Crackin’ into the origins of ‘cracker’

When I told friends I was moving to Florida, a few of them began lecturing me on the meaning of “cracker.”
Wait, what?
Where I’m from, to call someone a “cracker” would be derogatory and cringe-worthy for several reasons or interpretations. According to an article from NPR, the slur was used in the 18th century to refer to “poor whites” then changed to refer to a white person who was “of lower caste or criminal disposition.” According to an article by CNN, the term also recognized a working class who drove livestock with whips and did not own their own land. It also meant white people who owned slaves. It can also mean “bigot.”
However, in Florida, it is a term that is reserved for people who herded cattle with cow whips that were made for the loud cracking noise.
I’m glad someone warned me. During my first assignment for The Arcadian former Sheriff Will Wise’s wife, Kay, came up to me, introduced herself and proudly told me she was a cracker. If I hadn’t been prepared, I probably would have keeled over.
While those in the West may be cowboys, Floridians are crackers, working the cattle industry longer than any state in the country. Florida Backroads Travel states what makes a cracker: “He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War II. He or she is almost always Caucasian. They and their ancestors lived in Florida . . . usually have a rural upbringing, either on a farm or in a small town with plenty of woods and water for hunting and fishing and land planting. That’s because a Florida cracker is self sufficient.” Based on that definition, Arcadia seems like the heart of where to find legitimate Florida crackers.
Florida Backroads Travel added that crackers even have their own lingo. You might be a cracker if you know what the following words mean: corn pone, chitlins, Croker Sack, litard knot floater, perloo and Pineywoods Rooter.

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Photo by Priscilla McDaniel

The terminology is also used for businesses, associations and to define objects. For instance, the Florida Cracker Cafe operates in St. Augustine, Florida Cracker Airboat Rides and Guide Service is located in Vero Beach, and Florida Cracker Ranch allows visitors to camp in historic-looking cabins in Bunnell. The “Florida Cracker” is a breed of cattle, recognized as a breed since the 1500s, according to The Livestock Conservancy. There’s also a breed of horse by the same name, which was designated as Florida’s official heritage horse in 2008. The Florida Cracker Trail Association works hard to preserve “the Old Florida Cracker Pioneer ways of agriculture, animal husbandry and the respect for the land,” according to their website. And, I live in a “cracker house” in the heart of Arcadia.
I had no idea I was moving into a home with such history, and even a name, but I must say I love the style. According to Old House Web, cracker farmhouses were popular from 1840 to 1920 but are starting to make a comeback, known as “Cracker Chic.” A cracker house must have: Native materials, simple symmetrical shape, a crawl space beneath the home, a steep roof because of the rain and a deep-shade porch. There are actually a few types of cracker homes — a single pen, which had one room and one door; a double pen or “saddlebag,” which was two single pens put together with two front doors, and the Dog-Trot House, which had “two pens” with an outdoor breezeway between them as well as additional porches and large windows.
My house has been added onto some many times that I don’t believe it falls in any of the three categories. However, it does have one of the greatest porches I’ve ever encountered. My cats regularly sunbathe or chase anole lizards on the screened-in porch, which wraps around the front and side of the house. My cattle dog regularly runs back and forth across the wooden planks chasing people who dare peddle a bicycle down our street. And, I love sitting out there watching the thunderstorms roll in or catching up on the latest book I’ve got my nose in.
While I’m not a cracker, I do love the way they built their homes. And, I love how they fiercely they preserve their history and traditions. Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 18! I, for one, am going to be first in line to get a helping of some cracker history at Pioneer Day at DeSoto Veterans Memorial Park.

Students teach me why I love journalism

If you ever get the opportunity to talk to students about your profession, I highly suggest you do so.

Principal Bradley Warren of West Elementary School sent an email to The Arcadian, sharing his students’ Leadership group that created a newspaper called #WestLeads News. Inside, the second-grade students covered the week’s weather, The Leader in Me habits they learn at West Elementary, the Spirit Week schedule and more. They even had what we in the news industry call a “bishop,” a box that says who works on the newspaper. There were headlines, bylines, graphics, photos and photo captions.

I was so impressed that I told Warren I would love to meet the students. Soon after, second-grade teacher Michelle Lawrence invited me to the day they participate in Leadership Camps.

I came to class and spoke with the students about where news comes from, how the newspaper goes from a story idea to a printed paper, important tools of the trade (pretty much a note pad, a pen and a camera are the basics) and what someone must study in college in order to become a journalist.

