On a pleasant May weekend in 1978, Augusta Pflug Thorp celebrated her eighty-ninth birthday with her family at her home on Black Creek in Clay County, Florida, where she had lived since the spring of 1911. Shortly after that, author Alice Marie Thorp Duxbury interviewed Augusta about her life in Florida and her family history.
In Conversations with Augusta, Duxbury shares the history of a German family who adapted to a new lifestyle in rural northeast Florida in the 1900s while dealing with the effects of two world wars and the Great Depression. This memoir shares some of the lessons the family learned while setting down new roots:
• If your passenger boat from Jacksonville turns over in the St. Johns River, swim ashore and take the midnight train, keeping your hat properly on your head.
• If you are pregnant and a neighbor says, in your hearing, "Miss [Gussie] sure looks good. She's fatten'in' up like an old sow hog," smile and accept the compliment.
• If your neighbors cut your fence to permit their stock to graze in your cornfield, replace the fencing-again and again.
• If the neighbor boy plowing your field picks up a snake, twirls it like a whip and snaps off its head, look the other way.
Conversations with Augusta narrates one family's story while providing insight into life as immigrants in the 1900s.
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Conversations with Augusta
By Alice Marie Thorp Duxbury
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Alice Marie Thorp Duxbury
All rights reserved.
The Story of a House — Man Proposes, Cryptotermes Cavifrons Disposes
In its early years, it was a charming example of a southern country home. It was not a pillared mansion with balconies and sweeping lawns with peacocks but simply a typical, humble but gracious Florida home. It was built with strong materials: Dade County pine planks, inside and out, and a classic brick chimney painted white — the color of the house.
The house was graced on the south and east sides by an open porch, and on the north side by a screened porch. It stood straight and strong in the midst of a clearing surrounded by woods, its upright log foundations modestly concealed by panels of white lattice. The house did not know how rudely those log foundations would betray it.
Downstairs there were four rooms: kitchen, bedroom, dining room, and parlor (which was what such a room was called in 1911).
The kitchen, on the west side of the house, was equipped with a kerosene stove, a large work table, shelves, cabinets, and a freestanding food safe, its doors covered by metal screen to foil ants and other insects. An entry door opened onto the south porch, and one window on the west side of the room provided a lovely view of a sturdy, young hickory tree, which gave pleasant, deep shade on summer days and promised, for the future, one low branch perfect for a child's swing and other strong branches for children to climb. A hand pump supplied water for the kitchen, and a kerosene lamp attached to the west wall provided illumination.
The bedroom, also on the west side of the house immediately north of the kitchen, served many purposes in its time, from bedroom to den, to playroom, to storage room, to children's library. It was small and contained one closet and a window on its west side.
The dining room, east of the kitchen, contained the fireplace, the only built-in source of heat on cold winter days. Several feet from the fireplace was a window on the south end of the room, in front of which sat a Victrola on a small, round table.
An Aladdin kerosene lamp hung over the dining room table, which served as meal table, sewing table, study table, conference table, reading table, writing table, or game table, depending upon the family's wishes or needs.
On the west side of the dining room, wooden stairs ascended to the upstairs bedrooms. On the north side of the dining room was a door to the parlor, open in warm weather, closed in cold weather. Over the door to the parlor was a wooden plaque that read, in translation from the German script, "In the new home, the old blessing."
On the northwest side was the doorway to the kitchen. Underneath the stairs was a scary, dark, commodious closet. When the house timbers gently shifted in the night, as timbers will do in a wood frame house, things would randomly fall from shelves in the closet, and sometimes a beautifully carved music box stored in the closet would be startled into playing its sad German melody, "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden" (a German song mourning a comrade lost in battle). Other times, something, perhaps tiny mouse toes, would disturb the strings of a mandolin on a shelf near the music box.
On the east side of the dining room, there was one window with a view of the yard and trees and whatever might be blooming, according to the season. The parlor held a piano, dozens of shelved books, and two horsehair sofas for brief, uncomfortable reading times, such as doing research in one of the encyclopedias. On the east side of the parlor were the front door and one window. Another window on the north side opened onto the north screened porch, closed in to serve as a "sleeping porch" in 1946.
Various comfortable chairs, suitable for longer, more comfortable reading times, occupied places along the walls. A dark, ornately carved, octagonal table with lions' heads and paws carved onto its single pedestal graced the center of the room. Another small table stood by the door.
On the north wall was a large painting of a boy with a Saint Bernard dog, and on the west wall was an even larger painting of the beautiful Koenigsee, the Bavarian lake, site of Neuschwanstein Castle and refuge for Mad King Ludwig.
Upstairs were two bedrooms. One had a window facing south and a dormer window facing east. The dormer window was perfectly designed to sit beside on a late summer night to look at the moon and listen to the chuck-will's-widows calling, and the owls hooting, and often to hear a lonely midnight train whistle from a distance far to the east. That bedroom had no west window, thus, unfortunately, no cooling cross-ventilation.
