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FLORIDA WAS NO VACATION FOR PIONEER WOMEN

Much of Florida was wild in the early 1800s and was populated mostly by Indians and Spaniards.

Instead of condominiums and hotels, the beaches were fringed with palmettos and pine trees, and in some places inland, there were marshes and swamps full of alligators and cottonmouth moccasins. In higher areas, there were moss-draped oaks, and eagle's nests.

There were no roads except for a few sandy trails, and mosquitoes were thick. But there were deer who used to eat the crops of the early settlers, and wildcats and wild turkey, and one early Pinellas County resident complained that he couldn't sleep in his shack on Coffee Pot Bayou because the sound of mullet plopping all night kept him awake.

Panthers screamed in the night. Indian mounds all around Tampa Bay, Boca Ciega Bay and the beaches were full of clam and oyster shells, and wild orange trees grew everywhere.

While most records of pioneer time focus on the role of men, life wasn't simple or easy for the women, either. You can learn much about what it was like to simply live and survive from their accounts.

'Gator attack

Sometimes, simply traveling from home to home was a challenge. Here's an account of one such trip by Sarah Bethell, Pinellas County's first woman postmaster, who came here with her husband, John, in 1867.

One morning, she set out with her baby and 2-year-old to walk to her mother's home about 2 miles away. She had to cross Salt Creek on a footlog carrying both children.

She made the crossing safely, and "as she was about to set the child down something blew a hard, guttural breath behind her," her husband wrote in an early history of the area. "She quickly turned to see what it was, when lo and behold! There lay a 'gator in the edge of the marsh near the log, and on the side she had crossed from."

Sarah Bethell ran about a hundred yards and saw Bill Neeld gathering fertilizer in a palmetto patch. She called to him to come and shoot the gator. He had no gun, but leaped on the gator's back, and, with his pocket knife "put him to sleep for all time."

Blood suckers

Here's what Flora Hill Connelly had to say about the hazards of settling near Naranja south of Miami in 1905:

"My husband tried to discourage me. He said the mosquitoes were terrible and that it would be hard for me and the children to endure the other hardships of the area. After due consideration, it was decided that I could make the move. . . . My brother Will met us with a horse and wagon at Gossman's Siding, now known as Naranja. When he came into the coach to get us, I noticed the mosquitoes, full of blood, hanging on his face and arms. He was covered with them! I recalled my husband's words of warning and thought to myself that I had probably made a mistake in coming to such a place. Nevertheless, I was there and there was no turning back."

Women's work

Few married women at the turn of the century worked outside the home unless they helped their husbands with the family business. In the 1900 Census in Pinellas, only five women listed an occupation, although 43 took boarders into their homes. In the urban areas, more women began entering the business world. In 1904 the city directory for Miami listed 7 female stenographers, eight clerks, one bookkeeper and one cashier. In Tampa, women worked in the cigar factories. Some women got seasonal work sorting tomatoes or grapefruit. Others came to work in the big hotels or in the home of wealthy residents of Palm Beach and Miami.

Most common job

The most accepted profession for a woman was teaching but she often had to quit her job if she married. The first woman doctor in Dade County was Dr. Eleanor Galt Simmons. She graduated from medical school in 1879.

Family life

Pioneer families were often large, and most women usually spent their day rearing their children, cooking, cleaning and sewing.

Mattie Lou Cherbonneaux recalled how her "mama milked the cows, churned the butter and worked in the kitchen. In her spare time she crocheted edging for our pillow slips, dresser scarves and underwear. . . She became worn down from the heavy unaccustomed farm work."

Cooking for a family was an all-day affair. Some homes had a kitchen building separated from the main house by a walkway called a dog trot. Often the women cooked outside on open hearths. Some were lucky enough to have kerosene or oil-burning stoves.

The women churned their own butter and made soap from ashes, leftover grease and lye. They had to make the clothing for their families, but they did get some help from technology. Sewing machines existed in the 1880s and electric sewing machines become common in the 1890s, although electricity didn't come to St. Petersburg until 1897.

Working kids

Children were expected to work as hard as their parents. Myrtle Sharrer Betz, who grew up on Caladesi Island in north Pinellas County nearly a century ago with her father, assumed even more work when her mother died when she was 6. Starting when she was 7, she began rowing across the channel from the island to Clearwater to go to school. "Somewhere along here my childhood ended," she wrote in a book about her life, Yesterday I Lived in Paradise. "There was a wood-box to be kept full and water to carry in. The floor must be swept, the dishes washed, the chickens were to be fed in the morning and evening."

While the work was hard, there were many bright spots and they took joy in simple incidents. "Just such a small thing as an unusually brilliant sunset would make my heart swell with a thankful feeling." She enjoyed combing the island's beach to see what had washed up, particularly after a storm when the beach would be covered with colorful shells of all kinds.

Excerpts from Public Faces, Private Lives: Women in South Florida _ 1870s-1910 by Karen Davis; Copyright 1990 by the Pickering Press. All rights reserved

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