By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
I’m on the road between Donalsonville, Ga., and DeFuniak Springs, Fla., when I pass through the community of Little Hope on the western edge of Seminole County.
What a great name for a town, and why have I never noticed?
I’ve spent considerable time in Seminole County, although not in years. I learned to water ski on Lake Seminole; you have incentive not to fall when cypress knees pierce the water. As a teen, I worked one summer at the sewing room in Donalsonville, bundling pattern pieces, sweating and wishing that school would start.
My Uncle Carlton ran the feed store at the old depot in Donalsonville, and when we were little we’d visit him before Easter to get biddies dyed the color of our organdy Sunday-school dresses. Those chicks never survived long, and I wonder now if it was because of the dye or our rough handling or a measure of both. A lavender biddy has a short shelf life.
Maybe the irony of the name Little Hope was lost on me as a child. I was such an optimistic sprout.
Names aside, the slothful beauty of this area always amazes me, its live oaks and Spanish moss and rivers and creeks as black as liquid tar. There are still peanut farms in southwest Georgia’s sandy soil, making the earth useful as well as beautiful.
And I’m always pleasantly surprised to see there is a little of the old Florida Panhandle left.
The Panhandle was the last of Florida to surrender its Southernness. Central Florida was eaten up by a mouse, and the swells and snowbirds soon followed. The Panhandle stayed true to its region and roots the longest.
But now the condo high-rises and sherbet-colored ultra-planned communities have about eclipsed the old, funky dwellings and businesses that sold more chenille bedspreads and boiled peanuts than swimsuits and sushi.
I am relieved to find a patch of what I fondly remember. On Highway 2 through Campbellton and Graceville, Fla., you can see what Florida used to look like, at least the Panhandle part.
My family lived in Pensacola for five years. The Panhandle colored my first memories with its Coke-bottle green ocean and sugary sand and a pink house made of cinderblocks.
My father’s wooden boat took us skimming across the corduroy surface of a blue bay. My mother had a sundress that I thought was the green of the Gulf and the blue of the Bay, and I loved it.
There was nothing but sand and old Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. We’d visit the fort, see the cavelike cell where Geronimo was held, forced to lap up rainwater from the floor like a dog.
I’ve read a revisionist account of his time there. Now they tell you Geronimo was a great tourist attraction and treated well by his awe-struck federal guards. Some of his wives were allowed to come and stay with him in spacious accommodations.
Either way, Geronimo’s time on the Florida Panhandle was against his will.
My south Georgia grandfather used to tease us after the move from Georgia to Pensacola, and call us Florida Crackers. I’m glad this Cracker saw Florida before the sprawl and character-sapping left it a region with little hope.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.