Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fresh air and sunshine in Florida's wilds

Dr. James A. Henshall
In the fall of 1878, a Kentucky physician took five patients on a camping and cruising trip along southeast coast of Florida, a desolate place at the time, sparsely populated and full of game and fish.

In the party were, as Dr. James A. Henshall put it, “two dyspeptics, one incipient consumptive, one bad liver, one nasal catarrh, myself and my setter puppy Gipsy Queen.” Henshall’s idea was that fresh air, sunshine, exercise and a plain diet would do wonders for the health of these young men. He planned to find a suitable sailboat in Titusville, at the head of the Indian River, and sail down the coast to Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys. Then, if there was time, they’d sail down the St. Johns River to Jacksonville and take a steamer.

Before they left, Henshall searched high and low for information about southeast Florida; finding a paucity of information, he decided to write his own book when he got back. The result was Camping and Cruising in Florida, published in 1884, a copy of which is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

The first half of the book, called "Cruise of the Blue Wing," tells of the adventures and misadventures of Dr. Henshall and his motley crew of ailing young men on that first journey from Titusville.  It is full of tales of near-misses with alligators, sharks and rattlesnakes, and of antics involving one crew member’s fear of Seminole Indians, whose war with the United States had been over for a good 20 years.

The good doctor was an avid outdoorsman. He loved hunting and fishing and camping, and apparently set out on adventures whenever he could. He was an authority on black bass and the author of what at the time was the definitive book on the species. His publisher, Robert Clarke & Co. of Cincinnati, also published Camping and Cruising.

In those days, fish and game were plentiful in Florida. Indeed, Henshall’s description of thick schools of mullet, coveys of quail, and flocks of wild turkey, paint a picture of a state very different from what we know today.

What is striking to today’s sensibilities, though, is the apparent disregard for wildlife of the intrepid trekkers, and, especially, Dr. Henshall. He describes one incident in which he had steered the boat toward a school of dolphin in the Indian River so that his passengers could get a better look. One of the party was so frightened of the gentle mammals that he started shooting at them. Dr. Henshall recounts numerous incidents of shooting at wildlife for sport with no intention of eating the creatures. Alligators were a favorite target.

Still, it is a glimpse into a Florida of days gone by, not only of the critters that inhabited the place but also of the various and sundry characters who dwelled here as well.  Old Cuba, one such character, was a former Cuban freedom fighter whose palmetto hut at the mouth of the St. Lucie River was a welcome stop for the travelers. He was the only settler the party met between Fort Pierce and Jupiter Inlet.

The second half of the book, titled "Cruise of the Rambler," contains Henshall’s account of a second trip, taken three years later, in which he followed the advice of a fellow physician and ventured through the Keys, around the tip of Florida and up the west coast as far as the Cedar Keys.

This second trip, in 1881, took Henshall to a Seminole camp in the Everglades, along the coast of the desolate Ten Thousand Island (then called the Thousand Islands), into Charlotte Harbor and Sarasota Bay, up Tampa Bay to Fort Brooke.  Henshall describes Fort Brooke as an orderly installation, though he decries the lack of game in the vicinity of Tampa, which, while still tiny in comparison to Jacksonville, was too populated to play host to many wild animals.

He camped briefly on the shores of Papys Bayou, where he found two-foot diameter horseshoe crabs and stingrays. He anchored in Big Bayou and hunted quail in the open pine woods. The only settler he mentions in Point Pinellas is W.P. Neild, who had a fine orange grove there.

The trip included cruising through Boca Keg Bay and going through John’s Pass, along with stops in Clearwater Bay and Dunedin, by then a thriving little community. The trip ends in Cedar Key, where the doctor boarded a train that took him back to Jacksonville.

Dr. Henshall credits George W. Potter of Lake Worth with the original pen and ink drawings that appear throughout the text.

Oh, and the patients who made the first trip? They returned to Kentucky in the best health they’d enjoyed in years.

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