Gloria Jahoda and the “Other Florida”
by Mike Walker
Cedar Key, Florida
In 1963, the Florida State University hired a new professor of Library Science, Gerald Jahoda, and by way of New Jersey this Chicago academic and his wife arrived in Tallahassee. Professor Jahoda’s wife Gloria is known to us today better than her husband, yet not nearly well-known enough.
Gloria Jahoda was Jewish, well-educated with a graduate degree in anthropology, and had taught college herself early in their marriage. She had never been to Florida prior to her husband’s taking his faculty position at FSU. Her first impression was two-fold: she was fascinated by the geography and culture of panhandle Florida from what she had seen of it, but she also found herself not to really fit in with other faculty wives, most of whom were Christian and not engaged in a profession as she had been. The Jahodas were childless, and Gloria had little interest in being a housewife. Today, FSU or any major school probably would have tried to offer Gloria a faculty position of her own to sweeten the deal in recruiting her husband—that’s often done when both spouses are qualified as college instructors—but in the early 1960’s, this certainly wasn’t the case.
Gloria was already writing both non-fiction and fiction, so she turned the lion’s share of her attention to writing in Tallahassee. Though she would go on to be known for her fiction for young adults and her scholarship in classical music as well, her first claim to literary fame was in pioneering an area of Florida history hitherto unexplored, that of northern and panhandle Florida and the working-class folks who lived there. What scant historiography Florida had achieved by the 1960’s was mainly focused on important politicians, battles, and economics—very little if anything concerned the “common man,” especially in the geographic scope of the panhandle and north-central regions.
Gloria’s work began in speaking with neighbors in the Jahoda’s quiet professional neighborhood, but she quickly realized she needed to cast her attentions further afield. So in an old car she rambled about the back roads of the state, going to places like Saint Marks, Steinhatchee, Otter Creek, and Carabelle. She even went to Tate’s Hell, a vast tract of swampy wilderness in Liberty County. She explored Pensacola, a city with a deep and complex history, which had never before obtained the type of introspection Jahoda furnished it by approaching both its long history and its modern reality. Gloria Jahoda brought a combination of an outsider’s fascination and an anthropologist’s academic rigor to her work, both of which were essential. Her drives around on country dirt roads and afternoon interviews with share-croppers, rural preachers, and fishermen became the basis for her book The Other Florida, which is exactly what its title would suggest: an intimate look based on both first-person accounts and researched history of how the panhandle and northern portion of the state had evolved.
The 1960’s were also a perfect time for such a project. While we were in the modern post-war era when space-flight was possible and many changes were taking place across American society, there were—especially in rural Florida—plenty of ways in which life had not fully changed since the 1890’s. The naval stores (turpentine) industry, for example, while fading from its once mighty stature, was still around, and Gloria was able to speak with people ranging from black workers, who had toiled at cutting “cat faces” on pine trees to tap out their resin for the manufacture of turpentine, to scientists at a federal research center at Olustee who were researching new methods of making the production of turpentine more efficient.
When Gloria ventured down to Cedar Key, she found not the small and charming city which mainly makes a living off tourism today but an even less-developed place where the main economic force was small-scale commercial fishing. Tourism was just starting to become viable in Cedar Key, and her description of it in The Other Florida makes for compelling reading as we see how a town grew within economic scope. This is a continuing theme throughout the book: it was the 1960’s when Florida was on the cusp of becoming the tourism powerhouse it is now, and Jahoda was able to discern how much of that progression came about on both micro and macro levels.
Part of what makes Gloria Jahoda’s writing so special is how nuanced it is: her professional training lent her a hawk’s eye for detail which she applied to the best of results. When she wrote about quail hunting in Florida, she produced a chapter that at once informs the lay-person and will be sure to delight the hunter with her eager anticipation of an outsider to understand this time-honored tradition. Like any good anthropologist, she doesn’t judge or attempt to make moral statements on the people and places she encounters very often. Glaring issues such as the poor treatment of mostly black workers in the turpentine industry she dutifully notes, but in general she is much more interested in simply recording how things are and how they were than making any grand socio-political statement.
