July 20, 2007

Jimmy Carter's Clay

I'm interested in the parallels between Jimmy Carter's rural childhood in Plains, Georgia and Lawton Chiles' rural boyhood in Lakeland, Florida. Some of Carter's memoirs of growing up on the farm, An Hour Before Daylight, could probably fit well in the Chiles Walkin' Notes. I guess the red clay of North Florida more than anything is a sign you're getting close to Georgia, geographically and politically. You're on land good enough to grow cotton that can make the clothes on your back. You're in the Deep South. The boiled peanut stands are signs of Carter Country, too.

Chiles didn't grow up in red clay country, but he saw an awful lot of it on the Walk and on return visits to the Panhandle. And of course got lots of it on his clothes, just like Carter. He must have known the phosphate-and-limestone bedrock of Polk County best. They grow oranges in Polk County like Southern Georgia grows peanuts.

Jimmy Carter knew that red clay from birth. I think the connection was simple. The land fed him, fed his family; he loved the land.

July 19, 2007

"Red Man"

Chiles writes in his first journal entry in the Walkin' Notes that the red clay blowin' on highway 4 from Century to Jay is all over his pants and shirt. The red is a deep shade that I'm sure was near impossible to remove. A Google search even found a Southern band called the "Red Clay Ramblers." I'm sure Panhandlers from Jay to Tallahassee are proud of the clay. Until I visit Jay hill myself and describe it circa 2007, enjoy the original Chiles 1970 notes:

Well, we started off yesterday morning at 8:30 at Century, Florida. Century is a town that is primarily a sawmill town, and it's on the Florida - Alabama line.

The first fellow that I saw I had to lure down off a power pole. He kept trying to get a word in and I kept talking to him about my running for the United States Senate and finally he got an opportunity to break in and tell me he was from Alabama. I just told him I sure hoped he had some Florida friends to pass the word on to.

We talked with a number of people in Century and had breakfast there. At first they wanted to talk only about the 800-mile plus walk before me, but then everybody started telling me about the Jay hill which lay ahead of me on the way to Jay.

I don't believe it was more than three or four miles but it looked like eight miles when I started up. The word was that if I could make it up the Jay hill, the trip would be coasting the rest of the way to the Keys. I thought I had made it up and stopped to rest. About that time Officer Wood, a highway patrolman who used to be stationed in Lakeland, came by and stopped to see what I was doing there. He broke it to me that I was only halfway up the hill. It was kind of a blow cause I hadn't realized that when the road curved ahead, I'd have another half of the hill to traverse.

They're breaking ground for their crops up here and the wind is blowing good and hard so everything is red sand and red dust. By the time I walked into Jay I looked like a red man. I met John Pittman at the electric co-op here and I think he felt so sorry for me — my hair looking so bad and I had so much dust on my face — he decided to take me home to dinner. I went to his house and we had collard greens and fried chicken and dressing and rice and apple popovers for dessert. I can tell you one thing: I haven't had an appetite like that in a long time. I had all that dinner and then finished up with another piece of chicken for dessert.

I reached Jay about noon and after I had lunch it looked like it was starting to rain, so I went to the livestock auction. That worked out real well because there were some 200 farmers there. By the time I got there, the bottom had fallen out —a real cloudburst. It would have been impossible to walk the streets of Jay and visit with the people.

There was a break in the auction and I was able to get on the microphone and give them a little talk about my campaign, to tell them why I was walking and talking through the state of Florida. And I had a good opportunity not only to talk but to do some listening. I found out a lot about the problems of the row farmer.

The people are trying to raise wheat and soy beans up here and one them was telling me that of a loaf of bread, the farmer himself gets about two and a half cents; and with their costs for fertilizer, help and tractors and everything going up continually, they're really caught in a squeeze. They're particularly hurt by the high interest rates, having to borrow a lot of money every year to make their crops. They're very disturbed with the government buying wheat and corn in other parts of the country and holding it till they're ready to put theirs on the market. Then the government starts to sell their holdings and that breaks the market. It keeps them from being able to make a profit. They don't want to see government controls and yet they feel that is the way they're heading unless they can get together in some kind of co-op and do more to see that the farmer gets a decent price for his goods and that all the profits aren't taken up by the middleman and the people handling the end product.

