Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Former homestead of Rollie F. Johnson & Lela (Mary Jane) Miller, Johnson, Sturges now Cracker Creek Canoeing hosts Cracker Creek Cracker Day and Spruce Creek Fest

Cracker Creek Canoeing is owned and operated by Jill and Bob Williams. They do a super job of preserving the history of the area, the buildings and support the conservation efforts of Spruce Creek. They have a great staff that is knowledgeable and helpful for all your fun events at Cracker Creek.

Crackers: Reminiscent of Florida’s pioneer heritage, the name Cracker Creek refers to the cowboys and cattle ranches in the area. The cowboy’s cracked long cowhide whips while herding cows, making loud popping noises, and they became known as “Crackers.” Cracker Creek offers visitors an opportunity to experience one of the areas greatest historical and ecological treasures.

Cracker Creek Canoeing is located at:
1795 Taylor Rd  Port Orange, FL 32128
(386) 304-0778
Hours of Operation: Wednesday thru Sunday — 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Adjacent to the James Gamble 175-Acre Nature Preserve that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

They pay tribute to the previous caretakers of the Spruce Creek property Roland (Rollie) F. and Mary Jane (Miller) Johnson by preserving the area and not tearing down the buildings in the name of progress. Rollie Johnson is descended from two of the Pioneer families of Port Orange, the Johnson's and the McDonald's.

Cracker Creek Cracker Day Celebration was held on May 25, 2013 with a long list of events to celebrate the Port Orange Centennial.

Captain Larry Yester made the frame display using the bamboo on site near the launch. The framed painting (top left) was given to Jill Williams by Merrily Clark, granddaughter of Tom Sturges, Lela married Thomas B. Sturges after Rollie's death. The other display pieces on Rollie, the Johnson family, the McDonald family and The Gamble Place were given to Jill by Ted E. Johnson, Jr. great nephew of Rollie Johnson, aka portorangeted. 

Merrily Clark, granddaughter of Tom Sturges, after Rollie's death Lela married Thomas Benedict Sturges April 14, 1951 in Daytona and Ted E. Johnson, Jr. is the great nephew of Rollie Johnson, aka portorangeted. Merrily and Ted met for the first time at Cracker Creek (where else) and told stories and reminisced about the lives of Lela and Rollie and reviewed a print out of their mutual family history. Merrily and John Clark visit New Smyrna in winter. Ted Johnson will be retiring this year from Atlanta and returning to Port Orange.
Photo taken March 14, 2012 by John Clark.

Merrily and John Clark, granddaughter of Tom Sturges and they are enjoying one of their many visits to the beautiful grounds of Cracker Creek — Rollie and Lela's old homestead now both structures are restored by the Williams and serve as Cracker Creek Canoeing headquarters with the azaleas and wandering flocks of chickens and peacocks that roost in the majestic moss covered oaks at sundown. It's a beautiful and tranquil place.
Photo taken by Ted E. Johnson, Jr. March 14, 2012. (portorangeted) 

Rollie Johnson, taken 1911, at age 37.
Rollie was personally hired by Gamble in the very early 1900s as caretaker of the newly built main house a “Cracker-style bungalow” hunting and fishing retreat, citrus packing house/caretakers house and adjacent orange grove were in place by 1907. Rollie was uniquely qualified for the job, since he was born a stones throw away on the creek and had hunted and fished the area all his life. He had worked for his father William Eldridge Johnson taking care of a neighboring citrus grove, plus he was a skilled carpenter. The 1900 Florida Census shows Rollie’s occupation as a farmer (citrus), age 26.

Rollie was more than the caretaker, hunting and fishing guide, he was cook, bartender and most important charismatic story teller for the many visitors including: visiting statesmen and dignitaries and friends of Mr. Gambles such as: President William Howard Taft, and captains of industry like H. J. Heinz, Mr. Proctor and Mr. John D. Rockefeller—plus many of Mr. Gambles close friends. He was the spice that set the Gamble Place apart from any other retreats in Florida. 

"He always squatted down to tell his stories and lit up his crooked stem pipe — he could tell stories all day — that was his glory — when he had an audience. It didn't matter to him if you were some guy from down the road, head of a corporation or President of the United States. He was carefree, nothing worried him."
Theodore E. Johnson, Sr., December 2000.

Mr. James Norris Gamble, Proctor and Gamble
Mr. James Norris Gamble of Proctor and Gamble fame — inventor of Ivory Soap (the floating soap) and founded the first laboratory in P&G history. He and his wife Margaret had been longtime winter residents of Daytona Beach and one of Florida's first winter visitors if not the original snow birds — the Gambles first arrived in the area in the 1860s on their honeymoon. They stayed at various hotels along the River, and then in 1888 they began staying at the newly opened Ormond Hotel.