It is always a bit nerve wracking when you open up the floor for questions. You never know what is going to come out of a child’s mouth. In the past, I’ve been asked if I have ever been arrested, to which I clarified that I was not a member of the paparazzi. I didn’t dig through people’s trash or shoot photos through windows. This time, the best question went to a young boy who wanted to know, “Why are there so many words in a newspaper?”

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The students received two copies of The Arcadian, and they flipped through all the pages multiple times. I had never witnessed children so enraptured by a newspaper before. They loved all the colorful photos.

It’s that kind of curiosity that is needed to keep newspapers alive. Since I started pursuing a career in journalism in 2007, everyone has told me, “It’s a dying industry. There aren’t going to be newspapers in 20 years.” I honestly don’t believe that.

Facebook is overflowing with stories with exaggerated headlines and unverified sources. Television broadcasts are constantly being slammed for being biased, and recently, big-time news source hosts have come clean and admitted some of their biggest stories were faked.

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Working on the next issue

Newspapers are still vital, important parts of society and especially small communities. Small community newspapers work diligently to provide accurate coverage of as much of the county as they can with usually a dismal amount of staff. They rely heavily on community members to keep them informed on what’s going. Some would argue that everyone in the county should subscribe to their local newspaper in order to stay informed, find out when events are planned for, learn about important decisions made by elected officials, etc. Unfortunately, there are varying opinions about what is or is not important news.

Take the students for example. The newspaper they created as the local weather forecast. The Arcadian does not. Several of the students loved the photos of animals from the local shelter while others were attracted to the sports photos. Some children enjoyed looking through live event coverage and feature stories to see if they recognized anyone. Each part of the newspaper was important to different students based on their interests, backgrounds and people they knew.

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Michelle Lawrence instructs the boys how to make a search word puzzle.

In the same way, community members care about different parts of the newspaper. Some only grab the issue they themselves or their family members were featured in. Some pay attention to the front page too look for “big, splashy” stories exposing corruption or mayhem while a handful of people never want to see any coverage that can be interpreted as negative. Others want more sports coverage. Still more only want to read who was arrested and who died each week.

Our job as journalists is to cover as many events, meetings, features as possible deemed “newsworthy.” We report on the great successes, innocent mistakes, poor decisions and anyone who tries to fly under the radar with illegalities. We are the watch dogs of DeSoto County. Combining these stories together, we strive to create a product that will entertain but ultimately inform our readers as a whole to what they should know about their home.

While there are disagreements about news and how news should be covered, I believe that newspapers have a permanent place. They may not always be on paper, but the local newspapers (whether in print, online or via Hogwarts owls) will continue to thrive because of their important role in the community of keeping elected officials honest, sharing successes of local businesses and encouraging residents to know all the facts, all the points of view to then make an opinion when voting, protesting, supporting or talking about news in the county.

And, it starts with promoting that curiosity and hunger for accurate information with students just like the second graders at West Elementary School.

Sandspurs — a downside to fall in Florida

‘Ouch! What the—? OW!”
These are words I’ve been regularly saying over the past month as tiny balls of thorny spikes prick and poke me whenever I step outside. They can be green or brown, but they hurt like the dickens no matter the color. What on earth is this creation of torture?
I first noticed the plant of pain when my dog, Bindi, started limping on our walks. She’d walk along quite happily, suddenly stumble then hobble forward. I’d bend down with her looking at me with sad eyes as I examined her paw. Sure enough, somewhere either between her toes or on her paw pad or on her heel would be a spiky ball, or even two. As she would yelp, I’d pluck them off as fast as possible, apologizing to her for her unwarranted pain.

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Now, the little bundles of thorns are everywhere. I’ve found them on the porch, my living room floor, in my bathtub and even wedged on the inside of my shoe where my toes sit. I have whelped, cursed and shrieked as I’ve unknowingly sat, squished or stepped on one of these painful menaces.
They are known as sandspurs, but also go by bufflegrasses or sandburs, according to Wikipedia. And, apparently they are a sign that autumn has arrived in Florida.
In North Carolina, we have what are known as “gumballs,” a sort of larger version of the sandspur. They are the seed pod that falls from an American sweetgum tree. However, they are significantly larger, easier to spot and are not sticky like the sandspur.

