Tuesday, October 23, 2007

BLITCHTON Memoirs of Fleming Lee, Chapter 5, Part 1

Blitchton is like a foundation stone which has to be put in place before the rest of this story can be built. In the constellation of places which marked the boundaries of my world — Gainesville, Blitchton, Ocala, Lake Weir, and, like farthest Thule, Jacksonville and Cohens Brothers department store — Blitchton was more than a point on the surface of the Florida peninsula. It had another dimension. It was the crystallized past. Not only did it preserve, in appearance and activity, the old Florida frontier of cattle and cracker cowboys -- but it was also always linked with stories of past generations and old wars.

Mother’s family and their homes in Ocala were, in my mind, “like us,” like my friends and their families in Gainesville, but Daddy’s country was from a different world, one which I am very glad that I got to see but where I was always like a fascinated foreigner in an old land populated by cows and sheep and horses and pigs and chickens, where metal-roofed houses rested on stacks of stones on lawns of raked white sand, and to use the telephone you had to turn a crank.

When I was a child Blitchton covered several thousand acres. It was part ranch, part farm, very much as it had been in the late 19th Century when Daddy was born there. After Mother and Daddy were married in 1927 (seven years after Daddy’s father died on January 30, 1920) they moved to Blitchton in 1928 from an Ocala apartment; they were going to make their living ranching and operating the new sawmill. Blitchton had long been a little community with its own school, white wooden church, a store or two, and my grandfather’s medical office. By the time I knew it, Blitchton was mostly a crossroads with a name (it’s still on the state map, though its name came to be misspelled “Blichton” in spite of family efforts to have it corrected). There was still the store built by Daddy and his brother at the meeting of State Road 326 and U.S. 27 (the stretch of U.S. 27 that runs the 13 miles from Ocala to Blitchton being known in Ocala as the “Blitchton Road”), and the remains of the abandoned old store and medical office.

Blitchton Store, 1932

A few hundred yards down a quiet, shady road from the crossroads was the old church next to a cemetery, the old store building of sagging dark lumber, and on the left side of the road, “the homeplace” where Gramma (grandmother Dollie Davis Blitch) lived and my father had grown up.

The town of Blitchton had been created by and around Dr. Simeon Hardee Blitch, my father’s father. Dr. Blitch’s father, James, had received wilderness land in that part of Florida after military service under General Andrew Jackson, under the “Armed Occupation Act”. By marking and fencing boundaries and successfully defending them from Indians, the family had earned ownership of this remote land of pine woods, palmettos, and the rich shady forests called hammocks – big verdant islands of oak, hickory, ironwood and myriad other trees in an ocean of white sand. The Indians that had been there long before left behind their mounds and many arrowheads and fragmented artifacts. The Spanish explorers had crossed there, leaving rumors of buried treasure chests. Otherwise the territory was untouched until my ancestors settled there in the 1830’s.

Dr. Blitch, as we heard him called by everyone from my Mother to the inhabitants of the Blitchton area, was legendary not just because he was dead but because was always recalled as an extraordinary person even in places far beyond Blitchton. Maybe that was not only because Florida had been a small world in the early 20th century, but also because my grandfather had been Florida’s state prison physician and a member of the state legislature for several terms in the late 1880s. Even at college age I was still meeting strangers as far away as Tampa who, when they heard my name, asked if I were related to “Dr. Blitch.”

The youngest of a large number of children in a family which lost many men in the War Between the States, he worked for awhile in a saloon in his youth and became disgusted by the effects of alcohol. He moved on to Cedar Key, ferrying mail to the offshore islands. Then my grandfather entered medical school at Louisville Medical College in Louisville, Kentucky. Not having enough money to pay his way, he persuaded the administration to let him pursue his medical degree in exchange for work as a janitor. His residence was the school’s furnace room. He became an outstanding student, earned his degree with distinction, and returned to Florida to practice medicine.  Among several medals he received in academic recognition, we still possess a gold medal engraved, "Prize on Anatomy to S.H. Blitch from Prof. C. W. Kelley, L.M.C., Feb. 27/78", his freshman year. 

