How Acrefoot and Rattlesnake Became Local Legends
James "Acrefoot" Johnson and his son, "Rattlesnake," became legends in their own times for feats hard to believe but confirmed by many faithful witnesses. How they got their colorful monikers is a tale worth telling. James Mitchell Johnson came from Lake City to Fort Ogden with his widowed mother, two brothers and four sisters in 1869 when he was 17. Mrs. Margaret Johnson was 55.
All but her youngest son, John Gibson, age 12, quickly landed jobs as board-and-room hired hands. The 1870 census shows only "Gib" living in his mother's home. At that time, Charlotte and DeSoto counties were part of Manatee County. Fort Ogden, a former Seminole War stronghold, was the largest community south of Fort Meade on the Peace River. The Johnson family settled on a tract near Ziba King, a drygoods merchant, postmaster and prominent cattleman. Neighbors pitched in to build the family a cabin during a one-day "log rolling."
King loaned the Johnson's a small herd of wild cows so Margaret and her son could have milk. It took several "piney woods" longhorn cows to provide enough milk. A scrub cow yielded hardly more than a tea cup of "bluejohn" milk --- so called because of its blueish white color resulting from very little cream. Nevertheless, the milk provided essential calcium. The cows were valuable also for another reason. Early Florida pioneers pastured some cows away from their calves held in a large pen. This compelled "mammy" cows to return to the pen at evening time. Manure that fell in the pen enriched the sandy soil. Every few weeks, depending upon the size of the herd, the pen was moved so the fertilizing process could be repeated.
Sweet potatoes were planted in the vacated spots summer and fall. The fall crop, called "stand overs," were dug up as needed in winter. Thus, the settlers had nutritious vegetable all year long. Jim Johnson grew up to be a giant of a man --- 6 feet 7 inches tall, 250 pounds, and strong. In 1877, he married a local girl named Margaret Chester. The 1880 Census lists him as age 28, Margaret 18, and a son Elias age 2. He gave his occupation as "farmer."
As can be seen, James was 25 when he married and Miss Chester not yet 16. With a family to care for, Jim took a sub-contract to carry mail over the Peace River route between Fort Ogden and Fort Meade --- a distance of 65 miles. It is likely that the government contract was assigned to Postmaster King. Johnson's name was never recorded by the Postal Service. His pay was $26 per month. Jim rode his horse at first, but the 130 miles round trip of trails and roads was so difficult the animal had to be rested frequently. Anxious to get the job done so he could return to his farm and cattle, Johnson began walking the route.
Once a week --- twice later --- he started out at daybreak and reached Ft. Meade before dark. Dropping off his pouch of letters, Johnson would walk another 12 miles to Bartow where he spent the night with his sister. This enabled him to avoid the 25-cent charge for a bed at the Fort Meade Hotel. The total distance walked one-way, in one day, was 78 miles! The route was repeated in reverse the next day.
At cock-crow, Johnson's sister would prepare a hearty breakfast consisting of a dozen eggs, a gallon of coffee, a big pan of buttermilk biscuits and a large bowl of grits lathered with syrup. He stuffed biscuits in his pockets for munching along the way. These he supplemented with palm cabbage gathered enroute.
Some of the route was along the Wire Road constructed by the International Ocean Telegraph Co. to service its line to Punta Rassa and cable to Cuba. Much of Acrefoot's route, however, veered off to pick up and deliver mail to the settlements of Joshua Creek, Long Point, Gum Heads, Dark Cow Pens, Crewsville, and Bereah. The ease with which Johnson performed his official duty on foot earned him the nickname for which he became famous. It is not clear whether "Acrefoot" was inspired by the size of his brogans, reputed to be size 14, or by the alleged length of his stride.
One day be emerged onto the Pine Level-Bunker road from a foot- path he had laid out through a swamp. Johnson overtook Dr. Hayden who was driving a horse and buggy. "Hop in," said the doctor. "Well, thanky," replied Acrefoot. "I will rest a minute." Acrefoot planted one giant foot in the buggy and hoisted himself aboard. After a couple of minutes conversation about the weather and such, Johnson announced, "Much obliged, Doc. I'll be going now. I'm in sort of a hurry." He hopped out and strode ahead. Within minutes he was out of sight.
According to Acrefoot's Grandson Gib, years later, the mailman came home from Fort Mead one afternoon barefooted, having discarded his worn out shoes along the way. "Grandma reminded him of a big square dance that night at Fort Ogden. There was nothing Grandpa liked better than dancing, but he had no shoes. "That was of no concern to Grandpa. He walked 30 miles to Fort Myers, down the Wire Road (State Route 31) in what is now eastern Charlotte County. He swam the Caloosahatchee River at Telegraph Station (now Tice) pushing a lard can with his clothes inside to keep them dry. After rousting up a merchant and buying a pair of shoes, Grandpa swam back and got home in time to spend the rest of the night dosey-doh-ing."
