What do hugging necks, shelling peas, and string music have in common? They all take place on the welcoming front porch of a Cracker house. At least, they once did. These iconic structures are rapidly becoming a thing of the past; a sweet, hazy memory of a life long gone.
There are as many styles of porches as there are styles of architecture, but no porch is as pure of design and as pure of heart as the porch on a Cracker house. Crackers, as the pioneer settlers of Florida (and often Georgia) are known, were a fiercely independent, plain people, generally of Scots-Irish heritage. An epithet once meant to be derogatory, the term “Cracker” is embraced today by those who possess a kinship with the rich heritage that reflected life in rural Florida prior to the invasion of folks from Upnawth.
In a serious study of Southern architecture, one will find reference to single-pen and double-pen structures, dog-trots, shotgun houses, I-houses and four-squares. Those are definitely found throughout the South, but the particular Cracker house under discussion doesn’t quite fit any of those rigid characteristics.
The first basic structures were built of logs, and then as lumber mills and saws became available, simple planed boards. If boards, the walls were one plank thick: the board you see on the outside of the house is the board you see on the inside of the house. Floorboards would shrink as the lumber dried, leaving wide cracks. The negative is that the house was impossible to heat in winter; on the upside, it made sweeping easier as the sand just slid through those cracks. (It also enabled little boys to compete in the great contest of urinating on the chickens under the house.)
The door was usually in the center with a window on both sides. Windows had no glass but utilized one large wooden shutter. A steeply pitched roof with gables at the side ends of the house was often covered in hand-rived shingles—later tin—and there was an exterior chimney on one end of the house. The houses were set high off the ground on limestone pillars, handmade bricks, or even hand-hewn timbers. And of course the porch—that deep porch, extending the full width of the house, a place to escape the searing heat and keep watch on the world. The pitch of the porch roof was not as steep as that of the house.
In 1885 J. G. Knapp reported in Only One Florida:
Though ceiled and plastered houses are required here as elsewhere for comfort and convenience, and fire-places and stoves are occasionally called into requisition as far south as the semi-tropical belt, yet many people may be found living in log-houses unchinked, or in frames with only the outside coverings, often without doors or windows closed—houses not as close walled as are the stables and barns for cattle in the Northern states, yet water will seldom freeze in such houses during the coldest nights in any portion of the State. Thus, Florida saves large sums in the construction of houses that shelter the people of the State.
Crackers brought with them the skills to build that most basic of homes, and the virgin timberlands provided the materials. These were homes particularly suited to the harsh environment of the Southern wilderness, even though there were those who found them less than charming. In 1886 Iza Hardy, a romance novelist of the late nineteenth century, wrote in Oranges and Alligators: Sketches of South Florida Life:
For miles and miles, we drive through a monotonous level expanse of unbroken wilderness, of pine and cypress, cypress and pine. But now and again, we come upon a cracker house, a roughly built cottage, with chinks gaping between the planks, and windowless walls, and a general air of squalor. It is quite probably to be found in the rough hardy careless hand to mouth life of the cracker home, where no ambition enters the door to drive contentment out the window. . . . Distinguishable at a distance from the cracker cottage is the home of the Northern settler, well built, neat, and clean, with its little porch and piazza, glass windows, and mutely eloquent evidence of civilization—curtains at the side windows.
The house might consist of one large room, or it might have a center hall with a room on each side. If a large house, four rooms, and even an upstairs. Simple but symmetrical. Kitchens, for those fortunate enough to have an actual kitchen, were “out back” to prevent fire from burning the house down. It goes without saying that the other “necessary” room is out back as well. Plumbing was non-existent, often until long after World War II brought a bit of post-war prosperity and modernization. Until then, baths were taken in a Number 3 washtub, while shaving and “washing up” were done at a board shelf often nailed to one end of the porch.
Life was difficult, work was hard, and Mother Nature did not offer a hand up—most anyone alive today who actually lived in a Cracker shack will reminisce of a “root-hog-or-die” existence. They will also share funny stories, tall tales, fond memories, and swear to you nothing can match those good old days. The days of porch sitting disappeared with the advent of air conditioning, but the trade-off was dear. We have lost those porches where life was lived to the fullest, where babies were soothed to sleep by the soft ka-whump-ka-whump as worn rockers tortured porch boards, where fingers wrapped around dawn’s first cup of boiled coffee, sleepy eyes watching the mists rise off the fields, the cattle’s breath steamy in the cool morning.
We no longer sit on the porch to shell peas with grandmama and aunties, giggling at silliness or raising eyebrows at the latest family scandal. We don’t tap our foot to the tune of banjo, fiddle, or guitar-picking after the work is done and the supper dishes put away. Children no longer crawl under the porch to retrieve the latest litter of coon hound puppies. A porch was the place to hand-piece the newest quilt from leftover bits of feedsack, to hand-churn butter, or even better—ice cream. It was the place to spin yarns—the verbal kind—and teach kids how to take a piece of tobacco twine and make a Cat’s Cradle with their fingers. Families kept vigil on the porch, awaiting the arrival of loved ones, and stood on that porch waving good-bye until those loved ones were out of sight.
Today, it is the beloved Cracker house that is out of sight and rapidly disappearing from the Southern landscape. They have been abandoned, left to rot, to return to the earth from whence they came. There was a time when these houses proliferated; entire towns consisted of variations of this basic design. Across the years, the original houses were enlarged, porches were closed in, glass windows installed, and siding was placed over the original boards. A slow drive through the older sections of a small town offers evidence of houses that began as Cracker houses; no matter how “improved” they have become, the roof lines and window placement indicate the humble beginnings. The homes that were altered and modernized have a greater chance of survival as many of them are inhabited even today.
As for the abandoned homes—or shacks, as they are often called—country roadsides are littered with the remains. This one is leaning to one side, that one’s roof has caved in, and yet another is a mere outline under a mountain of kudzu. There a house is barely discernible, disguised by the jungle of growth around and through it; the old growth camellias are the giveaway that a house once held life at that spot.
The Crackers were a tenacious breed, strong, proud, quick to fight for their families and their country. The heritage they left behind is rich, full, a culture still misunderstood by many, the forbears of both the present day redneck and many famous names. They were much like the homes they built by hand: sturdy, simple, adequate, up to the task at hand.
And they had some great porches.
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