The Good Old Days
by Peter Ffolliott
Finding Boca GrandeI spent about a year and a half of World War II in the wind-swept, fog-bound, damp and chilly islands of the Aleutian Chain off Alaska with a Navy patrol squadron. After that I was fortunate to be assigned to a Naval Air Station primary fighter-training facility in Sanford, Florida.
My wife, Tudie, and I settled into the new location, and one week we were invited to visit the parents of one of my close school friends who lived in Venice. The drive down there from Sanford in July of 1943 was an adventure.
I haven’t been to Arcadia since the mid-90’s, but the last time I was there, the main street looked very much the way it did 50 years ago. On Highway 17 toward Punta Gorda, you had to keep a sharp eye out for the large number of cattle that were lackadaisically wandering back and forth across the road, because there were no fences. We turned north from Punta Gorda on the last leg of the trip and, somewhere around Murdock, Tudie turned to me and remarked, “I think we are near where Aunt Gee (Mrs. Michael Gavin) lives in the winter, a place called ‘Boca Grande.’ ”
That was the first time I had ever heard that name, a name that became such an important part of our lives. Our visits commenced seven years later, in 1950, and with each succeeding year, our stay became a little longer and we became more and more familiar with the local folk who made Boca Grande such a distinctive and delightful place to live.
Harry Whidden was Sam Whidden’s first cousin. He began working at the Mercantile Grocery Store, located where the Post Office now is, when he first came on the island. By 1950, he had gone into the grocery business for himself in the building that came to be known as Hudson’s. He was a meticulous man – everything had to be neat and in order. His customers’ needs were paramount and he tried to provide any special item anyone asked for. The most extreme expletive I ever heard him utter was, “Oh, my goodness!”
He adhered to a backbreaking schedule during the “season,” before the bridge to the mainland was built in 1958. Twice a week, to stock his store, he would drive up to Tampa (“Via 301, NOT 41,” he emphatically said) to the Diamond and Tanger Food Market. He always had to hurry his return because he didn’t want to miss catching the last ferry of the day back to Gasparilla.
If he did miss the boat, Harry would park his loaded truck first in line to board the ferry next morning. He would leave the key in the ignition so that the ferryman could drive it aboard. Then he would hike back up to the train trestle, and walk all the way across to the island – in the dark! He still had four miles of island to walk to get to his apartment behind the store. The next morning (very early) he would retrieve his grocery-loaded truck which the ferryman had parked for him.
This arduous schedule was considerably eased after the bridge was completed.
The “season” for many of the earlier northern residents began after Christmas and ended by the end of March. It was the custom of some of Harry’s affluent patrons to sign the slips for their weekly or daily purchases for Sarah Futch Tucker, the obliging and helpful cashier, then pay their grocery bill after returning north for the summer. I recall seeing Isabel Joinere, Harry’s careful bookkeeper, typing out seemingly endless lists of three or four months’ worth of items to be totaled and mailed north to a customer’s office. It must have made Harry’s cash flow a nightmare.
I should also mention Marie, Harry’s attractive wife, who, as a young woman, had come down from New England to work at the Big Hotel. She made the marriage a real partnership and her congenial manner was a great asset in dealing with customers. Our warm friendship with Harry and Marie is now more than half a century old!
Besides his business, Harry was very interested in photography and astronomy. His telescope was often set up in back of the store. The Whiddens now live in the Jacksonville area, with son Harry Jr. nearby.
One of the pleasant things the teenagers enjoyed doing during their short Spring Break in the 1950’s was to gather at the Temptation restaurant before cocktail hours. Dora and Homer Addison owned the “Temp” at that time. The main attraction was Dora Addison’s piano playing, often accompanied on a homemade “gutbucket” bass by a young sailor who was stationed at the Coast Guard quarters down by the Boca Grande lighthouse.
He constructed the instrument by connecting a bass G-string to the center of a large turned-up-side-down galvanized washtub. A broom handle, conveniently cut to the proper length, had a groove made on one end to fit on the washtub rim, and the G-string was attached to the other. It took some talent to apply the right pressure to the stick and pluck the string so the required “notes” could be achieved, and the resulting combo was the perfect accompaniment to energetic dancing by the young folks! The soft lights reflecting on Deo Weymouth’s murals (very new at that time) created a charming scene.
Dora always called an immediate halt to the festivities when the adult customers began to arrive and shooed the dancers out. Mrs. Pickman and her attractive daughters, C.Z. Cochrane Guest and sister Nancy, were usually among the first diners to come in.