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Some “gumballs.” Photo from bobklips.com

According to the Okeechobee County Extension Services’ article about sandspurs, author Dan Culbert writes that the sandspur is the “fruit” of the Cenchrus echinatus grass or the C. spinifex plant. During the spring, the plant begins growing seeds and is mostly ignored as it looks like any other blade of grass. When fall comes around, the sandspurs begin emerging and causing havoc. By the time this happens, it’s too late, Culbert writes. You just have to live with it.
“There are no weed killers that will make the sandspurs disappear in the fall. The better approach is to use what are called ‘pre-emergent’ herbicides in the spring — and this means mid February in our area. Then next fall, you’ll be enjoying your Florida yard rather than pulling spines from your socks and Fido’s fur,” Culbert writes.
Sandspurs can also be combated by mowing one’s lawn a particular way before the grass begins producing the sandspurs, once again in February and March.

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A sandspur. Photo from shellkey.org

They have become so numerous because of a change in the Florida landscape, according to an article published by Shell Key in Pinellas County’s Web site by Jack Coletti. In the case of Shell Key, an Australian pine forest was removed because the tree is an invasive species.
“When they were cut, the richer soil was exposed to sunlight, and the sandspurs had a field day (pun intended). Sandspurs are one of those ‘pioneer’ species that will move in to an immature, bare or newly disturbed environment — to restart the eventual progression to a forested area. Once the trees that were planted to replace the pines have matured in a few decades, the sandspurs will eventually die back in numbers out-competed by a balanced and mature ecosystem,” the article states.
Well, I for one, am not planning on planting a forest in my yard. However, hope is on the horizon. The same article says that, “the majority of the burs will have lost most of their sharp points” by the time winter arrives.
This may be the first time in my life I have wished for winter to hurry up and get here. And now, I have learned my lesson and will keep tighter control on how long I let my grass grow and decide on an “eradication plan” for next year’s fruit.

The sport of hurricane watching

“Hurricane Watch” should be more than a phrase used as a distress signal by meteorologists whenever a hurricane is threatening a region. It should be a sport.
Last week, Florida residents kept a close eye on Hurricane Matthew as it spun closer to the state, threatening to be the first hurricane to make landfall on the east coast for the first time in a decade.
As it continued to strengthen, gas prices skyrocketed, bread disappeared from grocery stores and Gov. Rick Scott started live tweeting his panic on how everyone who chose not to evacuate was going to die.
I watched Hurricane Matthew like a hawk. I kept a website browser open on my computer at all times just so I could check the “cone of unpredictability” of where it was planning to hit and when.
You see, I had a plane to catch on Friday. It would be my first time returning to North Carolina since moving down here at the end of May.
I was to be a groomsman, or a “groomslady,” in my best friend’s wedding, and of course, that’s the very weekend that the first hurricane since Andrew decided to strike Florida and cause statewide hysteria.

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A photo of Hurricane Matthew courtesy of Pixabay

Facebook posts started emerging about bread disappearing even in DeSoto County, which received only a little rain and some gusty winds. Traffic was deadlocked on Highway 70 in front of Walmart as people ran to the store to stock up or get out of town.
My aunt, uncle and cousin evacuated from Melbourne to my house. They arrived late in the dark on Wednesday night in two cars with two cats, as much of their possessions as they could pack and a lot of baked goods (my aunt bakes when she’s stressed). All day Thursday and into the night, my aunt paced around my house, texting all her friends who decided to stay behind and ride out the storm. With tears streaming down her face, she told me that nothing would ever convince her to not evacuate again.
“That constant howling of the wind. You will never forget that. Nothing is worth listening to that all night long,” she said.
My uncle continually updated his phone and gave us a play-by-play of where meteorologists predicted Matthew to go next.
For the whole week, coworkers and other community members told me it was going to be impossible to fly out of Punta Gorda on Friday morning. The conversations felt like we were talking about some ultimate sporting event.
I kept reading Gov. Scott’s tweets of doom, looked at news articles coming from Haiti and tried my best to hope and wish Matthew away.
I also saw a ton of messages on Arcadia’s Facebook pages supporting neighbors, offering rooms to stay in at private homes because the hotels were full of evacuees, and people offering their services to put up shutters, help people pack and more.
When Friday arrived, I was a nervous wreck. I hate flying. And now, I was going to face flying in a hurricane. While the rest of Florida was preparing for the storm as shown on large screen TVs throughout the terminal, the airport in Punta Gorda was shockingly calm.
I sat in front of my gate for two hours waiting for them to delay or cancel the flight. No such thing. My fellow passengers and I boarded the plane right on time.
“It’s going to be a bit bumpy, but we’re scheduled to land early,” the pilot announced quite cheerfully.
Could it be? Could I text my friends and boyfriend without a doubt I’d be arriving on time in North Carolina?
Sure enough, the plane rocketed down the runway and into the air without a hitch.
“Congratulations,” the pilot announced as we reached cruising altitude. “You are all officially storm chasers. If you look out the window, you’ll see the outer band of Matthew.”
I peeked out the window, and sure enough, below I could see the swirling blue bands of Matthew slowly moving over Florida. It doesn’t get more Floridian than that. All I needed was an alligator and Mickey Mouse sitting in the seats next to me.

