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Saturday, July 22, 2000

PIONEER SETTLERS FACED CALAMITY IN W. VOLUSIA

By Ronald Williamson
News-Journal 'FROM THE COUNTY SEAT'

This beautiful and ancient place is probably the happiest spot on earth in West Volusia. At least on summer weekends.

Unless it rains this afternoon, the pool at DeLeon Springs State Recreation Area will absolutely boil with noisy, gleeful people who dive, splash and swim in the cool water pouring from the ground. They'll fish and canoe and hike. Hundreds will picnic, sunbathe or play games on the low communal mounds around the oak-rimmed spring basin.

Good times. Happy times. And in a marvelous subtropical setting. That's been the spring's reputation since it became a playground in the 1880s. Nearly everyone who has been here agrees.

Jane Woodruff would be an exception. The young Charleston native saw precious little happiness her first summer here.

One of the first pioneer women to live near the spring, Jane was pregnant when she arrived in March 1824 with her husband, Joseph, a cotton planter. They came up Spring Garden Creek on a river sloop loaded with supplies. In a memoir she wrote for her children, Jane said the home they built was two log pens with a passageway between.

"We could see daylight through every log," she said.

The Woodruffs, nephews and all, numbered only five. But the little farming community on the sand ridge above the spring also was home to a few dozen slaves, and the slaves' families. Food was short from the start, and Jane speaks of eating deer, raccoons, chicken hawks, turtles and possum roasted like a pig a "delicious morsel."

In the dead of summer, the situation began to be very uncomfortable," Jane wrote.

In July, violent fevers swept through the little settlement. A distemper sickened horses and dogs, and killed many chickens. Jane said 60 people were sick at once. A few died, especially children. Throughout August, she and Joseph and others who weren't sick were busy all the waking hours, she said, helping care for the ill and doing basic chores so they could survive.

In early September, Jane became feverish, and four days later, her child was born in the little cabin. The only person to help with the birth, she said, was an "old negro woman from the field." After the child was born, Joseph went to sleep, and the two black women who came to care for Jane and the child eventually nodded off.

Jane couldn't sleep.

"I was the only one awake to listen to the baby's dying moans," she wrote. "They became fainter, and fainter, and then ceased altogether."

There were no boards to make a coffin because they'd been used to build boxes for others who died. Joseph took a shelf from the cabin wall and the carpenter used it to make a tiny coffin. The baby was buried near the house, with other fever victims.

It's a sorrowful, even tragic tale.

This newborn's death, this mother's understated anguish and this father's quiet grief are known only because Jane's memoir survived. The emotions aren't uncommon in the history of the spring. Slave mothers also lost children that long, hot, deadly summer, but they wrote no memoirs of their personal suffering.

The same is true of many others whose endeavors brought them to the spring after Jane was gone, and long, long before she stepped off the sloop.

Human history at the spring is deep. There are many untold tales.

The Woodruffs lived here five or six generations ago. They were contemporaries of my great-great- great grandparents, which is more greats, and more lifetimes, than I can fully comprehend.

Three greats, however, are a mere blink in terms of human endeavor at this old spring.

Humans were present 6,000 years ago, scientists say. Maybe even 8,000, or more. That's two or three hundred generations, each with a few tales of sorrow, no doubt.

But today, in this particular July, the only sorrowful tale at DeLeon Springs will be if it rains. Otherwise, it'll be West Volusia's happiest spot on earth.

Wonderful Things

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