Tudie, my wife, wanted to help me celebrate my 60th birthday in 1973 by having such a large group of friends for dinner that our house couldn’t accommodate them all. April 15 fell on a Sunday that year and most of the local restaurants were closed. The problem was neatly solved by Jean Montgomery, at that time the chef and majordomo of the Temptation. Thanks to her executive ability, Jean was able to gather up helpers to bartend and wait on tables; even the butcher from Harry Whidden’s grocery store came over to carve the legs of lamb!
It was a delightful party, enjoyed by all, especially the 60-year-old birthday boy. Thanks to John and Jean and the volunteers.
Boca Grande Fishery
Early last year, as I was taking my bike-path walk, I noticed a delivery truck coming into town. Painted on its side panel was the logo, “Cut-right Seafood.” My first reaction was: “They’re bringing coals to Newcastle.”
One reason old Boca Grande was so grand was that one was able to obtain fresh local fish just by going to genial Tommy Parkinson’s fish market, where a fillet was “cut-right” before your eyes from a whole fish, probably caught the night before. The market was first located down between Mac Miller’s Marina and Whidden’s, but later it moved uptown, across the street from what is now called the Sea Grille Restaurant.
The pleasant routine of purchasing fish, which we did nearly every day, went something like this: “Tommy, what kind of fish have you got today?”
Tom would open the ice chest and enumerate the many choices: Spanish mackerel, bluefish, mullet (sometimes with yellow roe), and various kinds of snappers, to name a few. After thoroughly inspecting the contents, my wife would make her choice. Tommy carefully removed the whole fish from the ice chest and expertly cut one or two fillets.
As he was wrapping our purchase, he might (if it was the proper season) have a football remark for me, such as, “That Fran Tarkenton (the Minnesota Viking’s skilled former quarterback) sure can scramble.” It was always a treat to visit the fish market and spend time with Tommy and his good-natured wife, Mary.
I understand that Tom Parkinson and his close friend, Tommy Cost, the green-thumbed husband of Pansy (who has run the Johann Fust Community Library from the beginning), got together for a quiet libation every New Year’s Eve for many years. Tom Cost, among his many other talents, could fix any lock problem you might have. When you inquired, “How much?” he would always reply, “Just give something to the Library.”
I have many, many pleasant memories of the Boca Grande fishing guides who made and still make the atmosphere of our island so special. Here are just a few:
When we first came here, all the fishing guides’ docks were located along the Bayou beginning at the east end of 5th Street and running south to near where the road to the old golf-course bridge used to be at the end of 4th Street. It was quite a gathering place. Many of the boat slips had personal touches, like lockers built to store the guide’s tackle equipment. Of course, there were sturdy wooden platforms for cleaning their catches. Fish parts not wanted were promptly scraped into the Bayou. (That’s a “no-no” these days.)
As most of the guides lived in Boca Grande with their families, there was an atmosphere of friendly competition, which sparked lots of good-natured kidding back and forth. They even designated a “38th parallel” midway between the row of slips around 1952 (near the end of the Korean War) to echo the news from North and South Korea at the time.
“Putting the birds to bed” began to be a popular way of spending the cocktail hour around this time. Sometimes several boats would get together, complete with ice chests, hors d’oeuvres and drinks, and motor out to the best bird-roosting spots. The guides would always anchor so that the breeze was not in your face – for obvious reasons!
As daylight began to fade, it was exciting to witness the great numbers and varieties of sea birds flying low over the waters of Charlotte Harbor. Brown pelicans, cormorants, ibis, little blue herons, great blue herons, snowy and American egrets; each new arrival had to work out his or her place to land. As more and more birds came in sight, the rookery looked and sounded like a large gathering of Boca Granders attending an important meeting of the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association in the Community Center Auditorium – rudely pushing and shoving one another trying to find a place to sit.
The air filled with splendid guttural noises as darkness settled in. I often wondered, “What do the varied inhabitants of those crowded branches think, after listening to the increasingly animated chitchat of the boat people?” The roosting sounds slowly quieted down, and the birds became the people-watchers of the bird-watchers!
My favorite bird story concerns a group of ladies from the Massachusetts Audubon Society who chartered the boat of one of the old-time Boca Grande guides for a bird-watching trip. It was most successful – they saw lots of sea birds. One of the ladies, gushing with enthusiasm, inquired of their guide, “Which bird do you like best?”
The guide, in his best old “cracker” accent replied, “They all eat good, but I like the ibis best.”