Like the south bedroom, the north bedroom had one dormer window facing east but another window facing north. It also had no window on the west to provide cross-ventilation. Day and night, summer heat sat stubbornly in those rooms. Each bedroom held beds with moss-filled mattresses of intense, punishing firmness. The shifting timbers would often cause the closet door of the north bedroom to swing open eerily in the night, but that was only mischief, never a threat. A large steamer trunk against the west wall held carefully packed fine bone china, silverware, and embroidered linens, too "good" to use in a house that held active children.
In its early years, it was a fine house, a house to be admired — straight, tall, and strong. Then the termites found it — never consuming the solid heart pine boards of the house but eagerly eating the untreated log sections that served as its foundations.
They ate and multiplied, and the house discovered that its strong supports from below were beginning to crumble upon themselves. It happened so slowly that no one at first was aware of the disintegration. Then things began to shift.
Over a period of about forty years, the westerly settling slowly continued until the slant of the house could be clearly perceived in a cup of coffee, bowl of soup, or boat of gravy. A marble or ball dropped on the floor of the house rolled always to the west. As the foundation started to crumble, its unevenness caused the walls of the house to sigh sad sounds as they began to twist on their frames. By the 1940s, light could be seen of a morning at the juncture of the south and east walls in the south bedroom, but the house still loyally remained upright.
"Equinoctial storms" (now known as tropical depressions, tropical storms, or hurricanes, depending upon their ferocity) came frequently. During one of the storms in 1944, the family watched as the now venerable old hickory tree immediately west of the house fought bravely against the battering winds from the east that strained the timbers of the house and forced the hickory to bow. The last hard gust from the east snapped the sturdy trunk of the old hickory, and down it crashed toward the west, safely away from the vulnerable roof of the house and into the quiet center of the storm. When the center passed, and the winds blew hard from the west, the old house had been spared disaster and still stood, perhaps leaning a bit more to the west and missing the companionship of its old friend.
Another year, lightning struck a huge oak tree and raced along a wire radio aerial to the part of the eaves where the aerial entered the house. The roof caught fire, the family sought help, neighbors came, and the fire was extinguished, but the roof of the kitchen did not survive. The house had to suffer the humiliation of galvanized roofing sheets over the kitchen.
As time passed, the music box still played in the night, closet doors more frequently opened unexpectedly, and life went on.
In the 1940s, running water from an artesian well was provided, and electrical wires snaked around interior walls to provide electricity. The kitchen then held a refrigerator, a water heater provided hot water, and food was prepared on an electric stove.
One generation died, and a second and a third generation grew and thrived. The house saw many loved pets romping through the years and shared the happiness of life and the grief of loss. It saw hardship, and still its threatened walls and joints held strong. It saw two stars on its front door, the outside door to the parlor, where anyone who came to visit would see them, displayed with pride for two sons in military service, one in the US Navy and one in the US Marines. It served as a compassionate vessel for joy, sorrow, fun, loss, learning, camaraderie, and love.
In the late 1950s, the house saw the construction of a smaller house, built on concrete foundations, immediately north of its porches. The old house had been declared to be unsafe for the two remaining members of the second generation who still lived there. Before the new house was completed, one of those two was gone, leaving only the remaining member of the second generation to move into the new, small house, alone. By then, all the members of the third generation lived elsewhere, so the old house stood alone and still, a haven for wasps, dust, and memories.
But the ending was not entirely sad. A neighbor expressed interest in the solid pine boards of the old house. An agreement was reached, and the neighbor, with his helpers, took those boards, cleared away the remainder of the old house, and built a new house of his own, not far away.
So the old house lived on, at least in part, to see other generations live and grow. The music box on its steady shelf in the new, small house played no more nocturnal tricks and sang its sad song only when it was asked to sing.CHAPTER 2
Conversations with Augusta — Three Days in June 1978
Alice: When you first started teaching, how did students get to school if they didn't live nearby? Was there any sort of school bus?
Augusta: When I first started teaching in Highland School in 1911, there were about a dozen one-room schools, grades one through eight, and only one high school in Clay County. As far as school buses were concerned, the one I'm thinking of now was quite a large donkey-drawn wagon that they had for transporting children to school. Otherwise, children had to live close by a school or be transported by their families.
Alice: Did the person that owned the donkey do that just to help, or was the county paying them for it, or —
Augusta: Yes, somebody owned the donkey, but the county paid for the use of it.
Alice: Where was that?
Augusta: That was in Spring Glen.
Alice: I guess it wouldn't have been practical to have horse or mule or donkey-drawn transportation out here.
Augusta: Oh, no. It couldn't have been here. It was over there in Spring Glen — but I just can't remember the year exactly.
Alice: It must have been after 1911 when you first started teaching, and you were married in 1920 when you were teaching in Ortega, you said. So it was earlier than that.
Augusta: Yes, that would have been before the 1920s. Alice: And then Victor was born in 1923, so it had to be — Augusta: It must have been in the "teens" then, 1916 or so.
Alice: As far as any other transportation, I suppose they didn't really have any motorized school buses until later than that?
Augusta: Those were much later, because, you see, that had to be when there were more cars, too. At the time of which I'm speaking, there was hardly anyone in the county who had a car, even.
