The following is an excerpt from a book entitled The Green Jeep
by Howard S. Jones, step-son of Frank Wesley Williamson, Sr. granddaddy
FRANK WESLEY WILLIAMSON, SR. was very good at seeing things as they could be, rather than as they were. I have no idea of the number of people he helped behind the scenes. I can name several that owe their education to him. I am one of them. He was embarrassed when people would thank him for the help. He’d shrug it off like it was a part of a bigger plan. Most of them have paid him back, some could not. It didn’t matter to him either way. He advised, “Cast a little bread on the waters, but look downstream to see who gets it.” I told him once that I would never be able to pay him back for all that he had done for me. He said he didn’t expect it. He said, “When you get a chance, just pass it on.”
He was born in Ohio in October of 1902, at the very start of the century. The family moved to Clearwater, Florida, while he was young. I never knew if the Williamson family came from the Cavalier or the Puritan-Separatist side of England, nor do I know if the original family was Saxon or infiltrated with Norman blood. The family, like thousands before them, probably came too late to get good land in Virginia or New England, and moved to a better life in Ohio. What prompted his daddy to move the family to Clearwater is not known. His mother’s maiden name was Bouvier. She spoke fluent French. His daddy was a schoolteacher and principal of the one room school there at the time. I think his mother was a teacher as well. They spoke French at the dinner table when they wanted to have private remarks between them. The children knew basic table-item French, but never learned it conversationally.
He had a sister, Dorothy, whom we all called, “Sister”. One day he was de-worming some bird dog puppies and Sister, not much more than a toddler, came out to watch. He said she looked a little wormy to him so he grabbed her and poked a piperazine dog-wormer capsule down her. He said, “Well, about two weeks later she slicked off and started gaining weight. I never told Mama about it.” Sister owned The Highlander Restaurant in Lake Wales, Florida, many years later. The restaurant had several large glass display cages filled with colorful finches. They were fascinating to watch while enjoying your meal. He told her, when we ate there, “You have too many things on the menu… I don’t think you can make everything well. Why don’t you specialize in a few excellent things?” Both were being stubborn about it. She’d ignore his suggestions.
Frank said his daddy’s first day at the new school was a lesson in boxing. He got the class together and asked for someone to volunteer. The biggest bully in the whole school volunteered, of course. He made a serious mistake. “Daddy” Williamson cleaned his plow, as has been aptly said. He never had a problem with discipline from that day on.
He had a business also. I recall it’s having something to do with construction. One of his employees, a black man, had the strength to carry two one hundred-pound sacks of cement mix out in front of his body. He was over 6 feet tall and solid muscle. Everybody figures that all black folks were mistreated in those days. Frank said his daddy told him to “Take care of the men”, just before he died. He would frequently go by the houses of the retired men (which, incidentally, his daddy had given them) and checked on them, taking them to the doctor or bringing them groceries or game occasionally. He did this until they all died of old age.
Frank was remarkably self-sufficient from an early age. He was about twelve years old when, on Friday afternoons, he’d come home from school, get his hunting gear and some personal items together and pull out for the woods. It wasn’t much of a walk to the edge of town and the wilderness. He’d not come in until Sunday evening. All weekend he’d be alone in the woods. “Mother and Daddy didn’t question me. They let me do as I pleased…” he said. Hunting was a way of life. He’d take three to six shotgun shells (that was all he needed) and kill a squirrel the first thing. He’d put on a slow-cooking Dutch oven of squirrel and rice pilau, he pronounced “perlue” as the Crackers called it. He’d cover the top of the oven with red coals, letting it slow-cook for the hours while he hunted. When he’d come back to camp after dark, his meal would be ready. A favorite meal was big yellow lima beans. He’d take a quart jar of his mama’s cooked beans to the woods on occasion.
