A North Key Largo Homesteader
By Jerry Wilkinson
The principal purpose of this written account is to establish the existence of Red Bird City; however, it is a wonderful account of early live in the isolated Florida Keys written by Marian L. Thompson. Benjamin A. Russell, Marian's great grandfather, homesteaded three parcels of land all in Township 60, range 40 and section 10 in the year of 1883. His son, William W. Russell, also homesteaded three parcels in 1884 and 85. Together they had over 300 acres of land. These parcels would be in an area a few miles up CR-905 on the oceanside from the U.S. 1 intersection.
"Benjamin A. Russell was born on Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas on the 29th of December 1838, to Benjamin and Eliza Russell. He sailed to Key West, Florida in 1847 with his mother and father; two brothers, William H. and John; and one sister, Susan. A sister, Elizabeth was born in Key West in 1849.
"On April 16, 1864, Benjamin A. married Esther A. Curry, the daughter of William and Alice Jemima Sawyer Curry.
"Benjamin was a very religious, hardworking and stern man. Benjamin and his family sailed from Key West to Upper Key Largo to what was then called Red Bird City. Thereon the ocean side, he built a sturdy two story home. He brought all the furniture he could by boat and used the native woods to build the rest.
"In the late 1800's, Benjamin had many fruit trees and 80 acres of pineapples. The fruit of the season was picked, packed and sent to Peacon's Grocery in Key West via the supply ship that stopped in once a week. Dickie Peacon was a brother-in-law to Benjamin A.
"Benjamin provided a good home for his family. He and Esther saw that the children were well fed, clothed, educated and given a strict religious upbringing.
"On the Sabbath, there was no work allowed, except minimal cooking and dishwashing. There was no fishing, no chores and no fruit to be picked. If they did not pick the needed fruit on Saturday, it was done without.
"When there was a minister in residence on the island, they all attended church. When there was not a minister available, the residents of the island would meet at Benjamin and Esther's home, where Benjamin would read the scripture and lead the group in hymn singing.
"In order to insure that his children would all be educated, Benjamin often provided room and board for the person sent to teach the children of the island. Children from the smaller islands came to school at Key Largo by boat.
"Benjamin was a very precise man and demanded the best from one and all. He was no less demanding of his wife than he was of the children. His bread had to be baked to a certain degree of doneness -- not too light -- not too dark. To insure that Esther comply with his wishes, he painted a board with what he considered to be the correct shade of brown and hung it next to the oven for her to use as a color match when she baked twice a week. It is hard for us to understand how she baked at all, much less maintain a consistent quality. Her oven was a brick-built, wood-fired oven located in the yard, back of the house. She had to put just the correct amount of wood in the oven and burn it till the coals had heated the oven walls to the proper redness (no thermometers), rake out the coals and put in the loaves of dough. Quite an accomplishment of timing. The pies, cakes and other baked goods followed suit.
"There was much work to be done just to sustain life on the island. Wood had to be gathered, a garden tended and fish or other seafood had to be gotten daily. Fresh water was obtained from the rainwater caught and stored in cisterns, however it was sometimes difficult to store enough for daily needs. When needed, once or twice a month, they would set sail northward with kegs and demijohns to a place on the mainland known as the "Punchbowl", a fresh water spring where they could fill their containers. Many times Benjamin would allow his youngest daughter, Marian, to make the trip with him or with his elder son, Willie.
"All of the children had their chores to do. The two boys, Willie and Charlie were taught to fish and help with the fruit grove. The five girls, Emmie, Nellie, Ella, Alice and Marian helped with the cleaning, sewing, baking and gardening. Marian Louise however preferred climbing trees and fishing to doing the house chores. She was quite a tomboy. Benjamin tended to spoil his youngest daughter, he spent many hours taking apart wooden tomato crates and building small boxes about six inches square, these boxes were given to Marian. The day before the weekly supply ship was due, Marian would pick the wild grapes that grew through all the trees on the island. She would then fill the boxes and stack them on the dock along with her father's shipment. Her mother, Esther, would pack all the extra eggs from her chickens and they were sent along with the fruit to Peacon's Grocery in Key West. On the supply ship's return trip, Esther would receive a tin of butter in exchange for the eggs and Marian received 10c for each box of grapes.
"During the peak of Key Lime season, the excess limes were taken to the dock, where all the family gathered to help cut, squeeze and bottle the juice. Salt was added to the juice as a preservative, making a solution known as Old Sour. To some of the bottles, bird peppers were added for extra flavor and spice. Even though their hands were rinsed often in the salt water, it was difficult to stop the lime's acid from causing the fingers to split open and bleed.
"As with the boys, Marian was taught to fish and dive up conchs and scallops to help feed the family. She always maintained her fishing skills. It was rare that she did not catch the first and largest fish of the day. As her favorite fish was a yellow grunt, her father would never come in from a fishing trip until one had been caught for her.
"Recreation on the island was limited and there were few toys. Visitors were always welcomed and joy was found in simple things. A friend, Sam Giroc, owned a large fishing fleet that followed the mackerel season. His ships were built with special holds to keep the blocks of ice for the duration of each trip. When they sailed off Key Largo, they would come ashore to the Russell home. In exchange for the hospitalities the Russells showed the fishermen, they would bring enough ice ashore to make a churn of ice‑cream ‑ a rare treat enjoyed by all."
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