Around 1894 their principle winter residence in Daytona was a magnificent three-story riverfront Victorian house across the Orange Avenue Bridge that becomes Silver Beach Avenue when it crosses the Halifax River. The Gamble home took up the entire SW corner of the Silver Beach Avenue and South Peninsula Drive bordering the Halifax river but was unfortunately torn down in the 1970s — again in the name of progress and replaced by yet another condominium complex. The only reminder of the Gamble name and home is a short road a block over from South Peninsula that runs between Silver Beach Avenue and Bostwick Avenue that bears the name Gamble Place.

Mr. Gamble was known for naming his homes and the Victorian home on the Halifax was known as 'Koweekah', an Indian word meaning 'here we rest'.  He named the Spruce Creek hunting lodge 'Egwanulti', an Indian term meaning 'by the water' and 'Ratonagh', his 13-room Victorian mansion on Cincinnati's Westwood neighborhood was named for his ancestral hometown in present-day Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gamble purchased the 175-acres for $600, April 6, 1898, including the citrus packing barn and 5-acre orange grove on Spruce Creek for use as a hunting and fishing retreat. Gamble bought the property from George W. Leffman who had recently bought the property from his brother Robert Leffman, who acquired the land on Aug. 12, 1886, through a federal land grant under President Chester A. Arthur. 

Gamble, a wealthy Northern industrialist could have built his hunting and fishing lodge in any architectural style he wanted but because of his love for Florida's Cracker-style architecture he chose an "upscale" version of a "Cracker-style Cabin", but one that keeps the Florida Cracker tradition of combining the outdoors with the indoors. The place was considered a rustic cottage with an open front porch and a breezeway connecting a separate kitchen, dining room and large back porch.

The Gamble Hunting Lodge and Retreat entrance gate. “Egwanulti” an Indian word that means 'by the water'. Photo shows the front of the home and it's rather plain and unassuming appearance giving little clue to the beauty of the back side of the home with it's wonderful open, wrap around — rocking chair porch that gave Gamble and his guests an unobstructed view of Spruce Creek.
Photo taken by Ted E. Johnson, Jr. — November 24, 2000. (portorangeted) 

The Gamble Place — rear view, 1907 Hunting Lodge and Retreat. Rollie was caretaker for the Gamble Place for over 35 years and also worked at the Daytona Beach Boat Works as a master carpenter — the Boat Works was then owned by his Uncle Charles McDonald. Lodge is yellow with green trim and banisters and each window had a moon cut out on it’s shutter and green latticework covered open areas under the house and porch. The deep set porch was supported by six square columns providing ample room for a row of rocking chairs for Gamble and guests to view the grounds and creek.
Photo taken by Ted E. Johnson, Jr.
— November 24, 2000. (portorangeted) 

Where Rollie actually lived and entertained. 
One of many interesting stories Theodore E. Johnson, Sr. told about his colorful Uncle Rollie that very few people know about was: 
"Most people thought Rollie lived and slept in that little house that was part of the citrus barn, but he always lived and entertained in the big house. About the only time he would sleep in the small house was when Gamble was visiting".
Theodore E. Johnson, Sr., December 2000. 

Gamble also modified the citrus barn around 1900, from an open-sided barn on brick piers and pine flooring by adding sides, a central partition and a caretaker’s residence. Gamble added an unusual front entrance to the building—a Greek revival front portico. This unusual touch was Mr. Gambles fancy interpretation of a Southern orange packing barn. It is this unique feature, rarely found on such early packing barns, which draws much attention from the architectural historians around the state.

Built in the 1880s by Leffman the Citrus Barn is the oldest structure on the Gamble Place.
Photo shows the remodeled Citrus Barn which is located on the backside of the building and the caretakers quarters is on front side.
Photo taken by Ted E. Johnson, Jr. — November 24, 2000. (portorangeted) 

The Gamble Place Caretakers House with it's unusual front entrance — a Greek revival front portico.  
Photo of Rollie's great niece and nephew, Charlotte Marie (Johnson) Boyd and Ted E. Johnson, Jr. standing in front of Rollie's caretakers cottage and citrus barn on back side. 
Photo taken by Jessi Smith, then Curator of the Museum of Arts & Sciences, November 24, 2000.
A future posting will cover the complete history of Mr. James Norris Gamble, The Gamble Place and his impact on the areas of Spruce Creek, Port Orange, Daytona and Ormond.

Cracker Creek is situated on the 20-acre property and former homestead of Roland (Rollie) Francis Johnson and Mary Jane (Lela E. Miller) Johnson. Rollie was caretaker for the James Gamble Estate for 35 years and Lela (Mary Jane) Miller Johnson was Mr. Gambles private nurse that traveled with him from Cincinnati, Ohio in his later years due to illness.. The cabin Rollie lived in along with the home built in 1933 for his wife, Lela Elizabeth Miller are located on the property.