He had offices at both Blitchton and Ocala, and until automobiles became available, he traveled the unpaved thirteen miles back and forth by horse and buggy. It is hard to imagine now, zipping along Route 27 at seventy miles an hour in a fleet of other vehicles, what it must have been like to travel alone that road at the pace of a horse’s trot, flanked by forests largely untouched, hearing nothing louder over the jingle of harness and the clopping of hooves than a bird’s cry, or a dog’s bark, or the lowing of a cow. My father recalled riding with his father to and from Ocala in that way, enjoying the incense of warm bread from the bakery on the journey home.

(My father, before he was married, received the contract to clear the path for a prospective paved road across Marion County to the Levy County line. Where his father had once driven a horse and buggy, and later bounced along in a model T Ford, Daddy and his crews cleared underbrush, cut down trees, and dynamited stumps to make way for the new, asphalt road — and for the new tourists from the North who contributed so much to his aggravation while driving. One of Daddy’s favorite stories was about a worker who put too much dynamite under a stump and blew it clear through the front door of a roadside “shotgun” house and out the back.)

In spite of living in a rural area which until later in his life was on the boundary of civilization, Dr. Blitch gained national fame because of a surgical procedure which he originated. A young black boy at Blitchton had a club foot, a condition then supposed to be untreatable. Dr. Blitch decided that there was a way to operate which would bring the foot much closer to normal. His surgery succeeded, and the boy was able to walk as if he had no affliction. Dr. Blitch was asked to come to New York to Columbia University Medical School to demonstrate the operation there, which he did. I wondered if this story had been exaggerated, but years later, in a university library, I searched out a report of it in an old medical journal and saw my grandfather’s name there, and an article about his innovation.

When he was elected to the Florida legislature for several terms, he named his daughter “Legie” for that reason. He was apparently captivated by “L’s” because he named my father “Loonis” and his brother “Landis.” My father was afflicted with his name because one of Dr. Blitch’s good friends was named “Loomis,” and Dr. Blitch wanted to name Daddy after him, but not quite. My father’s name was as often misspelled as correctly spelled.

Photographs show that my grandfather was a slender man with striking eyes, like the eyes of a hypnotist, under dark brows. His head was crowned by thick, wavy hair, and his mouth is mostly hidden by a full moustache which turns up to points at the ends about halfway across his cheeks, making his chin seem small in comparison. In some of the old photographs he has his arm around an attractive woman and looks quite pleased with the situation.

My father revered his father and always preserved his saddle bags, which held old medicines drying in their glass bottles which we still possess. Daddy also showed us the microscope from the Blitchton office, with which his father had impressed young Loonis with views of living germs scraped from a dog’s tongue, hoping to discourage the child from letting pets lick his mouth.

My grandfather left behind a wealth of land, but little money. At one time he owned most of what has become downtown Ocala, which would have made us all very rich, but he guaranteed a loan for a friend, and when the friend defaulted Dr. Blitch paid the debt and lost his Ocala real estate. I identified with him not only because of his lack of business sense but also because his predominant trait was said to be a one track mind. Unfortunately I did not also share the dedication and persistence which kept his career on one track.

My father’s mother was Mary Susan “Dollie” Davis before she got married. Her family fled from South Carolina after the South lost the war. Some of the men in the family had continued guerilla operations after Lee’s surrender, taking part in an ambush of Northern troops. They were also involved in the Ku Klux Klan. Some of the men of the family were caught and jailed, but one of their former slaves used a mule and rope to pull out the window bars so the prisoners could escape in the night. Our cousin Ann, who grew up on the farm next door to the Dr. Blitch residence, said that Dollie was in vitro as they traveled the escape route and was born after their arrival in Marion County.

