Cemeteries are markers. They are a way for the world to know that those lost once walked among us, that they stood and loved and lived for whatever time they were alive. The honored dead had an impact and importance to the people who were left to remember and mourn them. Markers in stone are flags in the ground that we were once here and a way for the past to take the hand of present and pass down the names and stories so we do not forget.
The question becomes, what happens when the present looks to trample over the past, to wash it away as if the dead and the history they hold never existed? What if the ground the cemetery stands on almost wants it, like the it’s conspiring with the people and something bigger to raise a finger to its mouth and give a collective shush so no one remembers?
The Florida National Cemetery rests in Bushnell, Florida, and marks a time in Florida when the government swept in and took over the land they once gave freely to any man willing to lift a gun to defend it. It shouts. Anyone who has been there will tell you that it’s a peaceful place, almost intimidating in its size and organization, but that there is an odd feeling there, like a monument to great men on a land that doesn’t want it. It its shadow lies a different kind of resting place visited by almost no one and cared for by only a few who know it exists.
Della Daughtry does remember. Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery is not just a place where her grandmother would walk the rows and discuss their family history. It was a place to find peace; the history was an afterthought but always present, always an important part of their relationship. It’s a connection that still exists in Della today, years later. Even in those early days it seemed odd to her that no one ever seemed to talk about the town the cemetery stood in, but it was a name her grandmother said often; Pemberton Ferry.
Her journey began when she was child but reignited when she arrived at the cemetery recently and discovered it was going to be paved over to make room for an RV park. She immediately began researching ways to protect the place which had been such a crucial part of her past, and which represented a part of the county’s history she felt needed to be preserved. Then she found out something odd. She had trouble finding anyone who had even heard of Pemberton Ferry and almost no reference to it in city and county records.
But my journey with the cemetery began much later and continued because of a mistake.
In November of 2018, Tripping on Legends journeyed to Withlacoochee State Forest, which we believed was in Hog Island, Florida, to investigate reports of a swamp witch who was said to be hassling local campers after being hung from a tree in the forest. It was one of our most enlightening trips as we immediately noticed something odd about the area and found a rope with a noose still hanging from a tree, one that mysteriously disappeared when writer and weirdness explorer Mark Muncy visited a few weeks later.
We also left understanding that there was a dark history in the swamp no one wanted to talk about, and that the legend had developed to maybe cover some a part of their history they wished to wipe away; the forest and swamp had been known as a lynching ground.
There was something more though. The ghost town of Croom, Florida, was somehow linked to the legend as well, but we couldn’t wrap our hands around exactly how. Then there was a question of what the history of Hog Island was. Where was it exactly and what had it been before Hog Island? What county was it even it? This year as I spoke at libraries and events throughout the state, I amped up the mystery of the location, as if there was something eerie and mysterious and supernatural about the land itself that fed the legend and the creepiness of the location and its neighboring town Brooksville.
At the tail end of those events, I received a message:
I am an amateur historian and have so much information for you and to be honest you are not even citing the right town or county. Also, there is SO much weird stuff you missed out there.
The driving force behind Tripping on Legends, and the play on words most people don’t get, is that in dealing with legends and folklore it is almost impossible to walk in a straight line and navigate that mixture of history and ghost story without making mistakes. As a folklorist, that’s part of the allure, sifting though all of it to bring meaning to the chaos and even celebrate the confusions. There is no bruised ego when it comes to correction. I agreed to meet her and her husband one night at a Denny’s to hear what she had to say.
As she spoke, something clearly was not right. It was also clear there was something more going on than just a whitewashed hanging, an overactive imagination, and a town suffering from collective amnesia. Pemberton Ferry, a town which had once bragged a booming train industry, a hotel, hundreds of citizens, and was the site of multiple historic events that shaped the state, was not a ghost town but a town that never existed.
The town is myth. Only not in the memories of those who chose to remember.
What should be an insignificant patch of land, one which still lays claim to the wild cows the Spanish left behind, is in the middle of a convergence which behaves like a slow leak, unnoticeable to those who just glance but seething to those forced to slowly watch. Stand in the middle of the Pemberton Ferry today and you’ll be in the middle of the woods, part forest, part swamp, and every dent or bump of land may be a natural occurrence or the location of what used to be someone’s living room. Nature has taken back the land, and in the same way the moss and weeds and tangled trees have covered over an important part of the area’s history.
This is not just the narrative of another lost town in Central Florida though. As Della spoke and the puzzle pieces were placed on the table, patterns started to emerge. No beginning and definitely no end, but designs that had been repeating themselves for hundred of years, connected perhaps to the oddness coming out of the Ocala National Forest which I have been exploring, but with its own living, breathing, evolving story. Forget a puzzle. Every Christmas my grandfather would be given all of the tangled and twisted chains and jewelry which had plagued the family over the course of the year. As we exchanged gifts and ate and joked and yelled, he would sit there at the table with two toothpicks and slowly unravel each piece, carefully drawing one out and turning it over and placing it to the side as he worked.
This Town is Myth will look to do the same thing with the story of Pemberton Ferry. To understand the full story, each part must be drawn out and examined and then placed back into context. This is the story of a boom town and a haunted river, a nearby town nearly infamous for its embracing of racism and another one conspiring to hide it. There is a patch of the Withlacoochee River which may be the most murderous place in Florida and locations of massacres which molded the face of modern Florida. There are lost town names like Croom and Fitzgerald and Dragem and Massacre and Abraham and lost villains and heroes. Then there’s the friendly company promising a golden age filled with all of your dreams which is slowly and methodically digging into and washing away the foundation of what used to be, mortgaging the past of the locals for the dreams of the outsiders.
It’s a ghost story and an examination of local legends, but there is more to it. It’s a dusty history book waiting to be opened again and a story of greed that’s as modern as the front page of today’s newspapers. There’s crime and tales of the unknown and a mystery waiting to be solved so another one can be looked at.
The first question really is what the first question is to ask.
This Town is Myth has a starting point. Me at a Denny’s and me at a cemetery, but that is not really the beginning of the story. Even more unnerving, there is no clear end, no known solution or picture on the box to complete. I have to go where the story takes me, and I ask you to come along for the journey. This blog will be used to talk out loud, to hold what we have found up to the light and see what comes of it and hope history steps forward and people searching find us and offer us their voice. There will be mistakes and missteps and misidentifications along the way, much like that first message which told me I was wrong. That’s all part of the story in a place more defined by what people don’t know about it than what is clear-cut.
If you have any information about Pemberton Ferry or the surrounding area, contact us and follow the story as it unfold on all of our social media at #ThisTownIsMyth.
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