When you get a chance check out Cracker Creek's website, their history and the evolution of the area from simple homesteads to being a part of the 2000 acre Spruce Creek Preserve and Recreation Area and their family run eco-tourism business.

Lela E. Miller, Johnson, Sturges
aka Aunt Mary Jane to Rollie's
side of the family.

Rollie first met Lela Elizabeth Miller (Mary Jane, that was his nickname for her), when Mr. James N. Gamble came to visit his Spruce Creek hunting lodge. Mary Jane was Mr. Gambles private nurse that traveled with him from Cincinnati, Ohio in his later years due to illness. When Rollie and Mary Jane announced they were going to get married, Mr. Gamble was so opposed to the marriage due to the age difference and Rollie's love of adult beverages he fired both of them the same day — about 1932. In an unfortunate turn of events Mr. Gamble died in his sleep shortly thereafter, on July 2, 1932, one month short of his 96th birthday.

Rollie and Mary Jane loved living on the creek so much they bought the adjourning 20 acres to the Gamble Place on March 30, 1933 from Edison and Minnie Briggs about six months before they were married. They were married October 11, 1933 in Cincinnati, Ohio. She would have been approximately 40 years old and he was about 59. Mary Jane went back to Ohio to pack up her possessions and Rollie was finishing the big house they were building and living in the little house until she returned.

Rollie's last day. Rollie stopped by to talk with his brother Otis Johnson on the way home from working at the Daytona Beach Boat Works and to see if his nephew Myron wanted to ride out to Spruce Creek with him in his new car. Rollie said he would bring him back the next day but Otis said Myron had to do something around the house and could not go with him. So after visiting a bit Rollie headed out to the Creek. He was found dead from a heart attack the next day in bed by a fellow carpenter and friend Wesley Johnson, who was helping him finish the house.   
Theodore E. Johnson, Sr., December 2000

It’s very sad that after all they went through to be together he died only ten months after they were married, August 18, 1934 at age 60. He was buried on August 21, 1934, next to his brother Fred Johnson and grandparents Edward and Rose (Barber) McDonald in the old section of Woodland Cemetery, in Port Orange, Florida. 

I'm sure Rollie would have been happy he made the Front Page.

He lived all his life out at Spruce Creek, he was born there and died there. Death certificate listed his residence as Spruce Creek, age 60 years, 4 months and 22 days. Occupation listed as Boatman for last 35 years. He was very proud of his profession and worked for many years at the Daytona Beach Boat Works.

Part of his obit: Johnson was widely known among sportsmen as a hunter. For 35 years he was superintendent of the James Gamble Estate and citrus grove on Spruce Creek. He was married last October to Miss Lela Miller, a nurse who had cared for James Gamble during his last illness.

Roland (Rollie) Francis Johnson died August 18, 1934 at age 60. He was buried on August 21, 1934, next to his brother Fred W. Johnson and grandparents Edward and Rose (Barber) McDonald in the old section of Woodland Cemetery, Port Orange, Florida. I went around a few years ago and cleaned the headstones of family members and there were well over 60 headstones from the McDonald and Johnson lines.

Rollie maybe gone but certainly not forgotten. In recent years he has become a piece of Florida folklore. He is written about in several books making him an official Florida ghost. I believe Rollie would love that.

In “Haunting Sunshine”, by Dr. Jack Powell, A book on “Florida Forklore” he is talked about in the chapter titled: “See Rollie Run” and in the old cedar tree next to his grave in Woodland Cemetery I use to find candles left in the crotch of the tree. Ms. Ella Warren put a stop to the Ghost Tours when she took over the cemetery and has done a wonderful job with Woodland — it has never looked better.

A few more quotes from Theodore E. Johnson, Sr. about his colorful Uncle Rollie: 

Rollie, 1912, age 38.
"Uncle Rollie loved Spruce Creek, he was born out there and died out there. He lived in the woods all the time. He said there was no better pleasure to him than sitting at daybreak or at night hearing the woods and world come alive, birds chirping, squirrel’s barking and at night hearing the hoot owls — everything coming alive. He would say that was music to him."
Theodore E. Johnson, Sr., December 2000. 

"Uncle Rollie had saved some money up, it didn’t cost him a dime to live there all those years. He killed all his meat he used and caught all his fish and instead of staying there (The Gamble Place) all the time he’d go work at the boatyard, when he was suppose to be out there. He was making money on both ends. No phone or electric lights out there." 
Theodore E. Johnson, Sr., December 2000.

A future posting will cover the complete history of Roland (Rollie) Francis Johnson and Lela Elizabeth (Miller) (Johnson), Sturges, aka Mary Jane.

No comments: