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'WakullaStory' is about local history

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By HERB DONALDSON
Special to The News

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Years ago, when I was a senior at Wakulla High School, my friend, Karen McKenzie, and I, would leave a class or two early, skip town and make our way to the Governor’s Square Mall. We were seniors and took ruthless advantage of this newly found freedom at every chance.
One day, Karen was in one of her more depressive states, and all she wanted to do was go to the St. Marks Lighthouse for a moment to ‘breathe.’
I had been to the Lighthouse before, many years ago, while on a field trip in elementary school, but had no feel for, nor, connection to it. Presently, I was simply going along for the ride.
I remember the music on the tape player as we drove that long and winding road to a place where, suddenly, the road stopped and the breadth of the world began. If only we’d had a small boat, we could board it and set sail to who knows where.
Later, when I moved to Tallahassee, I met new friends. Many of them spoke more than one or two languages, or had spent their formative years traveling – family vacations – to lands I’d only heard of on television, or seen on a map.  But if they were special to me (‘special’ meaning they could be trusted), I would take them on a late night journey to that one place, just down the winding road, where the world began: The Lighthouse.
In the 1820s St. Marks was a port of entry for merchants and growers. Once their products arrived by way of a road that connected Tallahassee to St. Marks, the products were loaded onto boats that would ship them out to other points of sale.
The problem was that the waters of the St. Marks River and Apalachee Bay could become shallow. Boats would run aground or become stuck in the mud. A lighthouse was needed to help guide these ships, and in May of 1828, an act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to construct the St. Marks Lighthouse.  
After much haggling, the process was completed in 1831. But erosion issues began to surface, and it was rebuilt with double-wall reinforcements and placed at its present location around 1842.   
The Lighthouse made it through the hurricane of 1843 that wiped the town of Port Leon from the face of the earth.  The New York Herald called it “One of the most dreadful hurricanes we have ever remembered to have occurred on this continent.”  
The Port Leon Gazette said: “Our losses are nothing in comparison with that at the lighthouse. Every building but the lighthouse – gone.”

It would go on to survive close to 100 others. By the 1860s, the Civil War was underway, and the games began, such as the dismantling and hiding of the lighting  apparatus so the Union ships would have no aide upon their arrival. Some say Confederate soldiers hid the lenses in a salt marsh. The Lighthouse stairs were once set on fire, and there was even an attempt to blow it up.
Throughout the generations, not only the Union and Confederates would arrive, but Native tribes, Spanish explorers, British servicemen – all would set their feet and shed their blood upon this same plot of land before the Lighthouse itself would ever exist.  
To know that almost 500 years ago real people like Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto, those Spanish explorers forever locked – trapped – inside the ornate, leather-bound walls of our history books, were here, down the street from our houses, is fascinating.
Hills Hadjo

Hillis Hadjo, or “Prophet Francis,” was the spiritual leader of the Red Stick movement in the Creek Nation. He and his followers made their home on the Wakulla River.
These homes were not the tepees and fireside visuals we’ve come to know, but actual dwellings with tiny spaces for windows, with roofs on top, all individually placed around an area that had the look of a small town. A community.  
The Prophet’s daughter, Millie, would later plead with her father to save the life of a young soldier, Duncan McKrimmon, from execution by the tribe for the murders of two Creek sisters during the Creek War of 1813-14.
Millie’s act of courage for sparing this man’s life would open the door for her to receive a pension from the United States, as well as having a medal struck in her honor.  

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson – before we called him president – would do battle here with The Prophet and many others, and overtake for a brief period, the San Marcos de Apalache, or what we call the St. Marks Fort.

Daniel Ladd
 
And, speaking of Presidents: Daniel Ladd, one of Florida’s most influential and wealthiest merchants of the time, was not only integral in the development and longevity of Wakulla County, specifically Newport, but was cousin to Hannibal Hamlin, who was President Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president during his first administration.  
And speaking of Newport: Charles Beecher, who was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” lived in the town of Newport for more than 15 years. She would often visit him there, along with other writers. Some came for the solitude in which to write, while others found the inspiration needed to begin their stories right here, in our neck of the woods.  
And again, this happened – literally – just down the road from us.  And the amazing thing is that these are not even a fraction of the happenings that have occurred in our county of Wakulla.
The Wakulla County Historical Society, in association with the Palaver Tree Theater, are bringing a few of these stories together in what is called “WakullaStory: Through A Looking Glass.”  
WakullaStory…Looking Glass, was inspired by Murray McLaughlin who approached me to work on a project that told the histories and stories of those in Wakulla County.  Given the mission of Palaver Tree Theater, I was eager to begin.
Like the Lighthouse, WakullaStory…Looking Glass, sheds a bright beam on these periods of history and, especially, the people who are the touchstone of that history.  
WakullaStory is nothing more than a reading with lights and sound involved.  
But it’s the heart of the people – from this community – who have given themselves over in an effort to embody these characters, that has the potential to make it spectacular.   
The WakullaStory being presented Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, March 18 through March 20, starts in the 1500s and ends around the 1840s, just before the Civil War.  

Goal is to get the
community involved

It stops there because the goal of the entire effort is to get the community involved. Every year there will be a different story that highlights the diverse characters, histories and contributions of the community.  
Someday, it may bring more tourists into our area. This, in turn, may bring in extra income, not only for the actors, directors, and others involved, but for the mom-and-pop shops, business workers and owners, who are suffering due to so many current economic snares and cutbacks. But none of it can be done without the support of the community.
To paraphrase Jocephus Shingles who spoke at a panel discussion held by the Wakulla County Historical Society last Thursday, if we have the talent and the brains in this community, why would we go to other places like Leon County and surrounding areas – and make their communities better – when our own community, our home, needs that talent utilized here?
My friend Karen has daughters of her own now. Those friends of my past who spoke in many tongues, I may never hear word from again.  
But throughout my 20-plus years of being away, whenever I came home to visit, I’ve always made at least one trip to the Lighthouse. Only now have I come to realize its value.   
How it stands there: Strong, broad, and majestic in nature, overlooking the waves of history that sank in ages ago, but have now flooded back out, into the abyss.  
It continues to shine that light, illuminating those bits and pieces – legacies along the shore – that so many lives before us have left behind.

Herb Donaldson is a local playwright and director of the Palaver Tree Theater..