Published Sunday, March 23, 2014 12:05 am
ZOLPHO SPINGS — Going camping is one of my favorite pastimes. There is nothing quite like being disconnected from the everyday rat race.
Ringing cell phones, buzzing laptops and loud business meetings are easily forgotten and replaced with more soothing resonances like babbling brooks, crackling fires and the presence of wildlife.
While the wilderness can be enjoyable, a lot can go wrong in a short amount of time. Especially if you’re ill prepared for your trip.
That was the case for us last weekend. A day trip turned into an overnight debacle due to an auto failure. Drew had to cancel his plans to bring me jumper cables in the middle of nowhere. By the time he arrived, it was almost dark and we were forced to stay the night.
I had tried to get Drew out there earlier, but work and chores prevented him from accompanying me. I’d tried to persuade him to change his mind, telling him of the beauty of the Peace River, the quaintness of the camp and boasting the fishing opportunities, but to no avail.
When darkness fell, Drew and I weren’t snuggled in our warm bed as expected. Instead, we found ourselves lying on a wooden plank in a spider-infested bunkhouse, with no sleeping bag and only a light blanket as covering on a very cold night.
We were miserable; beyond miserable. Our sleepless situation was amplified by the eerie sounds of wild animals: the hooting of an owl, croaking of alligators and … was that the howl of a coyote? These sounds seemed to haunt our dreams even when we happened to doze off, if only for a short time.
We couldn’t help but think of another ill fated journey: one that occurred about 172 years ago, not far from where we slept and involved a group of Scottish immigrants who had left their homeland in the hope of finding a new one in Sarasota.
The owl hooted again right outside the window of the bunkhouse. If we were those Scottish immigrants, we might have taken it as a malicious prophecy.
One of the colonists, Dan McKinley, wrote of the owl call in a diary he kept while living in Sarasota. The Jan. 27, 1886 entry reads, “It’s really very lonely. The eerie sound of the owl, the night is pitch dark and there are other queer sounds. I‘m going to turn in, have big washing to do in the morning.”
The owl was the least of his worries. McKinley’s entries get more concerning as time goes on. On Feb. 2, 1886, he wrote of prairie fires surrounding him and his camp. Two days later he wrote he following passage:
“Prospects here are so bad, in fact as far as we can see it means starvation if we stay… again see prairie fires some distance from us…high winds blowing and some rains….the colony seems to have completely broken up.”
McKinley was just one of many immigrants who left their home for a promised land that unfortunately didn’t deliver what they had anticipated.
Nellie Lawrie was just a child when she came to Sarasota with her family from Scotland in 1885. She recalled a very sad departure on a dark and stormy night.
Lawrie said the passengers were overwhelmed with emotion as they left Scotland and began singing an old Scottish song called “Will ye not come back again? Better loved ye ne’er will be.”
There was not a dry eye as the song commenced, and the crowd kept singing Scottish hymns as the captain gave the signal to begin their long, transatlantic passage.
It was not a straight shot to Florida. The ship first landed in New York; then the colonists had to travel by train to Cedar Key. At that time the station was the southernmost stop on the railway route. From there, they chartered a yacht landing where Marina Jack’s is today.
They were greeted by most of the families already established in the area; the Whitakers, Riggins, Abbes and Tuckers. It was a cold December morning and the surrounding terrain was unhindered; there was only one building in sight and their only prospects were before them down a dirt road that meandered out of sight and got lost in the dense palmetto underbrush.
Sarasota historian Jeff LaHurd wrote of the event in his book the Hidden History of Sarasota.
“Even from the ship railing they could see they had been duped. ‘Little Scotland,’ was a wilderness with which they were unprepared to deal.”
The rest of 1885, and the beginning of 1886 was filled with freezing but favorable conditions (at one point it even snowed), but as the rainy season began to present itself, more and more problems also developed. Most of the colonists were staying in palm frond guest huts offered up by pioneers until they could build more permanent accommodations.
Anton Kleinosheg, one of the first and last remaining Scottish colonists, described the situation in a letter to a friend.
“The climate in winter (though we had a cold never experienced) is very pleasant and wholesome; but the summer!—100 degrees when it’s not raining and a terrible plague of mosquitos, enough to drive us mad! …. The sky consistently sends down water masses that stand in ponds and depressions and generate millions of these beasts. They have in fact killed two of my young dogs (a horrible end).”
Kleinosheg goes on to describe the living conditions inside the hut where he was staying, which belonged to the Abbes, a pioneer family. There were no screens, and he had to sleep, read and write under a mosquito net to avoid being “eaten to death.”
Kleinosheg eventually fell victim to the menacing creatures and contracted malaria. He had to be nursed back to health by the women of the Abbe family. He would later marry the daughter, Carrie Abbe, and they would move to Austria.
Most of the other Scottish colonists departed the area on March 11, 1886, only three months after they had arrived. However one of them, John Hamilton Gillespie, would later become Sarasota’s first mayor in 1902, and be credited for building the first golf course in his back yard.
In an interview with the Sarasota Herald in 1935, historian A.B Edwards told a reporter that the “distress and humiliation and hardships they encountered can scarcely be expressed in words.”
Lying there in the dark on my hard wooden plank, I felt pity for those settlers. After all, all I needed was some jumper cables to escape the breadth of my bad experience and I had a home, bed and pets waiting for me. Those settlers had sold everything they owned, traveled thousands of miles only to find that the land they bought was useless.
It was a bad deal with false hopes, peddled to them by a Scottish investment company. As they said their goodbyes to Sarasota, they probably couldn’t help but feel they’d been duped.
And as Drew lie awake beside me on our wooden plank in the middle of the woods, he probably had the same feeling. He felt he’d been duped into bringing me jumper cables on the promise of an amazing camping getaway only to be freezing his buns off in less than favorable conditions.
Sources: Hidden History of Sarasota by Jeff LaHurd, copywrite 2009, History Press, Charleston, S.C.