By 1950, Delmar Fugate’s Pink Elephant was a going concern in full swing. With its location just across the street from all the charter fishing boats, it was a natural gathering place not only for the guides, but also for their clientele. The bar was on the second floor and, although it was quite large, it always seemed to be crowded – lots of expanding fish stories mingled with cigarette smoke and laughter.
The whole atmosphere of the place reflected Delmar and his wife Margaret’s style – relaxed and simple, but lots of fun. There were two distinct sounds that will always remind me of those happy days. You could hear Delmar’s characteristic wheezy laughter emanating from somewhere in the Pink, and the syncopating rhythms of the most popular jukebox selection of the day, “The Salty-Dog Rag.”
The dining area was downstairs. Hoke Harrison was the chef, and his wife, Ernestine, managed the front of the house. She decorated the restaurant with pussy willows sent down from Maine when she could get them. One of our pleasantest memories was returning from fishing – it could be quite late – and walking across the street to enjoy dinner at the Pink. It wasn’t necessary to go home and change.
Hoke was not only a talented cook, he also was a low-handicap golfer, and frequently in demand for a game. I often smiled to myself because of the names above two of the adjoining lockers in the men’s locker room of the “hard-to-get-into” golf club – Hoke Harrison and Alfred G. Vanderebilt!
There are six houses on the beachfront side of the block between 3rd and 4th streets. In the 1970’s, B.C. (Before golf Carts), every house but our own was occupied by graduates of Harvard University. It was quite stimulating to be near all those intellectuals.
That year, as income-tax day approached, one of these gentlemen became quite agitated with his taxman up north because his return had not yet arrived for his signature. Each day, after checking his post box, he would tell his problems to the postmistress. By tax day, she was well aware of his predicament. Finally, on the 16th of April, a big brown envelope was delivered. He quickly examined the contents and, after signing the return, rushed back to our post office.
The postmistress noticed the apprehensive look on his face as he approached the counter and handed her his tax return envelope. Without saying a word, she turned over the postmark date canceling stamp and with her pencil moved the 6 back to 5, gave it a big bang, and cancelled the stamp “April 15.” Then she quickly moved number 5 forward to 6 again.
“Neither rain, sleet, snow” nor a day late can hinder a Boca Grande postmistress!
One of the Harvard graduates, Dick Humphrey, lived two houses north of us. We often crossed paths walking our Labrador dogs. On New Year’s Day 1970, we met on our customary dog walk. While I kept our dogs’ leashes untangled, Dick looked at me and said, “Guess where I was 50 years ago today.”
Without waiting for an answer he knew I couldn’t come up with, he continued, “I was playing football in the Rose Bowl game in Pasadena.”
Harvard played Oregon State that year; an Ivy League team in the Rose Bowl! After the game, the powers-that-be at Harvard decided to refuse another invitation, if asked, because of the long travel time that kept the players away from their homework.
For about the first 40 years that we came to Boca Grande, Jerry Fugate and his wife, Geraldine, were the owners of Fugate’s.
Fugate’s began as a real drugstore. But when Jerry discovered he was too color blind to continue to fill prescriptions, drug sales ceased although the store was still called the “Boca Grande Drug Store.” In addition to the usual items such as toothpaste and over-the-counter drugs, there was lots of other merchandise for sale, including fishing supplies.
Geraldine sold her own line of ladies’ dresses and accessories. She was very careful not to sell the same style dress to two different customers who might show up at some social function wearing identical dresses. One of her favorite stories, as related in the Washington Post society section many years ago, goes like this:
Mary McLean, a long-time friend, was involved in the Washington social scene. When TV first began broadcasting such social events as charity balls, or banquets for foreign dignitaries, often some popular “talking head” would interview the guests as they stood in the receiving line. One of the question usually asked was, “Where did you get that beautiful gown?” or “Who was the designer?”When they asked Mary where she had gotten her elegant dress, she replied, “At the Boca Grande Drug Store.”
Early one fall when we had just returned to Boca Grande for the season, I was talking to Jerry about the summer he and Geraldine had spent. He got out his itinerary of that year’s buying trips. As we looked it over, I spotted a familiar excursion I also had taken that year, a riverboat up the Rhine from Cologne to Frankfurt.
I commented to him on how slowly the boat had traveled upstream. The river at this point is about two hundred and forty miles from the ocean, but Jerry, having been born and raised on Gasparilla Island, said, “That Rhine sure has some tide!”