Feature

On Caladesi Island, a remarkable family tree

DUNEDIN — Terry Fortner wanted to show me the pine she calls the Harp Tree. Of course, a hike with Terry offers diversions beyond finding an extraordinary tree that happens to have a romantic past. Prickly pear cacti in yellow bloom, prothonotary warblers, summer tanagers and rufous-sided towhees can be icing on the cake. A rattlesnake in the palmetto thickets would be more exciting than Christmas morning. • We were hiking on her 650-acre island. We were hiking through her shady hammock. I felt the first kiss of a mosquito. Terry is 55 and so devoted a naturalist she even likes mosquitoes. I was careful to avoid any unbecoming slapping. • A moment later she reached across the path and gently brushed a mosquito from my cheek. She didn't say "Go on now, little skeeter,'' but her calm gesture felt like she was apologizing, not to me, but to one of God's creatures for the inconvenience.

• • •

Caladesi Island State Park officially is owned by Florida's taxpayers. Unofficially, it belongs to Terry. Her family's roots reach all the way to 1888, when her great-grandfather, Henry Scharrer, built the first cabin near the Harp Tree.

Scharrer's Island became a state park during her youth, and she never got to live there. Even so, she knows every osprey nest, where to find ancient Indian mounds and the best tides to find the lovely junonia shells. That happens when an island is in your DNA.

Caladesi — we'll call it by its modern name — is among the gems in the state park system, a true wilderness barrier island only 2 miles from the mainland of Pinellas, the most densely populated county in the state. To reach it you need a boat or a ticket for the Honeymoon Island State Park ferry that leaves the dock every hour.

A restroom and gift shop are the only evidence of the 21st century. Otherwise, it could still be 1528. The island could still be a Tocobaga stronghold. On some days even now the mullet schools in St. Joseph's Sound look thick enough to walk on. But nobody tries. Bull sharks lurk beyond the surf.

The Harp Tree apparently was already old when Terry's great-grandpa arrived in the late 19th century. Born in Switzerland, well educated, a trained musician who delighted in playing his Stradivarius, Henry Scharrer chose to be a farmer and a fisherman. His visitors over decades included Cuban netters, shipwrecked sailors and tourists from the coast, the poet Carl Sandburg among them. Something happened to the pine to make the trunk split in a peculiar way. At least that's what Terry was told. Some folks say the Indians did it. The less romantic wonder if hurricane winds might have done the trimming. Anyway, the double trunk reminded people of the musical instrument.

Terry has many photographs, some a century old, showing visitors — some even in pioneer dress — sitting in the tree like tourists. In many of the yellowed black-and-whites, her great-grandfather stands beaming under them.

"He was proud to show off that tree.''

• • •

When she visits her island, Terry shades her lush black hair and azure eyes with an enormous sun bonnet. She's a Scarlett O'Hara Earth Mother. Her island is Tara.

"When I was a child I took the island for granted,'' she said, as we ambled a sandy path. "But as I matured I realized how special this island is and how lucky I was to grow up during that time.''

Sometimes she feels sorry for 21st century children. Yes, they have straighter teeth and need not worry about polio. The lucky ones have two parents who nurture them and get them to school, Little League and dance practice on time.

Terry teaches small kids music appreciation at a private school. Recently, she was telling students about her island and her family's primitive life on the island.

"Did they have A&W?'' asked a boy.

"No,'' Terry said. "No root beer.''

We were a mile into a sweaty hike. We both brought water bottles.

"When I was a kid, I was on the island all the time," Terry said. "I didn't need cartoons. I didn't need to be entertained. I had the marshes and the beach and my shells. I had the fish and the birds and the snakes.

"I learned a lot about the plants. For example, this one here is wax myrtle. My grandmother was named after wax myrtle.''

Myrtle Scharrer was born on the island in 1895. The family historian, she wrote Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise. "If Grandma Moses began painting at 70,'' Myrtle once wrote, "why can't I start writing at 87?'' Myrtle died at age 96, outlived by her book, which remains in print.

Terry owns a beloved photograph taken a half century ago at the island. Sitting in a skiff, Myrtle dangles baby Terry over the water.

At age 9 Myrtle was already rowing 2 miles across the sound every day to attend school. As a teen, Myrtle patched mullet nets, caught kingfish on hook-and-line and sold them on the mainland. She trapped the raccoons that overpopulated the island and sold their fur.

She didn't fret about hurricanes. Her daddy and her husband, Herman, built sturdy dwellings. They covered windows. Stocked up on food from the garden and salted mullet from the smokehouse. Drank the rain. They didn't have electricity so never missed it. Yes, the mosquitoes were more daunting then. Build a fire and stand downwind in the smoke.

If an unwanted guest arrived at the island — local roughnecks loved to sneak in and steal hogs — Myrtle and her kin knew how to deal with them. Run them off with a shotgun.

• • •

I don't know that I could find the Harp Tree without Terry. There are no maps; most visitors who don't mind walking a mile through the mosquitoes and the cacti just stumble across it.

The Harp Tree stands 40 feet tall in a clearing. Surrounding pines all seem to be dead — killed by lightning strikes. Terry tries not to worry.

"You can't control everything,'' she said.

She reached into the tree and touched the part — a saddle of sorts — where she sat as a child.

Countless visitors also sat or stood here, the women often in long pioneer dresses, the stern-faced men in coats and ties, staring blankly at an old camera, many of them now dead or their youth long gone.

When lightning comes for the Harp Tree, Terry will lose the oldest member of her family. It will be a hard goodbye.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

.If you go

Find the Harp Tree

Caladesi Island State Park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset daily. A ferry ($9 adults, $5.50 children 4 to 12) leaves Honeymoon Island State Park beginning at 10 a.m. daily. To get to Honeymoon, go west on Curlew Road (State Road 586) and cross the Dunedin Causeway. (727) 469-5918; floridastateparks.org.

On Caladesi Island, a remarkable family tree 04/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 11:31am]

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