Alice: While we're talking about schools, they still had such subjects as Latin in school then, didn't they?
Augusta: Well, they taught very little Latin. I think Lillian Watkins could teach some Latin and math.
Alice: Yes, she was teaching Latin and math when I was in Clay High School. Our Latin and algebra classes were very small, only five or six pupils, I think.
Augusta: So you see that would be when Latin and higher math were still being taught — I mean already being taught to a certain extent and — what was it now you wanted to know?
Alice: I was curious about what kinds of courses they did have for the country kids. You know, it doesn't really seem practical to have Latin and —
Augusta: Well, no one was compelled to take them. They could graduate from high school without taking those. I don't even know exactly what they had in physics or anything like that.
Alice: I guess — nothing. I don't remember anything like that when I was in school. The highest math classes in Clay High School when I was there were geometry and algebra II.
Augusta: I think possibly what you remember is about what they had before.
Alice: Another thing that I think would be very interesting is what salaries were then. During the Depression, you worked for nothing sometimes, didn't you?
Augusta: We often had to wait for our checks. You might put that when I started to teach — that was in 1911 — the salary was about forty dollars a month.
Alice: And do you remember what you were making when you retired in the 1950s?
Augusta: Yes, when I retired in 1952 — of course that was in this county, with probably less than in other counties, because Clay County was always one of the poorer counties — I was making about $190 a month.
Alice: Even for my part-time teaching in Palm Beach County, just six hours a week, I was getting $163 a month, and that's a lot less than the full-time teachers were making. (Alice: This was in the 1970s.)
Augusta: I know that when I was teaching — up to 1952 — I never received over two hundred dollars. I don't think I made even two hundred dollars a month. After deductions, it was something like $190-something. (Alice: According to payroll records from the Clay County School District Human Resources Department, in 1942 Augusta was making $106.05 a month. When she retired in 1952, she was earning $290.00 a month, before deductions.)
Alice: And during the Depression, you were sometimes paid in "scrip"? (Alice: "Scrip" refers to notes that promised payment when money became available.)
Augusta: Yes, and then for months, we teachers just got that and had to wait until it could be cashed. For months, really, we didn't get any money.
Alice: Then how did people live?
Augusta: Well, everybody had to get groceries. We had a big bill outstanding at Morgan's grocery store in Orange Park in the thirties, which we paid off over time. And, of course, when your father was here, he made something off and on. He was always making repairs for people. People would bring cars to repair. You may remember that.
Alice: Yes, I do.
Augusta: It was a little something. Of course, he couldn't charge very much in those days. I have no idea how much he would charge for what job. That was his business, but that was what we had — what I made, what he could make. And let's see, the boys at that time were too young to be working.
Alice: Gerald worked at Lee Field (Green Cove Springs Naval Base) during the forties.
Augusta: That was later then.
Alice: Yes, it was when Victor was in the service, but I remember that when we were living in Orange Park, in the thirties, Victor worked a little bit. Was it at Giessen's Poultry Farm? (Victor: Yes, at fifteen cents an hour.)
Augusta: Yes. And I'll tell you something else. You know, even though Victor was in the navy with a very small salary in the forties, he would always send something home.
Alice: I remember that.
Augusta: Then it was what little I got, what little your dad got, and what Victor could send. And that made your grandma so happy. You know he had ten dollars made over to her every month from his salary, and she was so pleased. Of course, ten dollars meant much more in those days. It wasn't that the amount pleased her so much but the fact that he thought of her and had that sent to her. She was so pleased about Victor's doing that. I was glad he did. She had done a lot with you children. She helped me a lot more than I realized at the time. I can now see how much she helped. She'd have meals ready. I'd come home from school, and she'd have supper all cooked.
Excerpted from Conversations with Augusta by Alice Marie Thorp Duxbury. Copyright © 2015 Alice Marie Thorp Duxbury. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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Table of Contents
About the Principal Characters, xiii,
Alphabetical Characters at a Glance, xix,
Chronological Characters at a Glance, xxi,
Chapter 1: The Story of a House — Man Proposes, Cryptotermes Cavifrons Disposes, 1,
Chapter 2: Conversations with Augusta — Three Days in June 1978, 11,
Chapter 3: Life in Rural Northeast Florida, Early and Mid-1900s—Two Wars and the Great Depression,
Appendix 1: Robert Earl Thorp Biography, by Augusta Pflug Thorp 1955, 171,
Appendix 2: Letter Written by Earl, December 26, 1941, Beginning of World War II, 175,
Appendix 3: Letters Related to Earl's Request for Disability, 177,
Appendix 4: Curriculum Vitae Marguerite L. Pflug, 181,
Appendix 5: Letters in Academic Tug-of-War, 1916, 185,
Appendix 6: Oscar Pflug's Adventure, Pre–World War I, as Reported in the New York Times, 189,
Appendix 7: A True Account of Wilber's Death, 197,
Appendix 8: Program for Graduation at Orange Park School, April 23, 1925, 201,
Appendix 9: School Attended by Augusta and Marguerite, 203,