We discovered that a visit to the local public library is one of the mandatory first stops when arriving in town. We found the library in Apalachicola on our first trip in and it proves the point soundly. Yes, tapping into their Wi-Fi, reading through the local newspapers, and having access to a lavatory are great benefits. But talking to the librarian is the real treasure. Turns out this librarian comes from Cambridge, Massachusetts so we quickly built some common ground sharing New England winter stories and then moved on. For the past eleven years, she’s immersed herself into her new community and she became a living reference bookshelf for us.
First of all, this library allows visitors to get a library card. When Peter checked out his first books, he asked when they were due back. The answer: “just before you leave”. Really.
We started asking questions about oysters. Turns out that the librarian at one point had a boyfriend who was an oysterman. Wow, what luck. Tons of great information. We learned that oysters grow in the brackish water created as the Apalachicola River meets the shallow waters of the Bay. This is one of the last places in the country where oysters are raked up by hand. The oysters come up in great hefty clumps, like burls of wood, and are usually separated by one of the two oystermen working each shallow boat. The daily haul is then sold on the docks to one of the licensed distributors who are supposed to accept only oysters 3” or more in size. Problems are arising since the crop yield has been greatly reduced in recent years as the levels of the River has lowered due to upstream diversion of the River to the demands of developers and due to the drought. This has led to dealers accepting oysters smaller in size which could lead to over-harvesting. Hmmm. The oystermen (and women) are a hard-living group and if you want to see some powerful photographs of the people and this place, check out Richard Bickel’s site.
Right next to the library is the Dr. John Gorrie Museum. It tells the story of this surgeon/inventor whose invention literally changed the future of Florida. The good doctor came here in 1841 and found the yellow fever epidemic. He observed that ice helped keep the patients more comfortable and so he set out to build a machine that could make ice. There was no local source for ice, the very expensive commodity. Ice was sold in 100 lb. blocks for between $.50 and $1.00 a pound, and was controlled by New England merchants who brought it down as ballast in their merchant ships. Gorrie’s machine worked and he secured a patent on it in 1851. However, in spite of rigorous efforts, he could not get the financial backing needed to build the machines. He died, reportedly broken hearted, in 1855. The locals’ story is that the Yankee merchants successfully held off what they perceived as the competition that would end their monopoly. Eventually, his invention led to the development of refrigeration and air-conditioning and the rest, as they say, is history.
Across from the library is the Trinity Episcopal Church, a gem of a building (see photo above). The church was built in New York in 1836 out of white pine, disassembled and put on a sailing ship that went down the Atlantic coast, through the Florida straights, up the Gulf to Apalachicola and then re-assembled on the highest point in town. Sitting in the cool interior, one could easily feel the architectural kinship to the New England churches and town halls that we recently left behind.
As I write this, we are on Highway 98, having left St. George Island, the last barrier island beach past the Big Bend of the Gulf. We are on our way west across the sliver of the Florida panhandle, leaving daylight savings time and the east coast behind after 5,200 miles as we head for the Mississippi River.
P.S. The car in front of us has a bumper sticker reading, “My child is patriot of the month”. Peter wonders what did this kid do to receive this distinction?