Florida is commonly associated with sandy beaches, scintillating condos and hotels lining the coastline and Disneyworld. As with most states, what first comes to mind is only a small part of what lies between the boundaries.
After completing a stint in Florida during the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew as a contract housing inspector for FEMA,, the hubs and I began our journey to Arizona by way of the Gulf coast. I haven’t spent a lot of time in this part of the country so it was a welcome opportunity to see new sights and explore unfamiliar territory. My first shock came when I discovered black bears reside in the state’s “forests”.
Bears? In Florida? It doesn’t get cold enough for them to hibernate, I thought.
As it turns out, Florida’s bears don’t hibernate like their counterparts in colder climates. They go dormant in their den from late December to March, typically without food but it’s not a true hibernation. This is also when pregnant females give birth.
As if alligators, snakes and Zika virus wasn’t concerning enough . . . now I had to be on the look-out for bears!
We set up camp near Carrabelle, southwest of Tallahassee on the Gulf coast, then took off for Appalachicola – a local fishing town known for its large, tasty oysters. The hype is well earned, we discovered, after devouring two dozen on the half shell. During the drive back, I noticed signs for a state forest named Tate’s Hell. It was not the heavily treed forests I’m used to where light barely penetrates the dense, dark canopies. After chatting with the locals, I learned about one of the main attractions – a hiking trail leading to a large field of dwarf cypress trees, many over 300 years old.
As I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea of a forest in the middle of a swamp hosting centuries old bonsai trees, some barely six feet tall, I am told a story of Cebe Tate, the man for whom the forest was named.
Cebe was the only son of Jebediah and a half-Cherokee woman. After the Civil War, Jebediah bought 160 acres for $5 on a homestead grant. Cebe helped his father clear the land in preparation for livestock but their plans were sidetracked when his mother died of Scarlet Fever. The two men fell on hard times, barely getting by with a few scrub cattle while harvesting pine oil on the side. Jebediah, being a superstitious man by nature, made a pact with a local Native American medicine man. He promised to stay out of the sacred cypress forest and give the old Indian one pig each year in exchange for good fortune. The pact was made and sure enough, the men began to prosper.
Everything went well until about the fourth year when Jebediah kept the pigs for himself, refusing to honor their arrangement. This angered the medicine man. He vowed that the Tates would not only see hard times for their actions but would feel as though they’d gone to Hell. Shortly after, Jebediah died of malaria. The cattle disappeared into the swamp and the pine trees stopped producing oil. However, the pigs multiplied and flourished.
Cebe married a mail order bride from New York but being Jewish, she refused to eat pork. She made her new husband’s life miserable, nagging endlessly about the lack of beef. One day, Cebe decided to take his hunting dogs into the forest in an effort to find one of the runaway cows and finally bring peace to his household. His dogs bolted after a panther leaving Cebe alone in the swamp. Stumbling through the murky waters, he dropped his gun in the mud. Lost and disoriented, Cebe wandered around for days until finally he came upon the dwarf cypress forest and fell asleep against one of the gnarled trunks.
Cebe awoke with a start after being bitten by a poisonous snake. It is said the poor man finally found his way out of the forest after seven days, delirious from the snakebite and lack of proper nourishment. He fell at the feet of two men walking down the road. With his last breath, he croaked, “My name is Cebe Tate and I just came through Hell.”
The forest has been called Tate’s Hell ever since.
If you enjoyed this tale, you can read many more just like it in Road Tales, Myth, Lore & Curiosities from America’s Back Roads.