florida farmers only grew large crops of peanuts for animal feed and hay, with a small portion of the produce going for roasting or sweet treats like peanut butter and peanut brittle. In the early 20th century, however, two factors emerged that convinced planters of the peanut’s value for other uses.

The first was the widespread devastation to Southern cotton crops caused by the boll weevil. Cotton was valuable for both the fluffy stuff that went into making textiles and the oil that could be pressed from the seeds. When boll weevil infestations began threatening the source of cotton seeds for making oil, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began recommending peanuts as an alternative crop. Like cotton seeds, peanuts express an oil when pressed, which can be used in both lubricants and food-grade salad oils and shortening. Planters hoped peanut oil might keep the oil presses of the South going if the supply of cotton seeds should fail completely.

World War I was a factor as well, causing a jump in the demand for edible oils. As the price of peanut oil began to creep upward, the Pensacola News Journal declared that peanut oil was just as certain a source of wealth as petroleum!

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

The boom in peanut oil prices leveled off after World War I, but a few companies stayed in the game into the 1920s. Brown & Company of Portland, Maine, for example, bought up 64,000 acres of land in the Everglades and tried to establish a processing plant on an island in the middle of Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. The plant didn’t work out so well, but the island is still known as Peanut Island today!

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946).

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946). Click or tap the map to enlarge it.

While the market price for peanuts may shift from time to time, Floridians seem to have always appreciated their value for entertainment. Newspaper reports from the early 20th century often mention party games involving the tiny legumes. In 1905, for example, young Ethel Crosby of Ocala gave a “peanut party” for her little friends, with all of the festivities involving peanuts in some way. There was a peanut hunt, much like an Easter egg hunt, as well as a “peanut walk,” which required the children to carry as many peanuts as they dared on the blade of a knife and walk as far as possible without dropping them. The Boy Scouts of Troop 3 in Pensacola held a similar contest in 1911, except in their version the boys had to scoop up the peanuts in a spoon held between their teeth and carry them to a distant bucket.

This particular race has enjoyed some serious staying power. Even in recent years, festivals celebrating and promoting agriculture have featured peanut relays of one form or another, like this one from Agriculture Day in 1986:

Representative Irlo

Representative Irlo “Bud” Bronson, Democrat from Kissimmee, passes a peanut to Representative Chance Irvine, Republican from Orange Park, as the two work together for the House of Representatives team during an Agriculture Day competition honoring the peanut industry (1986).

Isn’t it funny how the smallest and most common objects can have such complex histories? Share this post on social media and tell us about your favorite historical tidbit!

 

Florida’s Juke Joints

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, if you had plenty of money and a city’s worth of entertainment at your disposal, you might have chosen to spend your Friday evening at the movies, a night club, or a high-quality restaurant. If, however, you were in rural Florida and looking for something a little less formal and a heap less expensive, you were more likely to drive out to the local juke joint.

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The name “juke joint” was given to the hundreds of dive bars similar to the one pictured above that once appeared all over the state during the early to mid-20th century. They were especially prevalent in rural areas, near sawmills, turpentine camps, and other places with lots of everyday folks who might want to relax a bit without having to get too dressed up to do it.

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The origin of the term “juke” is somewhat in dispute, but in Stetson Kennedy’s Palmetto Country, he explains that African-Americans first developed these establishments, since they were barred from saloons and other entertainment venues operated by whites. After Prohibition ended in 1933, however, juke joints for whites began to appear as well.

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

As newspaper accounts and former patrons often explain, juke joints were distinguished by their relaxed, laissez-faire atmosphere. Here, once away from downtown and out from under the all-seeing gaze of the public eye, both men and women could let their hair down a bit and enjoy a few drinks, loud music, and the sort of lowbrow entertainment that might have sent their mothers into a fainting spell.

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Depending on the place and time, the music came either from a jukebox or a live performance, and there was usually someplace to dance. The kind of music played depended on the source and the crowd. If the joint had a jukebox, the crowd might select anything from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” – whatever was popular at the time. If live music was available, blues, country, or jazz might be the order of the day. Blues music was particularly popular in juke joints operated for and by African-Americans, featuring songs with titles like “Mistreatin-Mama,” “Rattlesnake Daddy,” and Drinkin My Blues Away.” A number of Florida’s blues and folk personalities, such as Marie Buggs and “Washboard” Bill Cooke, got their start playing in juke joints.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke with cymbals and his signature washboard. During Cooke’s early childhood, his mother operated a juke joint, where the young Cooke was first exposed to music and dance (photo 1993).

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

The names of these watering holes reflected their no-frills character. Most were simply named for their owners, such as Benny’s Place near Brooksville, and Baker Bryan’s, just south of the Florida-Georgia border on U.S. 1 near Hilliard. Others were named more creatively, or at least nicknamed creatively, as was the case with the Bucket of Blood at Jug Island in Taylor County, and the Mystery Ship near Sarasota. The signs that hung in some of these establishments were as colorful as the names. Most were designed to ward off some of the bad behavior that often occurred, including fighting, swearing, and stretching credit just a little too far. Below is a list Stetson Kennedy typed in the 1930s of some of the juke joint signs he encountered while traveling the state as a folklorist for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.

A page from Stetson Kennedy's notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers' Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

A page from Stetson Kennedy’s notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers’ Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

While weary laborers and the younger crowd in general found juke joints to be a convenient form of relaxation, parents, teachers, the clergy, and law enforcement often considered them a nuisance at best and an ominous threat to the morals of the community at worst. The correspondence of Florida’s governors contains numerous examples of telegrams, letters, and resolutions calling for some kind of action to counteract the bad influence of these establishments on youth and workers. Local and state law enforcement officials did raid and shut down juke joints from time to time, usually on the suspicion of prostitution or selling liquor illegally.

A telegram to Governor Guller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

A telegram to Governor Fuller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

Despite the trouble associated with juke joints, the concept was popular, and at one time even attracted the attention of Hollywood. In 1942, Warner Brothers released “Juke Girl,” featuring Ann Sheridan as a Florida juke joint hostess, along with Alan Hale, Richard Whorf, and Ronald Reagan. Yes, that Ronald Reagan.

Times have changed, and most of the juke joints of old have changed considerably or shut down entirely. This is not to say, of course, that cutting loose and having a good time ever went out of style. But “juking” the way it once was done in the seedier but livelier places of Florida back in those days is fast becoming the stuff of history.

Do you have photographs of a Florida juke joint? Were you ever a participant in the festivities? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!