ARCADIAN PHOTO BY LEX MENZThe view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

The view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

Hurricanes are very serious and dangerous matters. I’m not trying to make light of that. Twenty-two people in the U.S. were killed by Matthew.
St. Augustine and other coastal cities of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina suffered devastating loss and destruction.
There are some things that could have been done differently by our state’s leader during Matthew, and there is a lot to learn about the unpredictability of these storms.
Hurricane Matthew’s eye stayed out to sea as it passed Melbourne, which is unlike what meteorologists originally predicted. My aunt and uncle’s house never lost power throughout the storm. They did the right thing by evacuating, but it was an overwhelming relief to be wrong rather than to be right and lose everything.
DeSoto County, too, saw a bit of a panic that was unwarranted as Hurricane Matthew stayed on the Atlantic side, but the memories of Hurricane Charley are still too raw for residents here who lost so much and are still trying to recover.
Hurricane Matthew taught me an invaluable lesson about being prepared, staying calm through the storm, valuing family and keeping positive in the face of unpredictability.
If we face another hurricane this season or in years to come, I hope to see the unwavering support, love and friendship in DeSoto County that I saw from neighbors and community members last week.

The power of committed citizens

During my three-year career in journalism, I believe I’ve attended more government meetings than many local government officials … I’d even add than a few entire councils combined.
In North Carolina, I covered four city councils, two boards of county commissioners and one school board for nearly two-and-a-half years. Every Monday, Tuesday and sometimes even Thursday for three weeks out of each month, I went to meetings with my press badge and my little reporter’s notebook. I listened to budgets, topics like how many pigs should a resident be allowed to own in the city limits, banning dogs from parks, grant applications, building a veterans’ monument, developing a new town seal and so much more. I saw great accomplishments happen, massive verbal fights break out between council members, and residents and town officials crying. I even watched a resident tell the town attorney that no matter what the law was “that’s not how we do things” in that town.
But, while I was there documenting it all because it was my job, hundreds of residents missed out.

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Dressed up in newspaper!

Since arriving in Arcadia, I have attended several DeSoto County School Board and Arcadia City Council meetings, as well as two DeSoto Board of County Commissioner meetings. And, there is a stark difference between those meetings and the ones I went to in North Carolina.
People.
Yes, DeSoto residents regularly come out to their government meetings. Once upon a time, I was the only person sitting in the audience as government officials debated and decided the fates of issues directly affecting residents. Now, I’m surrounded by community members who don’t mind taking the time to listen in on their elected officials’ thoughts, discussions, accomplishments and hardships.
Now, I wasn’t always alone at those meetings. There were two or three regulars for a few towns. At the school board meetings I attended, there would be well over 30 or 40 people in the room at the start of the meeting. The school board members would hand out a variety of awards and recognize student artists who contributed to the art gallery in the school district’s administration building.
Immediately afterwards, however, a mass exodus of people flew out the doors right as the business part of the meeting began. Usually, if I walked into a council chamber where many people were present, it meant that a group of residents had a complaint. Then the council members would spend 15 to 20 minutes going over an issue they had already discussed and decided on a few months ago, but no one had been at the meeting to tell the council members their opinions.

