A Conversation with John Emory Willis 1915-2007

By his niece, Nicki Rutkowski, Ed.D.
The John Henry Willis family moved to Terra Ceia, Florida in 1912 in search of work. They traveled along the Gulf Coast from Wakulla County, Florida by mule and wagon. John Henry had worked in the Wakulla turpentine mill for forty cents a day, which was not enough to support his family. His son, John Emory Willis, related that there were many who “had about starved in the armpit of the Florida Coast”. Emory remembered his family building a wooden bridge to cross the Creek, which even at low tide was not fordable, to Terra Ceia Island.
Willis Jobs picking grapefruit and oranges and fishing kept the Willis family in food and clothing so they stayed on this island. After the citrus was picked they worked the vegetable fields. They picked peppers, beans, cauliflower, and celery. The produce was shipped by boat off a 400 to 500 foot dock at Center Road, which was wide enough for the mules and wagons. The boats headed for Tampa, Key West, and other ports. Emory remembered a Civil War Veteran, Sims, who hired sharecropping crews of Negroes and Whites to farm his land. The agreement was the sharecropper could use the land, provide half the fertilizer, and pay a fee from the harvested crops. Sims and my gr-gpa were in business together in Palmetto for a short time. G’pa had farm land on Terra Ceia.
A young JOHN HENRY WILLIS
 
John Henry fished the rest of the year, making his home on Paradise Key. His home had a Palmetto fan roof, a thirty by sixteen foot room with bunks for the hired fishing crew, and a screened front porch. When Emory was 13 he lived on Rattlesnake Key for the summer with friends. They had a Palmetto hut that protected them in their off time from fishing and gathering crabs, oysters and clams. The hut was made with 12 by 20 foot boards. The boys stole nails from the mainland packing house. Emory explained they made the outer walls using overlapping Palmetto fans nailed to the wooden frame of the hut. They found a washed up ship’s hatch for a window on the northwest side. The boys attached leather hinges to a washed up door, which became the main entry to the hut. A four pound lard bucket was used for a coffee pot. Bunks lined the walls inside. Each boy brought a family quilt for comfort. They pooled their funds and bought a small boat for six dollars. The boat was the main source of transportation to the mainland where they sold their caught fish. They sold fish for two to five dollars. The boys also traded fish for eggs and butter. Emory recounted that fish were so plentiful they could catch any kind. He especially remembered flounder were everywhere, easily stuck with a spear. For entertainment the boys would go to either of the two movie houses and watch a newsreel for ten cents.
 
By 1918 the Willis family lived on the bottom floor of a two story house sitting half on land while the porch stilted over the water at the back of the house. The Holly family lived upstairs. Fishing off the porch was easy, John Emory said. Mr. Clyatt owned the house while he lived in another on the mainland. In October 1921 John Henry came home from fishing. He predicted a southwest hurricane was coming although there was no wind. The next morning John Emory put his feet over the side of his bed into rising water. A head wind was blowing, raising the house off its blocks. A 40 foot boat with a dinghy was tied behind the house along with a 26 footer which had a one cylinder engine. The larger boat was tied to a tree, while the smaller one was attached to the porch rail. The water level was six feet above high tide and water was up to everyone’s chins. Parents
 
  His parents, John Henry Willis and wife Pauline Boyett Willis. It is believed this is their wedding photo.
 
Three kids could go in a boat at a time. Pauline, John Henry’s wife, was wading in the kitchen while she cooked. She grabbed her iron cooking pot as she left to board the final trip to leave. A swell knocked the boat hard, flopping the pot into the water. All Pauline could do was watch that pot float and finally sink in the water.
 
Meanwhile, Mr. Holly cussed when his wife refused to leave the flooding house as she did not want to abandon their belongings. Once the boat carrying the evacuees reached the mainland mule road the men dragged it to Clyatt’s house. They all watched the stilted house float out to deep water with their belongings and sink. Mr. Clyatt cried.
 
The storm washed out Bayshore Road in two places, where seawalls were eventually built. Back on Terra Ceia the small town buildings were washed away while remaining stores were closed. The long dock for shipping was gone. During weekends after the storm those with boats poled around picking up debris. Soon, changes came to Terra Ceia along with the railroad. The town grew. Jobs did not have to be hunted. 12