In his twenties Frank was a professional bird hunter and contracted to supply quail for the hotels in Clearwater and Tampa. Game was plentiful in pioneer times in Florida. He said the best year he ever had was a quail count of some 1500 birds. At that time, he hunted with an English Pointer named Jack. Jack had a dark liver spot over one eye. Robert Butler, the artist, then in his early twenties, painted a picture of him from an old photo. Jack had a habit of rolling his eyes back at you if you missed a shot, as if to say, “Now what was that all about?” He said Jack was an absolutely perfect bird dog. A Field and Stream photographer brought a motion picture camera down to capture him in action. I don’t know if anyone knows if the film still is in existence. This annual quail harvest didn’t put even a dent in population since there were thousands and thousands more. Later, the tourists did, by moving into areas where the birds once thrived. The biggest threat for bird dogs in those days was rattle snakes and water moccasins.
This habit of slipping off into the woods to hunt and camp continued for most of his life, though later he’d drive a vehicle. Frank talked of hunting with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Yearling, Golden Apples, Cross Creek, South Moon Under and a few other books. He said she could hunt like the men but was an alcoholic, writing some of her works while under the influence. He used to go up to the swamps around Cross City, Florida, where he sometimes hunted with a man named Henry Cannon. Henry had an uncanny, almost mystical woodsman’s sense. He was highly intelligent, but had no formal education. Frank would make a trip back into the woods, arriving late. It wouldn’t be long before Henry would show up to drink coffee. He asked him, “How did you know I’d be here tonight? I didn’t know myself till about dark that I was comin’.” Henry would say, “I jus’ had a feelin’.” He just knew it. Henry could tell you almost exactly where a buck-deer would go when the dogs picked up his scent. Frank told me that he knew people who were like that in the woods. They “just knew” things that could have not been known by normal means.
Boats from Central America and Cuba would unload their cargos of bananas at the Tampa docks and young Frank would buy some near-ripe bunches. He’d hang them in a shade oak in the town square and put up a sign reading, “Bananas – 5 cents a bunch.” He’d supply a knife and cigar box nearby and people would cut off all they wanted and leave the money. He expanded his “fast food” business by selling fried squirrel to the winter bicyclers. One time there was a problem with one group; they’d eat the entire batch of fried squirrel and not leave any money. When they did this a couple of days straight, he figured out the best way to stop it. He killed a mess of rats from under the feed store, skinned them, cleaned them all up and fried them out back of the house. He said he was afraid his mama would jump on him, “like a duck on a June bug”, if she’d known what he planned. The next day, the bait of fried rats disappeared from the basket just as the squirrels had. The young supplier left a note: “I appreciate you all helping me clean out the rats from the feed store.” There was never a problem with paying for the fried squirrel from that point on.
He slyly admitted that as a boy he occasionally stole a chicken “for a pilau,” no doubt. He detailed for me the technique of stealing a chicken from its roost. In total darkness, he explained, you had to quietly and gently ease a wrist or forearm under the bird. He’d ease the head under a wing and clamp the bird under his arm. He said if it was properly done, not a chicken in the hen house would stir. According to him it was a skill few folks mastered. He got caught once, I think. He had to return it. But his idea was to put the stolen bird back on the roost, leaving her as if it had been for her a bad dream. I got the impression the owner of the coop knew the kids occasionally did this as well as borrow a few watermelons. I guess the man thought it was just a cost of doing business.
Somewhere around this time, Frank made a deal with a man in Clearwater. The man would give him ten acres if he would clear another ten acres for him. He set to it and went to work, digging out the roots of pine stumps. He built huge fires to get rid of the roots and tended the fires for days. He carried quarts of rice and big yellow lima beans to the site. (He never lost his liking of them. His mama would fix them whenever he said his “taster called for them”.) Often he carried a pot and dry rice. Adding a squirrel or two to it he made a perlue. He’d stay there in heat, rain storms, mosquitoes, gnats and sun. He’d dig down around the massive stumps of the cut virgin pine trees, setting fires with literd to burn them out. Apparently, his parents didn’t worry about him. He said the work was brutal-–and that was probably a vast understatement.