They made their way south to Florida and traveled by boat down the St. Johns River and Oklawaha River to the Silver River, on which they journeyed on to Silver Springs, where they looked for a new place to settle down. So, my grandmother’s family saw Silver Springs when it was just a docking place for river craft, not yet decorated by those glass bottomed boats and souvenir shops by means of which, more than half a century later, Hugh Ray’s (my mother’s brother-in-law’s) father and his partner Davidson turned Silver Springs into a national tourist attraction.

My grandfather died of pneumonia at the age of 64, in 1920, exhausted from treating people during the great flu epidemic of 1918, and so Gramma had been a widow for a number of years by the time I first remember her, at the end of the 1930's. She looked the part of the frontier wife — thin, with stern, wrinkled features behind a pair of rimless spectacles, not much given to laughing, her gray hair parted down the middle and pulled hard back above her ears into a bun at the back of her head. She always wore heavy-looking black shoes, and her dresses hung on her thin body as if on a rack. Her clothes definitely had not been designed with glamour in mind, and fitted in with her stern Southern Baptist attitudes. (I could not even begin to imagine Dollie Davis as a girl until after my parents died, when I saw her girlhood scrapbook. Lots of flowers, and poetry almost entirely on the subject of marriage and getting married. There was not much variety in the scrapbook, whose colorful contents were almost all from cards given away with household purchases – probably a symptom of living far from the population and publication centers of 19th Century America.

Gramma was very strict as a mother, and my father complained about her harshness, of her making him go to school even when he was sick. Although she always had a lot of hired help from what she called “the darkies” (the polite term in her day) around Blitchton, I never saw her do anything but work . . . which most picturesquely included churning butter in a barrel between her legs.

Unlike the lavish oral history that commemorated her husband, Gramma generated few stories. The one I remember best is that she was out in a pasture with a small child when a bull charged the child. Gramma grabbed her sunbonnet and threw it over the bull’s face, so that she could run with the child to safety. Another story was that Gramma had gone to a lot of trouble to fix a big meal, and when all the food was on the dining table Dr. Blitch attacked a fly with a fly swatter and hit the chandelier, sending a shower of shattered glass down onto the dinner. “I don’t think I ever saw Mama so mad,” Daddy would laugh.

When we drove to Blitchton from Gainesville the game was, “Where does our land begin?” There was a lot of it. Daddy and his brother had added to the original with low-priced purchases while they were young. There was a pond on the right side of Route 27 which marked the beginning as we headed south from Williston, and all three children vied to make the announcement as it came in sight. We knew that everything from here on was “ours”. From that spot on, every tree, every fence, every squirrel or cow took on a special meaning.

We would watch for the state road sign, “BLITCHTON,” and shortly we would arrive at the crossroads store. The Blitchton Store had a metal roof in two levels which covered the main building and an open porch across the front, eternally occupied by a few loungers of both races. There was a gas pump or two. In the oldest days I can remember the pump had a glass tank at the top. The required amount of gas was pumped by hand up into the glass tank, marked with measurement lines, and then released down the hose into the waiting car or truck or tractor.

When we got out of our car to go inside, the omnipresent loiterers — seated in chairs or on the steps or propped against a railing — would stir. They all knew my parents.

“Hey, Loonis,” a beer bellied white man would say.

“Hey, Mr. Bleech,” a black man would say. “Good mornin’, Miz Bleech.”

(Every colored person in the area invariably pronounced the name as “Bleech” to rhyme with “bleach” instead of “Blitch” to rhyme with “itch” as every white person did. Why would that be?)