They had a lot of good looking livestock — hogs and cattle. Prices for them seemed to be pretty good. The row farmer is the one who's really having a tough time of it. It's great to have my feet on the ground and to be with good Florida people, to learn from them and to tell them of my ideas. This day has certainly confirmed my belief that there is a crying need to bring more of our government back closer to home and to the people it is intended to serve.

Quincy's Dirt

The LEAF, Quincy's old-fashioned movie theater, with thunderstorm creeping above.
The trash can photo. Actually this is a profile shot of the red clay earth below. Notice how rainfall has stained the sidewalk red, too. When Chiles walked through the Panhandle in 1970, it didn't take long for a brisk wind to blow that dirt in his face. By the time he got to a small town called Jay he looked like a "red man." As the thunderstorm brewed during my visit to Quincy, the wind was kickin' up the dirt.
More red clay. There is a construction site on Capitol Circle NE in Tallahassee with deep red clay exposed. It's all around the upland counties bordering Georgia and Alabama. Pine trees seem to love this soil.
City Hall is a few blocks West from downtown proper.
Quincy is only a few thousand souls, but it's wired for internet and they're proud.

July 18, 2007

State Library

Another trip to the state library this afternoon. I'm almost done compiling the St. Petersburg Times record for the '90 Chiles/MacKay for Governor campaign. Then I'll move onto finishing '91. I've been printing out '91 at home.

Downtown Quincy

This was taken at about 2:00PM. By 3:00PM the thunderhead burst.
The front courtyard of the courthouse. Main street was busy that day.

Quincy Art Gallery.
At the crossroads of highway 90 and Quincy. A milestone on the Chiles trail.

July 17, 2007

Note from the Author

I've made a decision. I've changed the title of the blog from "The He-Coon Walks" to simply "Walkin' Lawton." I believe the title of a blog and of a book has one purpose--to tell the reader in as few words as possible what is most important about the subject. And if a blog intends to build a readership for a book, it should promote the book title as soon as possible.

Governor Lawton Chiles boasted not one but two nicknames, "He-Coon" and "Walkin' Lawton." You might say three if you include "The Walking Senator." Some never even knew his name and probably never voted for him, but they knew him as that walkin' fella they kept seeing on the highway. And they liked him for that.

The choice of title is really a tug-of-war between those nicknames. As silly as it may sound, picking either one is an artistic choice that will change how people perceive this guy. I want folks to know foremost that his walk across Florida changed him in profound ways and changed Florida politics for the better. The "He-Coon" moniker came at the end of his career, more than twenty years after all of Florida knew him "Walkin' Lawton" and thirty years after Polk County knew Lawton Chiles from his door-knocking walkabout in Polk County. Even when journalists, voters, and politicians began to jokingly call Chiles the He-Coon, many still knew him fondly as Walkin' Lawton. The He-Coon legend existed before Chiles, rooted in Southern folklore. The late Florida Congressman Bob Sikes called himself "He-Coon," too. The walking mythology, however, was Lawton Chiles from start to finish.

"The He-Coon Walks" is a chapter in the story, but "Walkin' Lawton" must be the title. Please change your bookmarks and links as necessary. Thanks!

July 16, 2007

Chiles and His Florida: Quincy and Things

A couple weeks ago, I took a day trip to Quincy, Florida--about 40 or so miles West of Tallahassee. I pulled out a map of Florida, looked West on highway 90, and picked the first town on the Chiles Trail. Quincy was established in 1825, twenty years before Florida entered the Union. Back then, towns like Quincy, Tallahassee, and St. Augustine dominated Florida politics and culture. Though they rose no higher than the longleaf pines that surrounded them, the first American settlers call them home.

From the Walkin' Notes--his meticulous record of thoughts and impressions on the 1970 Walk--I knew Chiles had passed through Quincy, and got a gobbler to show for it! Below is an excerpt; see the Chiles Foundation website for the rest of the journal entry from that day.

Tom Cumbie, a druggist here in Quincy, offered to take me turkey hunting this morning, so we got up about 5:30 to go out and see if we could hear a gobbler. There was a lot of wind which caused Tom to say he thought the trip was going to be in vain, but we hadn't been in the woods 15 minutes when we heard the gobbler gobble and within another 15 minutes I had bagged a 15-pounder.

It got me to shaking so bad that Tom wanted to know what made me so nervous. But it was a real experience hearing that fellow rattling the woods. Tom had rattled his yelper and a hen had come up close and that brought the gobbler. It was quite a sight to see him stalking through the woods, and the experience was a thrill for me.

