Florida’s Own Billy the Kid

Many people may not be aware but at the turn of the century, Florida had its very own Billy the Kid. And while he wasn’t a rustler or robber, he was a train-hopping rogue active in the Fort McCoy area who garnered attention for his activities on the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad between Ocala and Palatka in Marion County.

Map of the Oklawaha Valley Railroad from Palatka to Ocala.

Map of the Oklawaha Valley Railroad from Palatka to Ocala.

He was best known by another name: Billy, the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad Goat. The goat belonged to Lucy Calhoun, daughter of the engineer of Old No. 101 for Rodman Lumber between 1914 and 1922.  According to the tale, as a kid, Lucy’s goat got free and caught a train on the fly. Fortunately for the young rail rider, he wasn’t ditched from the shortline and was returned to Fort McCoy. From then until the rail’s decline, Billy could be found tramping on a hobo’s ticket.

Engine No. 101 with Lucy and Bertie Calhoun

Old No. 101 Engine on the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad. With Lucy Calhoun and her chief engineer father Bertie “Bud” Calhoun.

It has been suggested that Billy was among Florida’s first railway enthusiasts, but is almost certainly its first ungulate tramp. By the early 1920s, The Ocklawaha Valley railroad was abandoned and the story of Billy, the Ocklawaha Valley Railroad Goat ends there. All we can do is hope that Billy made his way to the hobo heaven of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Billy, the Oklawaha Valley Railroad Goat on Main St. in Fort McCoy, Florida.

Billy, the Oklawaha Valley Railroad Goat on Main Street in Fort McCoy, Florida.

 

For more information about Billy see:

Bray, Sybil Browne. Marion County Remembers: Salty Crackers; Volume 3,  (1984).

Turner, Gregg. A Short History of Florida Railroads (2003).

Cook, David. “Ocklawaha Valley RR struggles to Survive”. Ocala Star-Banner. September 18th 1994.

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

Washboard Bill was born in Dupont, Florida on July 4, 1905. He was known as a percussionist, rooted in the minstrel tradition, as well as a captivating storyteller. During much of Cooke’s childhood, his mother operated a juke joint in Dupont. The young Cooke would secretly stay up past his bedtime listening to the music emanating from his mother’s establishment. These experiences shaped Cooke’s interest in music, and greatly influenced his rhythmic style later on in life.

Close up of William

Close up of William “Washboard Bill” Cooke

At age six, Cooke began working for a local sawmill, making 25 cents per day, after his mother fell on hard financial times. In 1916, Mrs. Cooke closed her juke joint, and sent her children to live on their grandfather’s farm in Sanford, Florida. As times grew tougher and the Great Depression set in, Cooke grew weary of his life on the farm, and decided to leave home. For ten years, he led the life of a hobo, traveling by train all over the East Coast.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke poses with his washboard and cymbals

Although Cooke spent the majority of his younger years traveling outside of Florida, he still maintained a connection with the state, generally spending his winters in West Palm Beach. Between 1947 and 1963, he performed with a group called the West Palm Beach Washboard Band. They played in venues everywhere from the streets to the estates of the Rockefellers and Kennedys. In 1956, he recorded Washboard Country Band with Sonny Terry and folk legend Pete Seeger. Cooke moved to West Palm Beach permanently in 1973. He performed in Florida and throughout the country until his death in 2003. For his musical and historical contributions, Cooke received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1992.

Portrait of street musician William

Portrait of street musician William “Washboard Bill” Cooke on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, Florida.

In 1988, Cooke recited a personal narrative, A Hobo’s Birthday, for the Palm Beach County Folk Arts in Education Project, conducted by the Florida Folklife Program. Cooke’s story offers a fascinating account of life as a hobo during the Great Depression. His travels and experiences give the listener a vivid portrayal of transient life on the railroad tracks, and of the character Washboard Bill.

Podcast: A Hobo’s Birthday by William “Washboard Bill” Cooke[audio:http://fpc.dos.state.fl.us/memory/collections/folklife/mp3/podcasts/washboard_bill.mp3|titles=A Hobo's Birthday|artists=State Archives of Florida]Download: MP3

For more information, please see:

Interview with Washboard Bill Cooke (and) Washboard Bill Cooke story: A Hobo’s Birthday