On the outside wall by the front door was a giant thermometer embodied in a rusting advertisement for Nehi sodas. Inside, the place was dim and fragrant, particularly with the scent of the tobacco of unsold cigars, snuff, and chewing tobacco. To the left was the counter with the cash register. In the front of the counter was a bullet hole, its edges worn smooth by inquisitive fingers, which a would-be robber had created when shooting at Landis during an unsuccessful hold-up. On the counter were big jars containing packets of Tom’s peanut butter crackers, and salted peanuts, candy bars, pickled sausages, and oversized dill pickles under mold-surfaced liquid. Facing the counter were slide-top coolers containing the soft drinks and beer, and the rest of the place was packed with merchandise of all kinds, with the emphasis on canned goods.

The most memorable thing about visiting the store was the sight of men opening their bottles of beer and then dumping salt into the bottles. As I remember, salt makes beer foam, and the drinker would have to clap his mouth over the opening to keep his brew from erupting onto the floor.

I don’t think there was another store within miles, probably not closer than Williston or Fellowship, and so the Blitchton Store was the gathering place for everybody, black and white, who lived or worked in the area. From morning until after dark, in addition to people of both sexes shopping or filling conveyances with gas, the lounging men were eating, drinking, spitting tobacco juice, and above all talking and laughing. The enterprising manager even projected movies on the white side of the building at night, and barbequed goats.

After we visited the store and got soft drinks, we would drive the few hundred yards down a shady road to the home place. The schoolhouse had once been on the right side of the road, and when I was very young the little church still stood nearby. But in almost all of my memories, only the cemetery remained, surrounded by a wire fence, entered through a little gate. The biggest tombstone belongs to Dr. Blitch. Daddy’s brother Lansing, who had died an infant, was buried there. So were numerous other people named “Blitch” and their relatives. Almost all the dates on the stones started with “18" instead of “19.”

The first home, on the left, a simple one storied place probably built in the 1930's, belonged to Uncle Landis and Aunt Mary and our cousins, Ann and Sim. Then, after a hundred yards or so, on the same side of the road, was the house in which Daddy had grown up, and where his mother and father had lived from the time they were married.

Gramma’s house had grown like a living thing — starting small, adding rooms as life developed. The heart of the rambling "homeplace" dated back to the 19th Century. Supported a foot or more above the sandy ground by foundation pillars of flat limestone rocks, and topped by a three gabled metal roof broken here and there by a chimney, the home place had no doubt started with a kitchen, dining room, bedroom and a sitting room, and then added breezy screened walkways, more bedrooms, bathrooms, a formal entrance parlor, and a partially screened porch which ran across the front and down both sides. On the right side was the self-contained apartment in which Mother and Daddy had lived when they were first married in 1927, until the Depression drove my father to a job in St. Augustine, and which Gramma now rented to someone. On the front porch was one of my favorite things — a porch swing big enough for four people, suspended by chains from the ceiling. It was much more comfortable than the rocking chairs, with their starched and ironed white back covers, and we had nothing like it at home.

When we arrived, Gramma would greet us on the front porch and hug us, smiling, showing bits of gold in her teeth, looking as if smiling was unfamiliar to her, yet full of pleasure at seeing us. We would quickly end up in the kitchen, where the original cooking stove burned wood, and the later one kerosene. Their scents, somehow very pleasant, combined with the lingering smell of steaming coffee and the buttery perfume of Gramma’s inimitable yellow cake with boiled white icing to give the kitchen a unique and indelible odor.

When I asked Mother why Gramma’s cakes smelled better than anyone else’s, she said it was a lot of “country butter.” As I’ve mentioned, Gramma churned the butter herself, using a big paddle to transform milk brought up from the barn still foamy. She would take out a ball of butter between her hands and squeeze and shape it on a plate. I didn’t like country butter because it was not salted, but I loved the things cooked with it.

After greeting Gramma, we children would race out onto the white sand of the back yard to find the main object of our interest — Otis.

(To be continued, with illustrations.)


  1. Wonderful memories Fleming. Nehi, wow. . . haven't heard that drink name in so long I can see one with the long bottle neck in my mind's eye. This reminds me of the old Florida I grew up in. Early 1950's were different but little townships were far apart. I remember my Dad driving us from Panama City Beach to Miami Beach where my Grandparents lived and it took us two days. We slept "under the stars" as Dad would say.

