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Boys' Great Adventure Down the Peace River in 1936
on their Home-Made Boat
by Al Vazquez as told by Bill Smith

A first person account of a 16 year old boy's trip down the Peace River in 1936 during the height of the Great Depression with his father, his best friend and his dog, Rover. In the summer of 1936 in Fort Meade, Florida, USA, 16 year old Bill Smith and his best friend Millard Allen get the idea to build a boat and travel down the Peace River to it's mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. A true account of resourcefulness, planning, work and daring, they plan their trip, gather materials, build their boat, and take a real life "Huckleberry Finn" adventure down one of the great rivers of Florida.
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Peace River, Fort Meade
June 1937
Bill Smith later
in the Navy
Millard Allen and Rover

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Building the Boat with More Time than Money

To make the boat, they first gathered planks that the phosphate mine used for wheel barrow paths and then left on the ground. They bought two 1" x 12" x 16' planks for the sides.
" And then we took cotton cloth and tore it into strips. We'd wind it into string and pound that down into the cracks to seal them. There were some tar pits near Fort Meade. We went down and got some tar, melted it, and poured it down over the cotton strips."

"We got our boat finished, but didn't have any oars. My dad owned an area with some hickory trees. We split out some 8 foot long pieces of hickory. And then we took a drawing knife to whittle us some oars 8 feet long. I said that sounds like a lot of work. Bill said "Well, we had more time than we did money. As I said, this was right in the heart of the depression."

"When we got about ready to go, my dad, he didn't tell us if he was going with us; he just asked us if he could go. He wasn't born in Florida, but he came here when he was probably about 5 or 6 years old in 1883. He was born in Georgia. We readily agreed he'd go. He was good at taking a gig with a string on the handle and throw it quite a ways. He was in Florida when that was legal. So he carried his gig along; couldn't use it in the river but once we got down to salt water it was legal."

 

The Adventure of a Lifetime Begins

"We borrowed my father's mule and wagon and hauled that boat, oh I would say 6 miles to the river. We lived on the west side of Fort Meade and the river was on the east side. So we tied it up down there."

"Next day we took our supplies. Our supplies consisted of two 22 rifles, and 3 lard cans. You don't see lard cans like those anymore. They were close to 2 feet in diameter and they had a lid. So we had one for the bedding, one for groceries and one for clothes."

"We started out drifting; didn't have a motor. In fact motors weren't as popular then as they are now. But even if they had been, we couldn't afford it anyway."

"This was in the summertime. Our greatest fear was that a log had fallen across the river. And hyacinths; there were quite a few hyacinths. And these would block us. But we didn't encounter that on the whole trip."

"One thing we did that we got a kick out of… the water snakes, they could have been cottonmouth moccasins which are very poisonous (but there's a snake in Florida that looks a lot like a cottonmouth moccasin). We'd drift along the river and there'd be an overhanging bush. In that overhanging bush, snakes would crawl out in the middle of the day. And that's what we got our target practice on; shooting those snakes. It was kind of interesting. We'd shoot them in two and the eggs would come out of those snakes."

"We made Wauchula the first or second day. But I remember one thing at Wauchula. There was a spring up on the bank just gushing water. And it had run so long over the solid rock that it had worn an impression probably 8 inches deep and 14 inches wide where that water was just rushing from that spring down to the river."

"Each day we wouldn't make more than 10 or 12 miles. I remember we looked forward to creeks running in. We were kind of familiar with Bowlegs Creek. Billy Bowlegs was an Indian Chief. It was a thrill for us to say that's where Billy Bowlegs Creek runs into the Peace River. And then there was Horse Creek, First Creek and others that occur as we went down the river."

"And there were towns all up and down the Peace River; Bowling Green, Wauchula, Zolfo Springs, Gardener and Arcadia. The Peace River starts at Bartow. It's not huge when it gets to Fort Meade, but enough that boats can pass on it very easily. There were very few other people boating on the river, very few. We'd see people fishing along the banks more than we'd see people on the river."

 

A Peace River Night to Remember

" We began to get way down the Peace River. And I remember one night we couldn't sleep for some reason or other; I think we were just excited. We saw that the moon was shining and the river was real calm. And we were seeing fish jump. Some of them were tarpon that had come up the river. Some of them were pretty big. So we decided to just load the boat and drift that night.

We hit a place there that I thought was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. There were ferns growing on the side of the river and were about as high as this ceiling; great big leaves overhanging. The moon lit the river and it was just beautiful. It was an ideal time and we didn't have a worry in the world. It was as if it wasn't even on this earth."

 

The Fiddler Crabs Enjoyed our Fish Dinner

"But there was one thing that surprised us some. We had mosquito netting. But we didn't even need it until we got down to salt water. We were having more mosquitoes and pretty soon the water was brackish and then salty. We got down to Punta Gorda. We went out and my dad began to gig fish because it was salt water."

"I remember one night, the mosquitoes they were bad. We fried some fish for our evening meal. We ate but we had some left so we just left them in the frying pan. During the night the fiddler crabs found it. They'd crawl onto that frying pan and eat that fish. Those fiddler crabs just thought that was great."

 

Every Great Journey Comes to an End

"We stopped where there were beautiful boats in storage. The fellow that worked there told us some of those boats cost ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand back then was like a hundred thousand now. That's hard for people to understand how cheap things were because everything's so expensive now."

"I remember this gentleman came down and talked to us. He just wanted to converse. We told him we were going to abandon our boat and take the railroad back up to Fort Meade. We told him if we just left the boat with him and if he could get anything for it we'd split it with him. Well we never did hear from him. So I imagine he didn't ever get much for it."

"So we loaded our three cans and checked them like suit cases. And I guess we did the gigs and the guns also but I don't remember. I know we didn't throw them away. I can't remember how far it is from Punta Gorda to Fort Meade. But what had taken us a week to do in our boat took us about 4 or 5 hours by train, even though it would stop at each little town. That railroad went from Ft. Myers and then up the Peace River along the little towns established on the river."

And you got to do this trip with your best friend and your father.
"Yes, that's something you cherish the rest of your life."


Epilogue

Mr. Bill Smith has deep family roots in the Peace River area. His grandfather Smith came to Florida in 1883 and made chairs from hickory. He'd turn the wood on a homemade lathe powered by a foot peddle connected to a string tensioned on the opposite end by a bent pine tree tension spring. East of Wauchula and Zolfo, Grandfather Smith also cleared land for the Hart Cemetery several miles off the highway between Avon Park and Wauchula.  Bill Smith's relatives are documented at the Pioneer Museum in Zolfo Springs, where Billy Hart's cabin is preserved for display.

After his Peace River adventure, Bill Smith grew, married and served in a distinguished career in the Navy. Bill will be 90 years of age in 2011.  Millard Allen, Bill's best friend on the Peace River trip, also served with distinction in the army and returned to live in Georgia where he passed away a few years ago.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to acknowledge and thank Donna Sperry, Bill Smith's stepdaughter for bringing us together to document this paddling history. It was my privilege to spend time with Mr. Smith and relive this great Florida adventure on the Peace River, still beautiful and one of the most popular paddling venues for kayakers and canoers in Florida.

Al Vazquez
KayakGuide.com
June 10, 2011