Just about the time he was finishing up the man’s ten acres while planning to begin clearing his ten acres, a surveyor came by, asking who owned the property around the area, including the ten acres that now belonged to Frank. He convinced the surveyor to run Highway 19 north of Clearwater right through the middle of his untouched ten acres. He could point out all the good reasons for doing something. He had a knack of making you see things his way, and all the time you knew he was getting the best end of the trade but somehow it didn’t matter, because you got a good deal, too. I think this was the way he accumulated the capital for his other ventures. There’s no telling what that property would be worth today. I’ve purposely driven the route down Highway 19 to Clearwater. You’d never think it was wilderness at one time.
From bananas, chicken stealing, fried squirrels (and rats), the sale of property, professional quail hunting, feed store owner, and plant nurseryman, he went on to vegetable growing in the Everglades, ranching, planting citrus groves, citrus care-taking, catfish farming, setting up a catfish processing plant, and for a time, soybean farming. He just had a knack for making things work. He saw potential where others walked on by. When developing the ranch in Okeechobee a few of the old timers said he was crazy to think of draining the marshes at the ranch. “Everybody knows that land is lower than Lake Okeechobee. A ditch will bring water in from the lake.” He studied the old surveyor’s maps and knew that the property there was considerably higher than the lake. I think he said it was higher by 14 feet or so. People were astounded when the final cut was made and water flowed out, not in!
Frank did the same thoughtful planning about citrus groves. He figured on it a long time, probably on many of those lonely Jeep rides. He finally told Sonny that he was sure that oranges could be grown in Okeechobee County. If they could raise them in the Indian River area, they could do it there. He designed and installed a bed and ditch system that solved the problems of water control. He liked making grove irrigation systems. Long runs of concrete pipes were laid in ditches then covered with dirt. Big concrete water-diversion boxes with outgoing pipes to run water to every part of the grove were added. All one had to do was lay a board against the opening of the section that you wanted to shut off. The water pressure would hold the board in place while water was diverted into the desired pipe. Once while making these concrete boxes, he lost in the cement his first wedding band that my mother gave him. Mama got him another. Somewhere in the First Grove, cast in solid concrete, rests a gold wedding ring. It has been there over 45 years now. Many years later she gave me his second one. I have it on.
It soon became apparent that I was in the company of a unique individual. On the trips in the Jeep, he’d sometimes get on a tear, talking nonstop. I wanted to know about everything. Perhaps he was healing, too. I was somewhat in awe of the fact that he took me as I was, a big bruised kid, lacking confidence, direction and goals. So my first June in this new world was a time of many adjustments. It didn’t take long for me to recognize I really did need, in the truest sense of the word, to take some time off before entering the Air Force. I awkwardly asked if I could work a little on the ranch. Frank was in the home office when I approached him. He stopped his book work, leaned back in the leather chair and studied my face a little, with a gentle smile. Could he have sensed I was a little anxious about approaching him? He finally said, “Boy, I think it’d do you some good. It’s fine with me… I’ll talk to Sonny.” He then told me to go to town and get a hat, boots and gloves. He said, “If you’re gonna work you’ll need them. Cow huntin’ is comin’ up next month. Just tell ‘em to charge it to me.” Cow huntin’? What in the world was that?
After our talk, I remember the first Jeep ride to town by myself to purchase these necessities. Yes, at 45 miles per hour it belched black clouds like a Navy destroyer laying down a smoke screen. I parked on the wide oak-lined main street and went into the ranch supply store, Merserve’s Hardware. The Merserve family had been in Okeechobee for generations. I wandered in, enveloped by the smells of leather, disinfectant, long-shelved items and many unidentifiable things. A pale-complexioned man in a short sleeved western shirt with pointed yoke and snap-buttons, blue jeans and cowboy boots approached and asked, “Whut can we do for ya’?” I told him what I needed and he first took me over to the gloves, where I selected a soft tough pair of goat skin gloves that fit well. Next stop was the knife display where I picked out a yellow handled three-bladed pocket knife, like the cowboys carried. I asked where I could get some boots and a hat and was told to go around the corner to the western wear store. He quoted the total for the two items. I did as instructed, telling the man at the cash register to charge the bill to Frank Williamson, adding, “He said it would be okay.” The man looked a little confused, glanced sharply at me and asked, “Who are you?” I told him I was his stepson. Well, the whole atmosphere changed, like a brilliant dawning. He wanted to know all about when I came there, where I was from and other juicy tidbits. All hot items for gossip, no doubt. I didn’t say much but he appeared delighted. There was no hesitation in charging the bill. I didn’t even have to sign the ticket. I had never had the experience of walking into a place of complete strangers and being accepted because of the mere mention of a name. Around the corner I found the western wear store, picked out work boots, a good straw cowboy hat and a couple pairs of Levis. The same thing happened when I told him to charge it to Frank Williamson. No problem… though they didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat, they knew him and that was enough. This was my first introduction to the tremendous advantage of a good reputation.