Gloria’s position as a faculty wife and her husband’s area of expertise in library science also helped her efforts as she had unrestricted access to FSU’s collections and archives of Florida history, including some normally open only to scholars and faculty. She was able to ascertain what the official picture of Florida was by academic and governmental sources, and then contrast that with what she witnessed and gathered from her oral history interviews with people who had in many cases lived there their entire lives.
Part of the real magic of Jahoda’s work was her deep interest in both natural and social history. In a paragraph describing a drive to Cedar Key from Gainesville, she notes the lush, verdant, yet at once also bleak landscape and sparse human habitation she encounters along the way, through small communities like Archer, Bronson, and Otter Creek. In the preparation of this article, I decided to retrace her route down Highway 24 from Gainesville to the Gulf. Archer is a small farming town in Alachua County which grew up around the expansion of the railroad through this area. The last train went through Archer in 1968, meaning that Jahoda managed to visit the small town when the railroad still held some actual importance there, having around the turn of the twentieth century been essential for transporting citrus and other crops out for sale. Bronson, the county seat of rural Levy County, probably has not changed greatly since Jahoda drove through. I ate at a small country cookin’ style restaurant there simply and honestly named the “Bronson Restaurant,” and it had “Southern” writ large (literally) on its front windows. The fried chicken, greens, and mashed taters were just as good as you’d expect, and the talk at nearby tables was chiefly over crops recently planted, the health of newborn calves, and other agricultural matters.
Otter Creek is a very small hamlet, having a post office and gas station but little else to speak of, and I have to wonder whether it was larger perhaps in Jahoda’s own day. Between it and Cedar Key there is very little—a few homes, a few businesses such as fishing charters, and, sadly, the site of the infamous Rosewood Massacre where the black settlement of Rosewood was burned to the ground over racial tensions in the region. Standing forlorn in a slight clearing by the side of the road can be found today the state’s historic marker explaining the tragedy of Rosewood, but little tangible of the town seems to remain since after the 1923 massacre few if any of the residents moved back.
Most remarkable was the “culture of silence” about Rosewood on the part of its survivors: most if not all avoided speaking to their own children or anyone else about the tragedy and when a newspaper reporter from Tampa tried to learn about these events in the early 1980’s, he encountered a high degree of difficulty in getting anyone to speak openly of them. Jahoda, therefore, did not write about Rosewood and most probably was fully unaware of its unfortunate history. Given her interest in the injustices faced by Native Americans she chronicles in another of her books, it seems likely she would have been very intrigued by the story of Rosewood had she known of it, but apparently no one wrote about it until the reporter in the 1980’s unearthed the story.
Cedar Key still is important for commercial fishing and seafood production, yet its main economy is very predicated on tourism—both in the form of visitors from afar and of people in Gainesville and elsewhere who have purchased weekend homes and fishing cottages in the area. It’s a fun, quirky, place: people zoom around in golf carts as much as cars—to the point that the Gainesville newspaper once ran a major story on the debate over teens driving these carts and causing trouble for traffic. As Gloria Jahoda noted (and is still true today) Cedar Key is a place where you can go on vacation and change into your shorts and keep them on forever, should you be wise enough to stay.
There are things which have changed in Florida since Gloria Jahoda took to the road to write about it. We can say today perhaps that Tallahassee is no longer “long on courtesy but short on inventory” as Jahoda put it back in the early 1960’s, but we can see how for a Chicagoan this state capital must have seemed like a lonely and oddly desolate outpost. Imagine how tiny Archer then would have appeared to her, or Carabelle, a town still rather remote and predicated on the fates and whims of tourism and fishing just as is Cedar Key.
The 1967 publication of The Other Florida was followed in 1973 by Jahoda’s book The River of the Golden Ibis, a history of the Hillsborough River basin which won her an award from the Society of Midland Authors for the best book on American history of that year. From there, Jahoda would turn to other topics from Native American history to the composer Frederick Delius. Her husband, as one would expect from a librarian, carefully retained all of Gloria’s unpublished writing and her letters and upon her death donated this material to FSU’s Florida History archives, where it resides for the benefit of scholars today.
More Photos from the Other Florida