  2. Zoey, thanks very much for the great comment. I think a lot of travelers "slept under the stars" when the rare roadside accomodations were more likely to be "tourist cabins" than motels.

    Thanks for the memories.

  3. My grandparents made their own butter too. They were so poor that they sold it and bought margarine for home consumption.
    How times have changed.

  4. Robert, I'm pleased that you read about Blitchton and commented.

    I have a question: WHY would anybody sell good butter to buy a poor substitute, margarine?

  5. My grandparents, who had lots of children, were very poor indeed. I assume they sold the butter for a higher price than they had to pay for margarine.

  6. Thanks for the explanation about the margarine, Robert.

  7. Fleming,

    Pardon my longish absence, I'd noticed this and finally had the leisure and good sense to read and savor your time/space capsule. Keep going! I imagine it is difficult to write about the upcoming installments of the "fairer sex," but you've created expectations which must be obliged. Besides, you will serve as an inspiration and guide to me, which I don't quite know how to approach my own history with regards to wife and child.

    I hope this finds you well and enjoying the Sunshine State.

  8. Marclord, thank you very much. You've given me the impetus to get on with putting the illustrations into Part 2 of Blitchton and getting it posted.

  9. The account of your grandmother not being able to help but smile on your arrival, stern woman though she was, put to mind one of the most moving scenes I've experienced in cinema: the ending of Tarkovsky's 'Solaris.'

    In the book and movie, cosmonauts investigate a planet (Solaris) where strange, uncontrollable incidents have previously occurred. The planet is shrouded in gas and fog, but is able to corporeally manifest the dearest wishes of the cosmonauts. The main character's deceased wife comes back, and stays with him in his cabin, loving him and committing suicide as she did on earth. The manifestations go wrong one way or another, and all the crew members go mad, except the protagonist. He decides to go down to the planet's surface and face the source of the knowing.

    When he lands, he sees the lake where he grew up, and walks around it towards his father's dacha. His father who had so bitterly opposed his profession and final journey into space comes out the door, they look at each other with deep fulfillment, and embrace.

    If you watch the movie, the first time must be alone.

  10. Mr. Lee,

    I'm a grad student in the UF English dept. and I'm currently working on a project with your papers. I was wondering if I might be able to ask you a few questions that would help me greatly in my work. If so I can be contacted at: oyama@ufl.edu.

    P.S. Greatly enjoyed your memoirs. I laughed out loud several times:)


  11. Oyama, thank you for the compliment! I'm especially happy that I made you laugh. I'm grateful for your interest in my papers and will send an email.

  12. Mr. Lee,

    I enjoyed very much reading your memories of Blitchton. Though I grew up in Florida a generation later, your evocative writing brought back memories of my childhood.

    You and I are distant cousins, I believe. Your grandfather Simeon Hardee Blitch and my my 2nd great-grandfather Thomas L. Blitch were first cousins.

    I recently found an old newspaper article (from 1900) that said that Dr. S. H. Blitch and two other men were shot by a disturbed man named Robinson. One of the two men died, and the article said that it was believed that Dr. Blitch's wounds were mortal. Obviously that wasn't true, as he lived another twenty years. Are you familiar with this story?

  13. Hank Gillette,thank you very much for the comment. I'm happy to learn that an uknown relative found my blog, and I would like to communicate more with you.

    Please send an email to fling@cfl.rr.com.

    I would write more now but I've written a reply 3 times only to have it rejected for some reason.

    Please write.

    Fleming Lee Blitch

  14. Hi,

    I tried sending you an email at fling@cfl.rr.com. Did you receive it?

  15. Hank, I did not receive an email from you! I wondered what had happened. Please try again.
    You have the right email address.


    Thank you.