Note from Janie:
I’m in the midst of writing a three-book series on old Florida, called the Glory Land series. The first book, A Corner in Glory Land, takes place in central Florida, around Silver Springs, and Lake Weir, in the 1880’s. When I was a little girl, my family spent time at Lake Weir, specifically at an old fish camp named Johnson’s, and it was those sweet old memories that helped to bring A Corner in Glory Land to life. Here is one of my favorites:
When I was a little girl living in Miami, Florida, my family would go to Lake Weir, which is in north-central Florida, not too far from where my only sibling, Kathy, and her family now live. We would stay at Johnson’s Fish Camp, which was made up of tiny stucco cabins all prettily perched on the shore of the lake. It was nothing fancy, believe me, and making it even more rustic was the fact that the faucets spewed out sulfur water. Now, if you’ve never tasted sulfur water, you have been spared a most unpleasant experience. It’s a vile liquid, both smelling and tasting like rotten eggs, though my grandmother found that it blended rather nicely with a double-shot of Kentucky Bourbon.
Right on the water’s edge of the lake was the dance pavilion/bar. On that thick oak bar, many a good fish story was passed around, along with red plastic baskets of fried fish, shrimp, alligator or chicken, all accompanied, of course, with a good dollop of coleslaw and greasy fries. At night, the pavilion became the focal point for all of the youth in Lake Weir, as well as the tourists. Around the juke box and flowing out onto the pine-planked dance floor, we did the Twist to Chubby Checkers’ Peanut Butter, and drank the coldest Seven Up you’d ever poured down your throat. It was the nectar of the gods on a hot July night. Life was sweet.
Daddy would take Kathy and me fishing, and at the little bait and tackle shop we would gear up and rent our little boat. I can still smell the worms in their Styrofoam containers which were filled with rich, black dirt that would keep the little wigglers alive long enough to be assassinated by large-mouthed bass. I can also still smell the lake as the sun would warm it quickly on a hot July morning. Onto the lake we’d go in our 12 ft. aluminum boat with an outboard motor and a middle plank for a seat. We’d cruise down the shoreline, never missing the chance to pull up in front of the Bradley house. This was a creepy, old house on the lake’s shore where gangsters Ma Barker and her son were shot to death by FBI agents in 1935. We could get close enough to make out the bullet holes in the clapboard siding of the house. Looking up into the empty black windows, we’d indulge ourselves in the most gruesome thoughts our little minds could conjure up.
Lake Weir was a slow and quiet place on those summer mornings. Nothing much moved, including the bass, though that made it easy to catch them…all except one. This one was the granddaddy of granddaddies. He had been lurking in the reeds and pilings, making life quite frustrating for all of the serious anglers. He was wily, he was elusive, and every angler – and there were plenty of them – wanted that fish. Over many cold beers at the bar in the pavilion, plans were formulated for the capturing and ultimate eating of that “dang fish”. And, thus far, each and every one of them had failed. Never before in the history of Lake Weir had a dang fish outsmarted so many, and the bait and tackle store was benefiting handsomely from their frustrations.
One summer morning, Daddy bought Kathy, who was 6, a Mickey Mouse rod and reel. I was not with them on this particular outing as I was too young yet, so it was just the two of them out on the lake. Daddy had scoped out a spot the night before – thick with reeds – that he thought would be a good place to catch a large bass. Now, of course, everyone else had their own “good place,” but, without doubt, Mr. Granddaddy Bass had found the very best “good place,” for he still lived.
Daddy steered the little boat into his selected spot, then helped Kathy bait a plump worm from the container onto her hook. And, as we Sandells learned to do at a young age, Kathy spat upon the bait for luck before she cast out her line from her brand new Mickey Mouse rod and reel. The mosquitoes hummed, the humidity thickened, Daddy lit a cigarette, sipped his sugary sweet, creamed coffee… and Kathy’s line went ZIIINNNGGG! Daddy shouted, “Set the hook!!”(This is a quick upward snap of the rod, ensuring that the hook gets embedded into the fish’s mouth.) She did, and then she proceeded to reel. She reeled and reeled. She held on tight, and that little girl reeled. And then my sister landed that granddaddy bass. I believe that was the first time she heard language not befitting a member of the Methodist church issued forth from my daddy’s mid-western lips, although, he was respectful enough to include the word “holy” in his exclamations.
By 10:00am on that hot July morning, the pavilion was a-buzz with the news of the “brat” that had landed Old Granddaddy. There were a lot of angry anglers there that morning, and a few decided that having a bourbon or two before noon would not be a crime. After all, a crime had just been committed against them. Daddy had a scotch or two, himself, but graciously did so at the other end of the bar. And Kathy walked back to the stucco cabin for a grilled cheese, wondering why every man glared at her while every woman smothered a laugh.
Everyone in Johnson’s Fish Camp knew what we were having for dinner that night. A mouthwatering aroma of cornmeal-coated fresh bass fillets sizzling in a black cast iron skillet wafted out our kitchen window. Mama honorably served the entrée with sides of grits, coleslaw and hushpuppies. No one, save the family, seemed to want to join us, however, and that was just fine with us.
Last summer was Kathy’s 50th birthday. I drove up to Ocala from Ft. Lauderdale to be with her for the occasion. It was a Friday, and just she and I drove to Lake Weir, where we slowly – almost sacredly – walked into the time-worn pavilion. We sat by a window looking out over the lake, and laughed about how everything looked smaller – even the bass.
Many things have changed in the last four decades since that Weir-record bass catching day; Kathy and I live in different towns, living different types of lives, though we’re fortunate enough to be best friends. Daddy and Grandma have both been gone for many years now. And the pavilion on the lake is called Gator Joe’s today. But, some things haven’t changed too much at all; the wooden dance floor is still there, with all of its scuff marks from the Twist, and the many dances which came before and after. Kathy and I, once again, ate fried fish sandwiches out of red plastic baskets, with slaw that was still as tasty and fries that were just as greasy. The smells were the same, too; the sun-warmed lake, the fish, and the worms. And, Daddy was there, in the play of light on the water. For a fleeting second, I saw him in that 12 ft. aluminum boat, among the reeds by the dock’s pilings. It’s funny how our memories can rise up enough to allow our eyes to see what our hearts most want them to. All things considered, life that day on July 15, 2005, was just about as sweet as it had been on that hot July day in 1961. Just about.
On January 16, 1935, Ma Barker and her youngest son Freddie were traced to a cottage hideout in Lake Weir, Florida. After a four-hour gun battle, their corpses were found inside the house. The FBI called her “Bloody Mama.”
Gator Joe’s; formerly the dance pavilion/bar at Johnson’s Fish Camp