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The Arcadian’s political Q&A forum for the primary election

It is refreshing and exciting to see DeSoto County residents so engaged in their local government. Many residents I see at the meetings do not speak during public comment, making me assume that they are there just to listen and stay informed, not because they have complaints. In fact, quite a few residents use the public comment times to talk about something happening in the community and make an announcement. Only a few times have I heard complaints.
And, I’m not saying complaints are terrible. Complaints are great as long as they are presented in a level-headed manner in order to show opposition and another side of the story. But, what I love about DeSoto County is that the engagement is mostly positive and encouraging.
I also see a lot of sharing of news stories and tidbits from the meetings on Facebook accounts. Not only is that individual informed, but by sharing information through social media, he or she is encouraging neighbors and friends to be educated as well.
Your civic engagement in local politics makes your elected officials better politicians. They are better informed of what’s happening in the community, they are more aware of your concerns and they appreciate your support and dedication.
I’m delighted to no longer be the only member of the audience. As one who remains unbiased for my job, my presence acts as a “watch dog” but not as a someone who can present opinions, criticism and praise. So, it’s nice to be joined in the ranks of usually not-quite comfortable chairs, listening to the hushed whispers of residents as decisions are made. DeSoto County is a stronger community because of its active involvement and commitment to civic engagement.

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Lessons from the Brew Crew

I don’t drink coffee. Or lattes, cappuccinos and other warm caffeinated beverages with fancy names.
But, that didn’t stop me from joining Arcadia’s Brew Crew at The Last Chapter Coffee House once a week to catch up on gossip and learn a few tricks of the trade.
The Brew Crew is a group of DeSoto County residents who get together to drink coffee, steal bacon off each other’s plates, collect change for the school district and run through a slew of topics until breakfast turns into lunch. Then, they literally go to lunch together. They celebrate what so many people have lost in today’s age — face-to-face personal relationships and spending money at a local business on a regular basis.
Luke Wilson, the Arcadian’s cartoonist and columnist, began the Brew Crew with Kenneth Carlton.
“We were chatting on Facebook how we ought to come to town and chat sometime,” Wilson said. “We thought it’d be more fun in person. We set a date, and a couple of other people got in on it.”

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Me and Luke

In October 2011, Carlton and Wilson met with two other people for breakfast at The Last Chapter Coffee House. The next week, more people showed up. These days, it’s not surprising if 30 to 40 people are talking, laughing and sipping coffee on Wednesday mornings at the coffee shop in downtown Arcadia.
“Kenneth suggested that, the Brew Crew. A lot of people say you should be meeting at a bar if you’re going to call it that. But, it’s about coffee brewing. And, it’s always a lot of fun, so we’re having a ‘brew haha’ down there,” Wilson said with a wink.
Lately, political candidates will show up and say hello to the Crew.
“A few others we see only at campaign time, at election time. Some will make one appearance and think that’s bought them all these votes,” Wilson said.
The Crew also gets together for Christmas parties, barbecues and fundraisers. On occasion, they will host a raffle. Wilson said that no one really wants the item, but they like to compete against each other to see who will win it while raising money for a good cause.
The Brew Crew gatherings became so popular, they started a Friday group known as Deja Brew.
“After a couple of years, we enjoyed it so much that we said we need to do this more often. So we started meeting Fridays all morning long. Same folks but like a smaller version of the Wednesday group,” Wilson said.
On the few times I’ve attended, I sat down with a smoothie and listened to the gossip, opinions, history, lessons and life talks of those around me. Usually, I don’t say much because I’m still too new to offer anything. I just grin and listen.
In one hour alone, topics ranged from an annual citywide toenail chewing contest to who passed away over the week to how to properly eat a mango. One gentleman brought in mangoes and was allowing people to take them home. He told me to grab one, too, and said I needed to eat it in the bathtub because mangoes can be juicy. He added that I needed to make sure I wasn’t allergic because it’s related to poison ivy.
I thought he was pulling my leg. But, as he continued to show concern, I realized he was telling the truth. He honestly wanted me to eat it without my lips touching the skin so they wouldn’t swell up like a fish. He also said to eat it chilled and that it’s tasty in ice cream or salsa. Last Friday, we mostly discussed the Arcadian’s Political Forum with the primary election candidates, and who we believed “won” each race’s question-and-answer session.
Normally, a group like that is not my cup of tea, no pun intended. But, there’s something about the friendliness and vitality of the people of Arcadia that keeps drawing me back to Brew Crew. While I may not drink coffee, I am enjoying the stories (both true and embellished) and advice of the people who have learned the art and benefits of friendship, communication and small-town community.

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A photo of Deja Brew from the group’s Facebook page