Ziba King, Francis Boggess and two other prominent cattlemen named Parker once offered to finance a trip to New York City for Acrefoot so he could participate in an international walking marathon. Johnson thanked them kindly, but declined, "Boys, I'm too busy for that sort of thing. The mail must go through. Can any of you take my place?" When Johnson's son Elias was half-grown, the boy developed a high fever that could not be brought down with cold compresses. Acrefoot strapped a chair to his back and carried Elias in it to a doctor in Fort Myers.
This incident spawned the fable that the patient was a grown man, and that Acrefoot gave up the mail contract because the postal service wouldn't let him carry passengers as well as mail on his jaunts. Acrefoot lost the mail contract to the Florida Southern Railway when it was extended from Bartow to Punta Gorda in 1886. The former mailman didn't mind giving up his mail job because he moved to Nocatee where he landed a more lucrative contract to furnish the railroad with cross-ties and with cordwood to burn in the locomotives.
Should a train come by while he was around, Acrefoot would run alongside --- to the delight of passengers. In a final burst of speed he would pull ahead of the train and duck into into the woods when out of sight of the riders. Bets were made as to whether the fleet-footed giant would be waiting at the next station to greet them. Johnson was strong and energretic. He could cut and split more wood than any two men. To win a bet, he once cleared a pametto field faster than two men could stack the roots he grubbed out. He flung the roots alternately right and left to the stackers as he moved through the palmettos. After several hours in the hot sun, the stackers cried uncle and Acrefoot won the bet.
Acrefoot usually carried a rifle while on his mail runs or cutting wood. Not for protection from desperados who infested the wild forests, but to dispatch panthers, wolves, bears and rattlesnakes.
Acrefoot and Margaret had eight children --- three sons and five daughters. His son Guy augmented the family coffers by catching rattlesnakes and selling them to medical colleges and zoos. A grandson named Brogden was recognized as the tallest man in Florida --- standing 6 feet 10 1/2 inches in his stocking feet. Guy made a lot of money selling rattlesnakes. He started out catching the poisonous reptiles with a 12-foot pole and snare. After a few year's experience, he used a 3-foot stick and a pocket handerchief to throw over the head of the snake so it couldn't see.
During the bust of the Florida Land Boom in the late 1920s, a stranded northern journalist named George End asked Guy if he knew where work could be found inasmuch as End's family was starving. Guy said he would buy all the rattlesnakes the tenderfoot could catch. That afternoon, End's two boys brought in a 6-foot rattler, but they had killed it. End sought to gain something by skinning the snake and selling the hide. He noticed, while skinning, that the snake's meat was white, like turtle meat. End had heard that Texas cowboys ate rattlesnakes; so, being desperate from hunger, he fried some of the snake meat. His whole family found it delicious. Mrs. End canned the rest.
End learned to catch live snakes and made a comfortable living selling them to Guy. Nevertheless, he felt he had stumbled on a poential new business canning rattlesnake meat. An American Legion convention was being held in Tampa about this time. End, knowing the value of publicity, and being a veteran, took a large supply of canned rattlesnake to the convention. He persuaded the commander to serve cooked snake as an unannounced side-dish. The diners enjoyed the surprise delicacy. There were mixed feelings when the nature of the dish was disclosed. However, the stunt gained wide publicity.
Newspapers around the country published stories about End and Johnson --- penning the name "Rattlesnake" for Johnson. Orders for rattlesnake steaks poured in. To meet demand, at home and in Europe, End opened a large canning plant at Tampa. Now, he bought all the rattlesnakes Guy Johnson could catch. Next door to his plant he opend a store, a snake-pit tourist attraction, and his own post office named Rattlesnake, Florida. One day, End was showing off an old rattler that always had been docile. This time, however, the snake bit End on the hand. He refused to go to the hospital, electing to treat the wound with a remedy he devised. The cure didn't work, and End died in a few hours.
Guy continued hunting rattlesnakes for his scientific customers. One day he delivered a shipment of 150 rattlers to a medical school in Georgia. He was stopped at the state border for a tick inspection. Guy threw back the tarpaulin over his caged snakes, and the reptiles set up a racket. Bug-eyed inspectors quickly declared the snakes tick free.
During his career as a snake hunter, Guy guided many famous herpetologists and naturalists. Among the latter was Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who wrote Cross Creek and The Yearling. Guy estimated he caught more than 5,000 rattlers in his career --- all within a 50-mile radius of Nocatee.
The largest rattlesnake was captured on Hope Island in the Peace River Swamp near Fort Ogden and measured 8 feet 7 1/2 inches in length. A mounment to Acrefoot has been erected in Arcadia. During the 1970s, an Acrefoot Johnson Race was held annually in Punta Gorda from Ponce DeLeon park to Memorial auditorium as an event in a History Festival. Historian U.S. Cleveland organized the event which often was won by a Charlotte High School trackman. The trophy was awarded by the postoffice in honor of their most famous mailman.
Author: Lindsey Williams
Photo courtesy of Charlotte Harbor Area Historical Society [John Mitchell "Acrefoot" Johnson was Florida's most famous mail carrier in the 1880s. The alligator in his lap portrays the dangers he encountered on his 65-mile route, one way, which he walked in one day.]