Legends and Lore of North Florida
When folklorist J. Russell Reaver talks of the legends and lore of North Florida, nature listens. A thunderstorm appeared just minutes into an interview at his Tallahassee home. Then the power went off, shrouding his basement study in darkness. Perhaps a warning to let rest certain old tales? Reaver only smiled at nature being so accommodating.
Florida State University professor J. Russell Reaver speaking at the 1954 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, Florida.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
A scholar who has tracked down folklore for decades, and a professor of American literature at Florida State University since 1947, Reaver has every right to be at ease with the unusual and the seemingly coincidental.
When it comes to folklore, he has few rivals in the United States, and particularly in Florida. John Fenstermaker, chairman of FSU’s English department, pointed out, “Russell Reaver is an institution of folklore who is known nationally and internationally.”
Reaver’s accomplishments are most impressive. He helped found and is past president of the Florida Folklore Society. Among his nine published books is “Fundamentals of Folk Literature,” and some of his many articles and reviews have appeared in Southern Folklore Quarterly and the Journal of American Folklore. His travels around the country have paid off handsomely; in 1972, Reaver donated more than 2,000 manuscripts of American tall tales to the Library of Congress’ folklore archives.
“Dr. Reaver is one of the most widely read scholars I have known,” said Bruce Bickley, associate dean of FSU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “His teaching and research integrate impressively his several areas of expertise — folklore, music, literary criticism and 19th- and 20th-century literature.”
During the interview, Reaver centered on larger-than-life figures and peculiar places of the Florida Panhandle. We interrupt him only long enough to set the stage. So pull up a chair, settle back and listen to a veteran storyteller weave a yarn or two.
The Eccentric Prince
Prince Achille Murat
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Reaver first spoke of Prince Murat, a nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte who moved to Tallahassee in 1825. A year later, he married Catherine Willis Gray, a great-grandniece of George Washington.
“A good many of the older people around here know that Murat and his wife are buried in the Old City Cemetery, the only royalty I know of that are actually buried in Tallahassee,” Reaver said. “But he’s not really remembered because he was related to Emperor Napoleon so much as for his eccentric kind of character. He apparently was a difficult man to get along with. There was a sort of mischievous or unthinking side to his personality.
“His habits were interesting and varied. Perhaps one of the most typical kind of incidents was a dinner party he had where he invited friends from the North, which was supposed to be a more civilized part of the country at that time.
“At the party, the guests tended to emphasize the unusual kind of meat that was the main entree. They learned from Murat that they had been eating buzzard.
“Perhaps one of the least disagreeable aspects of this local hero’s personality was that he used chewing tobacco a great deal and was usually provided with a spittoon wherever he went. He was never upset, though, when there wasn’t one available, because he often took his big, shaggy dog with him and spit tobacco juice into its thick fur. Another floating kind of story was that Murat liked to experiment with wild plants and flowers of the countryside. One day when his wife wasn’t home, he put together a mixture of all sorts of plants and cooked them in an open pot.
“He determined that he had created a dye of a reddish-pink shade, the story says, but he didn’t have any way to be sure that his dye would take to different kinds of fabric. As a result, he went upstairs and took all of his wife’s dresses from her closet and dunked them into the pot. So when his wife returned, she found an entirely pink wardrobe,” Reaver said.
The Deadly Waterfall
1839 Lithograph from a drawing by Comte
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
The folklorist then shifted to late in the 19th century and told the tale of the rise and fall of Tallahassee’s Cascades.
“There used to be a waterfall down by the place where the Tallahassee railroad station is. People called the waterfall there the Cascades,” Reaver said. “It is still remembered that it used to be a very beautiful spot, which may have been one of the reasons why the original men, one coming from St. Augustine and the other from Pensacola, decided this would be the ideal place for starting the new capital of the state of Florida.”
“Be that as it may, the Cascades was a pivot for political activities in Tallahassee. And this makes sense if you can imagine that the seven hills around Tallahassee, which make it resemble Rome in many people’s minds, have their more or less accurate center in the Cascades.
“People enjoyed this area until 1880, when a woman named Mrs. Lewis Lively, it is said, became very depressed and deliberately walked into the Cascades, where she drowned.
“The people in town became so horrified that they thought they had better just fill up the place all together so that no one could ever commit suicide in the Cascades again.
“They went ahead, then, and hauled a tremendous amount of earth until they managed to stop the falls. But they weren’t able to stop the source of the Cascades. The water is still running under the city of Tallahassee and is known as the Old St. Augustine Branch,” Reaver said.
The next story takes us to Carrabelle, a nearby fishing village on the Gulf coast. Noted for its catches of shrimp, oyster and mullet, Reaver said, Carrabelle also is known for its dense inland swamps inhabited by the rare Florida black or hog bear that attracts hunters.
“The fullest version of Tate of this countryside came to me from members of the huge Crum family, who have lived in that region for generations and are great fishermen and talkers,” Reaver said. “So I’m giving you mainly the Crum family version of Tate’s Hell, although you will find it in several other versions, including a ballad and even a recent movie. I think this is an example of how a story can be known only in bits and pieces. Here, I think, is the fullest version that has ever been given.
“Tate’s Hell is actually a swamp on the other side of Carrabelle. It’s very spooky looking, and the legend goes that no man who has gone into Tate’s Hell has ever come out; that is, except Mr. Tate himself.
“Tate was a fisherman from Carrabelle who was big and strong and had long curly black hair. He had heard about this swamp since he was a little boy, so he decided to explore it as soon as he became a man.
“He started out when he was in his early twenties. He entered the swamp all alone, doing it this way because he didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else. And also because he didn’t have too many volunteers to go with him.
“After Tate had been gone for several weeks, with nothing bothering him except the gators, the panthers and the snakes, he came across a huge clearing that sat high and dry. It had green grass growing everywhere and one big oak sticking right in the middle of the clearing.
“Tate decided to rest for awhile. He leaned against this big oak, and no sooner had he closed his eyes when he saw this vision, or perhaps a dream. There standing right in front of him was this giant man. He just stood there and looked at Tate. And Tate just looked at him, too afraid to do anything else.
“The only strange thing about this giant was that he was completely bald. This giant motioned for Tate to follow him, and they started off through the swamp, with Tate trying to go as fast as he could to keep up with the giant’s huge strides.
“After what seemed an eternity to Tate, they came to another clearing that was much larger and prettier than the other one. Here there were other giants and several giant women. Tate used to say he had never seen such beautiful women in all his life. They had long black hair and a kind of olive-white skin.
“It seemed these giants took a liking to Tate, mostly because of his long curly black hair. These giants liked him so much they decided to give him one of their women. Tate was deeply flattered, as any man would be.
“After about two weeks of living in this paradise, Tate started to lose weight and his black hair started to turn gray. One night he decided he’d best get out of there while he could, because these giants were strange people and, besides, this woman was just a little too much for him.
“So he sneaked away and ran all the way back to Carrabelle. When he got there, he didn’t have a scratch on him, and everyone was amazed. The only thing that had happened to him was that his beautiful black hair had turned to white,” Reaver said.
Reaver reflected for a moment on the importance of these Florida tales.
“They are emotional, even illogical,” he said. “But they are very human.”
An enchanted swamp, an ill-fated waterfall and an eccentric nobleman — all local tales still alive and well, thanks in part to folklorists like J. Russell Reaver.