Wild Life in the 50’s

Originally published in the History Corner Section of the November 2009 OAI Newsletter

For this month’s history corner I look back at the wildlife I encountered in the early fifties and find it hard to imagine some of them were still around – or there at all. Growing up on with my cousins on Tree Hill, we stayed in the woods and had ample opportunity to see the wildlife. I’m sure there are a ton of stories out there that will top mine, but these are what I remember.

Bears: We knew there were bears around as we saw the tracks on occasion. My only face-to-face experience happened around 1951 in our chicken yard on Tree Hill about 10 P.M. I was asleep and my dad, Ted Powell, woke me up and said, “Grab the rifle. Something is after the chickens.” We took off down the path to the pen with a .22 caliber rifle and an old flashlight you had to shake to get it to work. My dad was in front of me, and we were about 10 ft. from the pen when he got the light to work. It was shining on a bear standing up and trying to rip the wire of the pen. Dad didn’t even turn around; he just said, “Run!” And I did. When we got to the house he got the 10 gauge and went back out but the bear was gone. The next day Mr. Clements stopped by about daylight and said he had seen a mother bear with two cubs at the top of the hill by Lone Star Stables.

Fox: We raised a lot of chickens and ducks that the fox liked to eat. We set traps and caught a few both red and gray. You could hear the fox bark at night and it is a very distinct sound. I was squirrel hunting with a couple of the Highsmith boys behind the house and we saw two ears and eyes peering out of a fork in an oak tree a good 20 feet off the ground. I took aim with the 22 and creased his head between the ears. I felt bad because it was the largest and prettiest red fox I’ve ever seen. I skinned it and saved the hide but it didn’t last very long.

Wildcats: Strangely the only one I saw was in 1956 off the Arlington Expressway standing in a pose. I also only saw one pair of otters playing in Lone Star Creek by the bridge.

Bald Eagle: We saw all types of hawks and owls and every type of woodpecker that ever lived in our area and even one whip-o-will, a very dark brown bird with no markings. The bald eagle nested in the very top of a tall cedar in what is now the Arlington Park Cemetery. We came home one afternoon from Arlington Grammar and the chickens in a different hen house were raising cane. When we got there, an eagle was inside the house with a hen in his talons and he was trying to fly out the door but his wings were too wide. My mother, Mary, took the door prop, which was an old Ford axel, and hit him in the head with it, and we thought he was dead. When some of the older boys came by from Landon, I showed them the eagle and he started coming to. The boy that was holding him wrung his neck but the eagle put his talons through the boy’s jacket before it died. He had at least a 6 ft. wingspan that were nailed on a wall in the barn for years.

Panthers: We heard them scream occasionally from the swamps, and my mother told me several times about seeing a panther in the early morning light playing with a dead chicken like a kitten. During WW II there was a family named White who lived by the big spring at the head of Red Bay Branch in a house that didn’t have glass or screens in the windows, only shutters that you closed at night. The woman was ironing and felt something watching her. When she looked up she saw a panther crouched in the windowsill over her baby’s crib. My dad and Mr. Matthews worked with Mr. White at the shipyards and they hunted the panther all night with dogs, finally killing it. As I remember, they said she showed signs of nursing. About 1952 Wilbur Cumbus rode his bike up to our front door and was very scared, saying a panther had jumped out at him from behind the cemetery gatepost. My dad took him home with his bike in the back of the A-Model. Then about a month later I was driving the A-Model to the crossroads on a foggy morning when a black panther loped across Arlington Road coming out of Bunker’s turkey farm driveway just east of Norman’s Studios. I swear he looked like he was as long with his tail steaming out behind him, as the road was wide. He paid absolutely no attention to the car.

Snakes: We saw snakes almost every day because we swam in the creek and played in the swamps. My mother had a close call with a rattler that was coiled up under her wash table back when we washed clothes in the yard. Her cat was walking in front of her when she carried an armload of clothes, and when the cat went airborne, she jumped back before he struck her. My grandmother told me that in the 20s she was standing on the bridge on Lone Star and a snake came down the creek. When he got to the hogwire fence over the creek, he was too big to go through the fence – which was about 4 ft. high – and his head was in the water on one side before his tail came out the other side. This leads to the highlight of this article.

In May of 1950 I came home from school and my family was in an uproar as my grandfather, Cleveland Johnson, had seen a huge snake in our garden on Red Bay Branch. Mr. Moore, who lived in the old “Tone” house on Arlington Road, was helping him and he saw it too. The estimated length was 20 ft. The story got out and I heard comments at the crossroads about my grandfather’s sobriety, which wasn’t the case. I saw the snake’s track in the soft dirt and it was at least 5 inches wide. John Vanderhook had recently moved to Arlington from Ocala and he knew Ross Allen who had the famous wildlife and reptile farm at Silver Springs.

Again I came home from school on a Friday afternoon and here is Ross Allen and his assistant Dr. Neil in our yard. I spent an entire afternoon with him and he pointed out things I had never noticed such as a wood duck nest high in the trees and all types of edible leaves and berries and also watercress in the creeks. That night the two of them, wearing shorts and sneakers with miner’s lights on their heads, and carrying croaker sacks and snake hooks walked down to the bridge on Lone Star. They waded the creek all the way to the intersection with Mill Creek and then back to the Howland’s Creek that goes through the cemetery. That took all night; no big snake but sacks full of moccasins.

Saturday morning we talked to them where they were camped down by the creek, and they were packing up to go home so we went to the house. In about twenty minutes they showed up wanting to know if we could bring a round point shovel down to the garden. When we got there they pointed out an armadillo hole in the bank of the hillside we dug out to fill in the garden. About 3 ft. in you could see something blocking the tunnel.

They sent me over the fence and had me dig very carefully over whatever was in there. When dirt started falling in they told me to stop, and they reached down with their hands and soon here came a ten and a half foot BOA! They took him to our spring and washed him off and then picked off a bunch of ticks. They handed him to me to hold and I wish someone had taken a picture. We took him to the house, and it seemed like all of Arlington was there in no time. Was he the one my grandfather saw? We never thought so because his track was much narrower. The headlines in the paper, “See the Monstah!” About four years afterwards they bulldozed down the springhouse at the head of the creek and the word we got was a huge snake came out and the operator quit!

Gators: The pond in what is now Arlington Park Cemetery was part of our farm and always had gators. I’d been warned not to go around them when they were nesting and also they could run faster than I could for a short distance. With that in mind, Buddy Matthews and I made a raft out of old fence post when I was about 9 and set sail across the pond. It only made it half way and as it went down a gator’s head popped up right beside us. Normally Buddy could outrun fat little me but I didn’t stop until I got to the house and he was Waaaay behind. End of story.