The Cracker cowboys would say about wealthy people, “You can just smell the money on them.” But I noticed that many of those that had an abundance of material goods were fundamentally unhappy. They had a general defensiveness about them. I expect it was the constant barrage of people trying to get in their pockets, trying to sell them something that made them suspicious. And, too, when people respect you for your wealth, you could easily begin to believe that you’re truly exceptional because of it. Next thing you know, you’re focused on attaching your self-worth to money.
I could see no sign that Frank had ever fallen into this trap. He was the same everyday with everyone. He wore the same modest western clothes, clean and neat. You would never know he was a rich man, He never defended, hoarded or protected. His business philosophy was, “Always allow the other men to make a nickel off the deal.” He sometimes loaned money where he had an idea he’d never get it back. He took the attitude that if he was not paid back, it was their problem – not his. I suspect that he figured if someone owed him money, he wouldn’t be seeing them anytime soon and that was not an unwanted situation. My mama was the opposite. She had an ingrained sacrosanct ethic that you kept your word and paid your debts. Consequently, she was unforgiving of those who abused loans – especially those made by her husband. He’d quietly admonish her, “Let it go, Reeda.” She’d fuss and fume for a while and eventually do as he suggested.
I’ve never known anyone as generous as he was, who handled wealth as well as he, thinking that it was only good if you could help somebody. His attitude was that it was all a gift and that generosity was expected from those to whom God had given much. This was a major part of his character. Ben Franklin reportedly said, “The greatest invention of man is compounded interest.” Frank believed that living debt-free and thus contented was the greatest thing. Another business philosophy of his: “Have more than one way to pay off loans.” His reputation was such that on several occasions he called Rupert Mock, his banker in Pahokee, who, on Frank’s word alone, put five- or six-figure funds into his account, no paperwork, no handshake, no questions, no signature, no nothing, just a quiet, brief phone call. How long does it take to develop that kind of reputation?
The experience of the hardware and western wear stores taught me a life lesson. A good reputation is earned, not bought. I have thought about this and, in retrospect, believe then and there I began to see the importance of a good one. No one questioned him or his family.
It dawned on me in the months that followed that he was willing to dismiss my past deficiencies, my future difficulties, and to wait for his consistent guidance and patience to take hold. What was potentially another verse of the same song of my early life was rapidly changing. It was like a sunrise in my soul; then and there I guessed I was about as fortunate as anyone can be; I must never take him for granted, never disappoint him, if I could possibly help it, and love him back in the same way he loved me, unconditionally. Reverberating around in the back of my mind was a soft melody that was new to me.
The Green Jeep is a story of a boy’s reclamation, set in 1960’s Florida cow country. When he was 18, Howard Jones moved to Okeechobee, Florida, to live with his mother and her new rancher husband. This is his personal tale of how an immature, cynical boy was transformed into a confident and caring young man because of the unconditional love and wisdom of a step-father (and a few other Cracker characters).
From the remarkable memory of veterinarian and research professor, Howard S. Jones, come these stories of warmth and healing in the ‘60’s culture of Cracker Florida. Hoping to preserve a flavor of the life for his children, grandchildren and those of the families involved who have asked about , or the extraordinary man about whom this book is primarily written, he has set to paper his experiences of working on a sure enough cattle and citrus ranch of 50 years ago.
These are tales of roundups, cow-pens, dogs, horses and men he knew…
(The Green Jeep is available on Amazon.com)