A Walk Through Estero Island History

227

The Florida Cracker

Who and what is a Florida Cracker? The definitions and opinions vary, but this writer – a Chicagoan transplanted to Fort Myers Beach – has met and enjoyed the company of a few genuine Florida Cracker’s right here on our island. More about them later.

How the term Florida Cracker is received “depends on who is doing the calling and who is doing the hearing,” according to the Florida Backroads Travel website. “Cracker” can be interpreted as “bigot.” Add “Florida” or “Georgia” in front of that word and instead of a slur, it becomes an ethnographic description.

Today, “Florida Cracker” usu­ally designates a person born in the state, and not necessarily a descendant of long lineage. They may be of the 2nd, 3rd (or more) generation to reside here. Some who were born in this state prefer to call themselves Native Floridians; yet others bear the FC label proudly.

According to the Urban Dictionary, Florida Crackers “are self-sufficient. When modern civilization collapses, the Florida Cracker will be hunting, fishing, trapping and growing his own food while the rest of us will be standing in line at the government owned grocery store with our ration stamps.”

FCs and their ancestors wrested a living from the land and waters in a sub-tropical climate. They thrived before the days of cars, highways, mosquito control, air conditioning, Medicare and Social Security. Among their hallmarks were adaptability and hardiness.

Patrick Smith, author of the Florida historical novel, A Land Remem­bered, gave his interpretation of the term to a gathering of old-timers at a Polk County Historical Association meeting in Bartow, FL in 1987.

Cyril Santini-Mending Nets-Fort Myers Beach-circa 1940's
Cyril Santini mending nets on Primo Drive, circa 1940’s. Courtesy of Estero Island Historic Society.

“In Florida, the term ‘Cracker’ came to mean the cracking sound of the rawhide whips used by pioneer cattlemen to herd their cows.

The sound of the whips could be heard for miles, so the cattlemen also used them to communicate with each other. One crack meant come to dinner, two cracks meant something else, and so on. It was pioneer Florida’s first wireless telegraph system.

The whips were lethal weapons, capable of popping the head off a rattlesnake at ten paces. During hard times, when gunpowder and bullets were in short supply, men used the whips to kill small ani­mals for food.

The backwoods cow hunter with a whip is the most accepted origin of the term, but other theories include:

  1. In the years before the Revolutionary War, there was a huge influx of Scots-Irish settlers from Northern Ireland to the colonies. Many of these settlers and their descendants ended up living in rural areas in southern colonies. The English called these newcomers “crackers” – from an old English term for braggart or blowhard – and the term became associated especially with the cowboys and farmers of Georgia and Florida.

 

  1. “Cracker” may have come from the Spanish term “cuaquero,” which means “Quaker.” Early Scots-Irish settlers were mostly Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist; the Spanish derisively called all Protestants “Quakers.”

 

  1. The word may refer to cracking corn to make moonshine. More wholesome links are to grinding corn – as early southern settlers did to make corn flour for corn pones, corn bread, hush puppies and grits.

Some characteristics of the Florida Cracker (according to Urban Dictionary):

  1. Knows how to fish by instinct; was into bass fishing before Bass Pro Shop existed.
  2. Prefers to swim in a lake or creek, not a pool.
  3. Knows what swamp cabbage is and how to cook it.
  4. Takes his hat off whenever Dixie or any Lynyrd Skynyrd song is played.
  5. Knows that cane syrup is what you eat on biscuits. Gravy is what you eat with squirrel and rice.
  6. Doesn’t mistake a gopher for a turtle.
  7. Knows how to get to Hog Valley, Yankeetown, Scrambletown and Yeehaw Junction.

What makes a person a true Florida Cracker, besides being born in the state? According to Patrick Smith: “a love for the land and nature, growing things in soil, close family ties, and a deep sense of reli­gion. A Cracker’s word is his bond. They have no pretense, never put on airs, never try to appear to be something other than what they are, and they never ‘blow smoke’ over you,” Smith said. “They either like you or they don’t, and it’s as simple as that.”

Local Links 

Fort Myers Beach and environs can claim some Florida Crackers among its pioneers. This writer has met a few descendants who remained as the area morphed from a quiet fishing outpost into a bustling tourism and leisure destination.

The Florida Crackers I met were earthy, generous and very difficult to understand when they got to talking fast. A most puzzling expression was used by our family’s first neighbor, Mina Creech, who beckoned her children by hollering: “Y’all come in this house before I fall out arm and leg!”

Fishing guide Clarence Trowbridge and wife Nancy took groups and families out fishing on Estero Bay in the 1960s, when an inexperienced boater could easily get lost among the hundreds of mangrove islands; no high-rises served as guideposts. The fishing was abundant, and the boat did not return without a load of trout, redfish, snook, grouper, snapper and other fish.

Clarence’s father, who started as a commercial mullet fisherman, had been a fishing guide to Thomas Edison. Clarence carried on the old ways, always using live bait. He wielded a rusty gaff to snag the larger fish and dispatched sharks with an equally rusty rifle. (Sadly, the importance of sharks to the ecosystem, and of fisheries conservation, were not apparent then.)

Sometimes the boating party would take a lunch break on Lovers’ Key, then accessible only by boat. Nancy dug a fire-pit, built up a blaze and cooked the tastiest fish and hush puppy shore lunch imaginable.

“I guess I can claim Florida Cracker status,” said Ted Reckwerdt, whose family moved from Labelle to Fort Myers Beach in 1949. Ted, a past President and current Board member of the Estero Island Historic Society, was born in Labelle in 1939. During the Great Depression, his father Art left his home state of Illinois and traveled the country looking for work. He ended up in Labelle, where he married Mabel Andersen – descendant of Swedish pioneers who homesteaded in Glades County in the 1880s.

“In 1949 a few local families persuaded my Dad to move the family to Fort Myers Beach,” Ted recalls. “They needed a plumber out here, so Dad established Reckwerdt Plumbing on the island. Moving here to the beach completely cured my brother Robby’s asthma.”

cracker cowboy, fort myers beach, historical fort myers beach
A Cracker Cowboy by Frederick Remington.

Befitting the lore of the ever-adaptable Florida Cracker, Art Reckwerdt added roof work, fence mending and other useful skills to his plumbing repertoire. Sons Ted and John carried on the family business, and the handyman tradition, until John passed away and Ted moved to Fort Myers in 2013.

Though local numbers of genuine Florida Crackers are dwindling as gentrification and tourism sweep our island, they still walk among us.

If you are, or if you know, a member of this endangered species, please send your reminiscences to this author at janetsailian@gmail.com.

Cracker terminology, with the help of Florida Backwoods Travel:

 Cracker Horse: A small horse descended from the herds that the Spaniards brought over in the early 1500’s. They evolved into surefooted herding animals used by Florida cow hunters.

 Cracker Cattle: One of the oldest cattle breeds in the U.S., descended from cattle brought on ships by the Spanish. This diminutive breed is heat tolerant, long-lived, resistant to parasites and diseases, and able to subsist on low-quality forage in grasslands and swamps.

Croker Sack: A burlap bag.

Perloo: A one-dish meal of meat and rice cooked together.

Fat Back: Fatty meat from a hog’s back. Cut up in small pieces to flavor beans and greens.

Pineywoods Rooter: A feral hog, good to eat.

Pull: To take a drink of liquor from a bottle or jug.

                                                                                                                                Scrub Chicken: Gopher tortoise. Although a Cracker favorite, it is now illegal to kill them.

Swamp Cabbage: The heart of Sabal palm, cut into chunks and boiled. A Cracker delicacy.

Cracker Caviar: Mullet roe

 

 

Janet Sailian