This was home, and it was near Utopia

VIMEO | E. W. Carswell talks about Holmesteading, his history of Holmes County, in an interview with Florida Public Radio.

By AL BURT
The Miami Herald

ELBA WILSON CARSWELL, a dignified gentleman who dresses and speaks with coat-and-tie formality, tries not to forget that he began as a dirt farmer. He grew up on a farm that was close to Esto and he never got over it.

Except for the fact that he was forced to wear kneepants until age 16 — one way that oldtimers yoked the young and callow to inferior status — he felt himself from the very beginning to have been among the blessed ones.

The Carswell home place actually was halfway between Canebrake and Utopia — as he renamed Esto and Noma in his columns and books — but for him the spiritual location was Utopia.

A hundred years or so ago, the area had been part of Alabama, but a border correction returned it and the Carswell farm to Holmes County, Florida. He expressed gratitude that the shift had saved him from “those awful Alabama winters.”

To Carswell, the flavor and feel of life in Florida’s Panhandle were satisfyingly sweet. He and the land seemed star-crossed, perfectly blended. He never doubted its essential goodness, and tended to view contrary evidence as aberrant.

He settled in Chipley, only a half hour from Utopia, and accepted as his mission the celebration of Panhandle folk culture.

“We are rooted better than most of Florida and we change more slowly. We like it that way,” he said. As a public servant, historian, teacher, farmer, journalist, businessman and naturalist, his focus never wavered.

To travel here from South Florida, you must cover 550 miles in distance and about 50 years in attitudes. It is a journey that spans the state in many ways. Each end of Florida tends to feel a bit sorry for the other. Each looks at the other as through binoculars, and considers the view exotic. There is less understanding and appreciation than there should be, but it is not Carswell’s fault.

His work constructs a subtle case for respecting local differences. For example, there is his story about the time, near the end of the 19th century, when a well-meaning newcomer from Indiana migrated to the Panhandle. Because he found the area had only piney woods rooter hogs, coarse kin of the rangy razorback, the Indianan decided to introduce the more plump, high-toned Berkshire and Poland China breeds. He held a hog show to make his point.

But to his dismay, local judges were not impressed. All the prizes went to the piney woods rooters. It was a question of standards. They explained to him, as to a child, that a hog was no good in the Panhandle of that day unless it could run faster than the thieving Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. A Carpetbagger was a Yankee who moved South to exploit local naivete, and a Scalawag was an opportunistic local who aped the Carpetbaggers.

E. W. Carswell

E. W. Carswell

“Used to be they’d come in here from Ohio or someplace but now they go to South Florida first, stay awhile, get crowded out or priced out, and then they move up here looking for elbow room,” said Carswell.

He recalls a young college-trained minister who accepted a post at a church happily steeped in minor sin and bitterly resistant to meddling ministers, especially outsiders. Observers gave the new man little chance. But a year later, he remained, apparently without jeopardy. One astonished observer inquired how. “We didn’t really want any preacher at all,” an oldtime member revealed. “And he’s about as close to being no preacher as we could get.”

In his books — he has written nine, five of them collections of newspaper columns — Carswell mourns the passing of his heritage. His tales of home remedies, determined mules, lighterd (resin-filled pine wood), lye soap, moonshine, the curing of warts, dog days, chitlins are a quiet romanticism of comfortable days past. Weather, religion, food and the land then so dominated the encapsuled life on a farm that the smothering limitations of it went unrecognized.

Peripheral vision of other cultural and moral influences, and the distressing self-awareness they brought, came later and forever shattered what had been a wonderful cocoon.

Carswell creates nostalgia for that time, preserves the remnants of those days, gathers them up as nourishing identity that permits the Panhandle an appreciation of what went into the forming of its blood and bone and beliefs.

Carswell has become a Panhandle institution. He endures, year after year, trying to renew the familiar while time erodes it.

He has been mayor and municipal judge in Chipley, and has served in almost every other significant local civic office. He has been chairman of the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials, a member of the Florida Folklife Council, was awarded the Florida Bicentennial Patriot’s Medal.

The Judge, as his friends call him, recognized the value of roots long before it became faddish. His hope is that the Panhandle will respect and learn from its origins, that it will remember the planting of crops by the moon, the homes with wide front porches and working foreplaces, the firebrand preachers, the mayhaw trees and the rooter hogs.

For him, this was home, and it was near Utopia. In Florida, he is a gentleman Cracker who has made a difference.

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