Later, in downtown Quincy, I was telling Sheriff Bob Martin and County Judge H.Y. Reynolds about getting the gobbler. Well, they kind of pulled a little joke on me. They said that since I was from out of county, they just might arrest me and hold me for a few days so I wouldn't even make Tallahassee. I finally made amends by telling them I would leave the turkey there and come back to eat it. They bought that idea.

Quincy is in Gadsden County, one of the three "Cotton Belt" counties surrounding Tallahassee with large black communities rooted in Civil War-era plantation life. Leon and Jefferson are the others, and unlike the rest of the Panhandle, they vote the Democratic slate. I guess Gadsden and Quincy--its county seat--act like most traditional Southern farm counties in Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Black votes cancel out white ones, and only in "majority-minority" districts do Democrats dominate. There just aren't that many white "Yellow Dog" Democrats left anymore. In Quincy circa 2007 the "minority" is the majority, in population and local political representation.

The worst of racial conflict is hopefully behind Quincy. I spoke with a kind lady at the Quincy Art Gallery for a while once I got into town. She said she was born in Quincy in 1954 but moved away as a girl to Oregon. She never said why. Only recently had she moved back, and things pretty much stayed the same while she was gone. She said, however, that now "people were freer to be with each other." I hadn't heard anyone say it like that before. I liked it.

Quincy may be a state of mind to those who know it best, but from my perspective the town has changed. It now boasts an independent, community-owned utility, a marvelous website, and a modern city hall.
The Gadsden County Courthouse still dominates the town, in height and personality. People talk about one-horse towns, one light towns...Quincy and other major Panhandle towns are "courthouse towns." They are the center of the county culture, where people go to worship, buy food at market, go to school, and of course, go to court. With that courthouse at the center of things, it's hard to forget the past--the Civil War comes to mind for me. I saw courthouse towns in rural North Carolina on the way to Florida from Virginia. One with a large Confederate soldier statue in front.

When Lawton Chiles retired from the U.S. Senate in 1988, still hungry for problem-solving, he settled on Gadsden County health care. I'm sure he a lot ran through his mind when he returned there almost twenty years after strolling through the Quincy town square on his way to Washington--including the folks who had asked him if he would ever come back.

The title of this post refers to the restaurant where I had lunch in Quincy, "A.J.'s Chicken and Things." The town surely brags on its beautiful art gallery, old-fashioned movie theater, and its strong internet network, but the greasy buffalo chicken sandwich at A.J.'s may be Quincy's finest.

July 15, 2007

Afternoon at Bald Point

My trip to Bald Point State Park a couple weeks ago brought me back to the conventional Florida storyline...vacation at the beach, getting your toes stuck in the sand, and never going back to Cincinnati or New Jersey or Chicago or wherever they came from.

But drive out of the State Park, and you're back in Old Florida, Forgotten Florida--whatever label you choose. You're back on the Walkin' Lawton Chiles trail, but without the signposts to guide you. It's obvious as you drive through the small coastal towns South of Tallahassee in Franklin and Wakulla Counties that you're far from Disney. You're sharing highway 98 with raccoons, deer, turkey and maybe even gators; the Gulf on one side and a struggling rural economy on the other. I saw crumbling, graffiti-stained seafood-picking houses in Panacea; peanut and watermelon stands on the side of the road, the farmers sitting quietly in their chairs because there were no customers; and the occasional collapsed wooden shack. Carrabelle reminded me of Bayside towns on Maryland's Eastern Shore--places like Rock Hall and Vienna and even Cambridge that have never lost their connection to the sea but can't make a dime on it anymore. And mostly, even if folks remember voting for Kennedy and Johnson or even Carter, they're voting Republican now in Wakulla and Franklin Counties unless it's for county commissioner.

I remember on the O'Malley for Governor campaign, seeing campaign signs stapled to all those abandoned shacks on the rural roadside. Some had every level of sign, from county commissioner to governor. I'm sure that happens in Panacea, too. You have to wonder what kind of statement that makes.

Carrabelle at least has some good news to enjoy. Bud Chiles--Lawton Chiles III--has begun a business venture to produce hurricane-rated, steel reinforced, affordable homes for the Gulf coast--made right there in Carrabelle. Check it out.

More on Carrabelle later.

Saint Marks Refuge (Cont.)

I really loved this shot of the tree house. Makes me think of Robinson Crusoe.
The heavy rain yesterday probably gave this pond a boost.
The mark of a lightning storm in May.