Features: Carl Allen: The Book

Root Hog or Die Poor

Root Hog or Die Poor
Cracker Memories of Carl Allen

Carl himself said it best, "When all this goes," looking beyond his Museum of Florida Crackerdom to a bygone Florida, "it ain't coming back". He had a great love for Florida as well as Auburndale, his home town. It was his greatest wish that in some small way he could preserve some of it's history and heritage.

Many years ago, Carl started writing his "Florida Cracker" columns in The Ledger, Polk County's largest newspaper. It's fairly safe to say that nothing like it appeared in any newspaper anywhere else. Carl's amazing memory and his special way of putting those memories down on paper, gained him a loyal following. His columns were reprinted far and wide.

Before his death, in 1996, Carl assembled this collection of his columns, a "Best of the Best." It was a long overdue, fascinating look into Florida's past through the eyes of someone who was there. Carl Allen knew how to tell a story and if you're not already convinced, read on.

From Carl Allen's book "Root Hog or Die Poor"
Old days of 'root hog or die poor'

"Root hog or die poor" was a common expression used by those old crackers who I came up with, for there was a time when everyone had a job to do, no matter if it was the kids, for it took everyone in the family doing whatever had to be done in order to keep food on the table.

I know this is hard for the younger people to understand, but just stop and think about it. If they did away with the refrigerators and freezers and all electronic devices and stopped all government give-away checks, including Social Security, then you could understand how hard it was just to exist. And how important it was to be able to can up all the vegetables you could grow.

I guess people looked more toward God for help then for there sure wasn't anything else to turn to.

One thing for sure, we knew what was good to eat that just grew wild and was there for the taking. So we depended a lot on swamp cabbage and wild berries for food. And at that time, guavas grew wild about everywhere you looked and there wasn't anything wrong with a good old guava cobbler pie. Every household made guava jelly during the guava season. Heck, I was about grown before I got to taste any other kind of jelly.

During the early spring we'd go out and gather poke berry bushes when they were real small and tender. Mom would boil and pour off the water several times before we could eat them, as it was claimed they would poison you if you didn't do this. They tasted something like spinach, but had a distinct taste of it's own.

I remember that everyone ate a lot of "sawmill chicken," as salt pork was called back then. We also used to eat a lot of salt mullet, two or three times a week for breakfast. We didn't know back then that too much salt was bad for our health. Smoking or salting meat was about the only way we had to preserve it.

We also used to make our own lard, which was the only kind of grease we had. Heck, we didn't know anything about calories or cholesterol. Anyway, if we had known that animal fat was bad for us and we could have bought anything from the store that was better, we wouldn't have had any money to buy it.

It looked like the good Lord would provide for all those old crackers. Sure, a lot of us went hungry once in a while, but the good neighbors who were fortunate enough to have a little something would share with those less fortunate, and life kept going on. Everybody in those days seemed to be poor, we didn't know any different, it was just a way of life for us.

I remember that Cecil Kelly, Ben Cotton and myself did our part in keeping fish on the table and sometimes we'd go fishing for soft shell turtle and we'd bait our lines with cut bait to catch them. Mom would take the turtle and make dumplings with it, and to me, it was much better than chicken and dumplings.

One thing I can vouch for is the fact that we wore our clothes completely out, for there was no place to buy second-hand clothes, so we just wore them and washed them, and Mom would keep them patched up. People just don't patch anymore, guess they don't have to.

Now, me being the youngest, I got all the hand-me-downs and they were pretty well patched by the time they got down to me.

But all us boys wore patched clothes and no one ever paid any attention to it.

Heck, when I did get a new pair of overalls, I felt ashamed to wear them because they didn't have any patches on them. And, everyone would be saying, "There goes Carl with a new pair of overalls." All this, and I can't say we weren't happy, for we did appreciate what little we got.

Looking back now, I think about the times I've seen some cracker woman stand in a store and tears running down her cheeks cause she didn't have enough money to buy what they needed, or some little extra something she wanted to get for her child's birthday.

I've seen men with their clothes wet with sweat from clearing land with a grubbing hoe from sunup to sundown. I've watched them grow old before their time. I've seen these men and women working together in a field with the sun beating down on them. Like I said, in those by-gone days, it was "root hog or die poor."