Bell Family Shares Stories of Port Boca Grande (Part One)
October 2022 Newsletter
The Bell family are descendants of the Padilla family of Cayo Costa. The Padillas trace their area history back to the 1870’s and their descendants include the Rodriguez, Camano, Coleman, Darna, Gomez(s) and Toledo families in addition to the Bells.
Angelo Bell was born in 1904 in Charlotte Harbor. His wife, Myrtle Susanna Padilla Bell, was born in 1913 in Cayo Costa, the daughter of Captain Andrew Padilla and Mary Gomez Padilla and the granddaughter of Tariva and Laine Padilla, the early settlers of Cayo Costa.
Milton Bell remembers that his parents came to the island in 1926, settled at the south end of the island and raised six children – Philip, Lowell, Ardys, Charles, Carolyn and Milton. He tells how every morning the “387” train brought phosphate from the Yeoman Yards in Tampa to Port Boca Grande to be loaded on ships from all over the world. Early on, Milton started riding the trains and going out to the ships with the harbor pilot, Captain Carey Johnson.
Once at Port Boca Grande, Milton recalls that the railroad crew went to sleep in the bunkhouse and the switcher crew broke up the train and took cars to the hopper where the phosphate was loaded on ships or, if there were no ships to be loaded, they off-loaded the phosphate to the storage bins. Once this work was done, the crews returned to Tampa. None of them lived on the island.
Milton’s father worked for the railroad as an engineer at the powerhouse. At that time the powerhouse was the only source of electricity on the island. The area included a desalinization plant which purified feed water for the boilers which powered the electrical generators. In the early 1950’s when Florida Power came to the island and the powerhouse was shut down, Angelo became a foreman on the dock and when he retired, he was Assistant Stevedore. He had worked for the railroad for forty-two years.
The Bells lived in a house on the railroad property just east of the powerhouse. The area is now a man-made lake. Bell says his house would be right in the middle of that lake.
Bell tells a story of how as a young boy he helped save a locomotive. One night there was a forecast for a freeze. The railroad crew had returned to Tampa after the daily phosphate run, but the locomotive that was always left for switching remained. Locomotives cannot be left shut down in freezing weather, according to Bell, since they don’t have antifreeze. The engine needs to be idling to avoid damage. Bell remembers that Joe Freeman, the port agent, came to his home and asked if Milton knew how to start the locomotive. Freeman, Milton and his father drove to the locomotive. Then Milton climbed up, pushed the battery switch and started the locomotive’s engine. He says, “I was 11 years old then, and I was the man.”
Milton Bell’s sister Ardys Bell Clawson remembers blackouts and rationing from World War II. She recalls that her parents, Angelo and Myrtle, had a car. Because they didn’t use it often, they traded their tire coupons to others for grocery items like sugar. She says that the family had cows and pigs and that they drank “raw” milk with four inches of cream on the top from gallon jars. They also churned butter, ice cream and cottage cheese. Ardys wasn’t fond of cottage cheese.
Being a large family, everyone had jobs. She remembers that all the children helped with laundry. Angelo had strung clothes lines at various heights. The older children hung the sheets and towels. She was responsible for underwear and wash cloths. Sometimes, she says, the cows would escape the dairy and corners of the sheets would be green where the cows chewed on them.
The Bell Family Stories will be continued in the next edition of From the Archives: Tales of Island Life.
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